Garden of the Hesperides by Lord Leighton. A lot of myth is condensed into this picture--the triple goddess, the tree, the apples of immortality, the serpent, the island paradise. Here we have Eden, the Elysian fields, the Island of the Hesperides, and Avalon--much of what will be discussed on this site.
Although this page does include a substantial essay on the nature of myth, it is primarily an index page--the sixth index on the Meadhall site. Therefore it will have a number of buttons to other, more limited pages on a variety of mythic themes. I hesitated to use the word "archetype" in the title, fearing that it would associate this approach more closely to Jung than I would really like, but I kept it for two reasons. First, some of these essays deal with images and scenes of mythic relevance, but are not in themselves, stories. I could have called the page "Myth and the Mythic," but that does not have a good ring to it. Besides, "archetype" is a good word to catch the notice of the web crawlers that find and list sites on the search engines.
What are myths, what are they for, and what do they do? Myths "attempt to answer the enduring and fundamental human questions." I found this compact quote in a very good little book on myth, Myth and Knowing, by Scott Leondard and Michael McClure. This is very much what has been said many times before, and it is more or less true. It is, in fact, probably closer to the truth in the intentions of the writers than it is in the perception of most readers. Starting with the Greek philosophers, not long after Homer "explain" has been understood increasingly in philosophical and scientific terms. Myth does not explain in those ways, and so it would be closer to say that myth exists to "express in story form our collective perceptive of, and response to the nature of things in both the human and the natural world." How does this second statement differ from the first? In a number of ways, of course, but most importantly in that it suggests that myth does not tell us something that is new to us, but rather that it expresses a perception, however vague and fleeting, that we possess already.
Myth gains much of its authority from our sense of its rightness (though there is also a further validation in that it is typically believed that the gods are the ultimate source of a myth.) This view (or intuition) makes it clear that myth is seen as a collective possession of humanity, not merely the creation or property of the teller. The word myth comes from the Greek word muthos, which is related to the English word mouth, and which means word. Myth is something spoken, and though the poet, Hesiod speaks these words to us, he informs us in the Theogeny that they were first spoken to him by the muses, the daughters of Zeus.
Myth is a way of seeing, and since it is its own thing, and not part of any other field of knowing, it is open to being hijacked by other forms of knowing--philosophy, theology, psychology, sociology, history, literature, as well as being exploited by demagogues, idealogues, con-artists, and politicians. But it is none of these things. We do not understand astronomy by translating it into psyclology, and we do not understand myth that way either. One of the best things the "New Critics" of the twentieth
century said was that "a poem means itself." Ultimately no translation of the poem into other terms can give you an adequate sense of the poem's meaning; its meaning is in itself, not in any explanation of it. This truth is as strong, or more so, for myth, for like poetry it expresses in words perceptions for which we do not have language. Myth itself, therefore, is not fully adequate; it is a translation of a perception and an understanding into words. Therefore, we need to take myths literally, rather than try to restate them in the terms of some other field. The myth itself is a translation, one step removed from what it is expressing. If we then translate the myth into social theory or Jungian psychology, we are once removed from the myth, and twice removed from the content of the myth.
By all means look at myth through any or all of these various lenses of history, psychology, and so on. We will understand these fields better for doing so, though ultimately what is learned from history is history, and what is learned from psychology is psychology. What you learn from myth is myth. The difficulty here is that we have been taught to believe in nothing that cannot be formulated in consciously understood categories. The collectively understood is a real problem for the academic mind. No modern speaker would be entirely comfortable with the Athenian formulation, "all the laws written and unwritten," though even in the modern world some collective understanding is still recognized--there is still the British constitution.
Another tree and goddess. This tree bears the apples of immortality which, as usual, are golden. Unlike the goddesses above, this one has enough energy too get off her butt--scanty clothing in a northern climate will do that.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham for Wagner's Ring Cycle. This is the goddess Freya combined with the fruit bearing goddess, Iduna, who may also be a sesonal goddess if we can trust the poem Odens Corpsgaldr.
