SPRINGTIME, MYTHOLOGY, AND SOME THOUGHTS ON RESURRECTION

By Paul

Next Sunday most Christians in the western world will celebrate Easter (Greek and Russian Orthodox faiths follow a different calendar).  And last week all of us noted the Vernal Equinox, the First Day of Spring (notwithstanding the continued wintry weather gripping large swaths of the East and Midwest).  In spite of any such glitches in local weather, however, we know that it won’t be long before the forsythias are in bloom, crocuses are poking their heads up, and it’s just a matter of a few short weeks after that before tulips, lilacs, and daffodils begin to make their appearance.

Even in this terrible era of global warming, there is no holding spring back.  And the concomitant joyful celebrations of the warming of temperatures, the blossoming of plants, and the regeneration of life after a long, cold winter are practically part of our human DNA.

Such rites of spring were common among ancient peoples, particularly as they came to rely more and more on agriculture and on the cultivation of crops, rather than on hunting and gathering, in order to feed themselves and their families.  Look at almost any of these cultures anywhere in the world, and you will see rites that honored the burial of seeds in the earth, in essence their ritual death, only to await not long afterwards their miraculous resurgence, their resurrection as it were.  Everywhere, ritual followed such practices, and one relied upon the other for the continual nurturing and feeding of humankind.

As almost sacrilegious as this may sound to some, there are not a few scholars who contend that the origins of Christian Easter itself can be found in these ancient ways of viewing and understanding the world.  It is after all common to find stories in numerous mythologies around the globe recounting the death, burial, and resurrection of a god.  We see these stories everywhere, in fact, and most reflect this same burying of seeds in the earth and the eventual resurgence of these buried seeds in the form of living plants.  People then eat of the fruits of this regeneration and so, in that sense, partake of the life of the mythic creature (the seed) that had ritually died, been placed in the earth, only to rise again.

One of my favorite myths of this variety within the Greco-Roman tradition has to do with Demeter and her daughter/younger self, Persephone.  As you may recall, Hades (the Roman Dis Pater), snatched Persephone from the world of light and carried her down into the Underworld.  Demeter, goddess of grain and the harvest (the Roman Ceres, from which we get the word cereal), mourned her and refused to deliver on her promise of providing food for humankind.  However, without people Zeus would have no worshipers, and so he quickly decided to send his messenger, Hermes, to negotiate a deal with Hades.  Unfortunately, in the meantime Persephone had relented and eaten six pomegranate seeds while in the Underworld.  The immutable rule was that anyone who partook of food in the realm of Hades must remain there forever.  Still, Clever Hermes was able to strike a compromise bargain, whereby Persephone was granted permission to leave the Underworld and rejoin Demeter in the upper world for six months out of the year.  Alas, she would also perpetually be required to return below ground again for the other six months of the year.  Thus, we have two seasons, one wherein Demeter mourns and all things die off (i.e. winter), and one when she rejoices and in which we partake of the fruits of the field (i.e., summer).

There are actually countless such similar stories in many different mythologies of the world in which gods or great heroes descend into the underworld, but then in some form return to life once more.  We see it, for example, with Dionysius and Orpheus (both Greek), Osiris (Egyptian), Tammuz (Sumerian), Kululcan (Maya), Quetzalcoatl (Aztec), and a great many others.  All essentially tell the same story: death (and burial) is not to be seen as the end, but the spirit instead lives on and returns to the world of light for the continuance and furtherance of human life.

But let us recognize that mythology is not only for and about ancient peoples.  As I have already mentioned, the belief of Christians today in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ fits very neatly into this same pattern.  Note, for example, that in the old Catholic Apostles’ Creed there is a curious line in which it is said that Jesus was “crucified, died, and was buried.  He descended into Hell, and the third day he arose again from the dead.”  In other words, once more we have exactly the same story of death, burial, descent into the underworld, and eventual resurrection.  And while there seems to be no direct scriptural reference to this in the gospels, Catholics have believed it to be true for centuries.

