Sunday, April 10, 2016

The reality of myths

Hilda Doolittle wrote:

"The dog is now a myth, for that reason he appears in dreams, unmistakably and in the most satisfactory manner. He wallows in snowdrifts, his ears are like the knitted mittens on that long tape than [sic] ran through the sleeves of our winter coats; he carries, of course, the barrel strapped to his collar, and as I fling my arms about his neck – he is larger than a small pony – I am in an ecstasy of bliss. The snow gives back whatever an anesthetic may have once given.

Mythology is actuality, as we now know. The dog with his gold-brown wool, his great collar and the barrel, is of course none other than our old friend Ammon-Ra, whose avenue of horned sphinxes runs along the sand from the old landing-stage of the Nile barges to the wide portals of the temple at Karnak. He is Ammon or he is Amen, forever and ever. I want you to know he is as ordinary as the cheap lithograph that used to hang in nursery bedrooms; he is even as ordinary as the colored advertisement sheets, bearing his effigy, tacked to telegraph poles that one passed, in the old days, along the reaches of the Bernese Oberland. You see him on a postcard in a window along the Lake of Lucerne. There is a monk standing beside him; we may whisper Saint Bernard. Or, depending on what particular line to telegraph pole our particular wire of approach to the eternal verities is strung, we may actually be reminded of our own or a friend's dog, or we may know that we have seen, in the flesh, the Lion of Saint Mark's or the Lion of Saint Jerome, or we may recognize our indisputable inheritance, Ammon, Amen from time immemorial, later Aries, our gold-fleece Ram."

Lawrence Kushner:

"Kabbalists see sefirot everywhere; creation is a manifestation of the sefirot. Every character, place, even color in the Hebrew Bible is an allusion to one of the sefirot. Indeed, the Bible itself can be read on a kabbalistic level as a description of the interactive workings of the sefirot. In the same way, every dysfunction in our universe is likewise understood as the result of a destabilization of the sefirot – which are also the divine psyche."

Iain M. Banks:

"All our lives are symbols. Everything we do is part of a pattern we have at least some say in."

C. G. Jung:

"A symbol loses its magical or, if you prefer, its redeeming power as soon as its liability to dissolve is recognized. To be effective, a symbol must be by its very nature unassailable. It must be the best possible expression of the prevailing world-view, an unsurpassed container of meaning; it must also be sufficiently remote from comprehension to resist all attempts of the critical intellect to break it down; and finally, its aesthetic form must appeal so convincingly to our feelings that no argument can be raised against it on that score."

Carol S. Pearson:

"Stories about heroes are deep and eternal. They link our own longing and pain and passion with those who have come before in such a way that we learn something about the essence of what it means to be human, and they also teach us how we are connected to the great cycles of the natural and spiritual worlds. The myths that can give our lives significance are deeply primal and archetypal and can strike terror into our hearts, but they can also free us from inauthentic lives and make us real. If we avoid what T. S. Eliot called this 'primitive terror' at the heart of life, we miss our connection to life’s intensity and mystery. Finding our own connection with such eternal patterns provides a sense of meaning and significance in even the most painful or alienated moments, and in this way restores nobility to life."

Sam McKeen:

”What is a myth? Few words have been subject to as much abuse and been as ill-defined as myth. Journalists usually use it to mean a "lie," "fabrication," "illusion," "mistake," or something similar. It is the opposite of what is supposedly a "fact," of what is "objectively" the case, and of what is "reality." In this usage myth is at best a silly story and at worst a cynical untruth. Theologians and propagandists often use myth as a way of characterizing religious beliefs and ideologies other than their own.

Such trivialization of the notion of myth reflects false certainties of dogmatic minds, an ignorance of the mythic assumptions that underlie the commonly accepted view of "reality," and a refusal to consider how much our individual and communal lives are shaped by dramatic scenarios and "historical" narratives that are replete with accounts of the struggle between good and evil empires: our godly heroes versus the demonic enemy.

In a strict sense myth refers to "an intricate set of interlocking stories, rituals, rites, and customs that inform and give the pivotal sense of meaning and direction to a person, family, community, or culture." A living myth, like an iceberg, is 10 percent visible and 90 percent beneath the surface of consciousness. While it involves a conscious celebration of certain values, which are always personified in a pantheon of heroes (from the wily Ulysses to the managing Lee Iacocca) and villains (from the betraying Judas to the barbarous Moammar Kadafi), it also includes the unspoken consensus, the habitual way of seeing things, the unquestioned assumptions, the automatic stance. It is differing cultural myths that make cows sacred objects for Hindus and hamburgers meals for Methodists, or turn dogs into pets for Americans and roasted delicacies for the Chinese.

At least 51 percent of the people in a society are not self-consciously aware of the myth that informs their existence. Cultural consensus is created by an unconscious conspiracy to consider the myth "the truth," "the way things really are." In other words, a majority is made up of literalists, men and women who are critical or reflective about the guiding "truths" – myths – of their own group. To a tourist in a strange land, an anthropologist studying a tribe, or a psychologist observing a patient, the myth is obvious. But to the person who lives within the mythic horizon, it is nearly invisible.”

Mircea Eliade:

"If in every European language the word ‘myth’ denotes a ‘fiction,’ it is because the Greeks proclaimed it to be such twenty-five centuries ago."


H. D. [Hilda Doolittle.] The Gift. New York: New Directions, 1982. pp. 25-26.

Lawrence Kushner, "What is Kabbalah?" in I'm God; You're Not: Observations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego. Jewish Lights Pub, 2010.

Iain M. Banks, writing the character of Frank Cauldhame. The Wasp Factory. (1984)

C. G. Jung. Aspects of the Feminine. (Collected Works.) Translation by R. F. C. Hull. New York: MJF Books, 1982. p. 21.

Carol S. Pearson. Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform Our World. HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. p. 2.

Sam McKeen in the preface to: Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox, Your Mythic Journey: Finding Meaning in Your Life Through Writing and Storytelling. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1989. pp. xi-xii. (This is a revised version of Telling Your Story, originally published 1973.)

Mircea Eliade. Myth and Reality. (1963) Translated from the French by Willard R. Trask. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1975. p. 148.

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