Myth is never as good a fit with any field as those who would use it try to pretend. See the essay, "Eve and the Apple" for an example of myth undercutting the very idealogical position it has been twisted to illustrate. Sociological approaches attempt to show myth as reinforcing and codifying social norms, yet frequently myths seem to undercut those very norms. Literature has always claimed myth, especially in the West, where both among the Greeks and the Norse the poets have had as much authority over the content of the religion as the priests have. Remember in Homer that Odyssesus spares the poet because of his sacred calling, but kills the priest without a qualm. Of course Homer has reason to be prejudiced on that matter. Still, in a Christian or Moslem or Jewish society he would have been called on the matter. But if you look at any book of even Norse or Greek myth you will see that the best and longest stories are not myths, but hero stories that contain a small mythic element, while the actual myths are short, probematic, flat in characterization, and often confusingly motivated.
At this point, we have an obvious question. How do you tell a myth from a hero story that includes gods? For one thing, if it is long, logically organized, and has the typical elements of foreshadowing, suspense, and so on, it is sure to be literature, not myth. This however, does not define; it is like saying that you recognize a poem by the fact that the lines do not come out to the end of the page. The essential difference is that in myth we are always dealing with the gods or humans in relation to the divine order. If a very primative society does not fully recognize the concept of gods, then it speaks of the first man or woman or jaguar or monkey. However, myth is always oriented toward the ultimate order of things, never toward an individual, unless that individual is a god or in some sense a representative of a kind of human or of all humans. Myth is not about the merely personal. Hero story, on the other hand is about the hero. His significance to the hearer is not his relationship to the divine world but to the merely human context. He triumphs and accomplishes, as we would like to do. Thus, when Perseus brings back the apples from the Island of the Hesperides, he has had an adventure and triumphed; the apples are the trophies of his victory. When Eve discovers that apples (or some other fruit, if you prefer) are worth getting, the business of getting them was no great feat. God's reaction, however, is quite another matter. The story from Genesis, however twisted to an anti-feminine agenda, is clearly myth; the story of Perseus, for all its mythic elements, is not.
Picture of the Norns, Norse/ Germanic goddesses of fate, by C.E. Brock, a very busy early 20th century artist, best known for his illustrations of the Jane Austin books.
Three more goddesses, busy this time, sitting at the foot of Yggdrasil, the world tree, but apparently not the tree from which Iduna picks the apples of immortality, assuming that there is a separate tree, and that she herself is not the tree.
In recent decades the psychologists have become the most popular interpreters of myth with the reading public. Jung's concept of archtypes and his complex theory of mind parts seems to fit well with myth, though for anyone who knows myth well it is hard not to cringe at the way Jung trims and squeezes a wide range of myths to make them fit into a small number of boxes. Read Jung on myth and you will get some interesting insights, but ultimately what you have is primarily not myth at all, but more Jungian psychology. Anything I have said of Jung is true in spades for his less original and less brilliant follower, Joseph Campbell, who is more a populizer than an original thinker. It is one of the virtues of Levi Strauss' ponderously written and generally unappealing essays, that Strauss at least does a careful inventory of all elements of a myth rather than immediately relegating whatever does not fit or is not immediately understandable to the category of incidental and irrelevant accretion that must have crept into the story in the telling of it.
