Barry’s Blog # 62: What We Have Lost

A reader recently asked me for a short answer to the question: What have we lost by literalizing our mythological stories?

The evidence is all around us, so ubiquitous that we don’t see it. The creative imagination (which I discuss in Chapter One of my book) that is our universal inheritance from our indigenous ancestors has collapsed over a very long period of time, as the myth of patriarchy overcame it. Our sense of the possible has diminished accordingly.

What we have as a result are what I call the predatory imagination and the paranoid imagination. As indigenous myths and the rituals associated with them are forgotten, we search desperately for substitutes that will offer our lives even a small bit of meaning. Caroline Casey calls this the “toxic mimic” of the real thing. Some old myths describe this historical shift, most notably the story of Abraham and Isaac.

The collapse of the creative imagination means that, compared to tribal people, modern people in general have a vastly reduced capacity for nuance, metaphor and symbolic thinking.

And, as Francis Weller writes in Entering the Healing Ground: Grief, Ritual and the Soul of the World (

…we are programmed to anticipate a certain quality of welcome…what our deep-time ancestors experienced as their birthright, namely the container of the village. We are born expecting a rich and sensuous relationship with the Earth, and communal rituals of celebration, grief and healing that keep us in connection with the sacred…The absence of these requirements haunts us, even if we can’t give them a name.

The base emotional experience of all modern people is repressed grief for what we never received and what we know at some level should have been ours. The result is that nearly everyone feels alienated from the core of their being. So much of the modern world – our institutions, our entertainments, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – are attempts to cover up that grief.

What we have instead of a mythic world are:

1 – Ideologies and belief systems, most easily seen in fundamentalist religions, which literalize their own myths. This includes the literalization of apocalypse, the projection of the desire for personal initiatory death onto the world itself. All ideologies are forms of fundamentalism.

2 – Capitalism and consumerism, corrupted approaches to Mother Earth. “Materialism” comes from the root word for “mother.” We produce and consume to cover up the grief of being, as the old song said, “motherless children.”

3 – The culture of celebrity, which literalizes the old polytheistic universe of deities and royal figures and projects them onto public figures. Not possessing the tools with which to see our own innate nobility, we can only see it others.

4 – Addictions (including workaholism and addictions to ideology), which arise when “the spirits” devolve into “spirits” (alcohol).

5 – Pornography, which James Hillman claimed is the result of the Western world’s long-term cultural repression of Aphrodite and Eros (See my Chapter 10).

6 – And the most destructive, war, which over the centuries devolved from contained, ritual conflict to literal, total warfare. This category would include youth gangs and all of the potentially lethal ways in which young men search unconsciously for initiation (See my Chapter 5).

This is the challenge and the opportunity that our present historical situation offers us: recovering our indigenous sense of the possibilities inherent in ourselves and in the soul of the world. But before we can imagine what we want, we first have to acknowledge – and feel – what we have lost.

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