A Method in Comparative Mythology
A definition of mythology.
Professor Joseph Campbell gave us some profound insights in his writings about mythology. After he died in 1987, there grew up a fascination with his ideas of ‘depth psychology’ however, this is a lighter reading of the importance of his writings. The real treasure of his work lies in his understanding of myth as something which operates within the minds of humanity at all times, even now.
Campbell had opened the door into the subject of Comparative Mythology in a way no other writer had previously done. In many ways, this American Professor of Literature became a storyteller more than an academic and in his narrations, he peeled away the masks of god to reveal our humanity. What made his work special was his perception and understanding of the intellectual architecture of myth.
A method is a set of structured approaches to the study. This is why any serious study in any subject has to use a method in its approach to learning. For method in the study of Comparative Mythology, Campbell provides the foundations. In his work, “The Masks of God”, he lays out key ideas which should be the bedrock of our approach.
Campbell’s legacy is to be found not just in his books, interviews and other writings, he had a large impact on the popular culture of television and film. Creative artists in any media of storytelling recognised the fundamental nature of Joseph Campbell’s understanding of myth and not just how it is constructed but why it is necessary to the human psyche.
Film directors such as George Lucas are on record crediting Campbell with his rightful place as an inspiration to Hollywood in the 70s and 80s. Having some scripting issues with his movie “Star Wars”, Lucas turned to Campbell personally to seek a more substantive myth structure behind the film.
Strangely, within the academic world, the work of this established Professor remains mostly unknown. In elite universities the word mythology is always a subordinate and somewhat ragged term playing in a much lower division than the ideas of anthropology, psychology, sociology and philosophy are held in. An interest in mythology is almost seen to be a subject for the hobbyist against the learned investigation into ‘belief systems’. Campbell, however much he is unread by academics, showed that mythology has a power which should not be ignored.
The use of the word mythology to be used in these podcasts is inspired by Campbell. This is an understanding of the term based on a knowledge of its operation in the human psyche, history and perceived realities. A definition which provides the basis for an understanding which can then be applied in the study of Comparative Mythology.
Definition: Mythology is an interpretation of the experience of reality, expressed in a language of metaphor, which explains to the individual and the group, the ground of their being and the universal state of being within which they exist.
In this definition, we can start to grasp why this subject of Comparative Mythology carries so much momentum.
As a study, it covers the whole of the human experience. This further questions why it is placed in such a minority. What is it about this subject which sees it the servant of purportedly greater masters?
We can leave such questions to one side as we focus more on a method which brings another ingredient to the perception of human life. We are looking to fashion another tool of thinking to set upon the workbench of thinking.
Once we use our definition of mythology, a new perspective opens up to our investigations. This new vista exposes what Campbell saw as the two fundamental questions which shape human life. In these two questions, we are then able to provide the definition with its terms of reference when we are applying it our investigations.
Campbell saw two fundamental riddles behind the creation of mythology.
Question 1: What are you?
Question 2: Where are you?
These are seemingly innocent questions easily answered but their depth is camouflaged by our reluctance to look reality in the face.
If we ask what we are then we are faced with the question of describing what exactly our consciousness is. No-one has ever been able to describe that in definitive terms.
What is that isolated being which exists, apparently, between our ears? No doubt psychologists have descriptions, brain surgeons can suggest ideas but all we have are vague sketches none of which can define your experience of being you. You exist but are not your toe-nails, you think and feel but you are not your arms and legs, you are your own mystery which only becomes apparent if you sit down and think about it.
Even more pronounced is the mystery of where we are. No-one can describe what the universe is definitively. Beyond any doubt, no-one can or ever will be able to say where exactly the universe is, what it exists within or what lays beyond it. In our current state of supposed knowledge, we cannot even make a statement as to what 95% of the universe is made of. Our level of understanding is an understanding of 4.9% of a universe, that which isn’t so-called dark matter or dark energy, whose location and situation we have absolutely no idea about. If you sit down and start to think about where we are on a profound level you will find that you simply cannot say.