Myths have many uses and many meanings.  Going back for a moment to Demeter and Persephone, let us remember once again that, while the story tells us Persephone is Demeter’s daughter, in reality we can understand her as being essentially a younger, less mature form of the goddess herself.  Viewed from a purely psychological point of view, we can understand this as meaning that we, all of us, have periods when we are clear and rational and full of light (the Demeter phase), and those in which we are filled with the dark, irrational passions of unreasonable fear, out-of-control anger, depression, deceit, envy and the like, that is, when our higher self is, as it were, stolen away (the phase during which Persephone is in the Underworld).  In other words, sometimes we live our lives according to the light of rationality and reason, but sometimes we are caught in the shadowy and murky throes of buried and unconscious impulses, urges, and cravings.  Indeed, for most of us, if we can manage a balance of half and half, as was the grand bargain struck by Hermes (the messenger of our higher, more rational selves), we have to think that we are doing pretty well!

Demeter, therefore, represents the ego, which moves about in the upper world of light and which, in so doing, is capable of fulfilling and nourishing our being.  Persephone, on the other hand, is that part of ourselves which has been captured and lives in the chthonic underground of our deeper and more primal compulsions.  The danger is that, if we go on to nourish ourselves with the latter, we run the risk of getting stuck there forever.  Fortunately, most of us most of the time seem capable of making that fortuitous bargain whereby we live sometimes in one place, sometimes in the other.

Easter and Christ’s resurrection, too, can be seen as playing on a similar set of psycho-spiritual human concerns.  The God-Avatar (Jesus), who took human (i.e. bodily) form, allows himself to die, only to show us that resurrection from death is possible.  The meaning here is that our consciousness can be lifted out of the “death” of living only and forever at the more or less unconscious level of strict bodily awareness.  Instead, each of us is shown that we are also capable of realizing that we can partake in higher things or, to put it another way, that eternal, undying Spirit has in some sense become us.

Whether your personal take on these mythic stories is more literal or more metaphorical, spring is the time to think about them.  How, indeed, can we not, when all we see surrounding us is the rising of new life out of the death of the old?

The story of the resurrection of Christ, as well as that of all the other gods and great mythic heroes and heroines that came before and after, symbolizes the buried seed and the resurgent natural world, come back to life after long, cold, “dead” winter.  Beyond that, we are also reminded that our own lives are capable of their own kind of resurrection.  It is the job of each of us to strive for that elevation in our thinking and our consciousness in the best way we know how.  In so doing, we can say, along with the great Marian hymn so popular in the Middle Ages, “Resurrexit, sicut dixit, alleluia.”  He arose, as he said, alleluia.  Surely, that is reason enough for all of us to rejoice, is it not?

THE LANGUAGE OF MYTHOLOGY, AS VITAL TODAY AS EVER

By Paul

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.

New Mythologies and Rituals

Dear Paul,
 
Your New Mythology article is excellent, compelling, and beautiful in its profundity expressed very simply. I am very impressed with the depth you have achieved with such economy of expression. I agree that much of what makes our lives meaningful — the ways in which we understand and express ultimate truths — is found in our mythologies. I also agree that old mythologies may be wearing thin, and that is most apparent in the increasingly desperate, pathetic, and extremely fundamentalistic efforts we see all around us to cling to them and force them upon others. That is a sign of the end. I believe you are right that new forms of mythology are required to give our lives meaning in the new age. Ironically, the basis for those new forms is likely to be found in the very same archetypes that founded the old ones. It may be the new origins, forms and vehicles of the new mythologies that will provide us with surprises. Perhaps they will come from the masses using electronic devices, instead of from temple oracles. Perhaps they will come from artists, singers, dancers and poets, instead of from prophets wailing in the night. Or even more radically… perhaps they will come from the earth itself and the animals and plants that I am convinced are trying to tell us something. Or, who knows? Perhaps they will come from visitors from another world, bringing us knowledge of whole new realities and mythologies. It could happen…
 
As I read your essay on mythology, I thought a great deal about another primary source of meaning — ritual. During the past six years, as Robert and I have been living deep in the woods with our many animals, I have become very aware of how much of the meaning of life for animals is wrapped up in daily ritual. For our dogs and cat and koi and chickens, it only takes one meaningful experience and its repetition the next day for a new ritual to be formed, and they let us know that they expect that ritual to be fulfilled and are quite disappointed if it is not. We take our five dogs for a walk in exactly the same way, usually at the same time, every day. We put some on leashes and some run free. We make several stops along the way to do specific things. If any part of the ritual is out of place they let us know. The cat, the koi and the chickens are that way too. Animals require, demand and depend upon ritual to give their lives structure and meaning. We human beings are part of the animal kingdom. We need ritual to build our sense of reality and meaning in life. We make our coffee and tea in the same way every morning and serve it to a loved one with a kiss. We do certain tasks in a given order. We structure our months and years around major events, holidays and work requirements. All of these things are rituals, providing just as much meaning as religious rites. We rely on ritual. When our rituals are interrupted, we know that something is amiss, different or strange. We feel uneasy and adrift, and we seek to re-establish needed rituals.
 
