• Personal Mythology Proj

Conscious Myth-Making

This post is adapted from Stephen Larsen's book The Mythic Imagination: The Quest for Meaning Through Personal Mythology (Inner Traditions, 1996).


In Creative Mythology (the fourth volume of The Masks of God), Joseph Campbell suggests that the civilized West is the growing matrix for a new sense of mythology geared to the creative life of "an adequate individual," who seeks his or her own way in the world and, through following this personal myth, develops a relationship to the archetypal and mythological powers that inform life. Aligning himself with the creative spirit that began to arise among the Orphic mysteries and the philosophical humanism of classic Greece, Campbell traced this special recognition of the autonomy of the human soul in the Western tradition through the medieval Courts of Love and into the rich mythology of the Arthurian Round Table. It was a passage in the twelfth-century La Queste del San Graal, Campbell said, that triggered his insight. Each knight went on his own way "...striking out into the forest, one here, one there, wherever they saw it thickest and wherever path or track was absent," to enact his personal quest-adventure. Only later, returned once more to the unifying symbolic locus of the Round Table, would they reassemble, recount their adventures, and in so doing, create the tapestry of a rich, and complete, larger mythology from their personal stories.

In the twelfth-century Renaissance, particularly in the elite intellectual courts of southern France (with their troubadours) and Germany (with its own Minnesingers), the theme is carried into the tradition of courtly love, and the right of each person to follow the dictates of his or her heart in regard to personal relationship, thus the celebrated romances of Lancelot and Guinevere, of Tristan and Isolde. In the Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach, the individual journey is given a psychological twist through Parzival's naivete, leading to his initial failure of the Grail Quest (failure to ask the question), his meeting with the wise old man, Trevrizent, and the dark brother with whom he is reunited, Feirefiz; and perhaps most of all, in his constancy to his chosen love Condwiramurs, despite numerous encounters and temptations involving the feminine archetype.

In Creative Mythology Professor Campbell moves finally into our present time of fragmented—but still living—myths, rendered in the art of Picasso and abstract expressionism, and the works of Joyce and Mann. In sum, Campbell boldly suggested that it is this individual path to the mysteries, not necessarily the collective participation enjoined on us by all the religions, that may well constitute the ultimate human adventure.

Jung too, in the field of psychology, was not only walking his own individual path, but outlining the lineaments of the personal journey for the West, which he would call not sainthood or heavenly bliss or enlightenment but individuation. This mysterious outcome is never fully attained, yet it must always be sought for. The path of individuation constitutes the developmental psychology of the mature human being, the achievement of personal wholeness.

Jung, like Campbell, felt the roots of the Western journey into personal wholeness were to be found among the Greeks, where he encountered the tradition of dream incubation, of the healing god, Asclepius. The preserved stelae at Epidaurus, which served the ancient world for more than a thousand years as a healing center, are full of personal testimonials as to the efficacy of this technique to heal and empower life.

Another source from which Jung drew were the Gnostic traditions. These came in several varieties, both Christian and non-Christian—the latter often connected to the Hellenic mystery traditions. Gnosis is the Greek root of our word knowledge and has to do with personal knowledge of the divine. As Elaine Pagels has pointed out, in her influential book on early Christianity, The Gnostic Gospels, the difference between the Gnostic and the orthodox traditions that suppressed and tried to eliminate them was the right of the individual to have an experience of divine revelation outside the provenance of the Church. In the translations of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, around which her scholarship is based, Pagels said, Jesus "speaks in sayings as cryptic as Zen koans." For example, the words that he addresses to Thomas, but are transparently intended for the reader: "while you accompany me, although you do not understand [it], you already have come to know, and you will be called 'the one who knows himself.' For whoever has known himself has simultaneously achieved knowledge about the depths of all things."

It is easy to see why sayings such as this were perceived by the early Church fathers as inimical to the establishment of a religion of the collective. Rather they seem to conduce the individual to the personal journey into self-knowledge (Gnosis). Pagels quoted the legendary ire of Bishop Iranaeus: "every one of them generates something new every day, according to his ability"—which, as an act of religious devotion, infuriated the bishop. He accused them of creating a new kind of mythological poetry or imaginary fiction. Pagels said, "No doubt he is right: first- and second-century gnostic literature includes some remarkable poems, like the 'Round Dance of the Cross' and the 'Thunder, Perfect Mind." Many modern people who still feel a spiritual connection to Jesus, but resist the blandishments of orthodoxy, are finding a sense of inspiration, reconnection, and creative empowerment for their own spiritual search in these texts.

But the orthodox traditions, by a kind of hegemony of legend, controlling how the great story shall be told—and how it shall be lived—have created historical Christianity as we know it. In later centuries, according to Jung, the quest for direct and personal spiritual experience went underground in the tradition of the medieval alchemists. At a time when the church had already succeeded in suppressing any version of spiritual development that was personal—outside the authorized sacraments—the alchemists found that in solitude, in their laboratories, and in a mystical dialogue with matter, they were mostly let alone. Jung’s conclusion on investigation of hundreds of obscure manuscripts from the Middle Ages was that they were outlining a mythology of the soul’s personal transformation, but in terms seemingly related to chemical processes and that disguised their true intent.

