The Blackfeet Indians have an old legend about a man and his two wives, who were living off by themselves. The younger of the two wives wonders off one day on her daily rounds and meets a handsome young man, who invites her to his lodge. Now in those “far-back days,” animals could, and sometimes did, change themselves back and forth from animal into human form. As it turned out, the handsome young man who met the young woman was the son of Beaver Chief. He invites her to go and meet his parents, and she does so, although with some amount of fear and misgiving. She stays with them the requisite four nights, during which time Beaver Chief, through his magic, can see that the husband of the young woman, while worried, does not give in to anger. Beaver Chief then allows her to return to her husband, but she goes off yet one more time back to Beaver Chief’s lodge. Yet, sensing something “bigger,” something spiritual here, still the husband is not moved to anger. In return, Beaver Chief finally allows the young woman to return to her human family for good, but this time laden with great gifts. First of all, she has learned the sacred song of the Beaver Clan, very powerful medicine, and secondly she is given a beaver skin roll filled with sacred objects inside, which she presents to her husband and to the entire tribe. These songs, and these sacred objects, save the tribe more than once in the ensuing generations, and the people rejoice that their ancestors were able to connect with such great spiritual power.
What are we to make of such a story? It no doubt sounds quaint, even strange to our modern ears, until we begin to remember some of the dreams we, ourselves, or someone close to us, has had just the night before. It is no more strange, for example, than the dream my good friend and fellow blogger, Kevin, told me of recently in which he and Al and Tipper Gore were wondering about on gorgeous, intricately woven, gossamer bridges, hung high in the stratosphere. Nor is it any more odd than a dream I myself once had in which I escaped from a contingent of policemen (it wasn’t clear what I had done to cause their pursuit) by becoming invisible and flying up to a higher astral plane. I could not sustain myself there for too long, however, and when I came back, the police were there waiting to arrest me. When they asked where I had gone to, I figured it was best just to tell the truth, and told them I’d flown to a higher plane, which was invisible to them, even though I knew it was unlikely they would ever believe me.
What this Blackfeet story, and thousands like it from every conceivable culture in the world, and these dreams (and millions of others like them) all have in common is the language of mythology, which is another way of saying, the language of symbols. In each case, that is, both of mythology properly so called, and of personal dreams, there is an attempt on the part of fallible human beings to deal with themselves as they take their place in society, and with the harsh world of what we blithely call “reality.” If there is a difference between the two, that is, between myth and dreams, it is that mythology is a kind of collective dream. It is a world which uses archetypal imagery designed for and channeled through the experience of an entire people, a culturally similar group that can, as it were, read and understand the particular language of symbols used in any given story.
If we return for just a moment to the Blackfeet legend, we note that it is set in a world of animals and people. This was, in fact, the world of the tribe before the onslaught of what is called western civilization ripped apart the traditional life of these hunting peoples. In those “far-back” times, that is, in the land of symbols and generally accepted archetypes, when animals could speak and when they were recognized as having power of their own, such creatures came to represent highly powerful parts of the psyche of the people. In this particular story, the man also had two wives, one who helped him with his everyday needs, but the other of whom helped him spiritually. It was the latter who brought him the sacred song and the sacred Beaver Roll, filled with powerful magic (we think, too, of the Biblical story of Martha and Mary in this instance, where Martha chooses to busy herself with food preperation, instead of listening to the words of the Master, as does Mary). The man, for his part, does not give way to anger at her. In other words, at some level of his consciousness, he recognizes her as a spiritual helper. The symbolism here is one in which a person has evolved to the point where he (or she – the actual gender of a “real person” makes no difference) has accepted and is open to Wholeness, that is, to a combination of both the male and female sides of one’s personality, and so, as a “whole person,” he (or again, she) has access to great spiritual power.
