What is Mythology? (Part 6)

In Part 5 I tried to be a bit more straightforward in my definition of mythology. Being straightforward is kind of a drag, and if all you ever did was sit around creating, compiling, and arguing definitions, after four years I would deem you educated.

Here are three more definitions of “mythology” I use in my course, all written by prominent mythologists:

1)  Joseph Campbell, from The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

Mythology is psychology misread as biography, history, and cosmology. Their function is to serve as a powerful picture language for the communication of traditional wisdom.

As I previously discussed with the notion of “myth-as-fugue,” here and here, myths definitely contain elements of biography, history, and cosmology, among other things. However, you wouldn’t want your understanding of Sumerian history to rely entirely (or even largely) on The Epic of Gilgamesh. History is referenced, but not accurately. Historical fact is, in part, the basis for some of what happens in the epic. It’s just transformed into literature and fantasy, a bit like those made-for-TV-movies that used to be so popular. Though, I should note, the idea of understanding history as a collection of verifiable facts is a relatively recent concept. It’s not that those compiling the myths of Gilgamesh were bent on distorting history (although political agendas may have been driving them).


Instead, the recalling and recreating of myths in the present in order to continue the power and promise of the ancestors probably kept history alive in a way that blurred our linear notions of how events unfold. Accuracy in fact and reason did not hold the kind of sway that a direct experience of divine powers did. Once you begin to view the ancient and classical world through their primary values, you have to change your categories of understanding. Myths were not subjected to fact-checkers. The myths were plainly factual each time they were enacted and retold. They succeed via their power to produce effects on the participants. Their truths was blindly obvious, as obvious as the cycle of seasons.

It was, in fact, the movement of time in these cycles that held more sway than any notion of linear history. If the rites were performed and the fertility gods responded, with rain, with floods, with storms, with a good crop, then the facts were readily apparent. We don’t view causation or time this way today, nor did people run around discussing the psychological themes in myths as if they could somehow be teased out and isolated from the performance of the myth in its entirety.

What then does Campbell mean by equating mythology with psychology. If we grant that psychology confronts the psyche and perhaps the soul (as opposed to merely treating problematic symptoms, as a psychiatrist does) then Campbell is rightly claiming a role for mythology that is not occupied by other fields.

Mythology reminds us what it is to be human. It is, in Campbell’s words, a mirror that reflects aspects of our being we often forget or try to oppress. When we read mythology, we can be forced to ask questions about fate, the meaning of life, or deeply held beliefs and emotions. Mythology often recounts the human journey in ways that refuse dissection and classification. It returns us to one of those fundamental questions that are not answerable directly (which is why they are not scientific questions). What am I suppose to do? Who I am? Why does anything exist at all? What is the story of my life? Am I being called to transform my life?

In many ways, similar to other forms of literature, mythology induces reflection, an exploration of the interior spaces. It is perhaps the root of all literature, and therefore more of a radical enabler of reflection.

2) William Irwin Thompson, from The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light:

Myth is the history of the soul.

Thompson sets the history of the soul in opposition to the history of the state, of war, of economics, and technology, or, in other words, the usual markers of history. But what exactly is the history of the soul? It is best to simply refer to a larger context of this quote, which appears numerous times in Thompson’s masterpiece, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light:

William Irwin Thompson NYC Gates 279__Under_the_Gates,_Central_Park,_2005_Photo_Michele_LaporteMyth at the level of understanding of the Age of Heroes is symbolic or figurative, but the world is still divided. Level IV is the unitive state of the great mystics; it is a state of being, analogous to music, in which myth is not simply a description, but a performance of the very reality it seeks to describe. Here history becomes the performance of myth, for the experience of recalling (anamnesis) enlightens the individual to see that myth is the history of the soul. The ego is locked into a narrow time frame (Plato’s cave), and so experiences from the other dimensions of the soul are recast into the forms and imagery of the ordinary world, but in the experience of illumination the ego realizes that the narratives that seem to be saying one thing are saying much more. (Page 6)

History is an illusion, or at least a narrow depiction of reality which filters out the pure, direct light or reality and presents a shadow play. Myth alone records the non-linear history of the soul, a history which is constantly denied or forgotten, or just extremely difficult to record. In fact, it has largely gone untold, passed along orally, transmitted in secret, available only to initiates. Myth captures some of this, but must be unlocked to be believed. Thompson’s emphasis on performance reminds us how much of our artistic knowledge is not directly explicable. You must see the painting, hear the music, read the poem. Talking about it or trying to use explanatory language around the edges of an artistic performance might provide insight, but it will always be a secondary, filtered experience.

