What is Myth?

This article appeared in Web of Wyrd #10

Anna from Canberra


Mythology can be approached from various perspectives, such as anthropological, sociological, folklorist, psychological and metaphysical. Our understanding of what myth is depends on the perspective we use. The folklorist is interested in the variety of myths and their spread with migrations of peoples. The anthropologists study myth as part of a peoples' culture. The sociologist is interested in how it helps society to function. The psychologist studies its effects on peoples' perspectives, and how it helps them cope with the world in which they live. The occultist and mystic regard it as a tool to help them achieve their aims, whether that be union with the divine, or a greater understanding of themselves and the divine within. Myth occurs in the history of most, if not all, human traditions and communities, and is a basic constituent of human culture. It occurs both with and without associated rites (though not all rites have myths associated with them). This paper discusses the purpose of myth, and how we may use myth more effectively in the magical context.

Some definitions of myth:

"Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energy of the cosmos pour through into human cultural manifestation."

(Campbell: The Masks of God - Primitive Mythology)

"Myth is a psychic phenomenon that reveals the nature of the soul."

Jung: The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious)

"Myths are accounts about how the world came to be the way it is, about a super-ordinary realm of events before (or behind) the natural world."

(Keesing: Cultural Anthropology - a Contemporary Perspective)

"A myth is a statement about society and man's place in it and the surrounding universe."

(Middleton: Myth and Cosmos)

"Myth is a collective term used for one kind of symbolic communication and specifically indicates one basic form of religious symbolism, as distinguished from symbolic behavior (cult, ritual) and symbolic places or objects (such as temples and icons). Myths are specific accounts concerning gods or superhuman beings and extraordinary events or circumstances at a time that is altogether different from that of ordinary human experience."

(Encyclopedia Britannica)

From these definitions it can be seen that myth has two functions, esoteric and exoteric. The exoteric function is to: "...bind the individual to his family's system of historically-conditioned sentiments, as a functioning member of a sociological organism." (Campbell: ibid.)

In this role myth is exploratory and narrative. An example is the North American tale: Old man saw a circle of cottontail rabbits singing and making medicine; they would lie in the ashes of a hot fire and sing while one of their number covered them up; it was lots of fun. Old Man asked to be shown how to do this, and was covered in the coals and ashes and was not burnt. Then he wanted to be the one to cover up the others, and all the rabbits jumped into the fire. Only one got out, who was about to have babies; Old Man let her go so that there would continue to be rabbits. She went off with a dark place on her back where she got singed, which all rabbits since have had. The others he roasted and laid on red willow brush to cool. The grease soaked into the branches and even today, if you hold red willow over a fire, you will see the grease on the bark. This myth is explanatory; it explains two observed features of the natural world.

Another myth explains not the natural world, but the use man puts it to. This is an Ojibway myth explaining the origin of maize and man's use of it. To summarize this myth: a young man went to the forest to fast for seven days and search for his spirit guide or guardian. During this period he was visited by a richly-dressed handsome young man, sent by the Great Spirit, whom he had to wrestle, despite his weakness from his fast. Before the last time the visitor told him he would prevail this time, and gave him instructions: how to prepare the ground, how to bury his body, how to care for the ground after, and how to harvest the maize that would grow. This he did, so his people now have maize. This myth not only explains the origin of maize, but also gives instructions for planting, care and harvesting, thus ensuring that all the tribe know how to grow it, as well as learn where it came from. Other myths are justifying and validating, answering questions about the nature and foundation of ritual and cultic customs.

An example is the Blackfoot myth about the origin of the Buffalo Dance. The Blackfeet hunt buffalo by chasing them over a cliff, but at one time they could not induce the animals to the fall, and the people were starving. A young woman, seeing a herd of buffalo near the edge of the fall said, "if you will only jump into the canal, I shall marry one of you." The buffalo did so, and a big bull came and carried her off. Her father came looking for her, but was trampled to pieces by the buffalo. The woman got a piece of his backbone and sang over it until his body was restored and he was alive again. The buffalo allowed the woman and her father to go, on condition that they learn the dance and song of the buffalo, and not forget them. For these would be the magical means by which the buffalo killed by the people for their food should be restored to life, just as the man killed by the buffalo was restored. This myth tells the people why they do the dance, and the consequences if they don't. It is also a piece of sympathetic magic designed to increase the fertility of the buffalo herds when the dance is performed. As such it gives them a sense of control over some of the important factors of their environment and indicates appropriate action if the buffalo do decline.

Myths also have a descriptive function, explaining facts beyond normal reason and observation. Creation myths are an example. The Norse creation myth describes Niffleheim forming out of the Abyss, with ice to the north and fire to the south.

