Welcome to my blog---an eyes-open, no-holds-barred exploration of Western and Eastern spirituality, mindfulness, philosophy and literature. A member of the Australian and New Zealand Mental Health Association, I lectured at the NSW Institute of Psychiatry to mental health workers for 14 years and also lectured for 16 years at the University of Technology, Sydney. My interests include the psychology of religion, transformative ritual, mythology and addiction recovery.
Friday, February 7, 2014
THE TRANSFORMATIVE POWER OF MYTH IN OUR LIVES
‘... a mythology is a control system, on the one hand
framing its community to accord with an intuited order of nature and, on the
other hand, by means of its symbolic pedagogic rites, conducting individuals
through the ineluctable psychophysiological stages of transformation of a human
lifetime -- birth, childhood and adolescence, age, old age, and the release of
death -- in unbroken accord simultaneously with the requirements of this world
and the rapture of participation in a manner of being beyond time.’ Joseph Campbell.
A few decades ago
there was a movement in Christian theology the aim of which was to de-mythologize the Bible. The movement
was right in one key respect---the Bible, like all so-called holy books, is
full of myth, from the very first page to the very last. However, the movement
sought to ‘move’ in the wrong direction, and was not very successful. What we need
to do is re-mythologize the
Bible, not de-mythologize it. Ditto all other so-called holy books.
At the heart of every
religion---and not just at the heart but all through it---is … myth! We need
myth to learn, grow, evolve, and function successfully as human beings. If
religion is to be taught in schools at all---assuming that it is lawful so to do---then it
needs to be taught as literature and myth … for that is what it is.
According to the
American mythographer Joseph Campbell [pictured left] all myths, indeed all
story-telling, folk traditions and ritual practices, share certain common
themes. More particularly, Campbell asserted that all such things could be
understood in terms of what he described as the ‘hero myth’ (and what he referred
to as the ‘monomyth’). Indeed, Campbell tended to construe all religions as ‘misunderstood
mythologies’ Campbell 1986; see also Adler 1990:58-9), and saw the principal
function of mythology as well as ritual as the ‘supply [of] the symbols that
carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those other constant human
fantasies that tend to tie it back’ (Campbell  1990:11). According to
is apparently coeval with mankind. As far back, that is to say, as we have been
able to follow the broken, scattered, earliest evidences of the emergence of
our species, signs have been found which indicate that mythological aims and
concerns were already shaping the arts and world of Homo sapiens. Such
evidences tell us something, furthermore, of the unity of our species, for the
fundamental themes of mythological thought have remained constant and
universal, not only throughout history, but also over the whole extent of
mankind’s occupation of the earth.
(1986:145-6) has written, rather esoterically, about the importance of myth:
Myth is not a complicated way of talking
about something perfectly simple like gathering the last sheaf for next year’s
planting, or a sort of fancy-dress version of astronomy. It is the simplest and the most forceful
language for talking about what is obscure about life - its Sacred Hidden
Depths. The most profound human
experiences which rouse feelings of stupendous awe and wonder, and which come
in flashes of inspiration that leave a trace for the rest of your life and mark
many other lives besides, these are the subject matter of myth and cannot be
expressed in another way except through a mythical perspective on Nature, Body,
Culture, Sky, Pattern, Number, any or all of which will do, so long as none of
them is taken literally but are seen from the perspective of Soul.
In almost all of the
world’s religions one finds fairly similar myths of creation, the flood, and so
forth. Then there is the myth of the dying and rising god, which is common to a
number of religions and religious philosophies. These myths and common motifs,
although not in themselves historical, are nevertheless ‘poetic expressions of
… transcendental seeing’ (Campbell 1973:31). The Canadian author, broadcaster and theologian Tom Harpur (2004:17) has written:
As [Joseph] Campbell repeatedly made clear in
his many books and in the interviews with [Bill] Moyers, the deepest truths
about life, the soul, personal meaning, our place in the universe, our struggle
to evolve to higher levels of insight and understanding, and particularly the
mystery we call God can be described only by means of a story (mythos) or a
ritual drama. The myth itself is fictional, but the timeless truth it expresses
is not. As Campbell puts it, ‘Myth is what never was, yet always is.’