The entire Blackfeet nation, not just one individual, was able to benefit from this story, to use it to understand their place in the world. It, and many other stories like it, served them very well for a long time (until that world essentially ceased to exist), precisely because it used a set of symbols known to and understood by an entire people. The language of dream, on the other hand, is highly personalized, and as such is normally only readily understood by and meant for the individual who is dreaming the dream.
In the case of my own dream, which took place some years ago by the way, the symbolism is equally clear to me. The police are those parts of my psyche which demand adherence to the law, that is, to daily duty, or to the conventions and regulations of culture and society, even of religion, which in the course of my personal life history I have internalized and made my own (for better or for worse!). There is another part of me, however (as there is of each one of us), which yearns to escape these policing rules that hem us in and “arrest us” (i.e. they stunt our spiritual growth, tethering us to the physical world of everyday living in ways similar to the elder wife in the Blackfeet legend, or to Martha in the Biblical story). Through personal spiritual effort we can eventually become invisible to these policing parts of our psyche, that is, we can escape them and “fly to a higher plane,” one not bound by the Law of Opposites. This higher plane is, of course, spiritual not physical; it is one of expanded consciousness, which has no use, no need for the laws and regulations required in day-to-day living. In the dream, unfortunately, I was unable to sustain this elevated level of consciousness, but in the end I did “tell the truth” to these enforcers of rules. In other words, I was able to incorporate some of the “spiritual power” of a higher level of consciousness into my daily activities. Not perfect, to be sure, but at least something. And that is the key to any so-called spiritual power. We have to be able to “bring it back”, and it has to make a difference in our every day lives.
The same was true for the Blackfeet story. It infused spiritual power into an entire people. It is an example of the archetype of the Great Hero who journeys to a “far off place,” but who returns after various trials and tribulations with a tremendous gift for his or her people. And the people rejoice, because they understand at some level that they have been touched by something beyond the toil and labor of their everyday lives. They have, to an extent, seen Spirit, at least in symbol, and are the better for it.
So, what mythologies do we possess today? That is a good, if a disturbing, question. My own view, though not one shared by everybody, is that the great myths of the established religions are slowly sinking into the sands of time, no longer full of the life-sustaining energy that once infused them. Of course, with enough will and enough personal power, they may occasionally still once more overflow with energy. We continually see images of the Virgin Mary, for example, popping up here and there in trees, or even in food, and people flock to them, as to an apparition. The archetype of the Great Virgin Mother of the Universe, who does not need sex to procreate (i.e. again, She is already Whole, fully embodying both male and female sides), can use any medium to communicate to Her people. Still, for the most part, I believe that modern humans are desperately searching for some new and vital set of symbols needed to energize and inspire them, to help them through the tremendous challenges of potential nuclear war, of the ever more apparent ravages of global climate change, and of out-of-control pandemics, to enumerate but a few of the frightening problems facing us in the 21st century.
This is perhaps to some extent what helps give the world of space exploration such tremendous emotional power and energy for so many people today. It is an attempt on the part of human beings to “fly up and beyond” the endless challenges of living our daily lives on this planet. It could be interpreted as a kind of collective waking dream, a semi-conscious mythologizing, which we are living both actually and symbolically, and one which – like all good myths – also brings something useful back to earth, something that helps and makes a real difference in our workaday lives
I am not suggesting that NASA is the myth of the New Age, but I might go so far as to say that science in general is beginning to replace some of the old stories of “far off times,” when gods and saints and great heroes traveled to other worlds and then returned, Bodhisattva-like, to aid struggling humanity. One way or another, people still need such stories to sustain them. Life is hard; we all struggle not only for our daily bread, but also in hope of a greater, a better, time when all will be well. We may know in our hearts that such a time will never come, at least not on the physical plane of existence, but without such hopes and dreams, without art, which at it highest is a materialization of these longings, and without science, which embodies at some profound level what it means to best understand today’s world, everyday life on the planet can be a sad and dreary affair indeed. With it, on the other hand, with these great stories, whatever they may be and wherever they come from, we feel some measure of hopefulness, our lives are energized, and once again we feel as though we have something to live for.