A Method in Comparative Mythology

As a study or discipline, Comparative Mythology is seen as a dusty, ramshackle approach to learning generally favoured by those with lesser ability at applying rigour to their work. Mythology as a term is relegated to a vague subset of the more academic ‘belief systems’ and left in a wilderness of obscure or fanciful comprehensions. Whereas Comparative Religion is available as a degree course, Comparative Mythology, as a degree, is not available at any university in the world. This disparity may seem to be little more than tautological, however, as all religions are mythologies but not all mythologies are religions, there appears to be a strong case for examining and questioning the obvious hierarchical issue here.

There are further grounds for re-examining the subject of Comparative Mythology and its pedagogical condition. In this first definition of a methodology for the subject, the aim is to fund dynamic debate leading to growth more than to describe a school of thought. An Academy of Comparative Mythology, as attractive and compelling an idea such an institution would present, is a proposal which would inevitably face strong resistance from numerous intellectual strongholds of power and therefore is an objective far beyond the capacity of this small work. Here we are looking for a deeper understanding regarding the place of mythology in our lives and an argument for an increase in its presentation as a serious subject of learning.

Mythology as a subject has the potential to re-shape our understanding of humanity and human history. The problem the subject faces is one of timing in the most profound sense. This word mythology usually carries with it a pre-conditional clause which confines its understanding very much in the past, rarely, or appropriately, in the present and never in the future. Most human beings, even academics, find it hard to believe that how they construct their world today is a process of mythology. Mythology is about the past, it was what primitive or ignorant people did, at best it was how the Greeks and Romans saw the world, they mythologised gods and a universe based on a lack of understanding. We of today do not mythologise, we have facts and certainties and we know more about our world than ever before, our beliefs are founded on knowledge, not mythology. Even fundamentalists, holding archaic books aloft, state clearly that their beliefs are factual not mythological.

This time locked perspective cannot make any intellectual sense and presents the first stand of resistance to a more complete understanding of mythology. People do not like to question their beliefs and for a very good reason. If you undermine a person’s beliefs you are not only undermining their psyche but also the power structures they buy into and construct their world within. Whether a fundamentalist in religion or an academic of learning, you are more likely to defend your mythology rather than to question it. Therefore it becomes even more important to try and build as strong a case for the re-evaluation of mythology as a term, an understanding and a practice whilst seeking to create responsible debate.

A definition of mythology.

In the work of Professor Joseph Campbell there lies some profound insights which are buried in his writings. After his death there grew up a fascination with ideas of ‘depth psychology’ however, this is a lighter reading of the import of his writings. Campbell had opened the door into the subject of Comparative Mythology in a way no other writer had previously done. In many ways, he became a storyteller more than an academic and in his narrations he peeled away the masks of god to reveal humanity. In this construction of a methodology, a set of structured approaches to the study, for Comparative Mythology, Campbell provides the foundations. In many senses, this work is about placing Campbell’s legacy in the centre of the study and enable the possibility of building the subject’s architecture.

The definition of the word mythology to be used here is pure 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 own 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?

Many learned people will suggest that this subject is adequately covered in anthropology or sociology or psychology and any other number of established departments of thinking. Perhaps suggestions will be made that this is merely about belief systems. None of these positions are inaccurate but we are searching here for something more than just an adequate cover of the subject. However, we are not looking to compete with or against other structures of learning. In the business of academic thinking, there is as much political requirement as there is intellectual standard and our higher education systems now exist within a fiercely competitive environment. That is as it is and nothing in this work seeks to challenge that or compete with it. The viewpoint of this methodology is to bring another ingredient to the perception of human life, to create another tool of thinking to be set upon the workbench.

Once we apply the definition of mythology proposed here a new perspective opens up to our investigations. This new vista exposes what Campbell saw as the two fundamental questions which shape the human life. These two questions now provide the definition with its terms of reference when we are applying it our investigations.

The two questions.

The human animal, a member of the family of Great Apes, distinguishes itself from all other animals on the planet in one obvious and highly visible manner.

In the process of evolution, the human animal set off on a pathway of development in which the growth of cognitive powers was ‘preferred’ over the development of physical form. This survival strategy meant that by using thinking and perception the human animal could outpace other life forms which responded to environmental change by adapting their physical form.

