We don’t invent myth; it is true. What makes a myth true is the way it facilitates a relationship between a culture and its environment; a relationship which individuals can adapt to. Myth, as Malinosski has said, both sustains and creates culture and when all is working well, as D Stephenson Bond asserts:
its myths satisfy in the individual the demands of the environment.
But what when all is not going well?
When the myths are dysfunctional
C G Jung talked about ‘religion’ not as an institution and dogma, but as an attitude and way of apprehending reality. For Jung religion is about meticulously attending to the Numinosum. ‘Numinous’ was a word invented by the theologian Rudolph Otto in his book Das Heilige. We experience the numinous as a peak of emotion, rather than through willpower. And it connects the self to experiences of awe, holiness, otherness, mystery and cultural symbols. (Though this doesn’t have to imply belief in a personal divinity).
Environments change and at some point we need new myths. But old myths don’t go quietly into that good night. When they were living and functional they expressed profound truths, but when they no longer serve, they cling and rage. As Bond goes on:
The cultural artefacts of dysfunctional myths are dangerous.
He cites the example of gun culture which began as a functional way of coping with a hostile environment. We can see it in movements like National Socialism in Germany leading to holocaust or in the witch trials of the seventeenth century. As Bond remarks:
Conscious slips away from cultures as surely as it does from individuals.
Myths that no longer serve us cut us off from:
the memory of an entire people of how to live a human life.
We can see this happening as people throw over institutional religions that no longer speak to their psyche or the environment or as people scrabble for religious paradigms outside their own environments. We even see it as people question the more recent myth of ‘more, more, more’ consumption that is choking the planet.
When we live in a time of drought of meaning, it gives rise to pyschological unease and to distortions of culture. It gives rise to fanaticism and fundamentalism. It gives rise to cultures in which we relate only to certain aspects of ourselves and the world. We relate only to the functional and rational at the expense of imagination and internal life (or vice versa).
Jung considered that at this point we have to begin relating to our environment through the cracks in the culture. Individuals have to find ways to make new myths that, perhaps over generations, will lead to cultural renewal as well as giving individual meaning.
In the forest of personal myth
When we live in a time of drought of meaning, finding the personal myth is an urgent question. And it’s a difficult one. Myths evolve from whole cultures over generations. Living in the cracks when the old myths no longer function is fraught with possibility of error.
We have to remain tentative and we need to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find our way back if we discover we’ve taken several wrong turns. Two things call to me through the forest: imagination and story.
imagining the path
Imagination is much deeper than fantasy. It is the whole question of ‘How do I live?’ This is a mythological question because it’s about how we relate our inner life to culture and environment. When there is no living, functional myth to get the answers from, we can only proceed tentatively. We ‘might’ live like this. Bond says we are cast back on psyche:
You live what you must live or fall ill.
He likens a ‘religious’ myth (not in the sense of organised or doctrinal belief, but in the sense of awe and otherness) to a menu that tells the soul what to eat. But in the absence of a ‘mythological food plan’ we starve amongst endless choices or suffer the malnutrition of junk food.
Another metaphor is finding a path in an overgrown forest when there are paths leading in every conceivable direction. Finding the direction takes deep imagination. Imagination, as I noted previously (link to June 9 post)
Flying with the imagination promotes
- a sense of identity and renewed self image
- autonomy within community
- deeper understanding
- alternative possibilities
- a sense of purpose and quest
Imagining the path is an act of renewal, empathy and courage. It’s not an ego trip, but connects us to the numinous, to intense and humbling experiences of awe. Imagining the path is an act of invention in which we become a different story.
becoming a different story
Writers and thinkers who are enlarging the imagination and asking profound questions of direction and myth are deeply aware of the power of story.
In The Enchanted Life, Sharon Blackie finds the numinous in the everyday, using traditional stories along the way. In Writing Wild, Tina Welling makes the link between our intuition of the natural world and writing what she calls ‘spirit walks’. She uses the term not in the more accepted sense of shamanic journeying, but simply being outside, fully inhabiting the body and the moment to observe a scene or object then making emotional links in order to allow a story to emerge.
