Jan Fortune

Sep 14, 2018

8 min read

How myths form us, and other narrative alchemy

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

There are many reasons why narrative is vital, why writing is an extraordinary and powerful calling, none more so than the fact that story shapes our lives. How we perceive the world and therefore how we act in the world is intrinsically bound up with what we believe about the nature of reality, the values at the core of our lives, the stories we tell about the world and ourselves.

In short, we live in myth.

Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are

the philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset tells us.

The landscape we live in is not only physical but also narrative. What kind of stories do you live in?

Sadly, many of us live in an increasingly impoverished, degraded or misleading storyscape.

Corrupting the myth

Tom Wieden, Pixabay

One of the dominant stories of our time is: MORE MORE MORE. The idea that we need to acquire more and more stuff to be… what? Real? Worthy? Visible in the world? The lure to consume is a siren call. Yet, in the documentary Facts from the Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard demonstrates how only 1% of all the stuff we buy is still in use 6 months after purchase. And, having bought more and more stuff that promises all kinds of changes in our lives, we then buy books and courses on how to declutter, how to get rid of all that stuff.

Another ubiquitous story is the hero. Joseph Campbell defined story and the hero’s journey as synonymous. It’s always a linear narrative. The hero is routinely male. And, of course, is all-conquering and world-saving. It’s blockbuster film mythology, but is it timely and does it ring true?

Geoff Mead, a storyteller who specialises in narrative leadership, suggests that we need other stories:

The enormous challenges of our time can sometimes take us to the very limits of our capacity to respond meaningfully.

Mead suggests we should look to post-heroic stories of falls from grace; stories of staying constant and enduring without the aid of magical intervention and superpowers; stories of quests that demand strong and compassionate maturity.

Whilst some writers draw us back to traditional stories, such as the Grail Knight who offers healing, or the Fisher King, who empathically asks, ‘What ails you?’, other writers, like Thomas Berry, suggest that the world needs new stories in which we understand humanity as intrinsically linked to the planet and the universe, not separate from it.

And, with a similar sense of urgency, thinkers like D Stephenson Bond warn us that contemporary society has fallen out of myth. Bond suggest that the dominant stories of society have become intolerble and we increasingly feel ‘unstoried’, alienated and rootless.

Our relationship to myth

Adrian Kirby, Pixabay

Myth gives us a sense of meaning because we have a living relationship with the stories we inhabit. We live inside context and when our subjective consciousness and the mythological consciousness work together all is well. Myth tells us the principles to live by. As Bond puts it:

Myth holds us in a working relationship. As long as the delicate balance between the individual and the impersonal holds, … as long as the adaptation works, I’m living in myth.

But what when the environment changes and the cultural myths that have sustained us no longer resonate? What happens when a myth ossifies or dies?

  • ritual becomes dead habit rather than cultural story and community
  • work becomes mere labour rather than something linked to community and meaningful life
  • a way of life becomes crushing social expectation
  • symbol is reduced to propaganda rather than cultural meaning (think of the swastika in Nazi Germany, for instance)

Falling out of myth is like being regurgitated by Jonah’s whale as it beaches. We suddenly see a bigger world but also an alien and disorienting world that we don’t know how to navigate. Meanwhile the whale that has been our environment and story dies and decays.

When myth spews us out, having come to the end of its life, there are various reactions. Some people stay close to the decaying body, feeding off it. Others take courage and go on a mythological journey to find a new personal myth.

When myth dies there are earth tremors. After all, myth is multigenerational and enormous; it has contained people, perhaps over centuries, and its death is bound to bring social turmoil until new sustaining myths arise.

Finding the symbols of personal myth

Photo by Tamara Menzi on Unsplash

Myth and meaning are of a piece. Story makes sense of who we are, as individuals and as a society. If our society’s myths fail us we are forced back into personal myth-making to give sense and narrative to life.