3) Karen Armstrong, from A Short History of Myth:

Karen-Armstrong-Spiritual-QuestWe have imagination, a faculty that enables us to think of something that is not immediately present, and that, when we first conceive it, has no objective existence. The imagination is the faculty that produces religion and mythology. ….But the imagination is also the faculty that has enabled scientists to bring new knowledge to light and to invent technology that has made us immeasurably more effective. ….Like science and technology, mythology, as we shall see, is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.

This quote would have seemed silly perhaps fifteen years ago. No one took imagination seriously then. Something has changed, however, and creativity and imagination are no longer confined to kindergarten classrooms and New Age workshops. In fact, they’re probably in danger of being abused by corporate America and drained of meaning by one too many TED talks extolling their virtues. The early creators of myths were the first “out-of-the-box” thinkers, I suppose. Maybe the Australian aboriginals will start appearing on “Think Different” posters.

Anyway, I deeply appreciate Armstrong’s use of the term “imagination” as a kind of visionary capacity for creating culture and new perspectives for exploring the vital questions of our being. It also stands as a reminder that many of our key scientific advances began as dreams, hunches, intuitions, and flights of fancy. Perhaps mythological imagination is the creative ground out of which the arts and sciences arise.

What is Mythology? (Part 4)

We’ve reached the point in this discussion where we must attempt the impossible: to define “archetype.” (This is difficult enough, especially since I haven’t even properly defined “Mythology,” but have only danced around it in Part 1.)

But, before that, a quick digression. In Part 3, I introduced the vomiting god Bumba, whose barf gave birth to the earth and its creatures. He is, however, not the only mythological figure whose ralphs are heard ’round the world.


In Greek mythology, the titan Chronus swallows his first five children in an attempt to protect his grip on the throne. When the sixth child (a chap named Zeus) is switched with a rock, Chronus swallows the rock and subsequently yaks his other children, the first generation of gods, into the world.

The secretions do not stop there. According to Chapter 2 of Kathryn Valdivia’s online Mythology lectures, creation myths often depend on such bodily emissions as: “vomit, sweat, urination, defecation,” and so on.

What’s going on here? A true reminder that mythologies were formed during the childhood of humanity? Or some kind of Freudian obsession with bodily functions written into translations by repressed priests and shamans? Or are these pre-literate, pre-Christian groups just less uptight about perfectly natural phenomena?

Perhaps, but I think there is reason to believe that such references have a third layer of meaning beyond the literal interpretation (“a god is barfing”) and the figurative (“the god barfing represents how the world was created out of nothing, or possible from a reconstituting of materials rejected by the gods”).

This opens up an entirely different discussion about the function of myth, but I promise I will circle back to discussing “archetypes” before the end of this post.

As I mentioned in Part 2, myths make less sense when plucked from their original context as communal ritual, usually performed as music and poetry, and ritualized for purposes both civic and spiritual. For example, Washington Matthews’ translations of The Navajo Night Chant can perhaps be read as something akin to contemporary poetry when found in the Norton Anthology of World Literature. However, reading it silently (as one would read a poem by John Ashbery or Mary Oliver) can feel a bit odd, especially given the seemingly excessive repetition:

In beauty may I walk.
All day long may I walk.
Through the returning seasons may I walk.
On the trailed marked with pollen may I walk.
With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk.
With dew about my feet may I walk.
With beauty may I walk.
With beauty before me, may I walk.
With beauty behind me, may I walk.
With beauty above me, may I walk.
With beauty below me, may I walk.
With beauty all around me, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.
It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.

