All the gods, all the heavens, all the worlds are within us. They are magnified dreams, and dreams are manifestations in image form of the energies of the body in conflict with each other. – Joseph Campbell
Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me. – Sigmund Freud
Two Ways to Work with Myth
1 – Family Systems
How does energy move in a system? Those who act out of balance usually suffer consequences, in the familiar concept of karma. In the story that we’ll be looking at, King Agamemnon killed and sacrificed his daughter. Ten years later his wife extracted her vengeance by murdering him. Throughout the tragic tale of the House of Atreus, murderous deeds provoked even more terrible ones and the pendulum swung wildly back and forth, until Orestes ended the cycle.
Still, things are never that tidy. Atreus killed his brother’s children and fed them to him; this was as grizzly a crime as we could imagine. Certainly, the curse landed upon the children, but the myths tell us little more about Atreus himself, other than that he was ultimately murdered. If we believed in reincarnation or the afterlife, we might speculate about Atreus’ punishment after his death. But there is no story of him in Hades suffering some eternal crime. Like countless historical tyrants, he seems to have lived out a long and happy life until his luck ran out.
Too often, myth offers a familiar (related of course to “family”), uni-directional scheme. The older, more powerful brother slaps the middle brother, who, unable to retaliate, vents his frustration upon the youngest brother. This one in turn looks for someone weaker. History displays countless examples of how those reactions impact the innocent rather than the guilty.
How long has this been going on? Thirty years ago, Robert Bly argued that the alienation of fathers and sons began in earnest in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the industrial revolution first dragged large numbers of European fathers off the farms, into the factories and away from regular physical contact with their sons. Very soon afterwards, nationalism replaced religion as the primary organizing factor in society, and those fathers sent their sons off to war in numbers never seen before.
Joseph Campbell suggested that the precursor to this condition began around the twelfth century, when the Christian myth that had organized daily life in Europe began to break down. Feminists date it much earlier, all the way back to the origins of patriarchy itself. Perhaps most people would simply agree that “…it’s always been this way.”
We can use two methods to interpret the stories associated with this cycle of myths. The first is loosely based on Murray Bowens’ Family Systems Theory. His most basic insight was to see the family as an emotional unit and the individual as part of that unit, rather than as an autonomous entity. He defined the family by the interaction and inter-relationships of its parts, rather than by their sum. Whenever a part of the system is out of balance, the rest of the members of the system try to bring it back into balance. The children may take on rigid roles necessitated by the family’s need for balance. You can read more here and here.
This is a useful model for understanding families in the world of myth, or what myth tells us about families. From its perspective, all families are, to some extent, dysfunctional – because they are simply not capable of providing for the soul’s deeper needs. We now have a framework for considering the “narcissistic wound”, a term coined by Alice Miller:
The child has a primary need to be regarded and respected…as the central actor in his own activity…a need that is narcissistic, but nevertheless legitimate, and whose fulfillment is essential…If they are to furnish these prerequisites for a healthy narcissism, the parents themselves ought to have grown up in such an atmosphere…Parents who did not experience this climate as children are themselves narcissistically deprived; throughout their lives they are looking for what their own parents could not give them at the correct time…a person with this unsatisfied and unconscious (because repressed) need is compelled to attempt its gratification through substitute means. The most appropriate objects for gratification are a parent’s own children.
The narcissistic wounding produces shame, the internal experience of unexpected exposure, that parents pass on to children. When unfulfilled parents use children for their own needs – through mild enmeshment or more extreme abandonment or abuse – the children grow up wounded, prepared by history to repeat the cycle.
In the extreme cases – those we moralistically label as “dysfunctional” so as to distance ourselves from them – the natural reaction to inappropriate intimacy or violation is to cry out in anger and pain. But when authority figures forbid such expression with the threat of more punishment, the child may repress the memory of the trauma and learn to identify with the aggressor. Later, disconnected from the original cause and the original feelings, they may act them out against others in racist or criminal behavior, or against themselves in drug addiction, prostitution, eating disorders and/or suicide.