In contemporary times the psychology of Abraham Maslow, and the humanistic psychology movement have stressed “self-actualization.” For Maslow, self-actualization was to be seen as the peak experience of a hierarchy of human motives related to—at the lower levels—safety, security, and belonging. On the highest level Maslow placed the individually creative—and yet socially contributive—life. Humanistic psychology and its stepchild transpersonal psychology have opened us to all kinds of learning experiences related to growth and personal transformation. The offerings at growth centers—in some ways not so very different from those Asclepian centers of healing—include dream workshops; instruction in meditation; yoga; healing techniques; and new inner-directed approaches to art, athletics, and even politics. Dimensions neglected in the mainstream society such as conscious dying, the use of guided imagery in healing, and all kinds of techniques for personal growth are celebrated and offered at these centers.

In my own search for the roots of creative mythology, I first encountered shamanism, which is personal, indeed, because it antedates the historical beginnings of organized communities and systemic belief systems; then I was led by its universal underlying premises to contemplate a kind of perennial search for personal Gnosis that always has flourished where people of intelligence and integrity live their lives. I have referred to this elsewhere as “the visionary tradition.” While the historical church has withheld recognition from such activities, one has merely to examine the lives of the saints (hagiography) to find as many examples of great souls, such as the Renaissance mystic Meister Eckhart, who have recognized the importance of personal experience. My growing perspective, then, has been that “creative mythology” is not something that we must learn how to do, but something that flows naturally from the human spirit in the absence of social constraints toward mythological conformity.


Heretofore, (mythic) orthodoxy had dictated much to consciousness of what forms it shall revere as holy, which mental imagery shall constitute an epiphany, and which a trip to the stake; even the words of our innermost prayers have been prescribed. Remembering that mythological ideas are eyes for the soul, it seems in some ways our spiritual vision has been obscured, living in a world in which only the mythically predetermined was to be visible for us. The post-Enlightenment movement of science has taken it on itself to clear the mind of these persistently enforced illusions (Blake’s “mind-forged manacles”). Remember that the cardinals who were trying Galileo wouldn’t even look in his telescope. Modern science and the Eastern disciplines of meditations each in their way seem determined to hold the mind back from mythologizing—especially when it limits our visions.

Conscious mythmaking, the title of this last section of the book, enables the reader to enter the realm of the inner explorer, the creative artist, the contemporary shaman. The modern mind still thirsts to drink at the well of mythic meaning—and hungers for stories and folklore. But even more, it yearns toward an experience of the world sacralized—luminous with its own “suchness,” the world itself becomes a forest of symbols, as in Baudelaire’s poetic metaphor.

Yet we are rightly cautious about losing our way in that forest. Like it or not, the modern mind has in no way established its immunity from charismatic madmen, strange belief systems, and compulsive forms of worship (including the cult of the mythologized personality). Contemporary life has also seen an epiphany of neoorthodoxy, in which people seem to prefer to regress a few centuries in their belief systems, rather than integrate the honest revelations of biology, paleontology, and archeology. (Does the vision of the universe seen by science induce a kind of metaphysical vertigo, so that the human gaze must be withdrawn from the abyss?)

As I see it, the purpose of conscious mythmaking is twofold. The first aspect seems to offer the needful kind of immunity to destructive (shallow or hysterically appealing) myth forms. By willingly entering into dialogue with myth we forestall being taken unaware by it—in the vulnerability and neediness of our mythic deprivation. And if we are fortunate and search with integrity, we will see into the deeps of the myth world and subsequently avoid—to reverse the popular image—“the perils of the shallows.” The second aspect involves the “living” nature of myths and the necessity for them to address the circumstances of our lives. We need to explain both the universe and ourselves, to ourselves, and to do this, the myths must arise from within us in moment of genuine need—“crying out for a vision,” as the Plains Indians would say, or seeking the Asclepian sanctuary of the ancient Greeks.

Everywhere, nowadays, the rights of the individual are being tested, human rights constituting one of the principal issues of our time. Any enterprise such as a creative or personal exploration can only take place in a free society. For the most part, in our pluralistic environment, once we have entered adulthood, we may leave behind the often cumbersome shells of traditional meaning to seek our own—personal—one, a project not without its terrors as well as rewards. In addition, unlike our myth-bound ancestors, all of culture and history lies at our fingertips; therefore, our ability to see myth from all sides—and thus see through it—is unparalleled. But, Campbell has written,

"one cannot predict the next mythology any more than one can predict tonight’s dream; for a mythology is not an ideology. It is not something projected from the brain, but something experienced from the heart, from recognitions of identities behind or within the appearances of nature, perceiving with love a ‘thou’ where there would have been otherwise only an ‘it.’"

Thus our emerging myth forms may not be created, but only invited. The responsibility of the conscious mythmaker is merely to construct an appropriate “frame of reverence” into which the power is invited to flow.

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