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The Function of Myth

Posted on October 5, 2017 at 5:35 PM

What is a myth? The British moral philosopher Mary Midgley said of myth that, “they are not lies, but thought patterns that shape our thinking”. They are the facts of the mind made manifest in the fiction of matter. Myths have been described as a collective psychology: myth is other people’s religion and as Campbell said myth is misinterpreted religion. If we were to look at a dictionary, it might say that myths are stories about Gods? But that begs the question what are Gods? The answer to that question is much more complex than you might think. For the moment we shall take the view that Gods are the characters of myth which stand for, or are symbols and metaphors for aspects of humanity and the natural world.


Myths like symbols operate at the shamanic level of reality, where everything is symbolic and has meaning. As such it is a mistake to read myth prosaically (i.e. literally), it should be experienced symbolically. Myths arise from the collective unconscious from the archetypal patterns which shape the way we experience phenomenal reality. These archetypes as Dr. John Haule argued are the result of our evolution, although it is unlikely they can be reduced to single genes. We cannot help but experience and make sense of the world in ways dictated by archetypes. The archetypal patterns are shaped and made sense of culturally, in different places and times. Hence myths vary in their content and character around the world, but the underlying patterns, none the less, remain the same. Archetypes are organising patterns for myth but what they mean will vary from person to person depending on their life experiences.


If we take a functionalist approach to myths our old friend Professor Joseph Campbell argued that they fulfil four functions.


The first function is the mystical. Myths evoke within us a sense of awe and wonder at the mystery of life. We are using the word mystery here to mean an ineffable experience. Myth is a metaphor and can lead you into the experience of transcendence. It hints at and leads to not just the lesser mysteries but the mystical experience itself. For example, the myth of drawing down the moon relates to the divinity of humanity and to life itself. 


The second function of myth is the cosmological. It helps us to make sense of the world in a meaningful way. Cosmology is about how the universe is organised and shaped. Again we should not mistake the myth for a literal description of objective reality, as this is what empirical disciplines such as science are for. Instead the cosmology attempts to make meaning from reality and as such is the shape of our phenomenal and symbolic reality. There is no literal Tree of Life, (as in the Qabbalah) and the Wheel of the Year does not apply everywhere. Rather they describe our inner world; they relate humans to the cosmos and the world of meaning: as above, so below, as within, so without.


The cosmological function of myth has an important role to play in magic. The magician sees a symbolic relationship between the cosmology and the individual. In essence this is the Heremetic maxim. In the mytho-poetic the macrocosm, the cosmos is reflected in the microcosm of the individual human and vice versa. As such by invoking the power of the cosmological dimension the magician facilitates change.


For example the Navajo Indians are famous for their sand paintings. These sand paintings are used in the practice of magic. Essentially the painting depicts cosmological scenes which the painter uses to invoke those same cosmological forces within themselves or others. They can be used in healing, where the healing or regenerative aspect of the mythology is depicted and the patient placed in the centre of the painting. They may also be used for fertility.


In a similar way the ceremonial magician invokes the forces of the cosmology of the Tree of Life through the medium of the sephiroth, names of god, archangels and demons to facilitate change in their world. These are not literal beings (although poorly trained magicians may seem them as such) but characters and symbols that relate directly to the experiences the magician wishes to invoke, combined with the authority (power) of the cosmology.


Campbell argued that a mythology, if it is to fulfil its cosmological function, needs to take into account the discoveries of the scientific world. This is why fundamentalist Christian are finding themselves in a bind. They have taken their myth to be literal and not accounted for the discoveries of biology, geology, physics and archaeology. They are left in the predicament of either dropping their myth or denying evidence based empirical research.


Cosmological myths, like all myth is to be experienced symbolically and not read literally.


The third function of myth is the sociological function. This is myth that informs and helps us to make sense of the social world. Examples include the 10 commandments and the edicts of Leviticus. They include myths about monarchy, monogamy, democracy and justice. A sociological myth shows you how to live within a society and in tribal societies also involves taboos. Again this type of myth must adapt to meet the changing times. Laws against homosexuality may have been relevant for a semetic tribe, beset by enemies, wandering the desert, needing plenty of babies to grow up into soldiers. But is it really relevant today? Likewise is the myth that marriage is solely for procreation and that only men and women can marry really relevant today? I would argue that it isn’t.


The social aspects of myth need to change with the time if they are to be of healthy service to the population it informs.


The final function of myth is the pedagogical (teaching) function of myth. Myth can teach you about life and how to live it under any circumstances. It is just as Victor Frankl said (from personal experience), “those that have a why can endure almost any how”. It is one aspect of the pedagogical function of myth, the hero’s journey which we shall be examining in detail over the next two weeks. This is the left hand path, the crooked way and the road of initiation into the mysteries.


It is through participation in myth that we can experience the mysteries and find wisdom. It is funny, and very subjective on my behalf, but I have a great deal of trouble perceiving Prof. Richard Dawkins as wise. I do see him as very intelligent and a brilliant zoologist whose neo-Darwinism and the selfish gene ideas have greatly facilitated our understanding of evolution. However, he does not seem very wise, while Prof. Joe Campbell on the other hand does.


It so important that I shall say it again, myth needs to be experienced symbolically not prosaically, if we want to move from classic religion into occultism. Myth is not judged on whether it is true or false, like art it is judged by its aptness and aesthetic qualities. Does it do what it sets out to do? Does it evoke the experiences and feeling that it is meant to invoke? Does it provide a useful and accurate pedagogy to life?


Myth can work in the same way as music. By participating in music, whether in playing it, or listening to it, it evokes feelings and connections to experiences within us. It alters our consciousness and connects even to experiences that are numinous. Good mythology, experienced symbolically can do the same. It enables us to find profound and deep meaning, enriching our lives. It can give us a guide to our path, “they way is thoroughly known, as the heroes of all time have gone before us”, and help us to make profound meaning from its inevitabilities. And it is here, that we encounter the mysteries.


A functioning mythology can do this. However while eclecticism in thought is something that I encourage I am less keen to encourage eclecticism in myth unless you know what you are doing. There are some parts of myth that we will not like and by exploring these parts we often come to the most profound meanings and mysteries of all. By changing the myths and ignoring the parts we don’t like, it is like ignoring and repressing the shadow and we miss out on the possibility of a great insight and gift.


Myths then are archetypal in the sense that they are shaped by the patterns that shape our experience of phenomenal reality. These archetypal patterns are experienced in different ways by different people in different places and times. Underpinning the characters and situations of myth, are archetypes which arise from the collective unconscious and relate directly our deepest most profound bodily experiences. In the end myth is about ourselves, and how we make sense of the mysteries, the world, our societies and life. Myth is about finding ourselves and becoming who we are, “we are all God in our deepest being”.


In the Craft there are several myths, the meta-myth of Hermeticism, the Wheel of the Year, the cycle of the moon, and initiation. Next time we shall be looking at the hero’s journey, the road to initiation.

 

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