Monday, July 04, 2011

From Fragmentation to Integration 16

A Brief but necessary Foray into Mythology

Laytown/Bettystown Parish Church, St Patrick's Day, 2009
The most recent and greatest scholar of mythology and myths was most assuredly Joseph Campbell (1904 – October 30, 1987)  who defined myths as having four basic functions: (i) the Mystical Function -experiencing the awe of the universe, (ii) the Cosmological Function - explaining the shape of the universe, (iii) the Sociological Function - supporting and validating a certain social order and (iv) the Pedagogical Function -how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.  I believe that this is a most comprehensive explanation of what is at the root of myth.  It is, indeed, a very simplistic and uneducated view to dismiss myth as being untrue, lacking any relevance whatsoever to the modern age.  Basically, the content of any myth can be factually untrue and improbable, even impossible from a scientific point of view, but the import, the lesson, the wisdom, the knowledge pointed to or the moral of the tale presents us with a depth of truth on another level to the truth of scientific fact.  There are truths behind poems, stories, songs and art of all forms and genres and, indeed, in and behind music that cannot be expressed in a linear or logical form.

A Personal View

How do I personally understand myth/mythology? For me myth or mythology is a way of mapping meaning onto the world as it were, a way of making sense of everything we as humans experience in this world, including ourselves, albeit an explanation in a very primitive and primordial, but nonetheless deeply significant way.  Humans are thinking and feeling social animals who desire to make sense of their experiences.  Now, there are many ways of making sense of experiences, and some are more effective than others, mythology is one very important way of so doing, indeed a primordial and basic way.  However, I would argue that myths are all sincere and authentic ways of interpreting experience. (Unfortunately, some myths have been used to foment hatred and war, but nevertheless they have served a function for the race which gave them birth.  However, I'm interpreting myth here is its more healing and holistic sense as it is embodied in any culture through all its incarnations in music, poetry, song, dance, rather than ascribing its more negative uses to it, though I, of course, acknowledge how destructive certain interpretations of them can be).  I would beg the reader to please excuse the obviously tortuous nature of my prose as I struggle to explain my understanding of myth/mythology here.

I believe that there are several myths (stories) by which we moderns live by, and I will attempt to outline them here:

(i) The myth (story) of linear development and improvement

This is a major myth by which we live.  Another way of stating this is to say that it is the myth of infinite perfectibility.  Things always improve and get better.  Our knowledge is growing in a linear if not exponential fashion.  This myth is essentially one which we learnt from the Enlightenment thinkers who saw Reason enthroned where once Religion sat as either King or Queen of epistemological harmony.  If we were to roll history back to the middle of the nineteenth century, this air of positivity, or indeed, call it more correctly a blind belief in the perfectibility of humankind, reigned supreme.  However, the wars of the late nineteenth and early and middle twentieth centuries brought this blind belief crashing to the ground.  Linearity has some if not a lot of truth at its core, viz., that knowledge builds itself up as a body or building, brick by brick on the foundations of previous bricks before it, and we as a human culture add to our store of knowledge thus.  However, each human being of every subsequent generation has to learn everything from the start.  The nature of human reality, then,  is more cyclical than linear.  Mathematics as a strict science is a linear method - always reaching out to a perfect world of ideal numbers - indeed mathematics is a mighty example of the myth of perfectibility.  Hence, mathematics is a myth, a truth, a way of looking at reality, and it is a very important one as it is the key to our sciences and to modern life, but it is only one key among many to the latter.

(ii) The myth (story) of Science

I suppose this myth is part responsible for the previous myth.  Science is all about discovery, about using the senses to witness and observe and, of course, measure things.  Science makes a basic assumption, axiomatic almost, that everything can be measured, and I should imagine that the goal of all good science is in making those measurements ever and ever more precise.  Precision and measurability are the names given to this game.  However, there is much that cannot be measured in a clinical sense - love and hate and all the emotions with all the colours of the rainbow in between.

Science is a wonderful subject with which I have long been fascinated.  Yesterday, having disturbed and cut open a beehive unintentionally with my garden fork sent me to my old science books (which my mother had bought me nearly 40 years ago now) to read an article on the behaviour of bees.  I read a few accounts of their activities on the web also.  One can only marvel at their sophistication for such small creatures.  Science knows a lot, but not everything about their behaviour.  In other words, what I am saying here is that, while science is wonderful and its knowledge is increasing brick upon brick, it still does not know everything.  Arts, Music and Literature have much else to teach us, much that is unmeasurable by science.  Need everything be measurable?  That's a good philosophical question.