Both of these writers are talking about the beginnings of a personal myth. Similarly in Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood concludes that in writing story we make mythic journeys. We go into the Underworld and return with treasures brought back from the dead. And we do so by taking gifts with us (the dead want blood — life force — Atwood says).
When we write story (including poetry) we are not just working on the book or the individual piece, we are writing ourselves. The writing process and the life process resonate. We write our inner world into the outer world and offer an embodied experience that speaks some truth. We participate in the process and emerge changed.
with a new name
The story that encapsulates this best for me is that of Jacob fighting with ‘otherness’. In the Biblical story it might be an angel or it might be God or… What matters is that in this profound imaginative encounter he emerges into the morning not having pinned down what the ‘other’ is (he asks it’s name but doesn’t get an answer), but wounded and with a new name. In the encounter, the ‘other’ puts Jacob’s hip out of joint and he becomes more than his former self. He is ‘Israel’.
with a found story
In several essays in The Wave in the Mind, Ursula K Le Guin talks of story as something that we have to listen for. Essays are in the head, she says, but writing is better when there are bodies; when we ‘find’ people and let them inhabit us as we inhabit them. Sometimes we find ourselves not in the forest, but in clearing where there is nothing. She cautions not to try to fill it, but to waiting and listen:
Listen for the voice … wait and wait … and then the voice would come and speak through me. But it’s more than voice. It’s a bodily knowledge. Body is story; voice tells it.
Similarly, JRR Tolkien talks of finding the story of The Silmarilion, rather than inventing it. In his biography of Tolkien, Humphrey Carter reports him saying:
[The tales] arose in my mind as ‘given’ things … always, I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’.
Bond points out that when the personal and the collective resonate something deep breaks through. Tolkien experienced childhood poverty and bereavement followed by the animal horror of trench warfare. In a world reeling with loss of meaning his imaginative work provided what Bond calls:
a form to hold the inner and outer experience together in a vessel of meaning.
In The Lord of the Rings, the symbol is a ring so powerful it has the power of a Sun and the only way to handle it is to return to the power to its source. But the journey (made by Frodo) is arduous and the guide is his Shadow (Gollum). In not grasping at the power of the Sun we can journey to its source, but we will return changed, having learnt who we are, both light and shadow.
Allowing space for our stories to find us is crucial.
without reaching the end of the story
Tolkien described writing The Silmarilion as an Atlantis experience. It’s a story he was constantly approaching.
When we think we’ve found all the answers, we’re most in trouble. When we think that we’ve arrived and have no more need of process, we have ossified and our myth is more likely to be a deadening cult or junk food for the soul.
We fly towards the sun on borrowed wings with our shadow in tow. And then we fall and start again. Otherwise, it really is the end of the story.
with hope not despair
History and anthropology teach us that a human society cannot long survive unless its members are psychologically contained within a central living myth.
…all the world’s cultures are approaching the state of mythlessness … Meaning is lost. In its place primitive and atavistic contents are reactivated. Differentiated values disappear and are replaced by elemental motivations of power and pleasures, ore else the individual is exposed to emptiness and despair … the inner and outer anarchies of competing personal desires take over.
The loss of a central myth brings about a truly apocalyptic condition and this is the state of modern [hu]man[ity].
Edward E Edinger, The Creation of Consciousness
When we are living in a time of drought of meaning; when we are living in the cracks of culture, asking ‘How do I live?’, it’s easy to go awry. And it’s all too easy to fall into despair, as the Edinger quote indicates.
But I want to tentatively suggest that those personal myths that finally evolve into new, living myths will be those of deep imagination and story. They will:
- be those that don’t rely on ego, but dig deep to make profound connections.
- have the intensity of the numinous.
- have the compassion of understanding.
- nurture the soul, rather than making us sick.
- change us, giving us new names.
- be both personal and collective.
- be part of the process, not the end of the story.
- be found not invented.
They will be those that enable us to fly towards the sun on powerful wings not of our making and not in order to take its power, but in order to soar with imagination, becoming new stories. Again and again.
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 @ email@example.com. Or just feel free to continue the conversation here on Medium.