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"Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, the arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep all boil up from the basic magic ring of myth." — Joseph Campbell
For purposes of this monograph I will be using the word "Myth" or its study, "Mythology" in place of the word Religion for basically I believe that all religions are a mythology, the story of what it means to be human. It is what we humans use to connect us with the spiritual.
Joseph Campbell an American Mythologist and writer believed that all spirituality was a search for a fundamental and yet unknown force from which everything has come and in which everything exists, and to which everything will return. He believed that religions were but individual masks for the same transcendent truth(s). One of these truths is that all religions seek to elevate mankind above the dualistic conception of reality—transcending good and evil, being and non-being, right and wrong.
"Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names."
(The Hero with a Thousand Faces)
Campbell pointed out that, "Mythology is often thought of as other people's religions, and religion can be thought of as misinterpreted mythology."
Because the essence of man, the One, the Spirit cannot be fully knowable, we speak of it in metaphor, a symbolic tool that connotes rather than denotes. To read a myth as prose (denotation) rather than as poetry (connotation) is a grave mistake and destroys the meaning of the story. All too often we humans do this with our religious texts.
One of the most pervasive symbols in human mythology is that of the Hero (or Heroin) and exemplifies the spiritual search:
"There's a certain type of myth which one might call the vision guest, going in quest of a boon, a vision, which has the same form in every mythology. That is the thing that I tried to present in the first book I wrote, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. All these different mythologies give us the same essential quest. You leave the world that you're in and go into a depth or into a distance or up to a height. There you come to what was missing in your consciousness in the world you formerly inhabited. Then comes the problem either of staying with that, and letting the world drop off, or returning with that boon and trying to hold on to it as you move back into your social world again."
Jesus dying on the cross and being resurrected is a metaphor for the teaching that we all must give ourselves up, to metaphorically die in order to be reborn—to give up, or let go of the ego in order to recover the self e.g. one must die to the flesh to be born of the spirit (don't take that literally. It's a metaphor for how to reconnect with the spirit).
Creation myths show up across all cultures and are metaphorical clues as to the meaning of our existence. It does them a grave injustice to read them as literal and/or historic truths.
What the myths are trying to teach us, according to Campbell, is that one can turn inward to get the message of the symbols. Myths and their symbolism can put us in touch with what it means to be alive by putting us in touch with the meaning of the experience. They help us to make sense of our lives.
Just as the myths written by our sages in our most sacred texts encourage us to look inward for the meaning of our lives, dreams, too, are a means for turning inward for the teachings of the spirit, the unconscious part of you. They have their own symbolism, their own mythology. Learning to read them can help one to transcend the world of their being so that they can learn the lessons of the spirit.
"All of the symbols in mythology refer to you!"
This is pretty much the same for dream figures and objects—they're all you, or represent some part of you.
For more on Joseph Campbell and his philosophy and research, click on the links below:
Consciously or unconsciously one lives according to their mythology.
According to D. Feinstein and S. Krippner*, each of us has a personal mythology, the story of our life. It is this mythos that informs what we do and what we believe. Within this mythos is a guiding theme which can, over time, affect your freedom to choose. Creating a new personal mythology can open up the choices you have in life. These personal mytholgies are every bit as creative and immaginative as our dreams.
When one becomes aware of the mythology they are living and confront it, they can then achieve some mastery of it. When one goes into their psyche, either through therapy or through dream work they can find the power to change the essence of their story, thus transforming the direction of their lives. This is all part of our "becoming".
As I see it, myth is not about fantasy stories, or that which is not true. The myth is a means of metaphorically telling the meaning of one’s life, or the life of the collective. Myths speak to more than just a story in that they relate to deep structural aspects of the human mind because we all have certain longings, anxieties and fears that are reflected in the stories we tell ourselves, individually, or collectively.
In nearly every story is how each of us deals with the conflict of opposites in our lives. We have masculine tendencies and feminine tendencies, goodness and shadows, brilliances and stupidities. We seem to be both of the body and of the spirit, the conscious mind and the unconscious mind and our struggle to reconcile all these differences is reflected in our myths. How these myths are structured says a lot about the individual, or culture that creates them, their fears, what they value, their attitudes toward outside cultures, gender positions and child rearing. One can read in a culture’s gods and heroes what is held to be of importance to the group in terms of their struggle to sustain a cohesive society. The individual’s myth–beliefs and philosophy–can reveal much the same information. Our myths provide a place for us to stand, a figurative high ground, if you will, in an often fearsome and chaotic world.
Part of that “high ground” includes the story of where you come from. Societies do this with their creation stories while individuals do this with their family/ancestral histories and stories of the day they were born. We still tell the story of when we were born at all the birthday parties in our family.
Whether myths of the individual, or the collective, they all tell something about their relationship to God, the land, and each other, life and death–how to live in the world and how to die.
Have you looked at your own myth? What do you value and why? What do you believe and what’s in your philosophy? What’s this tell about you? I'm not asking these questions rhetorically, I'm suggesting that you actually answer them and write down your own myth with all its gods and heroes, demons and bad guys. Why? I believe that most of us live most of our life like a leaf floating down a rapidly moving river, going wherever the currents take us. Creating your personal myth adds a steering quality, an authorship to your story. It's all well and good to have goals, but what is the context for those goals? Context actually determines, quality and direction. Whatever context you're in will drive where you're going. Your personal myth is your context. It might be useful to know what it is if only to know if your goals are consistent, or if you need to alter the context.
I remember a group exercise where a circle of people would share some of their personal history while the other members of the group would write down their impressions of the speaker. Because judgments are hard to filter, negatives were not allowed in the exercise. It was amazing how the group could collectively create an accurate picture of the individual based upon what the person chose to share and the manner in which they did it. I think that if we took the time to get our own minds out of the way we could “hear” who people are in the stories that they share with us.
At the church my wife and I attend many people have shared their “spiritual journey” with the larger group during facilitated presentations. Even though these tend, more often than not, to follow a religious journey versus a spiritual one, who they are and what they value within their spiritual life can be readily seen. Over time, their collective stories begin to create the myth of the church i.e. what it’s all about and this continues to influence the meaning of the individuals who make up its membership.
I believe that this is especially true in our dreams. Dreams conjure up what is of deepest importance to us–what lays within our unconscious mind. Because of this, learning to “listen” to them might be of great personal importance. It is also a way for a group of people to share their individual meaning by sharing their dreams. This used to be common practice within the ancient tribes of early man. This conjures up visions of sitting around a campfire with either family, or friends and sharing our stories. Some societies and subcultures still do this and are able to weave the collective dream stories into the fiber of the group.
For more on the meaning of myths and the human psyche you might want to jump to the Dragon Meaning page of this website.