Mythology Tall Order #1 – Know Thyself

By: Phoenix48

Mythology is mankind’s most ancient technology, predating the mastery of fire.

“Lord, with whom Eros the Subduer
and the dark-eyed Nymphs
and radiant Aphrodite play,
as you roam across the peaks of mountains,
I beg of you, come to me in kindness:
Hear and accept my prayer.”

–Anakreon (6th century BC)

Mythology: So what good are stories from thousands of years ago, anyway?

Myths are more than stories passed down through generations. They lay bare the human condition in all its majesty, imperfection, splendor, vulgarity, and complexity. Myths help us to understand ourselves and our place in the universe through identifying with characters facing challenges that are universally human. The stories of heroes are invariably tales of journeys. The hero travels far from home into dangerous foreign lands and receives guidence from an experienced mentor. He faces deadly challenges and adversity. Finally, he returns home a seasoned warrior with deepened awareness. The hero’s journey serves as a metaphor for our personal evolution from narcissistic ego to an actualized, mature adult.

The journey universally takes place across three phases: Departure, struggle, and return. We let go of fear and our attachment to self-serving illusions – this is departure. We follow in the footsteps of a man who has successfully made the transition and confront demons, both internal and external – this is struggle. Finally, we are enlightened with an increased consciousness and our true identity is brought into focus as our spiritual and life path continue to unfold.

The ability to suspend disbelief and to see the world through the eyes of others is an important skill in the development of observing ego. That is, the ability to step out of ourselves, separate reality from ego, and analyze our own behavior and thinking honestly and objectively.

Mythology Requires a Suspension of Disbelief

Of the all-time top ten movie rentals, four are classic Disney animated films. These films are essentially reimagined fairy tales. Their continued popularity over the decades clearly indicates the degree to which they resonate with us at a very deep level. These fantastical stories demand a suspension of disbelief, which refers to the willingness to accept the premises of a work of fiction, even if they are impossible or magical. Samuel Taylor Coleridge explains that suspension of disbelief serves to:

“..transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

Eliza Galgut further explains that “..fictional characters help shape the way we think of ourselves, and hence help us articulate more clearly what it means to be human.” We witness the struggle between good and evil in an effort to understand something new about human nature and ourselves. As in Shakespeare, objects on stage, or the fantastical elements in the script, are merely props. Thus, the story is not about things or premises but about drama. Drama always involves the emotions, motivations, and problems the characters have when they interact. At their core, impactful stories are about aspects of ourselves that are both real and human, even if the circumstances they take place in are not.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.”

–William Shakespeare

Myth and the Formation of Culture

Literary critic Northrop Frye expressed his opinion that all literature studies should start with a working understanding of the Bible and mythology. All cultures begin in an age of myth, Frye explains in his book, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. To a contemporary audience, the word “myth” connotes ignorance and superstition. However, the original meaning, rooted in ancient Greek, is “plot.” In the genesis of culture, whether a story is factually true or not is irrelevant. “Myths,” Frye says, “are the stories that tell a society what it is important for us to know.”

Mythology can be a powerful instrument of social cohesion. What Frye calls a civilization’s collection of “concerned knowledge,” disseminating a heritage of shared references creates a cultural history. The themes that occur repeatedly are “charged with special seriousness and importance.”

As Frye explains, “The real interest of a myth is to draw a circumference around a human community and look inward toward that community, not to inquire into the operations of nature.” Consequently, the Bible is composed of a series of “mythical accretions” that are as powerful in their influence as actual historical events.

Our Collective Stories Impact Society Even Today

To those who doubt the real-world power of storytelling, we need look no further than today’s headlines. Both Disney and Pastor Rick Warren are mired in controversy due directly to storytelling. That is, they both are in the spotlight precisely because they tell and interpret stories. Disney holds sway over the creative stories and fairy tales disseminated to the next generation. Pastor Warren’s audience is primarily Christian adults. Warren is an influential, frequently quoted pastor who has a gift for expressing biblical principles in relatable language. That is, he exerts influence over the narrative of arguably the most influential story ever told. Without their narrative authority, Disney’s and Warren’s public stances would not be particularly noteworthy.

Mythology is the language of the soul. –Carl Jung

How do we deal with love, loss, fear, and anger? Do we face life heroically or hide behind blame and excuses? Will our great deeds “echo through eternity” or end in the gutter with a fentanyl-induced whimper? As we examine how emotions are expressed in myths, we can learn more about how to deal with them in our own lives.

The world is complicated, confusing, and chaotic. While it is true that everyone’s problems are their own, mythology provides a framework for understanding the natural world, our place in it, and our relationships with others. As Michael Wood said, “Mythology is a way of making sense of the world. It is a way of understanding our place in the universe, our relationship to nature, and our connection to each other.”

Mythology - Zeus with lightning background painting

Transformation is about growing in consciousness, awareness, and depth

One of the benefits of exploring myths is expanding cultural awareness. And the main benefits are not limited to learning about foreign cultures – it’s also about becoming aware of the assumptions implicit in our own culture.

No one can escape the culture they were raised in, any more than one can escape race or the influence of parents and other role models. Western culture has gifted us many beliefs that have been automatically accepted without examination. Our culture has influenced our beliefs regarding the role of the individual vs the group, our interpretations of history, the relative value we place understanding the world using logic and reason, compartmentalization, the primacy of the nuclear family, the proper roles for men and women in society – to name but a few.

Exploring myth is a means of deepening your understanding of yourself, the world around you, and the connections between the two. It can help:

  • Develop your critical thinking skills
  • Expand your imaganiation and creativity
  • Alter your perspective through examination of different cultures and religions
  • Appreciate the beauty and language of storytelling

“Let me tell you of the days of high adventure…”

The Wizard Akiro
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