Using Myth to Make Sense of Our World

I used to teach a course at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota, about the power of mythology and how authors can tap into it to make their stories resonate with readers.  Here’s what I told my students on the first day of class:

Myth: a traditional story originating in a preliterate society, dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serve as primordial types in a primitive view of the world. Myths bring the unknown into relation with the known.

Why do we tell stories, or read books, or watch movies and television shows? Is it merely for entertainment, to pass the time, or to relax our minds as we take a break from our busy workaday world? Or is there something deeper going on, some yearning to make sense of our existence?

The great scholar Joseph Campbell was convinced that mythology dips into the hidden recesses of our minds and reflects common themes and characters that have been important to humankind since the first hunter pulled down a wooly mammoth on some frozen plain thousands of years ago.

Campbell, of course, is famous for the PBS TV series The Power of Myth, and also for his many books about mythology, especially Masks of God and The Hero With a Thousand Faces. He defined the Hero’s Journey, a course of plot events that occur in nearly every myth, with a cast of readily definable supporting characters that include mentors, villains, heralds, and tricksters.

The same basic characters appear over and over again in stories. They share many common characteristics, and perform very specific functions that propel the plot. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung called these characters archetypes.

Jung suggested that archetypes, as well as common plot elements, come from the “collective unconscious,” ancient personality patterns that are shared by all and passed down generation to generation. As Christopher Vogler notes in The Writer’s Journey, “Fairy tales and myths are like the dreams of an entire culture, springing from the collective unconscious. The same character types seem to occur on both the personal and the collective scale. The archetypes are amazingly constant throughout all times and cultures, in the dreams and personalities of individuals as well as in the mythic imagination of the entire world. An understanding of these forces is one of the most powerful elements in the modern storyteller’s bag of tricks.”

Look at the stories that matter most to you. You can tell an enormous amount of what you’re doing in this life, of what is in your nature, by examining stories that grab you by the throat, that you can’t shake. By really examining the tales that affect you most deeply, you’re doing what Campbell called “following your bliss.” This will give you insight into what you’re good at, what captivates you. It’s hard work, but it can be extremely rewarding.

Campbell said that when you follow your bliss, “doors will open, help will come, things will be possible.” This was certainly true for him. Campbell turned down all kinds of traditional choices, forsaking a doctorate and good teaching posts so that he could follow his bliss and study mythology. Yet, he became world famous because he was so good at what he did.

Jonathan Young, a clinical psychologist and former student of Campbell, is an expert on sacred stories. As Young says, “There are three forms of access to mystery. Image or symbolism, ritual enactment, and mythology. I try to help people develop some small skill at the method Campbell used so that they might see, through stories, the figurative connections between ritual elements in stories and moments in everyday life… Each person has a different viewpoint. Each has a personal mosaic, a collage, of images, rituals, stories, devotional practices, which form a personal spiritual path… I believe people come to hear these talks because they are longing for contact with the sacred and an awareness of the need for a new form of connection. One approach, used by Campbell, is through the symbolic reading of stories.”

In this fast-paced, often confusing modern civilization in which we live, there are fewer and fewer familiar guideposts as we make our too-quick trip through life. By understanding the patterns of mythology, we’re provided with maps for the journey. Says Young, “We do not have to start from scratch. Those who have traveled this way before have left bits of guidance.”

Some dismiss the study of mythology, contending that dusty old stories of Greek gods or Grimm’s Fairy Tales are irrelevant in this modern age. But as Western civilization seems to be heading into a decline, people are rejecting a preoccupation with “progress,” and instead are searching inward to heart and soul to find answers to life’s eternal questions: why am I here? What is the meaning of it all? What is my purpose?

Myths used to be told around campfires by ancient storytellers, perhaps freshly returned from a hunt, eager to share stories of adventure to the rest of the tribe. Tales of life, death, and resurrection were handed down from generation to generation.

Mythic stories are still told today, but now we read them in mass market paperbacks, or on Kindle ebook readers, or watch them in darkened theaters on huge silver screens. But it’s all the same thing–we’re trying to reconnect with ancient patterns that move our soul, seeking beauty and significance in our ordinary lives.

Young writes, “Mythology allows us to reconnect with dimension beyond ordinary time. In this moments in history, consumer values dominate the media. Ancient stories give us a chance to visit with eternal characters involved in primal adventures. This can provide perspectives that go beyond trendy concerns with possessions or appearance.”

All stories have symbolic meaning and hidden wisdom. They teach us how to pay attention to what’s going on in our lives, and how to perceive the options available to us.

“This is one way the angels speak to us,” says Young. “The pass key is receptivity. If we can be open to this divine flow and reflect on the meanings it presents to us, the inner life is greatly enriched.”

Explore your own personal story. For each five or ten years of your life, write down the stories that made the most impression on you. These can be anything, fiction or nonfiction, TV, movies, song lyrics, etc. You don’t have to do it in one sitting; more stories will come to you as you reflect on it.

You’ll find you have a lot of variety. Look for similar threads running through your lists. Do the patterns in your stories reflect the story of the life you’re living? Does a certain type of character emerge?

Young says there’s an important reason to know your story: “One is to appreciate it, to celebrate it, to know what a wonderful novel that you’re living. If you aren’t the star, if you see yourself as a supporting character, you’re in the wrong story.”