Friday, February 4, 2011

The Power and Influence of Myth

Since time’s beginning myth has found its expression in stories. Once upon a time professional storytellers served as invaluable and essential educators. They ensured the individual’s proper development and successful assimilation into their culture, transmitting social, spiritual, moral, historical and psychological knowledge.

Many native and tribal cultures still use the art of story telling in a significant and meaningful way. The Native Americans, for example, have a very rich cultural history with an abundance of myths. In the telling of tales, many things are taught or learned. This is one of the ways that many tribes kept their cultures alive. It is not just a collection of stories, but of their beliefs, their ways, and their lives.

Native American storytelling uses two kinds of time: mythical time, a time before time, or outside time, where events are symbolic, fantastic and impregnated with meaning and spiritual significance; and historical time, where the events described are the facts and happenings of ordinary life present or past. In mythical time, no barriers exist between the world of the spirits and the physical world. Earth, animals, plants, and humans understand each other’s languages. Spirit beings walk the Earth openly and interact with human beings freely, at times providing help, at others proving threatening and dangerous, sometimes even mating with the men and women of the human world.

The subjects of Native American mythic stories are many: myths of creation, migration stories, which tell of the search for the sacred homeland, legends of heroes of the tribe. The telling of myths, often around a campfire, has the ability to bring the story's audience into the non-ordinary time of the spirit world. The myths come alive and the audience feels the events and symbolism come to life in their inner-world, as if they were happening now. The traditions and legends are maintained and the culture of the tribe lives on.

Rollo May (1909-1994), one of the most prominent existential psychologist of the last century, argued that many of the problems of our present society- such as substance abuse and the alarming increase of depression and suicides- are caused by the absence of myths that could give shape and meaning to our contemporary world. He believed that myths are the narrative patterns that give significance to our existence. He saw a positive life affirming mythical element as essential for psychological health and observed that the Western world’s denial of myth was a result of the over-emphasis on the value of left-brain activities.

The myths of contemporary western society, argued May, are either non-existent or based on distorted value systems, responsible for creating anxiety and meaninglessness. Examples of such distortions might be the myth of the self-made man, promoting ruthless individualism, the myth represented by the lives and ascent to stardom of empty celebrities or the pursuit of surface fame. The myth of personal success in the material world through driven individualism has probably been the most influential theme of twentieth century America, a myth that generally leads to placing excessive value on work and doing at the expense of the more inner and personal spheres of life. A myth that creates competition, tension, fear of failure and a predisposition to narcissistic disorders, stress, disease and depression. The heroes of our society are often singers, actors, starlets and football players, people that succeed in making it to the top, but not necessarily the people that are truly contributing to the psychological and spiritual growth of our world. There is a need for heroes that can act as role models of true human values and inner growth, to couple with the simple celebration of the rich and famous just by virtue of the status of having “made it” financially or of being “well known”.

May suggested that it was time to create new myths that could be helpful for our present condition. He suggested, for example, the value of an equality myth between men and women, to help women see the meaning of their existence independently of the relationship to their men. He also believed that it was necessary to shape myths that contained within them the notion of having to overcome or go through some sort of hell. He believed that only when we have been through hell (a personal hell, like confronting painful truths, or overcoming of blockages) we can love and live life as a community.

But what does community mean in our present and modern age? The dynamics of our society have changed significantly in the last one hundred years. The growth in population numbers and the rapid advances in technology has been such that the notion of community has expanded to include entire cities, states and nations. The notion of collectively meeting around a fire, in person, to share stories, is mostly a thing of the past. We are becoming a global village. The Internet, television and the movies are the storytellers of the contemporary western tribe.

George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars trilogy, was very aware of the role that the movies had in shaping the modern myths of our contemporary world. A student of mythology and influenced by many concepts from the work of Joseph Campbell, he set out to create a cinematographic modern myth, a “hero’s journey” for the silver screen. Lucas and Campbell were, apparently, friends and Campbell’s ideas have been recognized by many as the philosophical underpinning of the trilogy’s script.

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), probably the most famous American writer on mythology and comparative religion, was fascinated by myth since childhood and spent most of his very interesting life studying the stories and legends of cultures across the world. He wrote and taught about the nature and importance of myth to an entire generation. Campbell saw myths as archetypal stories that talked directly and powerfully to our most inner self. He observed that most myths contained the same themes and archetypal encounters. He compared the myths of the people’s of our world and concluded that most of them seemed to depict the same hero embarking on the same journey. In his book “The hero with a thousand faces” he observed that there was often a pattern in the phases of the journey of all mythical heroes.