In these two questions, we discover that we do not know what we are and we do not know where we are. For the tender and delicate psyche of the human mind, this lack of self-knowledge can produce dangerous psychosis and mental collapse. When our early ancestors started to sit down and think about these questions the delicate human psyche became threatened. As thinking was the survival strategy developed within the human-animal, these two questions brought into existence a new threat to survival, a threat no other animal had encountered.
The very engine of survival, thinking, was the threat to that survival and this paradox could only be solved by creative thinking. We had to create answers, we had to manufacture solutions to insoluble problems, we had to mythologise. We created, in the language of metaphor, stories which we could accept and invest belief into, we had to create mythologies in order to survive. Mythologies themselves are our main survival strategy once we have learnt to think.
Again we come across the problem of looking seriously at this process of mythology and re-evaluating the term and the way we study it.
These two key questions, the two mysteries of our existence remain unanswered today except by mythologies. Therefore, any position which claims to have answers to these essential issues must be a position of mythology.
As they remain unanswered today, how much of what we think we know today is mythology?
How can we possibly describe psychology, for example, when we cannot define the basis of that psychology; ourselves?
How much of what we do in science is just a description of the waves on the surface of the water but has nothing to say about what the ocean is?
How much do we hide the inadequacies of our modern mythologies within our social power structures and defend them as ‘truths’ because we can describe them as such sociologically?
There can be no doubt that psychology has value and to dismiss it all as mythology would be incorrect if not inappropriate. However, our problem here is to change the way we look at the term mythology and the challenge is to accept that our understanding of our reality is mythology.
Psychology, Sociology, Physics and all the noble branches of learning exist within a mythology and the problem with this is that we can see as real and substantial that which is momentary and fleeting.
The very power structures we build and the politics we create exist to give purpose to our lives in a reality in which we do not know what we are or where we are other than through mythology.
We substantiate our lives with these edifices of order and we believe them to be substantial. They are not. They are merely the containers which our psyches of the moment find acceptable. They are safe harbours for those frightened by the two questions.
Two thousand years ago the Greek civilisation believed in the Gods and their workings behind the realities of everyday life. If you stood in the Athens of that time and told them it was all mythology then they would think you were mad.
Today, if you tell people that what they believe to be real is mythology then would they think you are mad?
Two thousand years from now, in 4020, how much of what we call psychology now will be seen as mythology? Two thousand years from now, in 4020, how much of what we call science now will be seen as mythology?
Two thousand years from now, in 4020, what mythologies will humans be creating to solve the riddle of the two questions?
Mythology as a concept is time-locked; we seek to trap the process of mythologisation in the past and not make it part of our present.
Even if we see it in the present we rarely see it as a process in our own lives, it is only a process for the ignorant. This time-locking of mythology as an operation in the past is what helps to protect our psyche in the present. We remain ignorant of our mythologies now because the two questions remain unanswered. In our times of enlightenment, we cannot allow ourselves our ignorance.
How much greater ignorance is there than to be unable to describe what you are and where you are?
Only when human beings answer these two questions can we escape the need to mythologise. That will never happen. Therefore, not only are we discovering that our ability to create myths, mythogenisis, is not about the past but we are also realising that we are filled with mythologies now and, as the questions can never be answered, mythology is also our future.
As a sage of the Middle Ages said, it is not possible for you to describe something greater than yourself. In this knowledge lies fear and fear is something we naturally fight against, we try not to go to dark places, we try to stay safe in the group. To be safe within the group we have to have shared beliefs, we have to be mythologising together.
As with the paradox in the thinking engine for survival also being the biggest threat to survival, here we find the paradox about mythology.
Though we need mythology to survive and create a stable environment in which our psyche can flourish, we can never admit it is a mythology because to do so leaves that psyche exposed and vulnerable.
In such a situation perhaps we can see why Comparative Mythology is not an undergraduate course at any university in the world.
This is the end of part one of Mythology as Method. In part two we will start to consider some of the structure of mythology to create a method for understanding. That will come in a later podcast.
Mythologies Podcast, you won’t believe it!