This looks like a typical quiet contemporary poem. But, in practice, it sounds like this (from Voyager’s Sounds of the Earth recording:

The text stretches on for days with chanting and song as part of a healing ceremony intended to purify and transform the sick. The event lasts for nine days, including ten straight hours of dancing on the ninth day. Only when translated, written down, and divorced from its context does it become what we commonly call “literature.”

Though I have never been there, I am certain that sweating and vomiting occur, as it certainly occurs in various other religious ceremonies around the world, many of which include physical deprivation, dehydration, starvation, extreme temperatures, and consummation of what we call “drugs” in the contemporary Western world. Ayahuasca and peyote almost always involve vomiting, as would excessive amounts of wine in Dionysian ceremonies.


If mythological texts are fugue-like (see Part 3), and if one function is to describe the process of being ritually initiated, then perhaps the descriptions of bodily functions are simply (or not so simply) part of the ritual. And, of course, since these are secret groups who by definition must remain mysterious to outsiders, none of this can be said directly. It helps to remember that many myth-makers intentional obscure their meanings by using esoteric language.

So it seems there is a logical explanation why so many myths feature bodily secretions. On one level, it could be mere data, a compilation of what goes on during shamanic rituals and cultic celebrations.

This would not, however, explain the repeated use of such imagery in stories of how the world was made. If a given myth is created over time and takes on layers of meaning in order to reflect the various functions of the myth (i.e. not just a “script” for the ritual, but also a culture’s cosmology) then perhaps certain physical acts came to be seen as microcosms of the divine order.

Vomiting as a physical necessity, but also as part of the customary ritual, yet also as a recreation of the origins of life, so that, in some sense, the participant is returning to the source, beginning again, healing in the deepest way imaginable. (It is telling that Bumba, discussed in Part 3, later walks from village to village in an attempt to cheer up his creations, repeating, “Let joy flood your hearts!” His imperfect creations caused him to vomit, but he is not about to let this ruin the world.)

Why then, across time and space, do so many cultures use images of bodily emissions to explain how the world was made? If we expand the category a little bit, we also find numerous creation myths depicting severed body parts used as the raw material for the creation of land, ocean, and sky. In “The Enuma Elish” (the Babylonian creation myth), for example,  Marduk crushes Tiamat’s skull and breaks her body in two like a shellfish, forming from it the sky and the earth. This is a motif that shows up often.

Enter archetypes. When recurring patterns such as these emerge across time, there are three possible explanations: #1) meaningless coincidence/utter obviousness, #2) universal human psychology, or, #3) to put it one of a thousand different ways, divine plan. I think you could make the case that all three point to archetypes. Or, you could make the case that the first two provide a way to explain such recurrences without archetypes, and that the third is just a fantasy.

Either way, defining archetypes is not easy. In C.G. Jung’s writings, an archetype is a pattern that lies beyond the physical world. We can never know the archetype directly, because it is, ultimately an unconscious idea and, as Jung famously said, “The Unconscious is always unconscious.” These unconscious ideas manifest themselves in the world, suggesting patterns over time. The archetype, then, is controlling or guiding our behaviors and actions mostly unbeknownst to us.


As an analogy, it is helpful to think of how most cultures viewed astrology just a few hundred years ago (and as many people still view it today). That is, when events happen in our lives, it is because they are being guided by mysterious forces “in the stars.” Our lives are the products of alignments and intersections, recurring patterns that are something like generic and abstract plans from which a variety of results can be derived. When, for example, Mars is in retrograde, it determines that certain qualities or possibilities will go into effect. The underlying ideas repeat themselves each time this happens, but the results are always different. You can see the patterns, but never know the ultimate idea behind it.

An archetypal symbol, then, is not the pure archetype itself, which can never be known, but an image that suggests the archetype is at work. It could be that no such underlying idea exists, but that something in us is drawn to repeat the activity or to notice the image. (This is the second explanation listed above.) But this intense response to such images would be enough to study them, and perhaps enough to posit some not-quite-so-cosmic archetype at work on our psychology, something akin to universal human meaning.