(iii) The myth (story) of Religion

The setting Sun, Laytown Beach, St Patrick's Day, 2009
The three great religions of The Book or Bible are Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  I was born into the second of these, but consider myself an agnostic who loves Buddhist meditation.  I remember reading somewhere that one scholar of comparative religion had declared that "there is nothing as bad as a bad religion."  Here, one only has to think of all the destruction, havoc and chaos wrought by so-called religious men (mostly men indeed, hence the male substantive is used here) - over the course of history: the wars and murders of the Crusades of the Holy Roman Empire against the infidel Muslims; the Holy Wars of these latter; the murder of native tribes by the so-called Roman Catholic Conquistadores; the tortures of the Holy Roman Inquisition; the burning of witches not just in the Roman Catholic Church, but also at Salem and elsewhere in America and then the myriads of wars in the name of a "common" God.  In a sense, the thought of two opposing sides in any war each appealing to the same God for help is almost delusional to say the least.  Humankind, it has been well said, makes God in its own image.  Each race makes their God in their own image, too.  In a way "God" becomes a word to describe at best the presuppositions and religious tenets of a people or a country and at worst it is a word to mask deliberate hatred of others.  Each side will say that God is on their side, because quite simply they are right, they possess the Truth and God is the name of Their Truth (they also love capital letters!) - their view of God, their reduction of whatever HE/SHE/IT could possibly be, to national, biased and prejudiced opinion.  Now all of this is far from the God as descriptively defined by more accomplished and erudite theologians, scholars and mystics.  In a sense these latter can be, and most often are, more nuanced in their positions than the party-line of their churches.

It has long been my belief that the Church, any church indeed, is a sociological phenomenon created by people, and where people are, there will be power and abuse of that power.  Religion can be, and often is, a way of wielding power over others, keeping them in line, controlling, not alone their baser instincts (as churches would have us believe) but also their mores with respect to sexual practices as does the Roman catholic Church.  Individuals within churches, like individuals elsewhere in society, can be hungry for power, and these don't generally mind what or who they sacrifice on their way up the ladder.  Indeed, as we have learnt to our cost over the past twenty years, the churches, especially the Roman Catholic Church, have been adept at covering up the evil doings of their pastors - especially the paedophiles amongst their number.  Religious power and control are power and control over others, and those in power love wielding it.

Churches as institutions, which broker power, will have no allegiance among the faithful, who will fall away in greater and greater numbers.  Those churches which eschew power and go for a more open and positive spirituality will live longer and get more followers.

The above two myths are the main ones - often opposing ones indeed, in our modern mythological arsenal.  There are, of course, myriads of other minor ones which I will list briefly without too much comment on each.

(iii) The myth of Body Beautiful:  One only has to look at advertisements in both the print and broadcast media for clothes, jewelery and other cosmetic goods to realise that this is a myth central to all modern culture.

(iii) The myth of Body Healthy and Fit:  This myth obviously overlaps with the former here, though more men than women belong to this one, and more women than men belong to the preceding one.  However, their is a sizable crowd who fall in the intersection between both myths.

(iii) The myth of Success: This myth is one which all educational systems, no matter what country in the modern world,  promulgates.  Now I use the word "promulgates" deliberately because we practically religiously proclaim the truth of this myth to our children on a daily basis in our homes and in our schools.  We teach our young people that they are literally "nobodies" if they are not successful.  Again, more often than not the myth of success in intertwined with the myth that "money will make you happy," which, while an obvious lie, is a myth many buy into all to readily.

(iv) The Myth that Doing is more important than Being: This is perhaps a less obvious myth because people unselfconsciously are practically hyperactive these days.  It is so ingrained into our modern psyches that we must be "up and doing" or "up and at it" almost all the time that we practically never question our obsession with doing.  In fact, many people have difficulty in learning how to relax - that is why there are so many heart attacks and so much illness and sickness in our modern society.  Learning to relax is vitally important to the health of humankind.

(v) The Myth that to Have is more important than to Be:  Admittedly there is an overlap between myths (iii) and (iv) here.  People assume that the more they have the happier they will be.  However, the experience of practically everyone points up that the opposite is, in fact, the case.  However, this does not explain why so many of us need to have more and more and more.  Possessing things has become an addiction.  Indeed, a wise philosopher, I cannot remember who, said that while we claim to possess things, we are blind to the fact that they actually possess us.

The above thoughts are by way of prelude to discussing the power of myth in Creative or Expressive Arts Therapy.

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