Sunday, March 02, 2008

Myths, Mind and Meaning



Who has never been enthralled by the fabulous and wondrous stories of the Greek myths?  It seems that all of Western Culture and especially the Western Mind owes much to its mystique.  For any of us who have visited any of the many islands that go to make up modern an d indeed ancient Greece we realise that much of their imagination came from the beautiful and sun-bleached landscapes and seascapes.  Cut off from the European continent by ranges of inhospitable mountains the ancient Greeks were forced to take to the sea.  From the Olympian Poseidon to the goddess Aphrodite, from nymphs to monsters, time and time again the sea embodies ancient Greek preoccupations with the human condition.

On a scientific level we know that water is the key to life.  First life began its tentative movements from beneath the seas - ancient and prehistoric life crawled out to the surface of the earth from its very dark watery bosom and from there evolved into life as we know it today.  Also on a psychological or psychic level the sea represents our unconscious life.  Just like so much unknown and occluded life lives under the surface of the sea, so also so much unknown and occluded psychic content lives under the surface of the conscious mind.

Then, of course, mainly stemming from the work of the late great mythologist Joseph Campbell, there has been the modern preoccupation with the relevance of mythological themes to popular psychology and to the self-help movement in general.  Since the mid-twentieth century many psychologists and alternative healers have literally plundered the myths of ancient Greece and other equally old cultures as sources of inspiration and insight into the human condition.

These days it is fashionable to be Green - obviously I refer to the environmental movement rather than the Irish Republican movement when I use this description.  Here, I should like to refer to the wonderful, if contentious, Gaia hypothesis advanced by the scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Magulis in the 1970s of the last century.  They argued quite unorthodoxly that the earth itself is a single organism.  Every living thing, including human beings, is said to be part of GaiaGaia is the Greek goddess of the earth and the quintessential mother of all life. 

Gaia, then is the mother of all life.  Essentially this is the story of the creation of the world from the ancient Greek point of view.  Briefly, this creation myth runs thus:- In the beginning there was Chaos.  Then came Gaia, the Earth, Tartarus, beautiful Eros, dark Erebus, and then Night.  Then Night lay with Erebus to father Aether, the bright air, and Day.  Some time later , Earth gave birth to Ouranos, the starry heavens, so that he could provide a safe home for the blessed gods.  Gaia or Earth created the hills and Pontos, the raging and deep sea.  Next Earth lay with her own offspring Ouranos and gave birth to Oceanus, Coeus and Crius, Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne, Phoebe and Tethys.  Finally earth gave birth to Chronos, the most terrible of her children.  Of course, Chronus hated Ouranos.

Of course, one can get bogged down by all the strange names above, by the idea of strange and incestuous relations between certain of these gods, even relations between gods and humans etc.  Then, a rational mind can be thrown off balance by the sheer non-rational and irrational actions of these strange beings.  However, we must find our balance immediately if we are in any sense beings who have a holistic view on human life as being an always interesting mixture of both the rational and irrational.  Poets and novelists have always looked to mythologies for inspiration:- practically all the Romantic poets and T.S.  Eliot, W.B. Yeats, to name but two modern poets; James Joyce and André Gide to mention but two modern novelists.  Then came the psychiatrists and psychologists who saw Greek myth especially as a quarry to plunder for all their various  theories of  complexes and archetypes - I refer here, of course, to the father of psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud) and to the founder of the school of Analytic Psychology (Carl Gustave Jung).  If one has patience these great Greek myths can teach us a lot about the darkest of aspects of the human mind, namely our unconscious, which, like the great oceans from whose bosom original life crawled aeons ago, often lies  unexplored for many reasons of primal fears locked within its dark and foreboding depths.

Above I have uploaded a picture of one of the mountains (or hills) around the Delphi Centre. Mountains and hills capture much of the human spirit - No wonder Olympus was the home of the Gods.

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