THE UNEXPECTED HERO
Our psyches continue to engage with mythic archetypes, even as today these go largely unheeded. Where myths are embraced, they are mostly outmoded, no longer fit to address reality as we know it today. Psychologist Jean Houston, Ph.D, writes:
Patterns of millennia have prepared us for another world, another time, and, above all, another story. At the same time, exponential change, unlike any ever known in human history or prehistory, has confused our values, uprooted our traditions, and left us in a labyrinth of misdirection. Factors unique in human experience are all around us—the inevitable unfolding toward a planetary civilization, the rise of women to full partnership with men, the daily revolutions in technology, the media becoming the matrix of culture, and the revolution in the understanding of human and social capacities. The zeit is getting geistier as the old story becomes ever more antiquated. It cannot address the multiples of experience and complexity of life unknown to our great-grandparents, nor can it heal the many wounds that come with this plethora of experience and its attending chaos. We have become so full of holes that perhaps we are well on the way to becoming holy.
A Freudian would say the story ends here. If you’re bothered by it, well…go to therapy! But Houston, following the path of Jung and Campbell, sees a different answer: each one of us must dig down into that ancient psyche—and create a new story for ourselves:
Since the new story, the new mythology, is not yet in place, it is up to us separately and together to carry out the work of reenvisionment. But can one ever really change, or even invent a myth? Go beneath the surface crust of consciousness of virtually anyone anywhere, and you will find repositories of the imaginal world—the teeming terrain of myth and archetype:
holy men and wise men, flying horses, talking frogs, sacred spaces, deaths and resurrections, the journeys of the heroes and heroines of a thousand faces. Having taken depth probings of the psyche of many people the world over, I know this to be so.
(Foreword to Personal Mythology, p. xvii)
Sam Keen, a protégé of Campbell’s and author of Your Mythic Journey, came to the same conclusion. Considering our current mythless state as symptomatic of “the death of God” in Western society, Keen insists that no version of the “old story” can cut it any longer. In an influential essay, published in his book To A Dancing God, Keen remarks:
The crisis in the metaphysical identity of humanity reflected in the metaphor “the death of God” remains the unsolved philosophical and spiritual dilemma of modern times. How we are to come to terms with the tragic character of human existence in an age in which there is widespread loss of confidence in all absolute or transcendent points of reference will remain the agonizing philosophical problem for generations...
We must begin our search with the realization that no form of neo-orthodoxy provides a viable starting point. The orthodox metamundane myths of religion are no longer supported by any authority strong enough to command the respect of an unprejudiced inquirer. Knowledge of comparative religions, textual criticism, and the dynamics of symbol formation and functioning has destroyed our ability to grant a priori authority to any religious tradition. For the moment, at least, we must put all orthodox stories in brackets and suspend whatever remains of our belief-ful attitude. Our starting point must be individual biography and history.
If I am to discover the holy it must be in my biography and not in the history of Israel. If there is a principle which gives unity and meaning to history it must be something I touch, feel, and experience. Our starting point must be radical.
(To a Dancing God, pp. 84, 99)
Campbell himself was the first, and perhaps most eloquent, to present this approach. His massive, four-volume survey of the world’s mythologies called The Masks of God concludes in the modern period with Volume IV. Creative Mythology. It is, essentially, an exploration of how creative individuals have done just this: ventured into the labyrinth of mythic symbols to find what can give expression to their own impactful personal experiences.
With this unique development in the human history of myth-making, top-down, socially-mediated myths (like religious systems) give way at last to the individual storyteller, whose hard-won wisdoms—plucked from the heavens and underworlds of their own emotional trials—now becomes the subject matter for meaning-full, symbolic narrative. Campbell writes:
In the context of a traditional mythology, the symbols are presented in socially maintained rites, through which the individual is required to experience, or will pretend to experience, certain insights, sentiments, and commitments. In what I am calling “creative” mythology, on the other hand, this order is reversed: the individual has had an experience of his own—of order, horror, beauty, or even mere exhilaration—which he seeks to communicate through signs; and if his realization has been of a certain depth and import, his communication will have the value and force of living myth—for those, that is to say, who receive and respond to it themselves, with recognition, uncoerced.
(Creative Mythology, p. 4)
In this dawning age of creative mythology, when the old myths are no longer earnestly told and God, they say, is dead, in this age the sense of the bigger picture will not come handed down to us from without, but must be drawn up from within. If we seek to find a place of accord with our self, our culture, the universe, and the ultimate Mystery, we will need to explore all of these things for ourselves. If myth has disappeared from our world, each of us is tasked with the challenge to set out in search of it—in search of our own signs and symbols, to construct a mythology true to our own experience.
Because everyone is different, the way that works best to understand and communicate something as grand and unfathomable as “the ultimate Mystery” will be different for each one of us. You are unique, and your personal mythology will reflect that uniqueness. You are also a part of a greater whole, and the Greater Whole is properly expressed only when all of its parts are properly expressed. In short, the symbols on which your personal mythology is built can and should be unique to you. They will reflect your experiences of trial and triumph, how you see the world, what you value, what you deem beautiful and true.
For those who would attain self-actualization and centering in today’s mythless world, a journey is required. An ordeal is necessary, which only you can accomplish. Mythic symbols are no longer given to us; we must earn them for ourselves. And to achieve this will require a heroic effort. Are you up to the challenge?
You are going in search, not of the world’s God, but your God, the God in you. Campbell writes:
And just as in the past each civilization was the vehicle of its own mythology, developing in character as its myth become progressively interpreted, analyzed, and elucidated by its leading minds, so in this modern world…each individual is the center of a mythology of his own, of which his own intelligible character is the Incarnate God, so to say, whom his empirically questing consciousness is to find. The aphorism of Delphi, “Know thyself,” is the motto. And not Rome, not Mecca, not Jerusalem, Sinai, or Benares, but each and every “thou” on earth is the center of this world…
(Creative Mythology, p. 36)
Then it is indeed time for a quest. A quest to find the Incarnate God dwelling within you, to bring it forth and manifest it in your life and in the world…
NEXT POST: THE QUESTING CONSCIOUSNESS