Mythology and the Human Psyche-Spirit, Part I

The following is the first part of an on-going dialogue concerning myth, the human psyche, spirit, all within the context of revolt in the modern world. All responses and critiques are welcome.

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“Shake a rattle that sounds like falling rain, and rain will presently fall. Celebrate a ritual of sexual intercourse, and the fertility of nature will be furthered. An image in the likeness of an enemy, and given the enemy’s name, can be worked upon, stuck with pins, etc., and the enemy will die. Or a piece of his clothing, lock of hair, fingernail paring, or other element once in contact with his person can be treated with a like result.”

When delving into the deep realms of psychology, we’re discussing a relatively recent articulation of phenomena as a scientific inquiry. Nerves and electric impulses can only explain a mere fraction of this phenomenon, which is as much non-physical as it is physical. Psychology is, in this sense, a clinical term for the human spirit. The spirit, by this definition, responds to rituals and rites in immense ways, as shown by Carl Jung’s archetypes of the psyche, and Joseph Campbell’s exploration of inner psychological development in relation to mythology. What the latter posits is that something important happens in us when directed by stories, and what we learn from them is not from an intellectual study or analysis of them, but from a belief in the stories themselves. 

Mythologies occur amongst all people, and have likely always manifested among our species since at least the evolutionary move into the Homo sapien state. It is as much a part of us as our physical bodies and our capacity for language. It changes almost automatically and organically with the changes of collective reality. Notably, the centralizing transition to agricultural society was matched with a centralizing of myth into religious doctrines. As mythology in part serves to reinforce our collective reality, one drastic change had to occur with the change from spiritual animism to institutional religion, hunting-gathering to sedentary agricultural farming, lying in the basis of ethics. The former ethic is one of existing within a space without destroying it, horizontal social fabric, and a gift economy, the latter distinguishing itself mostly by the necessary (in the eyes and interests of civilization) justification of hierarchy and “progress”. The myths of hunter-gatherers could never create space for hierarchical organization, so the mythological structure itself was shifted in suit, erasing the former. Those in power had to explain why, for the first time, some people were being given more economic stability than others. Inclusion of the Progress myth was strong enough to play a role in propelling independent cultures beyond simple farming, as the strife individuals were then facing could not be rationalized except by the promise of a future (we see this reflected in civilized religions, that promise salvation after a loyal servile life), and as power prevailed in these transformations, it is likely that they were challenged and resisted by free-spirited people every step of the way.

As agricultural society transitioned to industrial society under the myth of Progress, individuals lost their agency in the workings of the world. Where once there was magic to generate rain, healing, etc., prayer became the practice by which the individual pleas for the things they need, stripped of nearly all personal influence. It may be no surprise then that, disconnected from more traditional spiritual practices, civilization’s mode of regaining agency took a much uglier form, the systematic control of all of the earth’s processes, abandoning the interplay between human and nonhuman and taking the route of total dominion.

As dreams act to direct us if we pay attention to them, so do myths. In psychology, myth is regarded as “public dreams” and dreams as “private myth” [Myths to Live By, Campbell p.14].

“Our outward-oriented consciousness, addressed to the demands of the day, may lose touch with these inward forces; and the myths states Jung, when correctly read, are the means to bring us back in touch. They are telling us in picture language of powers of the psyche to be recognized and integrated forever, and which represent that wisdom of the species by which man has weathered the millenniums. Thus they have not boon, and can never be, displaced by the findings of science, which relate rather to the outside world than to the depths that we enter in sleep“ [14-15].”

Our psyches go through many changes throughout our lives. Most notable are those of adolescence, puberty, and early adulthood, although significant changes exceed well into one’s elder years. The structure provided by myth acts as the driving force in one’s understanding of the challenges of the individual within a context. These inner dilemmas are represented by the characters and stories of myths, and projected into our thoughts to metabolize and digest. Jungian archetypes are simply reflections of the different personal tendencies of human mentality that we inhabit necessarily in an ever-changing context, demanding ever-changing adaptability, and the stories we find ourselves in help us reconcile the reality of life and death itself. In the Paleolithic era, humans were surrounded more so by nonhumans than by individuals of their own species (outside of one’s band, of course), and their myths are often non-human based, accordingly, establishing value in those beings, in-and-of-themselves. Mythology after this time is more anthropocentric, establishing value in humans above nonhumans.

Developmental psychology shows that humans learn to balance the seemingly opposite concepts of “the individual” and “the social”, into a wisdom of cohesion between them. The role of reintegrating the individual into one’s context, which was once the ecological world of our ancestors is, in post-agricultural society, transferred to the metropolis, the State. What was giving support to your friends and kin and land so that they can continue to support you develops into a dependent-growing allegiance to State support and positions of power, nationalism and patriotism. As the humans surrounding us becomes more and more amassed, indiscernible, and impersonal, mediated by hyper-technological communication and simulated electronic experience, our psyches become confused and collapse into themselves. This lies at the crux of the modern pathology. The idea of the social that one contributes to withers entirely, and the individual undergoes a process of hyper-individuation. People have begun to take the “existence of their supporting social orders for granted, and instead of aiming to defend and maintain the integrity of the community have begun to place at the center of concern the development and protection of the individual [p.24]”, a change in dynamics that makes our current mythologies unclear as they’ve yet to completely reform to this reality. This ultimately equates to a new loss, that of the intentionally social act, something that has been cut off from any sort of life-affirming quality since the advent of the State.

Without a mythology that reconciles this, the modern subject is prone to destruction, and in the eyes of those resisting Capital and civilization, this is a positive direction. But the disarray that our spirit-psyche experiences is lost in this negative space, prone not simply to the destruction of power and the controlling forces of our lives, but the unfocused lashing out of the unanchored child archetype, prone just as must to cruelty and the reproduction of the hierarchical behaviors and relations it has so completely been emerged in since birth. By this understanding, the rejection of a reconciling mythology is necessary, but the rejection of mythology altogether equates to the unabashed destruction not only of civilization, but ecology, human and nonhuman life, and the possibility of an autonomous life-affirming existence. For this reason, the telling of stories and the creation of myths that position themselves against the dominant order and integrate modes of autonomous life and the necessity of resistance is so important for those struggling today.

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