Myths tap into symbols, which in turn are potent living things at a deep level of consciousness. For anything to stand as a symbol for something else, it has to not only carry the image of the other but also the energy of what it points to. Symbols have intensity. As the theologian Paul Tillich points out, a symbol is much deeper than sign; it not only points beyond self but participates in what it points to. To be alive, myth and symbol must stir the imagination, must grip and fascinate us.

Often, symbols emerge in the space between the unconscious and the conscious. For many of us, the stories that emerge in dreams are where we encounter potent symbols that invite us to dive deeper into imagination. It’s in dreams that we often touch on archetypes from the unconscious and encounter myth.

In dreams, actual life and potential life are held together under great tension and the symbols we encounter there arise from the unconscious and can show the way to psychological development.

Personal myth comes alive in several ways, via:

  1. intensity — our experiences of fantasy, dreams & images
  2. resonance — when a symbol that is personally meaningful resonates with underlying patterns that connect us to larger humanity and concerns. This larger dimension appears in the window of imagination
  3. participation — when we live out particular aspects of narrative, its intensities become healing and contribute to personal development.

The fire of myth is powerful, yet in a period of political uncertainty, rapid technological development and ecological threat, it is the content of shared myth is in question.

As Bond says, myth:

… does not lie behind us, in fact there is no going back. Insofar as the ancient myths represent a particular adaptation to particular environments, inner and outer, they will not serve us well. The way lies ahead. The way lies in the constantly evolving relationship to the living psyche and the living myth that even today is crystallizing the new pattern of that relationship.

Symbol shows the way. But it is not yet a myth… What is heard from the psyche does not become a myth until it becomes a way of life.

We cannot return home by the way we came. When the old myths fail and the interim myths of greed and superpowers are exposed as hollow, we will need extraordinary new myths, that are as imaginative as they are true.

The beginnings of new myth

Quangoraha, Pixabay

When the myths around us fail we have to be among the courageous who leave the dying body of the whale behind as we head into the unknown in search of new stories to live by. As Bond puts it:

Personal myth begins precisely in that moment you say, this is vital to me.

We live in myth when our lives have meaning and intention; when our life is an unfolding story. And meaning always requires an act of imagination.

Bond points out that when we wander about the world half-asleep, with too little consciousness, we are prey to superstition and believing anything we’re told. On the other hand, being hyper-critical can prevent us from finding that place between subjectivity and objectivity where we make symbolic meaning. Bond advises that we need is a ‘symbolic consciousness’:

Objective consciousness rushes in to put the fire out. Symbolic consciousness stands back to watch the fire, to see what happens.

Symbolic consciousness can participate in imagination and fantasy, knowing that it is doing so to make meaning from story while being aware of the process:

it lives in a myth while knowing it is a myth

Fantasy is not seen as either reality or illusion, but as meaning; it’s a play space, a

soul space to be explored.

It’s internal but also universal. The psychologist Carl Jung would say that this is the oldest layer of the mind, where ego drops away. This is the arena of the collective unconscious — the impersonal patterns of organisation that shape human experience. Deep within this experience is the living process of otherness, the ‘Not-I’ that lies at the heart of our subjective experience.

In the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling in his dream, this ‘Not-I’ may be an angel or divinity. In the process of encountering it, Jacob is wounded and renamed. He asks what the name of the other is and, although the answer is evasive, he learns who he is and his life is changed as a result.

The world needs story. The world is in search of myth and of a new mythological consciousness. Writing and story have never been so urgent. We are living in times of wrestling and wounding. As light dawns we need a story that asks who we wrestle with, recognises the other within and redefines who we are, who we want to become.

Those of us who take writing seriously are a small part of making narrative meaning of life. It’s a task of awe, responsibility and alchemy.

Becoming a Different Story

Thank you for reading becoming a different story — if you want to learn more about working on creativity and the writing life, sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. You can also find out about my forthcoming writing courses at https://janfortune.com/ or email me @ jan@janfortune.com. Or just feel free to continue the conversation here on Medium.