Many of the old rituals are also wearing thin, because they have so much to do with destroying the world as a sustaining habitat for life, and because they no longer provide as much relevant meaning as they once did. Fortunately, like our dogs and all animals, we can make new rituals with just a few repetitions, and the more we practice them, the more meaningful they become. Just as you have intriguingly posited our need for new mythologies, I believe we also need new, healthier, more productive, creative and affirmative rituals to replace the old destructive ones and give our daily activities profound, relevant meaning. Wouldn’t it be interesting if these new mythologies and rituals were ultimately spawned by our fundamental drive for survival on a planet that we have been killing as an environment that can sustain us?

I loved your article on New Mythologies. It is so timely, appropriate and profound. I wonder if there is a candidate that would round out a trinity, including Mythology and Ritual. These Ultimate Truth concepts seem to work better in threes… Father, Son and Holy Ghost; Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; Red, Blue and Yellow, etc. And why do these things come in threes? I suppose it is because of the three realms of existence — the physical or material world, the astral realm of “Heaven,” and the causal plane of the unmanifested Infinite. Now there are some pretty big mythologies for you, and I daresay they are also deeply ingrained archetypes. Well, you’ve made me think. There is a lot more to explore here.
 
Love, – Kevin

MYTH AND THE MODERN WORLD

By Paul

When most of us in the western world think of mythology, images of Greek and Roman gods probably first spring to mind: old stories of Zeus hurling his thunderbolts, of Hera his jealous wife and sister, of Zeus’ Roman counterpart, Almighty Jupiter, or Mercury of the wingéd sandals, who reminded Aeneas that it was his duty to found the city of Rome etc.   And doubtless these are good examples, although only a very few among an endless number of such stories that have come down to us over the millennia from every part of the globe. 

But what really do we mean when we talk about mythology?  What is its essence?  Why has it been so powerful a force throughout human history?  And another equally important question suggests itself, as well – is mythology still with us today?  Is it a force in our lives currently, or was it a thing only of the past?  I believe the answer to all these questions is actually not quite as complicated as it may at first appear. 

First of all, let us consider what mythology is.  It can be relatively easily defined as having two parts.  The first is as a force, a desire really, a need on the part of human beings to explain what otherwise appears to us as unexplainable.  By this I mean what are sometimes referred to as the big questions in life.  Why are we here?  Does life have a meaning?  Who (if anyone) made us?  Why is there suffering in life; why do we die; and after we die do we live on in some form, or do we simply cease to exist altogether?   These and other similar questions have both intrigued and plagued humanity since the very beginning, when ape-like creatures first evolved and begin to engage in reflective thinking.  The second part of the definition is as important as the first, and it has to do with the fact that humans, for the most part, seem to be either unwilling or unable to live without some kind of hope.  Who among us, for example, does not wish for his or her life to be on some kind of trajectory whereby things are somehow “getting better”?  This is true whether we are rich or poor, atheists or believers, members of an organized religion or among those who eschews such groups.  And if, somehow, we have lost hope for ourselves, as some do, still we may hold on to it for our children or for our loved ones.  Those without any hope for the future are the saddest of the sad among us, and some, most regretfully, decide that life is no longer worth living.

So, myth making has been the way which humans have used over the millennia to explain the world to themselves, and through which they envision a better, more hopeful future.  If anyone doubts this, just familiarize yourself with the almost countless number of “creation myths” that people the world over have concocted in order to explain how the world was made.  Virtually every culture has had it own story at one time or another.  And many Christians still hold as literally true the story of God creating the world in seven days.  In every case we see a Creator Being of some sort giving form to things, taking what had been unformed chaos and making it into the familiar forms we have come to know and feel comfortable with. 