When faced with cold landscapes we didn’t grow fur or store blubber, we skinned other animals and wore their fur, we lit fires and we built shelters. The deviation of the human animal from the history of other animal forms lies in the fact that we adapt the environment to our needs, we don’t adapt our bodies to the needs of the environment. There are exceptions within the human animal experience, such as Himalayan populations adapting to environments lacking density of oxygen, but in the balance of things, it is completely accurate to say this is the dominant difference.

As a survival strategy, the choice of cognitive development has been extremely successful. Human beings are everywhere. They have even managed to survive in the absolute hostility of space towards the existence of life. Such a level of successful survival has been predicated on an ability to perceive in a way other life forms either do not or simply cannot equal. Whilst mammals such as whales and dolphins demonstrate high levels of perception, they can only be said to be our equal when you come across them living in the Himalayas or building themselves armour to protect their bodies from harpoons. Our Great Ape cousins are also capable of great empathy and insights, they have advanced communication skills but not one of them can create a fire. Our thoughtful survival mechanism has clearly set us apart from all of the other animals in a very clear and distinct manner.

Creating or producing such a successful strategy has one particular and painful drawback. The human animal can perceive itself, its world and its own mortality in complex and profound ways. Whilst the shell in which the consciousness formed is durable and reasonably tough, the human psyche which developed alongside the strategy for survival is a tender entity and travels on a rough road which can easily damage it. The price of our survival strategy is to leave ourselves open to the dangers of psychosis. In the engine of being, our brain, exists the power of our own personal destruction. We have to constantly balance that engine so it runs smoothly if it starts to cough or splutter, if the timing goes out, then the whole thing can fatally implode.

As perception grows the risk of damage to the human psyche increases. This leads us to the two questions which Campbell saw as fundamental to the riddle 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 own 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 own consciousness is. No-one has ever been able to describe that in definitive terms. What that isolated being is which exists, apparently, between our ears is a complete mystery to us. 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.

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.

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. Consequently, as the survival strategy developed within the human animal, it brought into existence a new threat to survival, a threat no other animal had encountered. The very engine of survival 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.

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. If mythology, the ability to mythologise, is essential to the survival of human beings then why is it not a core subject at universities? And also, again, there will no doubt be responses that all of the questions raised here are adequately dealt with by other subjects. However, can we not see that the reduction of the term mythology to a subordinate position and its replacing by other terms, such as belief systems, creates an obscurity and impinges on our vision? In the work here to reveal a more comprehensive understanding of this term mythology, are we not also opening up other questions and perspectives which then assist and support different approaches to learning?

These two key questions, the two mysteries of our own existence remain unanswered today. If they remain unanswered today then how much of what we do today is actually mythology? How can we possibly describe psychology 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 actually 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 a mythology. Psychology, Sociology, Physics and all the noble branches of learning exist within a mythology and the problem with that is that in our very humanity 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. 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 what they believe to be real is actually mythology then they think you are mad. Two thousand years from now, in 4018, how much of what we call psychology now will be seen as mythology? Two thousand years from now, in 4018, how much of what we call science now will be seen as mythology? Two thousand years from now, in 4018, what mythologies will humans be creating to solve the riddle of the two questions?

In this time lock associated with the term mythology, 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. 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. As a sage of the Middle Ages said, it is not possible for you to describe something which is 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. In order to be safe within the group we have to have shared beliefs, we have to be mythologising together.

This is the context in which the definition of the term ‘mythology’ is understood in this work. We are all creating mythology, most of our language in relation to our reality is metaphorical, all of our understanding of how we relate to ourselves and each other is metaphorical, our daily lives and the structures we exist within are metaphorical, until we can answer the two questions it cannot be any other way. The alternative is that our whole world, our view of it and our understandings of ourselves and our groups is an objective truth and that we pursue life honestly and with complete integrity. No doubt many people think exactly this about the fidelity of their world as they sit on a train or a bus, or drive a car and face the traffic to get into work. They will not be challenged by any idea that it is all a mythology. Such a challenge could threaten their survival.

As with the paradox of the 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.