James Hollis is a noted Jungian analyst and mythologist. In this book, he discusses the topic of myth and the important function that it plays in human existence. Myth helps us answer 1) cosmological questions of genesis and eschatology, 2) metaphysical questions on the nature of the world around us, 3) sociological questions about tribal and collective experience, and 4) psychological questions on how to conduct one’s life. This is a very short and readable book that offers a good general introduction to the language and key concepts of mythological studies from a depth psychology perspective.
Through symbols, images and metaphors, humans naturally experience mystery and the human soul. Interestingly, the etymology of the word symbol is syn + ballein, (to project towards sameness) and of metaphor is meta + pherein (to carry over or across). As myth utilizes both symbol and metaphor, it helps humankind establish and communicate a meaningful relationship to the mystery of the world. One is carried beyond the image or direct symbol to another world of meaning. As the “soul” (in Greek, psyche) seeks wholeness, it expresses itself primarily through image. Image and symbol are, in fact, the key tools of the Soul.
Our ancestors lived in an animistic world where the soul was seen in all things. In primitive environments, myth arose from the deep unconscious mind and experience of the divine was a direct human experience. In modern society, we have increasingly seen a desacralization of nature and the secularization of culture. As Paul Tillich said, the greatest sin of modernism is not evil but rather barren triviality. In our modern era, with the withdrawal of sacred images from our cultural language, we are left with only the artist that bears us meaningful myths and images. The artist in modern day is the carrier of the modern mythological project. It is they who are the agents of the “mythopoesis” of our own age. Hollis goes on to discuss the contributions of various important artists and literary works of our own age, including Goethe’s Faust, Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, and Camus’ The Fall.
Two key themes in the field of mythological studies are the Eternal Return and the Heroic Quest. The great mythic pattern of “The Eternal Return” deals with the cycle of sacrifice and the life-death-rebirth dialectic. One gets a better sense for why the theme of sacrifice dominates so many myths, focusing on the great cycle or the killing that is necessary for life. The central meaning of myths of the Great Mother center on the life-death cycle that is fed by sacrifice; all life feeds on other life. Most of these great myths had both male and female images included and as such, were very psychologically healthy and balanced. The sacrifice of a divine child is found frequently in many narratives. The erosion of great myths around the Earth Mother and Sky Father leave us looking privately for images to guide and support the soul in the great cosmic drama.
Many other myths are oriented around the quest or hero’s journey, the movement from innocence to experience and individuation. The psychological meaning of “The Journey” involves circling back at a higher level, often in a movement akin to a spiral. We are obliged to be even more conscious of our developmental task. This is the hero’s quest.
When we hear the stories of the hero’s journey, we become vehicles for truth that is very difficult to understand, one of these being the knowledge that, in the guise of death there is a secret unity of life. Mythic representations activate psychic energy and redirect the soul toward healing. We experience healing when we are in harmony with some great rhythm. One feels the worth and weight of the soul when we can stand in relationship to something deeper than our consciousness and something longer than our life span. Reading myth is a form of personal and cultural psychotherapy, or a way of “listening to the soul” (psyche = soul and therapeuein = to listen or attend to).
Contemporary westerners must keep in mind the myths of the eternal return and the hero’s journey and be even more conscious because we are not sustained by mythological traditions that activate such imperatives and mediate the woe and wonder of it all. In fact, there is naivete to those who think they can live without the gods. The same energy that once invested these figures with psychic energy migrated into the unconscious and manifests itself in neuroses and pathologies of modernism. That is why Jung also said that a neurosis is like a neglected god.
In reading books like this, one gets closer to exactly what is meant when Carl Jung talks about the soul and the divine. Marie-Louise von Franz, Carl Jung’s disciple, put the matter succinctly in saying “Every human being has at the bottom of his psyche a divine spark, a part of the divinity which Jung calls the Self. The experience of God is the phenomenological experience of the individual; it is not a matter of theology. A god is defined from a mythic perspective as something that is intimated by, and present in, the affectively charged image that emerges from an experience in depth, an archetypal encounter. In other words, the human psyche is the matrix for the experience of the gods. An encounter with depth may occasion a mediating image. The image itself is not divine but for a moment, it does hold divine energy.
By becoming oneself as fully as possible, one serves the larger purposes of history. If one combined all the myths of all peoples in all times, this would in effect, tell the human story in all its permutations. As humans, we need to feel a connection to a larger order of meaning or some connection with the mystery that courses through history and animates the individual soul. Each myth is the dramatization of these individual energies that flow through the universe and for awhile inhabit us. Collectively, these stories tell the whole human story and the cosmic drama.
Our ancestors seemed to intuitively know that the psyche is a multiplicity of energies and that they should be in dialogue with these psychic components. So many stories tell the old stories of how humans and gods intermingled. And so, in the modern day, our goal should be to achieve a deeper relationship to our own myth and seek a more conscious mythography. We can pay attention to our dreams and deconstruct the false sense of reality of a constricted conscious life. We can relinquish the need to be certain, and we can experience, even enjoy, the ambiguity of our condition. From this enlightened perspective, I am my journey. I am my dialogue with the angels or messengers of mystery. Perhaps our myth is, as Lincoln said, to attend the mystic chords of memory and trust the better angels of our nature. We can accept responsibility for finding our own myth and for developing our ability to sustain the ambiguity.
Jung commented when we have forgotten what our ancestors knew, the silence is not silent, and the dark can be luminous for those who wait upon it. You can live your own life and serve the mystery. These are just two aspects of the same thing. Through the humble task of simply being ourselves we are thus more than ourselves. Thus in a time when the gods seem to have gone away, we may nonetheless glimpse the divine.