From the melting ice where these two realms met formed a giant, Ymir, and a cow, Audmulla, who became the wet-nurse of the gods. From Ymir came the frost giants, and Audmulla's licking of the ice freed the progenitors of the gods, Odin, Vile and Ve. And so the myth goes on, describing the creation of the world, the gods and mankind. This myth does not describe or explain the world as it is, but how it came about in the first place. It is an explanation of something that man couldn't see or comprehend, that is beyond his knowledge and experience.

One purpose of myth is to help tie a community together. When myth is expressed in ritual, it builds the community, or specific segments of it, together. An example is the Aborigines' use of myth in boys' initiation rites. Myths are revealed to the boys as part of their initiation to manhood; since the women and children do not know these mysteries, they serve to bind the men together, and important factor for a group that needs to hunt together.

Myth gives a community a common framework, a common view of the world. The whole community has the same understanding of why the world is the way that it is. It also tells them how to behave in certain circumstances and why they should do so; why their society is structured the way that it is, and what will happen if they break cultural taboos.

An example in our cultural context is the myth of David and Goliath. This myth tells us how to behave in a situation where we are faced with overwhelming odds. It teaches us courage rather than running away, and suggests an approach that can be used to cope with the situation.

Myth provides the moral values of the culture. Many of our moral values, for example, come from the Christian myths. The story of David and Goliath is one reason why we revere courage. Murder and theft are regarded as wrong, evil, as the myth of Moses teaches us. The myth of Noah and the Ark tells us of the consequences of evil and righteousness. To summarize then, myth provides a guide for the individual throughout his life; one that aids him to live in health, strength, and harmony in the particular society in which he was born.

Myth also has an esoteric function, which is almost the opposite of the exoteric function. Myth transforms the individual, detaching him from his local historical and cultural condition, and leading him to some kind of ineffable experience. It provides a bridge between an individual's local consciousness and universal consciousness. Myth and rites constitute a mesocosm, a mediating middle cosmos through which the microcosm of the individual is brought into relation with the macrocosm of the all, the universe. Myth, "...fosters the centering and unfolding of the universe in integrity with himself (microcosm), his culture (mesocosm), the universe (macrocosm) and finally with the ultimate creative mystery that is both beyond and within himself and all things." (Houston: The Search for the Beloved)

Myth bridges the gap between ourselves and godhead, providing a path that we may use to become aware of the cosmos, the godhead. In this context, R J Stewart describes creation myths not as explorations but as, "...resonant re-creations that echo the original creation...an organic timeless flow of images and narrative within which such questions [of the nature of the world] were by-passed altogether, for the 'answers' of such mythology come from deep levels of consciousness, in which universal patterns or intimations are apprehended." (Stewart: The Elements of Creation Myth)

When we imagine a creation myth, irrespective of our belief or disbelief in the myth, we re-create or re-balance ourselves. Another function of myth is to act as a filter. The full, unadulterated experience of the universal consciousness is more than our minds are capable of holding, and there are those who went too far and fell into psychosis and other imbalances as a result. Myth provides a way of experiencing universal consciousness or godhead without it overwhelming us to the point where we cannot return to ourselves.

There is an alternative way of looking at the esoteric levels of myth. C G Jung considers mythological processes to be, "symbolic expressions of the inner unconscious drama of the psyche which becomes accessible to man's consciousness by way of projection." (Jung: ibid.) He views the unconscious as having two levels; personal and collective. The personal unconscious contains experiences that have been forgotten, whereas the collective unconscious has contents and modes of behavior that have never been through consciousness, and are more or less the same everywhere and in everyone. The contents of the collective unconscious are called archetypes. They are expressed in myth and fairy-tale in a specific form, but can also be experienced by the individual in a more naive and less understandable form as dreams and visions.

An archetype is a memory deposit, derived from endless repetition of a typical situation in life. It is the psychic expression of an anatomically physiologically determined natural tendency. Archetypes are normally referred to as figures; the wise old man, the mother, the trickster. However, they also include experiences, of which an example is the birth experience. Everyone goes through this experience, so it has made a strong imprint on the collective unconscious. As a result, rebirth experiences are a very powerful mythic image, and form the core of initiation rites and the process of becoming a shaman.

For example, as part of his initiation into manhood, and Arandan boy, after the trauma of circumcision (which mirrors the birth trauma), stands in the smoke of a fire, a repetition of the smoking he underwent as soon as he was born. Similarly, many shamans, in describing the experience that made them a shaman, report being swallowed or eaten by an animal or spirit person, then being reborn. Taking on a new name at initiation is an outward symbol of the rebirth that has occurred.