If it is true, then, that the making of these kinds of stories about ourselves and our world is so essential to human beings, it seems equally reasonable to posit that modern peoples too must continue to do so.  It is my contention, in fact, that all religions are a form of mythology.  This includes the major religions practiced today, Christianity (in all of its subsets), Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism etc.  Each one makes a valiant stab at explaining to its followers the world and its great mysteries of life and death and suffering and good and evil. 

Take Christianity, with which most of us are very familiar, as an example.  As Joseph Campbell points out in his master work “The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology,” a great shift began to take place in the Europe of the 12th and the 13th centuries.  Prior to that, the Church ruled with an iron fist, and its priests were the sole explainers and arbiters of all mystery in the world.  However, beginning with the wonders of the Grail stories, and moving on from there to the Reformation and the European Enlightenment, individuals gradually began to realize that they themselves are quite capable of making their own way.  Indeed, people began to see that it is an absolute requirement for them to do so. Campbell calls this “the rise of the principle of individual conscience over ecclesiastical authority.”  But just how far have we progressed?    

Many of the major world religions of today have come down to us from the almost incredible fertility of what Campbell calls “the nuclear Near East.”  Certainly, this is true for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  In each case, the stories, the myths if you will, that they are composed of are now many centuries old.  But they all have a sacred book or books considered to have been dictated by a Deity.  As such, the book and what it teaches are thought to be “outside of time,” that is, applicable to every era of human history.  Some followers even take these stories in their most literal form – which was never the real intent of myth making – and contrive to apply their rules and their strictures to life in the 21st century, with sometimes disastrous results. 

This is in fact the great danger of myth making, that many take the stories quite literally, instead of symbolically.  Take for example the story of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption into Heaven.  There are those who believe that her literal body was taken into a place called heaven, accompanied by a host of rejoicing angels, instead of understanding the story the way it was meant to be, that is, as a symbol of what it means to raise our consciousness above the everyday cares and worries of the world.  

My own view is that these stories are beginning to wear thin.  Yes, many still hold to them, but that is because some great New Myth has yet to emerge out of human consciousness to form itself in the world.  Mormonism, some New Age religions, and such oddities as Scientology have made an attempt, but most seem to come down to either a rehashing of the same old stories with a few tweaks here and there, or something so outlandish that they appeal only to the fringes of society.  Communism, too, is a kind of mythology, and it was tried and found horribly wanting.  It has been suggested by some, as well, that science itself may be the new mythology of the modern world.  It does, after all, attempt to explain many of the world’s mysteries, including creation and life itself.  However, such explanations are at best both provisional and tentative, nor do they provide any understanding of such questions as why there is evil or suffering in the world, or give us hope in the face of a perilous and uncertain future.  Such answers, if you will, come only with true myth making. 

So, we seem to be left either with what I will call the old forms, that is, the millennia-old religions and their waning stories, or – with what?  I would tentatively suggest that perhaps what is left is the very flowering of the greatest form of individualism that began to slowly and laboriously emerge from the High Middle Ages.  I would put forward that what may be needed today is a greater willingness and effort on the part of each individual to create his or her own mythic story, which ultimately attempts to grapple with all of life’s mysteries.  This means that it is ultimately incumbent on each person to go within and to search out what cannot be explained or even fully understood by our everyday consciousness.  I am not talking about a new religion, but a new way of being in the world, one whereby every human takes full responsibility for his or her own story, as well as for its ramifications on the world around us and on other people. 

We are individuals, but we do not live alone in the world; nor do we own the world.  Whatever story we come to understand and to live by must therefore take into consideration the needs and the rights of all other life forms, indeed, of the planet itself.  No longer is it necessary to read and abide by what was dictated by a Deity to prophets who lived thousands of years ago. Neither priests nor popes nor preachers need tell us what it means to lead a good life.  But this can only be true if we go deeply within, anchor ourselves in the Great Mystery that is beyond all explaining and understanding, and humbly seek what is best for ourselves as individuals and as members of the collective. 

In this way, a New Mythology may slowly begin to emerge, one that is fashioned for the challenges of the rapidly changing 21st century in which we live, but which still addresses the great mysteries that defy explanation, and gives us courage to continue on, as well as hope that a better day is yet to come.