THE LOST ELIXIR
For thousands of years the world over, people have lived by myth: stories of gods and heroes, ancestors and animal spirits, ghosts, goblins, falls and redemptions, etc. These were their cherished tales, the revered narratives handed down from supernatural Sources that helped explain the world—and their position in it.
By “myth” here, of course, I don’t mean a “false story” or “fictitious fable” (as the word is commonly used nowadays). Quite the opposite. In the sense used here, myths are those stories that express our deepest truths and shape our most basic understanding of the world. They are the big narratives according to which we live our lives. Our myths explain the world to us, offering time-honored maps and models for human existence while connecting us to something much greater and mysterious at the heart of reality.
It was one of the insights of Sigmund Freud—that seminal figure in modern psychology and psychoanalytic therapy—that these mythic stories don’t really come from above but from within, as expressions (however veiled) of the deepest parts of the human psyche. The gods spoken about are always tinged with the character of the one speaking. Divinity reflects the eye of the beholder.
Despite Freud’s vocation to “soul,” though, (which was the original sense of the word “psyche,”) the Viennese doctor had little regard for religion or spirituality, seeing in them no more than examples of false consciousness: distorted and pathological symptoms of repressed fears and desires, haunting humanity. In Freud’s view, people could move toward health only by rejecting these childish illusions, and reconciling themselves to the sobering truth of a disillusioned, disenchanted, mechanistic world.
However, Freud had an exceptional student—a young man named Carl Jung, whose own thinking and research on the psyche led him to very different conclusions from his mentor. Far from pathological, Jung thought, mythology was organic, constructive expression of archetypal human concerns. Connecting with the mythic symbols our minds naturally produce is essential for coming into harmony with our psyche and the world around us. With this conviction, Jung passionately dedicated himself to investigating the mythologies of the world, and the therapeutic qualities of aligning one’s life with the archetypes found in them.
For some time, the two psychologists debated these very different approaches. But, ultimately, the disagreement led to a fundamental break, after which point mentor and mentee became forever estranged.
Today, that fissure lives on—not just in the study of psychology, but in culture more broadly. Those in the lineage of Freud eye myth and spirituality askance, as a pathological neurosis; the Jungian, as healing and insightful guides. One says we should simply “grow out of” myth: a necessary maturation away from our childish dreams. The other says that myths are what help us to grow, and offer the necessary tools for achieving our dreams.
While much of the Western world seemed to adopt the Freudian view, the maverick comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell took the Jungian approach. Like Jung, Campbell also studied world mythologies in search of their recurring, universal archetypes. In his penetrating works on the subject, Campbell spoke of multiple functions that all mythologies perform, including social, cosmological, and mystical ends. But the “most vital, most critical function of a mythology,” he said, is the psychological. By this he meant:
the centering and unfolding of the individual in integrity, in accord with
d ) himself (the microcosm),
c ) his culture (the mesocosm),
b ) the universe (the macrocosm), and
a ) that awesome ultimate mystery which is both beyond and within himself and all things…
(Creative Mythology, p. 6)
Like Jung, Campbell considered mythologies absolutely crucial for providing people a sense of identity, allowing them to understand themselves in relation to a greater whole. Through myth, individuals locate their own lives within the context of a bigger picture, and thus gain a sense of orientation, significance, and meaning. The archetypal mythic images offered by the psyche are not pathological illusions, but time-tested tools for self-expression, and learning to encounter and employ them successfully is the task of anyone who would wish to achieve genuine self-actualization as a true individual.
Today, though, for a host of reasons, collective mythologies no longer fill this crucial psychological role. The rise of modern societies, such as the kind we inhabit today, caused a fundamental shift in the way human beings lived, and interrupted the old contexts from which mythologies organically sprang and in which they effectively operated. Our world, you could say, is now a fully Freudian world. Myth has been lost—or rejected—and, with it, the psychological guidance it once offered. As Campbell notes,
There can be no question: the psychological dangers through which earlier generations were guided by the symbols and spiritual exercises of their mythological and religious inheritance, we today (in so far as we are unbelievers, or, if believers, in so far as our inherited beliefs fail to represent the real problems of contemporary life) must face alone, or, at best, with only tentative, impromptu, and not often very effective guidance. This is our problem as modern, “enlightened” individuals, for whom all gods and devils have been rationalized out of existence.
(The Hero with a Thousand Faces, p.104)
Against this backdrop of rapid cultural change, however, our biology has remained more or less the same as our Neolithic ancestors. Physiologically—and psychologically—homo sapiens of 2020 AD are virtually indistinguishable from those of 2020 BC. The same psyche from which the ancient myths arose lives on in us. So, too, does that psychological need for the centering of the individual in accord with herself, her culture, the universe, and the ultimate Mystery. But where does one turn to for this now, in a world where myths are no longer operable?
NEXT POST: THE UNEXPECTED HERO