Contemporary people easily understand what it means to be politically aware and involved, are coming to understand the narratives that our driving our political and cultural choices and experiencing first-hand some of the crippling effects of stress and anxiety caused by our uncertain future, are looking for guidance in self-care.
But when it comes to the role of myth, most modern people are likely to be wholly confused. They are already confusing “myth” with “lie” (as in the “myth of stolen election”) or else putting it on some bookshelf of fanciful stories for kids and most of them politically incorrect at that. Why is mythology invited to the same table as the other “ologies” and what can it possibly offer in the search for healing we desperately need? Do I think that Zeus is going to save us with some well-placed thunderbolts or Eros will shoot an arrow into Mitch McConnell’s heart (if it can be found) and awaken him to love?
If you spent time, as I did, in the 1980’s getting to know the work of Joseph Campbell (suddenly thrust into the limelight in the 6-part televised series with Bill Moyers titled “The Power of Myth”) you have a different perspective, the sense that mythology indeed carries a power we should consider. For example, my quick Internet search about Campbell’s precise definition of myth brought this up:
Campbell believed myth helped people to express what it felt like to live in awe of the universe — what it meant to be human in the midst of so many unknowns. This function serves for providing scale. The universe is big. The world is scary.
Hmm. Unknowns? Scary? An enormous universe beyond our comprehension, but not beyond are capacity to live in awe of it? In the light of all discussed here, doesn’t that definition seem relevant?
Michael Meade, our contemporary mythologist who carried forth Campbell’s work into new directions, has written and spoken prolifically about the specific powers myth offers us (see his Podcasts). In his book, The Genius Myth, he writes:
“The purpose of myth is to reveal the deeper truths of life…When the daily world becomes a state of chaos and constant turmoil, it is time to turn back to the mythic imagination that resides deep in the soul.…Imagination is the deepest power of the human soul and mythic imagination helps make meaning of all that happens in the world…what we learn in myth is the nature of the story trying to live through each of us amidst the ongoing drama of the world around us. The territory of myth includes all the unseen things that affects us most deeply and all the missing parts and hidden dreams that might make us whole.” (pp 16-17)
In so many of the good-hearted people I know trying to navigate through the mess of the daily news, there runs a thread of despair. We vote out one horrible candidate and two more spring up. We write postcards and that’s good for the moment, but we never know what actual impact they’re having. We educate ourselves as to the debilitating narratives, but don’t know how to kick-start the next needed story. We feel the stress and anxiety, but lean towards a few glasses of wine or some prescribed meds to help us manage it. The whole drama is taking place on the surface of life, in the here and the now, in the ping and the pong of the next news story or election cycle and it’s so easy to feel discouraged.
“When it comes to living in hard times and dealing with radical change, it is important to know that there are hidden truths and secret unities set within the human soul.”
That’s where myth comes in. Myth is forever, the ancestors singing to us from the past, the descendants beckoning to us from the future. By dipping below the line of the daily round into the realm of the imagination, into a natural world constantly speaking to us but unheard as we bury ourselves in our phones looking at the latest polls, into the creative depths of our own souls, we have the possibility of being perpetually renewed and refreshed. We travel far beyond our Facebook friends into the company of so many who have endured the same struggles, fought the same battles, persevered in the face of endless obstacles. We are creatures of meaning and by putting the day’s battle in the context of the larger meanings always around us and within us, we renew our sense of purpose.
Myth doesn’t solve social dilemmas with simplistic answers, but it does ask us to consider: What story are we in? What archetype is at play here? Which oracle should we petition? By naming the players, we give a face to the energies at play and can work to diminish their negative power or increase their positive power. The images from these timeless stories arise to help us. Indeed, the very idea in most fairy tales that an animal helper is needed in the hero’s quest is itself a metaphor for the kind of imaginative help mythic images can offer. We may feel lost in a labyrinth and remember Ariadne’s thread. We may hit a dead end in our office work and decline to be stuck with Sisyphus rolling his rock. We might succumb to despair but find ourselves at the water’s edge soothed by Yemanja. The point here is not to literalize myth and make it into a social program, but to keep in touch with the greater dimensions of all current dilemmas, both personal and collective, to draw from a deeper well.
Myth reminds us that though there is a temporal nature to our problems unique to our time, there is also a universal and eternal nature to them, a next chapter in the tales of collapse and renewal that might help us see that “this, too, shall pass” and in the winter of our discontent, the buds of Spring are already preparing to bloom.
SUMMARY: ALL FOUR IN CONVERSATION
In looking at our present time through these four different lens and considering how they might talk to each other, we have the possibility of both effecting real outer change and nurturing profound inner change. Nothing is guaranteed, nothing is translatable to dogma, nothing requires blind faith or belief, nothing can be reduced to a step program. Yet everything breathes of possibility, longs to be spoken aloud in poetry or music or dance or art, can enter the body as a lived experience that carries a truth unprovable but real, can be expanded to a vision that reaches into all corners of time, past, present and future. None of it is easy. All of it is needed.