Take the snake. (No, go ahead, take it, I dare you.) While very few snakes show up in Inuit mythology, the use of snakes and serpents in mythology is widespread. Why have we chosen them to be featured more frequently then, let’s say, the worm. It could be explanation #1: Snakes are scary. Isn’t it obvious. Perhaps, but Carl Sagan wasn’t happy with that explanation. In his book Dragons of Eden, he argued that our fear of snakes results from an earlier time in our history when larger lizards posed a threat to our survival. This led to the use of dragons in mythology.


Something like this, I believe,explains the prevalence of flood stories in mythology. We will discuss this at more length in addressing Gilgamesh in a future post. (Gilgamesh contains an account of Noah’s ark some 1500 years before it appears in the Book of Genesis.) The question is, why do so many myths feature floods? The obvious answer is: many of the great early civilizations were built near rivers which flooded. Duh. The less obvious answer is: floods were unpredictable events that surely seemed like divine intervention (perhaps explanation #2.) The archetypal theory might posit that flood imagery reminds of how the unconscious can well up and take over, as in the tidal wave of blood Carl Jung saw as he rode the train the year the first world war broke out in Europe, and the year his own unconscious visions began taking over his life and almost drowning him. Floods, then, are archetypal images of the sudden and frightening power of the unconscious. They are the Unconscious speaking to us.

Of course, such messages might not be coming from beyond. Freud would have instantly reduced such imagery to a primal place, the womb, which is the first flood we experience. This is, essentially, the reason Freud and Jung underwent a professional separation. To Freud, the unconscious mainly contains our primal urges, the Id, which are in constant battle with the Superego, a layer of morality we acquire from authority figures at an early age. Jung believe the Unconscious had another layer, a second basement, which was filled with universal archetypal imagery we all have access to. This he called the Collective Unconscious, and it’s an important concept for the study of Mythology since Jung’s work is the primary influence for Joseph Campbell, whose theory of recurring narrative patterns across mythology is archetypal to the core. We will discuss this later when we reach epic tales and Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

What is Mythology? (Part 3)

In Part 2, I ended by evoking William Irwin Thompson’s notion of “Myth-as-Fugue,” or the idea that ancient and classical myths served multiple purposes and contained a variety of discourses (political, spiritual, historical, etc.). Key to this concept is Thompson’s use of a musical term, “Fugue,” where competing voices cohere (not without tension and dissonance) into a single composition. Here is Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ (trust me, you’ve heard it) with the separate parts represented visually:

The result is a composition that should not make sense, but does. It makes sense in traditional fugues because of the pleasing contrapuntal effect of independent melody lines playing off of each other. As long as one doesn’t mind being pulled in multiple directions, but instead enjoys the dynamic tension that results, fugues can create a richer listening experience, and, some would argue, a whole brain workout that forces the listener to mentally juggle and synthesize multiple, disparate factors.

This is, incidentally, how good poetry works. Often, through linguistic and symbolic ambiguity, a well-wrought poem suggests layers of meaning, sometimes establishing sharply contradicting interpretations.


To cite one simple example, Robert Frost’s “The Mending Wall,” which begins with the line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” is a poem that gives voice to at least three positions: the highly quotable anti-wall posture of “Good fences make good neighbors,” the skeptical idealist narrator who declares that “before I  built a wall I’d ask to know/ what I was walling in or walling out,” and Frost’s own voice, in the background, carefully painting the narrator as a snob who imagines his uneducated traditionalist neighbor as “an old stone savage,” not to mention the poem’s perfect blank verse structure. We have, it seems, a poem about walls that sets in motion competing views on the subject matter, all the while traipsing along in deft, vernacular iambic pentameter (as carefully structured as a stone wall), written by a poet who once declared writing free verse to be “playing tennis without a net.” One final note, it is “frozen groundswell,” or frost (get the pun) that destroys the wall in the beginning of the poem.

Form? Freedom? Love? Suspicion? Equality? Hierarchy? Creation? Destruction? What is this poem about?

My answer is the same answer I give to all my students: read it out loud.  That is what it is about.

This reinforces the need to read myths out loud, their connection to oral tradition, and the idea of myth as ritual, discussed in Part 2.

