Saturday, August 18, 2007

A Little More Mythology



Courting Campbell

In my last post I spoke about humankind’s basic need for order; it’s fundamental thrust towards meaning. Within this human drive, mythology presents a cohesion of symbols and values that works to our psychological and social wellbeing. Immediately I thought of three luminaries in the firmament of mythologies and symbolism, viz., Sir James G. Frazer (1854-1941) (The Golden Bough), Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), and, of course, that wonderful popularizer of these subjects, Joseph Campbell (1904-1987). Looking through my shelves I found two books, the one mentioned above by Frazer and a recently bought (2000) copy of Joseph Campbell’s wonderful book Myths To Live By (Souvenir Press, 2000).

Needless to say I took Campbell down and began perusing and reading this marvellously passionate little volume. What struck me was his profound analysis of present day society. A poet friend of mine, Pádraig Daly, always contends that the reason there is so much destruction in modern society is because human beings are alienated from their own basic innate creative impulses. Campbell appears to be arguing along parallel lines with Pádraig, though his emphases are different.

Campbell argues cogently that all societies, not just marvellously evolved civilizations, need the cohesive powers of mythologies and symbols. He goes on to point out, with well-marshalled historical examples, that once symbols and taboos have been broken (iconoclasm) that shortly thereafter the society itself begins to crumble away and disappear. Again, Campbell writes like an angel. One could expect no less from such a passionately cultured scholar. I will quote here an extended piece from this scholar as I believe it is relevant to my thesis that mythology and story are essential not alone to the very fabric of society and civilization, but also necessary for our psychological wellbeing. Before quoting this passage I should like to point out that Campbell does not advocate the literal acceptance of symbols and mythology. Rather he accepts their metaphoric thrust to meaning and their sheer necessity to the positive mental health of all humankind.

“For not only has it always been the way of multitudes to interpret their symbols literally, but such literally read symbolic forms have always been – and still are, in fact – the supports of their civilizations, the supports of their moral orders, their cohesion, vitality, and creative powers. With the loss of them there follows uncertainty, and with uncertainty disequilibrium, since life, as both Nietzsche and Ibsen knew, requires life-supporting illusions; and where these have been dispelled, there is nothing secure to hold onto, no moral law, nothing firm. We have seen what has happened to, for example, primitive communities unsettled by the white man’s civilization. With their old taboos discredited, they immediately go to pieces, disintegrate, and become resorts of vice and disease.

Today the same thing is happening to us. With our old mythologically founded taboos unsettled by our own modern sciences, there is everywhere in the civilized world a rapidly rising incidence of vice and crime, mental disorders, suicides and dope addictions, shattered homes, impudent children, violence, murder, and despair.” (op.cit., pp. 10-11)


Such, then, is the price we may for own disregard of symbols and mythologies – more so, the above list of troubles represents not alone our disregard for, but our sheer contempt for and disrespect for the same. We shatter these mythologies at our peril. Of course, like Campbell, I am no flat-earthist, I am no long lost geocentrist, and I am no Luddite. I am not suggesting a literalist or fundamentalist understanding of these same symbols or even newly invented ones. What I am arguing for is a mature assimilation of the necessity of symbols and mythologies metaphorically and ritualistically to maintain our sanity in an increasingly insane and inhospitable world.

Above I have placed another image of Navan Fort, or Eamhain Macha, from my phone. This was taken last Tuesday also.

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