The Transformative Power of Myth in Our Lives

‘[A] mythology is a control system, on the one hand framing its community to accord with an intuited order of nature and, on the other hand, by means of its symbolic pedagogic rites, conducting individuals through the ineluctable psychophysiological stages of transformation of a human lifetime -- birth, childhood and adolescence, age, old age, and the release of death -- in unbroken accord simultaneously with the requirements of this world and the rapture of participation in a manner of being beyond time.’ --Joseph Campbell.

A few decades ago there was a movement in Christian theology the aim of which was to de-mythologize the Bible. The movement was right in one key respect---the Bible, like all so-called holy books, is full of myth, from the very first page to the very last. However, the movement sought to ‘move’ in the wrong direction, and was not very successful. What we need to do is re-mythologize the Bible, not de-mythologize it. Ditto all other so-called holy books.

At the heart of every religion---and not just at the heart but all through it---is … myth! We need myth to learn, grow, evolve, and function successfully as human beings. If religion is to be taught in schools at all---assuming that it is lawful so to do---then it needs to be taught as literature and myth … for that is what it is.

According to the American mythographer Joseph Campbell all myths, indeed all story-telling, folk traditions and ritual practices, share certain common themes. More particularly, Campbell asserted that all such things could be understood in terms of what he described as the ‘hero myth’ (and what he referred to as the ‘monomyth’). Indeed, Campbell tended to construe all religions as ‘misunderstood mythologies’ Campbell 1986; see also Adler 1990:58-9), and saw the principal function of mythology as well as ritual as the ‘supply [of] the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those other constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back’ (Campbell [1949] 1990:11). According to Campbell (1973:19):

‘Mythology is apparently coeval with mankind. As far back, that is to say, as we have been able to follow the broken, scattered, earliest evidences of the emergence of our species, signs have been found which indicate that mythological aims and concerns were already shaping the arts and world of Homo sapiens. Such evidences tell us something, furthermore, of the unity of our species, for the fundamental themes of mythological thought have remained constant and universal, not only throughout history, but also over the whole extent of mankind’s occupation of the earth.’

Tom Chetwynd (1986:145-6) has written, rather esoterically, about the importance of myth:

‘Myth is not a complicated way of talking about something perfectly simple like gathering the last sheaf for next year’s planting, or a sort of fancy-dress version of astronomy. It is the simplest and the most forceful language for talking about what is obscure about life - its Sacred Hidden Depths. The most profound human experiences which rouse feelings of stupendous awe and wonder, and which come in flashes of inspiration that leave a trace for the rest of your life and mark many other lives besides, these are the subject matter of myth and cannot be expressed in another way except through a mythical perspective on Nature, Body, Culture, Sky, Pattern, Number, any or all of which will do, so long as none of them is taken literally but are seen from the perspective of Soul.’

In almost all of the world’s religions one finds fairly similar myths of creation, the flood, and so forth. Then there is the myth of the dying and rising god, which is common to a number of religions and religious philosophies. These myths and common motifs, although not in themselves historical, are nevertheless ‘poetic expressions of… transcendental seeing’ (Campbell 1973:31). The Canadian author, broadcaster and theologian Tom Harpur (2004:17) has written:

‘As [Joseph] Campbell repeatedly made clear in his many books and in the interviews with [Bill] Moyers, the deepest truths about life, the soul, personal meaning, our place in the universe, our struggle to evolve to higher levels of insight and understanding, and particularly the mystery we call God can be described only by means of a story (mythos) or a ritual drama. The myth itself is fictional, but the timeless truth it expresses is not. As Campbell puts it, ‘Myth is what never was, yet always is.’

In addition to myths, there are stories, often associated with a charismatic leader such as Jesus, Buddha or Muhammad who is regarded as ‘ideal’, setting an example as to how followers are to live their lives. The stories commonly involve very similar patterns of behaviour. History and myth often coalesce into what Joseph Campbell (1973:26) refers to as ‘themes of the imagination’, but care must be exercised here. As the late Ninian Smart (1992:15) points out:

‘… These stories often are called myths. The term may be a bit misleading, for in the context of the modern study of religion there is no implication that a myth is false.’

Joseph Campbell (1987:389) opined that the common theme of all mythology was ‘achievement’, in particular, the achievement of a supreme good (whether that be eternal life, universal justice, enlightenment or whatever). In his view, mythology had a fourfold function: to relate the individual to God, to the cosmos, to society and to developmental energies (Cousineau 1990:162). Joseph Campbell (1988:70) wrote:

‘The myths and rites were means of putting the mind in accord with the body and the way of life in accord with the way that nature dictates.’

Campbell also wrote that myth served certain additional functions, such as the following. First, myth enables individuals and communities to address and overcome psychological stresses by arousing hitherto dormant energies (Campbell 1987:370). Secondly, myth validates and assists in the maintenance of social systems (Cousineau 1990:165). Thirdly, myth assists persons to find their place in the universe (Campbell 1987:4) and to discern and engage the source of the phenomenological (Cousineau 1990: 167).

And what of the transformative power of myth? As the Canadian academic and environmental activist David Suzuki (1997:185) points out, myth is essentially curative and unifying in its effects:

‘Myths help us to reconcile conflicts and contradictions and describe a coherent reality. They make a meaning that holds the group together and express a set of beliefs; even in our skeptical society, we live by myths that lie so deep we believe them to be reality.’

Indeed, myth, properly understood, is real, not imaginary. The Unitarian Universalist minister Mike Young (1999:Online) has spoken of the experiential reality of myth and its importance:

‘Joseph Campbell has rescued the concept of myth. When I was a youngster a myth was clearly something that was not true. What Campbell kept reminding us was that myths are not not true. For myths are not about how things are out there, even though that may be the vocabulary of the story. Myths are about how things are in here. They have their roots in the human experience. They are part of who we are inside as a species, not just as individuals but as a people. During the period of our history when we came into existence as conscious entities, we Homo sapiens existed in self-contained groups. Today we live in a world where the horizons are far, far more vast.’

A Masonic writer (Swick 1996:74-5), invoking the Masonic legend of Hiram Abiff, has compellingly articulated the dramatic and transformative power of myth in the lives of believing participants:

‘It is the lucky man who realizes early on that there is a way in which he, himself, is our Grand Master Hiram Abiff. When revelation of this sublime truth comes to the individual, it may strike him with a great force, making him dead to all that has gone before. We are the myth! And the lives of the great ones who have preceded us, are our lives, if we but choose to have it so! As we seek to walk the path they have walked, we become Adam, we become Abraham, we become Hiram. Their stories belong to us - and their lives are our lives; for the truth of their lives is the truth of human existence.’

Yes, indeed. Lucky is the person who, rooted in and fully cognizant of the mythological be-ing-ness of their own nature, knows that they are … myth! So, live the myth that you are. Live it fully. Yes, you---the hero with a thousand faces.

Note. The substance of this article first appeared as a post on the author’s own blog on 7 February 2014.


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