Often in interviews I am asked, “What will the New Myths be? How will we create them?”
The question itself implies a characteristic American impatience with “being” in favor of “doing.” We like to think of ourselves as a practical, “can-do” people. We prefer the heights of spirit to the depths of soul. Often, however, the desire to move quickly toward action and solutions reveals an inability to tolerate, or even to investigate, the suffering in our midst, the diminishment of our imagination, the darkness that surrounds us, the massive grief that lies just below the surface. So my first response is: wait, consider just how rough our predicament is, sit quietly and feel the messages of the soul, and the soul of the world. Be, in Roethke’s words, “A god of nature weeping to a tree.”
As Michael Meade has said, the proper response to a great ending – in our case, the end of a cultural story, of a mythic belief system, of a way of life, of a 3,000-year-old dream, as well as of the collapse of the environment – is to enter into rituals of mourning (even as we continue to resist the forces of destruction). We must acknowledge that we are talking about massive death and hoping that new life will arise from the ashes of this ending.
Joseph Campbell said that we can no more predict what the new myths will be any more than we can predict what we’re going to dream tonight. But he did say that the new myths would no longer be tribal stories related to specific places. The only myth worth considering (“with the stars”) would express the metamorphoses of the Earth and all living beings. It would construct a mesocosm that connects all individuals to each other and to the universal macrocosm of spirit, which will be living, interdependent Nature. And we’ve had theimage of that new story since around 1970: the Whole Earth. Another image, the Web of Life, implies the interconnectedness of any living ecosystem. When one strand is broken, the web starts to unravel. What affects one part of an ecosystem affects the whole in some way. Such thinking brings us back to old notions like the anima mundi – the soul of the world – that speaks to us through the unconscious images of dreams and art.
Myths, unfortunately, change exceedingly slowly. After all, it took perhaps 5,000 years for the myth of patriarchy to become fully constellated across the planet. We have seen, perhaps, only the beginning of the reversal of this story in the last 150 years of feminism. Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of that much time to create the new myths. And yet the growth of feminism (andspiritual feminism, and the men’s movement that arose partially in response) is evidence of a new myth, the return of the Goddess. We intuitively understand the bumper sticker: “She’s back, and she’s pissed!” But will She return raging and inconsolable, or will She accept our welcome? It is still within the power of the human community to influence the nature of Her return. This story is already approaching mythic proportions not simply because millions already entertain its images of female empowerment, but because it takes us out of a linear sense of history and back into the processes of the natural world. This story of times when all genders lived in partnership allows us to imagine our own myth of return (and the return of myth). If it happened once, why can’t it happen again? Skeptics might suggest that this story simply mirrors Biblical myth (with the onset of patriarchy – women’s fall from grace – substituting for the departure from Eden). But the Goddess is not a mirror image of the omnipotent, omniscient Heavenly Father. She is the inherent spiritual capacity in every individual, our most ancient image of the soul. She exists in all beings that paradoxically emerge from and return to her.
OK, so what can we do? Chapter Twelve of my book goes into much more detail, but here are some ideas.
The Polytheistic Imagination — Now we are called to remember things we have never personally known, to remember what the land itself knows. We have the opportunity to remember who we are, and how our ancestors remembered, through art and ritual. Our task is unique: inviting something new, yet familiar, to re-enter the soul of the world. We can do this invocation in two ways. The first is to restore memory and imagination. To Federico García Lorca, imagination was “synonymous with discovery…(it) fixes and gives clear life to fragments of the invisible reality where man is stirring.” We can replicate the original process of myth making and dreaming – by telling as many alternative stories, as often as possible, for as long as necessary, until they coalesce into the world’s story.
The second thing is to engage in the rituals – and do the arts – that bypass the predatory and paranoid imaginations and stimulate the creativity that makes new myths. We need to use sacred language, in the subjunctive mode: let’s pretend, perhaps, suppose, maybe, make believe, may it be so, what if –and play. This willing suspension of disbelief is what Coleridge called “poetic faith.” Then, says Lorca, the artist stops dreaming and begins to desire. Love moves from imagination, which “creates a poetic atmosphere,” to inspiration, which invents the “poetic fact.” Thus the imagination, engaged by the restoration of memory, moves toward inspiration, where new life comes not from us but through us.
Now, all creative acts have political implications. Poet Dianne Di Prima writes, “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.” Another poet, Frances Ponge, says that genuine hope lies in “…a poetry through which the world so invades the spirit of man that he becomes almost speechless and later reinvents a language.” We are required to collapse so deeply into the mournful realization of how much we have lost that we become speechless. Only from that position can new forms of art and language arise that might break the spell of our amnesia. Then it is possible for us to speak — and act — without being throttled by belief systems riddled with unconscious forms of violence.
Can we imagine a society like Bali – where people practice dance, music, painting or sculpture so universally that they have no word for “art?”
In the tribal world, art (as ritual) serves to balance the worlds of the living and the unseen. Healing comes through memory, both in purging grief and guilt and in creatively re-framing one’s story – what James Hillman called “healing fictions.” Mythology tells of art’s ancient connection to memory: it was Memory herself, Mnemosyne, who mated with Zeus and birthed the Muses. Perhaps all art is remembering something that already exists. Artful reconnection to memory reverses the work of Kronos, countering Time’s linear progress with the cyclic imagination of Memory, who knows both past and future. Myth, which provides the basic pattern, connects to story or memoir, which provides the details. Jung said that myth offers us two gifts: a story to live by, and the opportunity to disengage or “dis-identify” from an outmoded pattern and thus re-engage in a different way with the archetypal energies from which our stories arise.
Freeing oneself from old ways of seeing requires the creative imagination. Susan Griffin argues that this is “…a collective activity…What one is willing to see is dependent on what others see…A change in public perception will change the public.” Eventually, the unthinkable becomes thinkable. Ultimately, both individuals and cultures heal by re-membering what we came here to do. Recall The Bacchae’s ambiguous ending: do Agave and Cadmus simply reassemble Pentheus, or do they re-member him as an initiated man? Creative re-membering can result in a similar ending, but with a different meaning closer to the essence of the story. If we choose the initiatory ending, then we choose to welcome the Other back into our bodies, souls and nation. The Stranger becomes the Guest, and his darkness becomes our blessing. It is said that Memory’s daughters, the Muses, collected the scattered limbs of dismembered bodies; it was they – art – who reassemble what the madness of the world rips apart.
We must choose to deliberately involve ourselves in the sacred technologies that indigenous people still offer us. Participation in the evolving forms of ritual will facilitate emergence of the new myths. The purpose of authentic ritual is to re-establish balance, clarify intention and recover the memory in our bones. The old knowledge has never completely left us, but the spirits need to know that we are interested.