In addition to the fact that various fields have attempted to highjack myth to their own agenda, there has also been a tendency to try to force myth into multiple variations on a single theme. Considering how grossly improbable any such theory is, one might be surprised at how regularly it is done. But actually, there are easily recognized motives. If one has an agenda, like Robert Graves in his obsession for reistablishing goddess worship (obviously Graves has sexual issues of some sort), then making all myth either a celebration of the goddess or a perversion of an earlier myth that did, he is trying to establish very deep roots for such a belief. Aside from strictly personal psychological agendas, there is also a marketing motive for giving all myth a single interpretation. The very reason that fields of knowlege develop and suddenly grow is the promise that they hold the key to ultimate understanding--not a particular and limited understanding, but a universal one, a sort of unified field theory. At the dawn of history it was mathematics and astronomy. At the end of the 18th century it was philology. More recently it was psychology. By the time people realize that ultimately a study, philology, for instance, gives you not ultimate answers, but philological answers, the field is established and can continue on its own strength. If you can show that myth not only holds the ultimate answer, but can also show what the answer is, you have it made, at least as a pop guru. Thus we get ideas such as that of the hero's journey from Joseph Campbell as the ultimate subject of myth. Actually, I worked out pretty much the same pattern a number of years ago, and called it "the chained maiden myth," or alternately the "making a man" myth. Campbell's version has obvious advantages--it lets everyone be a hero, and it is not sexually specific, both good selling points. But the fact is, some myths are sexually specific, and though the myth is expressed through heroic action, your parallel journey is only what the vast majority of males do complete successfully. If everyone is a hero, then no one is. My real complaint, however, is not the selling of myth as motivational pop psychology, but the idea that something so large can be explained in such radically reductive terms.
Yggdrasil again, this time an icon for modern followers of Norse/Germanic religion carved by Paul Borda. This remarkable work was originally carved from mahogany, but has been reproduced in resin.
Here we have the world tree again in more elaborated form. The Norns are standing at the foot of the tree. Odin, hanged from the tree, is reaching out to grasp the runes. The goddess, Hel is in her realm beneath the roots, seated with a skull on her lap. At the foot of the tree is the dragon, Nidhogg, gnawing at the roots.
At the top is the eagle, and between is the squirrel, Ratatosk who carries news and gossip between them. On the left is Asgard with the rainbow bridge, and on the right, the well of Mimir and Mimir's severed head.
Creating theories of myth is not a new thing. Perhaps the oldest theory is that of Euhemeros (3rd and 4th century B.C.), which explains myth as the deification through exaggeration of great figures from the past. This idea has remained very strongly with us to the present, less with scholars than with the general public, and is reinforced by the fact that historical figures are, in fact, sometimes drawn into mythic patterns, and sometimes actual events do echo mythic structures. As a theory, it ignores the fact that the case is nearly as often the reverse--mythic figures are reduced from deities to the status of historical figures--King Lear in England for example. Snorri does the same with Odin and the other gods in the Prose Edda.
Another old theory that has had an even wider impact is that myth is merely bad science. Before Neitzsche's "Will to Power," we have the belief that man's innate "will to astronomer" or "will to physicist" produced this mass of bad science called myth. This idea has a particularly strong appeal to scientists, first because it strokes their egos, and second because many of them have a tin ear when it comes to myth. The other side of the coin, often expressed, was the idea that maybe myth was better because science is cold and unappealing while myth feeds the imagination. We see this idea expressed frequently in the 19th century when technological advances were making great transformations in the way people lived and thought.
We find this view expressed in Wordsworth's "The World is too Much with Us," and more interestingly in Dickens' novel, Hard Times. In the latter work the circus, along with all expressions of creative imagination including myth, is set up against the "School of Hard Facts," an utilitarian model school for the children of Coketown, a new industrial city. The idea that imagination is important because imagination is a kind of recreational nutrition is commonplace enough, but it gets more interesting in the school scene in which the daughter of the horse trainer from the circus cannot define a horse, to the scorn of those who run the school. The star pupil then shows off his expertise, which is rather impressive coming straight from memory: "Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth" . . . and on and on. To which the founder and sponsor of the school adds, "Now girl number twenty, you know what a horse is." Obviously Dickens is going beyond the idea of recreation to a concept of knowing which suggests that there is more than one kind of knowing, and that one cannot "know" in a humanly meaningful sense by accumulating facts, something that Levi Strauss seems to miss in his otherwise interesting and instructive cumulative patterns of myth. Dickens, unfortunately, does not follow through quite as well as one could wish. Or maybe he does, but certainly not at the conscious level.
