What is a Myth?

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What is a myth? There are as many responses to this question as there are approaches to the study of myth. I think part of my attraction to “myth” and its study is the ambiguity contained in this word. However, there are two distinct viewpoints on what a myth is that I tend to favor.

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One perspective is exemplified by Emma Jung as presented in her book, The Grail Legend. The other is expressed by Joseph Campbell in a tape series of his titled, Courtly Love and the Grail Legends. (I believe this information is now available in Joseph Campbell Audio Collection Volume 6: Western Quest.)

For Emma Jung, a myth is an expression of the psyche. This expression can be made manifest in image, ritual or story. Myth mediates between the Self and the ego. It gives expression to the archetypal and in this way makes available to the conscious ego what otherwise might have remained hidden. Myth is not only an expression from the psyche but it seems myth is an expression that speaks to the psyche. They provide the “ah-ha” moment of insight and a deep felt sense of satisfaction. It is as if myth is an expression which scratches some unknown itch or quenches some unknown thirst. Myth is not just entertainment, but psychologically profound. Jung says that King Arthur represents the idea of wholeness as it was conceived in the first millennium when Grail Legends emerged. In Jungian psychology wholeness is an ideal that the psyche is striving for and what the process of individuation entails. This sense of wholeness is also represented by Arthur’s Round Table. Here is an example of myth making available to consciousness by means of an archetypal image through concrete as well as abstract images; through the character of King Arthur and through his Round Table.

Emma Jung identifies the repetition of an image or act as significant. She argues that repetition is not only a component of myth, but of ordinary life. She sees it as a design or pattern where contents of the unconscious become available to the conscious mind. For example, in an early scene in Parzival, because of the Red Knight, the King has suffered a wrong, the Queen has been insulted and both, as a result, are out of countenance. This is the first indication of the disturbed and unredeemed state that is a prefiguration of the Land of the Grail disclosed later in the story. Also in this scene are the cup and spilt wine which is a prefiguration of the Grail itself. This redundancy in myth she sees as an expression of the psyche. This same prefiguration, she says, can be observed in ordinary life where, subject to variation, certain situations repeat themselves again and again. At first perhaps, they appear to be accidental and meaningless. Should one’s attention be aroused, however, by the frequent recurrence of such coincidences, and if these are more carefully observed, it will be noted that for the most part they are modified expressions of a significant natural tendency characteristic of the particular individual, until their meaning is finally grasped and their purpose accomplished.

Here again she sees myth as an expression of the psyche. It is one where psyche sets the stage so that unconscious behavior, through repetition, is brought to consciousness. This is not to say that any story that includes redundancy is therefore a myth. But I argue that a story where redundancies bring about profound psychological insight is at least “mythic” if not wholly categorized as “myth”.

Myths also contain a certain amount of relevance for a human audience that relates to a human condition that is enduring for all humanity but newly experienced by each generation. Jung sees this as having a therapeutic value. They depict an archetypal event, a basic pattern of human behavior, by which one may find one’s bearings or which can serve as a model.

An example of this is Parzival, who is not an outsider wandering around in a land of archetypal significance. He is, himself, archetypal as Emma Jung points out, for the hero figure is one of those eternal, archetypal images which slumber in the depths of every soul and which determine human life and destiny in unsuspected measure. This relevance stemming from enduring human conditions and a therapeutic value within the image, ritual or story is a consequential factor of what a myth is. For Jung myth is an expression from the depths of the psyche. It is archetypal, redundant, relevant and therapeutic.

Joseph Campbell, on the other hand, identifies four functions of myth. In his book, Creative Mythology, he says the functions of myth are:

1 – to reconcile waking consciousness to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of this universe as it is

2 – to render an interpretive total image of the same, as known to contemporary consciousness

3 – the enforcement of a moral order

4 – (what Campbell considered the most vital, most critical) to foster the centering and unfolding of the individual in integrity, in accord with him/herself (microcosm), his/her culture (the mesocosm), the universe (the macrocosm), and that awesome ultimate mystery which is both beyond and within him/herself and all things.

I will review only one of these four areas; the fourth. He sees myth as serving a mystical function. He describes myth as a path or means to the transcendent. Myth is an expression of the yearning of our spirit to unite with the “Ultimate.” Myth, then for Campbell, is the means by which a person or culture is put “in touch with the deep mystery of what it means to be alive.” The Grail is symbolic of this mystery. From it comes the means of sustenance. From this source everyone in the Grail Castle are served the meal each desires. It is ever renewing abundance. The myth does not explain the mystery, but puts the believer in accord with it.

In the book, Parzival, there are various expressions of different kinds of love (e.g. mother for son; love among a brotherhood; etc.). Love can be a mystical experience. Campbell sees in the Grail Legends the beginning of a new world order where he with the noble heart, following his true inner knowledge comes to the Grail. Instead of being rewarded for following the rules of society and being accepted into the Church through the sacraments, frequently from the hands of a tainted clergy, Parzival comes to the Grail Castle, not once but twice. This is due in part to his noble heart and steadfast love for Condwiramurs. Myth here is a vehicle of a change in consciousness and a foretelling of a change in the social order itself. It is Parzival, his noble heart and true love that are the redemption that save the Wasteland and restore it to a paradise. Myth here again is expressing what being in accord with the mystery of life really is. In this case it is living authentically from your own center (that is, if you have a noble heart).

The compassion that Parzival experiences toward the Grail King’s wound is the ultimate expression of love. For Campbell, love is the recognition of the humanity of the Other; a loss of self-centering. Through the experience of Love, a Oneness is experienced and thereby the unity of things.  The noble heart is moved by compassion. In compassion an individual so commits him or her-self to the other that the boundaries of being two distinct individuals blur. This is a metaphysical realization. This is compassion. This is the Grail; the one life that is constantly pouring forth into the field of time and space that is transcendent of all thinking, of all naming, of all knowing. Here he emphatically expresses his opinion of what a myth is. It is metaphysical, mystical, in touch with the mysteries of life and transcendent. Not all myths will fill this bill, but it is a powerful expression of what a myth can be and occasionally what a myth is.

From the point of view of Emma Jung, myths are soulful, emerging from the depths of the psyche. From one of Joseph Campbell’s perspectives myths are spiritual and lead us to experience a Oneness with the Source. Both perspectives are rich in their contributions to the study, understanding and definition of myth. They may appear to be mutually exclusive; one reaching down to the depths of being; the other reaching up to the transcendent. However, humanity is poised on the razor’s edge where these two forces, the soul and the spirit, exert a tremendous magnetic pull on us. Myth also provides the means to maintain our balance while these forces engage us.

Myth is an expression of the soul. Myth is also an expression of the spirit. Myth is the vehicle of their expression; a language if you will. The Grail Legends are examples of this expression or language. In them can be seen both the archetypal and the mystical. The Grail itself is symbolic of the One Life that is constantly pouring forth into the field of time and space which is the phenomenal world of ours; simultaneously archetypal and mystical. By allowing the play of both spirit and soul, myths and their study enrich every aspect of existence.

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