All journeys would start with what he described as “The Call to Adventure”. The hero is unsuspectingly drawn away from his ordinary life and beckoned into the unknown, summoned, often by supernatural means, into accomplish a superhuman feat. He is drawn into alluring magical or dangerous worlds, from the ordinary to the extra-ordinary, pulled into a transformational journey. Soon the hero will enter the phase of the “Crossing of the Threshold”, a phase where it becomes clear that there will be no return, no option of turning back. The adventure, great or terrible, has truly begun. A series of initiations, trials and tribulations, of death/rebirth experiences will test the hero, helped along at times by the appearance of the “Supernatural Aid”. This is a magical form of intervention: apparitions of magicians, spirits, and fairies, mysterious signposts that encourage and guide the hero along during the most hopeless moments of the quest. Eventually the hero’s journey reaches a peak, often a battle between opposing forces, a confrontation between light and dark, human and monster, conscious and unconscious. Symbolically, from a psychological prospective, all such journeys are, of course, processes of transformation and integration of the darker aspects of one’s being. Journeys to wholeness, a process through which parts of the self are redeemed, archetypes are confronted and inner strength are built through a final fight with the Shadow. The journey usually ends with the hero returning, enriched and triumphant, carrying the proof of his feat, to the natural and normal world.

The continuing success of the Star Wars is probably a direct result of the powerfully mythological structure deliberately followed by Lucas. In the Star Wars adventure the hero’s adventure starts when Luke Skywalker retrieves by accident the partial message from Princess Leia requesting help, leading to the subsequent meeting with Obi- Wan- Kenobi. Such encounter will propel Luke on a quest larger than himself that will require him to transcend his limitations and become a greatly more expanded version of who he was, a transmutation from merely human to hero. He will develop new knowledge, acquire the supernatural powers of the “force”, be engaged in several battles with the dark forces of the Empire, culminating with the final confrontation with the ultimate evil of Darth Vadar. The discovery that Darth Vadar is his real father is an interesting twist, leading the hero to confront the root of evil within himself, shattering his definition of reality, a death of his ideas about who he is. This process is known in transpersonal psychology as an ego death, a death of the former self-concept leading to a compulsory and total redefinition of one’s being. Luke eventually wins the battle, in the outer sense as well as in his inner word, and returns, empowered and very much changed, to his community of friends with which he celebrates, completing the final phase of the hero’s journey, just as Campbell describes.

Campbell’s contribution to the subject of myth did not limit itself to the understanding of the dynamics of the hero’s quest, but extended itself also to the study of the mythological content of all religions. In his book “the Power of Myth” he writes eloquently:

"Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people's myths, not only those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts - but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message. Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. Myth tells you what the experience is."

Another interesting thinker within the field of mythology and storytelling was Bruno Bettelheim (1903-1990). Bettelheim was a child psychiatrist that was particularly interested in the role of fairytales in child development. In his book “The uses of Enchantment” he explores the role that classical fairy tales can have in the making of a young person’s psyche, helping to develop positive ego traits such as strength of character and courage. Bettleheim believed that children learnt even from some of the darker fairytales. He observed that the characters of the tales often seem to travel through a period of isolation, that the eventually overcome, where the characters engage in a hero’s quest similar to those described by Campbell. Bettelheim thought that children’s moral education could be achieved effectively through the language of fairytales and myth, as the mythical language was meaningful to them. He believed fairy tales to be expressions of our cultural heritage. As a child psychologist, he insisted that a child's preference for a certain fairy tale is a result of what the tale evokes in his conscious and unconscious mind in terms of his needs of the moment. That stories could be use as both diagnostic and healing tools. Bettelheim was a Freudian and, as such, he viewed fairytales and child development through a Freudian lens. This might not appeal to all, but the road is open for further contributions to the psychological analysis of the fairytales and the healing potential within them.

There is no denying the power of myth: it is the language of our Soul. Mythological stories remind us that our lives are meaningful and a hero’s journey in their own right. When we get in touch with our inner world in this way, we remember who we really are. We remember that we are spiritual beings moving through the quest called life on the search for the Holy Grail. We give meaning to the human experience and transcend the material world. We reconnect with our sacred essence, with the magical quality of who we truly are. Negative myths may crush us, but positive ones inspire us to do the impossible, to transcend our limitations, to dream and sore. Myth has the power to transform.

Copyright Katie Gallanti. 2003-2011. This article was first published in print as a feature for Vision Magazine, USA.


Campbell J. 1949,1973. The hero with a thousand faces. Princeton Bollinger.
Engler B. Personality theories. Houghton-Mifflin. Boston. 1999.
Konrad. The Zen of Star Wars
Psychoanalysis and the Fairytale

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