This essay, however, is doing what I desperately did not want it to do--get long, since is merely an introductory note to an index page, so I will cut to my final consideration, which I think is essential to all the rest. It is a question. If myth is basic to the human mind, and humans are by nature makers of myth, what are the myths we have been making? First, myth is under considerable handicap and suspicion in the modern world. First is the assault of the natural sciences and of the social "sciences" which has typically been hostile to any kind of knowing except its own, and which has done much to condition the modern mind against mythic thought. Second is the idealogically predatory Christian church which has been bent on destroying all myths but its own sparse, but intensely held versions. Thus our myths tend to be filtered through first literature, and more recently other media, so that they are not immediately obvious. I will mention several modern myths that I have noticed.
One of the oldest of the modern myths is the myth of Faustus. This one starts in the Rennaissance with a work called the Faustbook, a popular and sensationalizing account of a German magician. It was introduced into literature by Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, and raised to the position of a major work of western literature by Goethe's Faust. An opera followed, and then various plays and films that either do the story straight, or take off from it, like Damn Yankees, and many others. The popularity of the theme is nearly as great as ever, but the increasing triviality of the versions suggests its decline as a major myth. What makes this a myth rather than just literature? Aside from its metaphysical resonance, the fact that there is not a standard text; it transcends every telling, and is told over and over. The content was not brand new even in the Renaissance, but the sudden powerful demand of too conflicting and absolute claims brought it to the fore. First was the Renaissance, with its discovery of all things the world has to offer, so well celebrated in not just this play of Marlowe's, but in all of Marlowe's plays, and second, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, a huge religious revival which devalued all things earthly. The story of the man who sells his soul to the devil to achieve his earthly desires is the mythic expression of that tension. As Christianity slowly loses its hold on the western world, the myth loses its urgency, for some myths are more vital to a particular period or culture than others.
Another mythic theme, somewhat newer, and more literary in origin is Frankenstein. This too has roots in other myths but is an especially potent crystalization of of a mythic theme important to the modern world--that of knowledge overreaching itself, a real danger in a world that can now destroy itself in several possible ways through its science and technology. Mary Shelley's original work is barely literature; the style is bad, the dialogue is stilted, the characters are flat, the plot is mostly plodding, and even the ideas are not entirely consistent or coherent. The book was not a huge seller, yet there was shortly a play. It became a film almost as soon as moviemaking began. The first Frankenstein film, the famous one with Boris Karloff was, I think, actually the third film version to be made. And it continues to be made. There are spinoffs, such as Bride of Frankenstein, and takeoffs from it such as The Man with the Atom Brain, and countless others. The story has taken on a life of its own, so much so, that the destruction of every copy of the original novel would have little bearing on the story's continued life. Appropriately, the story began with a dream--in other words, from a point deeper than consciousness. That the time called it forth is shown by Nathaniel Hawthorne's related short story, The Brithmark. Here too we have the austere scientist whose purity is ultimately life-denying, the beautiful young wife, and the experiments into "more than man was meant to know." One thing Hawthorne has that Shelley misses is the scientist's alter ego, the hunchbacked dwarf that represents earthly nature, and which in the story has the last laugh, in fact, ends the story with his laugh. That this is a part of the myth, however, is shown by the films generating the character of Igor, who later plays so dynamic a role in Mel Brookes' Young Frankenstein.
There are several other themes I meant to discuss, but this is long enough, and more than long enough now, and so I will drop it and get on to what this page was intended to do, provide links to other pages relevant to the discussion of myth. The number will increase as pages are added.
Links to pages elsewhere on the meadhall site.
I had to get around to this eventually, of course.