In addition to myths,
there are stories, often associated with a charismatic leader such as Jesus,
Buddha or Muhammad who is regarded as ‘ideal’, setting an example as to how
followers are to live their lives. The stories commonly involve very similar
patterns of behaviour. History and myth often coalesce into what Joseph Campbell
(1973:26) refers to as ‘themes of the imagination’, but care must be exercised
here. As the late Ninian Smart (1992:15) points out:
… These stories often are called myths. The term may be a bit misleading, for in the
context of the modern study of religion there is no implication that a myth is
(1987:389) opined that the common theme of all mythology was ‘achievement’, in
particular, the achievement of a supreme good (whether that be eternal life,
universal justice, enlightenment or whatever). In his view, mythology had a fourfold function: to relate the individual to God, to the cosmos, to society and to
developmental energies (Cousineau 1990:162).
Joseph Campbell (1988:70) wrote:
myths and rites were means of putting the mind in accord with the body and the
way of life in accord with the way that nature dictates.
wrote that myth served certain additional functions, such as the following. First, myth enables individuals and communities to address and overcome
psychological stresses by arousing hitherto dormant energies (Campbell
1987:370). Secondly, myth validates and assists in the maintenance of social systems
(Cousineau 1990:165). Thirdly, myth
assists persons to find their place in the universe (Campbell 1987:4) and to
discern and engage the source of the phenomenological (Cousineau 1990: 167).
And what of the transformative power of myth? As the Canadian academic and environmental activist David Suzuki
(1997:185) points out, myth is essentially curative and unifying in its
Myths help us to reconcile conflicts and contradictions and
describe a coherent reality. They make a meaning that holds the group together
and express a set of beliefs; even in our skeptical society, we live by myths
that lie so deep we believe them to be reality.
myth, properly understood, is real, not imaginary. The Unitarian Universalist
minister Mike Young (1999:Online) has spoken of the experiential reality of
myth and its importance:
Campbell has rescued the concept of myth. When I was a youngster a myth was
clearly something that was not true. What Campbell kept reminding us was that
myths are not not true. For myths
are not about how things are out there, even though that may be the
vocabulary of the story. Myths are about how things are in here. They
have their roots in the human experience.
They are part of who we are inside as a species, not just as individuals
but as a people. During the period of our history when we came into existence
as conscious entities, we Homo sapiens existed in self-contained groups.
Today we live in a world where the horizons are far, far more vast.
A Masonic writer
(Swick 1996:74-5), invoking the Masonic legend of Hiram Abiff, has compellingly
articulated the dramatic and transformative power of myth in the lives of
It is the lucky man who realizes early on that there
is a way in which he, himself, is our Grand Master Hiram Abiff. When revelation
of this sublime truth comes to the individual, it may strike him with a great
force, making him dead to all that has gone before. We are the myth! And the
lives of the great ones who have preceded us, are our lives, if we but choose
to have it so! As we seek to walk the path they have walked, we become Adam, we
become Abraham, we become Hiram. Their
stories belong to us - and their lives are our lives; for the truth of their
lives is the truth of human existence.
Yes, indeed. Lucky is the person who, rooted in and fully cognizant
of the mythological be-ing-ness of their own nature, knows that they are … myth! So, live the myth that you
are. Live it fully. Yes, you---the
hero with a thousand faces.
Adler, M J 1990. Truth
in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth. New York:
Campbell, J 
1990. The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
Campbell, J 1973. Myths
to Live By. New York: Viking.
Campbell, J 1986. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor
as Myth and as Religion. New York: HarperCollins.
Campbell, J 1987. The
Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. New York: Penguin.
J 1988. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday.
Chetwynd, T 1986. A Dictionary of Sacred Myth. London:
Cousineau, P (ed) 1990. The
Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work. San Francisco: Harper
Harpur, T 2004. The Pagan Christ: Is Blind Faith Killing
Christianity? Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Smart, N 1992. The World’s Religions: Old Traditions and
Modern Transformations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Suzuki, D (with A McConnell)
1997. The Sacred Balance:
Rediscovering Our Place in Nature. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Swick III, J S 1996. ‘Veiled in Allegory and Illustrated by
Symbols: An Invitation to a Deeper Appreciation of Masonic Teaching’, The
Philalethes Magazine, Vol XLIX No 3, June 1996, 74-5.
1999. ‘Myth and Modernity’
[sermon: First Unitarian Church of Honolulu HI, December 12 1999], viewed April
5 2005, <http://home.hawaii.rr.com/uuchurch/sermons/myth.htm>.