Archetypes have given rise to the eternal images in myth and religion. These are meant to attract, convince, fascinate, overpower. They give man an experience of the divine, while at the same time protecting him from being completely overwhelmed. In this sense, archetypes and mythic images are the same; they are both the gateway for this experience of the divine. They are an image or a reflection of a god or goddess, but are not the divine itself.

In the Greek creation myth Gaea is the archetype of the earth mother, the image of that aspect of godhead; the image that allows us to reach out and touch that aspect of godhead.

However the mythic image of Gaea, the archetype image from the myth, is not actually godhead itself. Both are filters, not the actuality. Jung sees archetypes as having psychological as well as metaphysical significance. In our daily lives our attention is focused outwards to deal with the world, and we lose contact with our inner world, powers in our psyche such as creativity. Myth is a means to bring us back in touch with these inward forces. When archetypes are activated in our lives we have two choices: either let the archetype have its way irrespective of other factors, or block it, producing a conflict that leads to neurosis.

Jung sees the symbols of modern psychology analogous to those of myth, and considers that we have replaced myth by psychology. We have done so as a result of a growing impoverishment of symbols; as our culture has become more scientific and rational, we have analyzed our cultural mythic symbols until they have appeared to die, leaving us with a culture that seems superficial to many.

Some individuals have coped with this by turning to the myths of other cultures, leading to the popularity of eastern philosophy in western culture. Others haven't coped at all, hence the increased violence, crime, despair, suicide, and so on, of our culture. Some are developing new modern myths, inspired by visions such as the blue-green jewel of the earth seen from space.

Because myth is a means of regeneration for both the individual and the group, this turning to old myths, to myths of other cultures and to new myths coming out of our culture is seen by people such as Campbell as the beginning of a new age, a rebirth of mankind. Whether this is so remains to be seen.

What does this teach us about the use of myth in magic? What we often do in Wicca is to take an old myth and apply it or adapt it in some way for our use in ritual. Understanding the distinction between the two levels of myth, exoteric and esoteric, aids in this adaptation. To modify a myth for use in ritual, those aspects of the myth relating only to the exoteric, i.e. the explanatory and justifying aspects, can be excluded with impunity. However, those aspects relating to the esoteric function (some, of course, may relate to both) cannot be excluded or modified without changing or destroying the myth's ability to take us beyond ourselves and towards the universal consciousness.

Another aspect to consider is how this journey to universal consciousness is achieved. To experience myth fully requires the willing suspension of disbelief. Logic is set aside, imagination comes into play, and the masks used change from the symbolic to the actuality. Enactment of the myth becomes, not people masked and dressed up, but reality itself. Children do this easily; to a child playing, a piece of wood is a person or a horse, to the extent that the child can become terrified of a piece of wood that at the beginning of the game he or she pretended was a monster. To the adult westerner with his developed rational mind this is more difficult, and much of western occult training is aimed at attaining this child-like state of experiencing the world and myth again.

Meditation stills the active mind. Visualization and imagination create the symbols, the game, the mythic images. Ritual gives the images life, enacting the myth so that it might impact upon the individual. Concentration maintains the images long enough that the desired effect is attained. The result: contact with, and experience of, universal consciousness.

Finally, the fate of our cultural myths warns us of a danger that lies in wait with the myths we use. The mind is a powerful tool that is very useful in magic; e.g., it can prevent us from falling into the trap of self-delusion. However, abuse of the mind in relation to myths can be destructive. Myths are experiential. If we analyze and explain away the myths we use in the same way our culture has recently done with its own myths, we run the risk of devaluing them to the extent that they no longer have an impact on us and can no longer be used effectively to touch godhead.

References

  • Campbell J: "The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology" (Penguin Books, New York, 1969)
  • Campbell J: "Myths to Live By" (Bantam Books, New York, 1972)
  • Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 12, macropaedia, 15th edition,1978
  • Houston J: "The Search for the Beloved. Journeys in Mythology and Sacred Psychology" (Jeremy P Tarcher Inc., Los Angeles, 1987)
  • Jung C G: "The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious" (Bollingen Series XX, Princeton University Press, New York,1969)
  • Keesing RM: "Cultural Anthropology: a Contemporary Perspective"(Halt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1976)
  • Middleton J: "Myth and Cosmos: Readings in Mythology and Symbolism" (University of Texas Press, London, 1967)
  • Stewart R. J: "The Elements of Creation Myth" (Element Books Ltd, Longmead, 1989)
  • Stewart R. J: "Magical Tales: the Story-telling Tradition" (Aquarian Press, London, 1990)
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