Francis Weller writes of how long eons of evolution have programmed the soul
…to anticipate being welcomed in the world, to experience what our ancestors knew as their birthright – the container of the village. We are born expecting a rich and sensuous relationship with the earth and communal rituals that keep us in connection with the sacred. Their absence in our lives haunts us, even if we can’t give them a name, and we feel their loss as an ache, a vague sadness.
Part of that expectation of being welcomed is our innate love of stories. Another is the drive to enact those stories, to play “as if.” All but the most traumatized children embody the transformation of ritual into theater. This is the point at which psychology and mythology agree: the only way out is further in. In order to heal and take the responsibility for not passing our wounds on to our children, in order to move on, to act in the present and to give ourselves fully to the world, we must grieve our lost childhood, and that often involves turning pain into art.
In a sense we have two choices. The first is to continue altering our moods through addictions, compulsions, fundamentalisms, consumerism and the willingness to condone violence against the “Others” of the world. Then our children must live out our pain and continue the cycle indefinitely. The second is to re-experience the pain and begin the healing process. As Caroline Casey says, “Create theater or live melodrama.”
2 – Mythopoetic Mode
Carl Jung wrote, “Everything in the unconscious seeks outward manifestation.” When we think mythologically, we train ourselves to search for the archetypal nature of any phenomenon, to perceive meaning on several levels simultaneously. The literal, psychological and symbolic dimensions of reality complement and interpenetrate each other to make a greater whole. Truth (aletheia, non-forgetting) is memory; and myth is truth precisely because it refuses to reduce the world to one single perspective.
The family system approach moves outward toward the objective and emphasizes the reciprocal role each individual plays in the greater unit of the family, while the mythopoetic moves inward, toward the subjective, where each of the characters in a story (as in a dream) can sometimes represent various elements of one psyche.
I acknowledge a certain danger here – reducing myth to psychology. To counter that tendency, we imagine that the characters of the story also represent corresponding aspects of increasingly greater worlds: tribe, nation, humanity, universe. As above, so below.
Another concern in these times of loosened identity is to use polarized gender terms. But this is how myth speaks to us.
The key is how dreams and myth parallel each other. As Campbell wrote, a myth is the dream of a society, and a dream is the myth of an individual. For Jung, myth serves to reveal the existence of the unconscious (what we are not conscious of) and help us explore it. Another thing myth offers is social: “Since myth describes the hero’s own rediscovery of that (deeper) reality, his story functions…as a model for others.”
The threshold is the realm of Hermes Psychopompus, the guide of souls to the underworld, or the collective unconscious. When we understand that the deeper purpose of myth is to conduct us down to the level of soul, we are in the mythopoetic mode; we are dealing with profound questions of identity, ritual and initiation. And sometimes it reveals that an innate drive pushes us toward wholeness. Jung called this lifelong process individuation. Our indigenous souls know this, and enter the world expecting parents and a community that will welcome, identify and facilitate the gifts we bring. As Weller noted above, the realization that such a welcome rarely exists is the source of our deepest grief.
Edward Edinger writes, “Each new level of integration must submit to further transformation if development is to proceed.” However, although individuation as a process is an innate part of our socio-biology, there is no guarantee of success. Often, the wounds with which we enter the world overwhelm us, especially when we discover that the protective container of community is also lacking.
Some myths, however, invite us to approach the narcissistic wound not as a permanent restriction on our human potential, but as an opportunity. Robert Bly wrote, “…where a man’s wound is, that is where his genius will be.” Here is where archetypal psychology meets indigenous wisdom: the healing of the individual is necessarily connected to the healing of the community, which understands that it needs the gift (“original medicine” in Native American terms) of each of its members for culture to survive. Not the culture of patriarchy, capitalism, consumerism, environmental degradation and constant warfare; but authentic, sustainable culture.
The practical work of myth and ritual is to connect that wound and the suffering it causes with the gift that may emerge. This may mean more suffering, but perhaps the suffering fate has meant us to experience. Jung wrote, “…neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” The mythopoetic approach attempts to reconstruct an imagination that can address what Campbell called our demythologized world. So our two systems of understanding may sometimes converge into one.