But let’s not go in circles. The same quality that frustrates undergraduates about poetry informs ancient and classical myths: they are multidimensional, multi-directional, ambiguous, contradictory, symbolically rich and diffuse, and densely-packed with all kinds of meanings and associations. “Why can’t you say exactly what you mean?” the frustrated undergraduate demands of the dead poet. “Because,” the dead poet replies, “in order to say exactly what I mean, I must say it inexactly.”

This is mythopoetic language: the art of approaching the mystery mysteriously. One cannot tackle a water buffalo head on.

Language is a good medium for giving directions to the grocery store, for explaining evolution (but not quantum mechanics), and for filling a crowd up with enough pride so they will vote for you. It’s not so good, however, at explaining the essence of experiences that extend beyond its purview, or in questioning why language (or anything) exists in the first place. It gets tangled up in knots at this.


Let’s take Bumba for example, the creator-god found in the Boshongo and the Bakuba traditions of Zaire, who vomits the sun, earth, and humans into existence. It is an act of rejection and creation at once. He is both giving birth and trying to eradicate the discomfort of spent, harmful material. His stomach is both a womb and an underworld. Additionally, vomiting seems an apt metaphor for the scientific narrative of what happens during the Big Bang, when matter violently emerges from a much smaller enclosed space.


Vomiting then, is simultaneously a shortcut to understanding and a digression from it. You wouldn’t want mythology to function otherwise. It wouldn’t be mythology.

Mythopoetic (also “Mythopoeic’) language has been described as myth-making, and if one is going to make a myth, he or she must think poetically, speaking or writing in images dripping in meaning, images which seem to speak directly at first, though soon begin doing abnormal things, associating with other images in leaps and fits, the sorts of images that at once suggest an ancient connection to truth made readily apparent, undeniable symbols from the unconscious, yet which quickly recede behind fog, or shape-shift, or break apart and shatter, reflecting something, anything, what?

In order to work, mythopoetic language must be both old and new, surprising us with what we already know. A prime medium, then, of mythopoetic language is the archetype, an image which negotiates the space between the timeless pattern and the ceaseless manifestation of the present. More on archetypes in Part 4.

What is Mythology? (Part 2)


“The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.”  Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Mythology is indeed reality, even though mythology may not be real. Certainly, it is at least based on reality. Gilgamesh and Quetzalcoatl (though not Zeus and Bumba) actually lived and perhaps performed heroic deeds or left historical marks that eventually morphed into tall tales.

This implies that mythology is just another type of literature, to be read as fiction and dissected as such. We may explore the psychology of Gilgamesh the way we would Jay Gatsby, to extract ideas from characters, whether they be 2oth century moguls or ancient kings who are two-thirds divine.

But what if we have this backwards?

Instead of assuming that mythological tales are crafted documents in which literary writers embedded (consciously or not) signs and symbols in order to occupy liberal arts students who don’t excel at math, what if we imagine that the myths were written by the signs and symbols?

After all, authorship is an entirely different deal in mythology. We know F. Scott Fitzgerald (and a bottle) wrote The Great Gatsby. But who wrote the Epic of Gilgamesh? This is the wrong question.

I could give you my usual spiel on oral tradition, which I seem to spend a third of the semester on whenever I teach Mythology. This is because, along with the notion of “Myth-as-Fugue” I discuss below, it is absolutely vital in understanding the crucial differences between mythology and what we normally call “literature,” i.e. stuff written by one person in book form. I will restrain myself, however, and mention just four keys points concerning oral tradition:

1) Before the slow spread of literacy and writing began (perhaps 5000 years ago and continuing to this day) and before the West’s version of the printing press (more specifically Gutenberg’s adaptation of movable type,  550 years ago) accelerated access to books, the primary way in which “texts” were encountered was through oral transmission, i.e. hearing someone perform a memorized and partially improvised story.

2) Oral transmission (which involves learning, reciting, and passing along stories, myths, and poems without a written text) results in multiple primary “texts,” vague or impossible-to-define origins and dates, and no discernible authors. Additionally, these “texts” change over time to reflect regional differences, political agendas, translations from one language to another, and the creative whims of poets, performers, and community members.


3) The written versions of oral tales (recorded on stone tablets, animal skin scrolls, and papyrus) are usually created hundreds of years after their initial creation. Often, as is the case with Mayan and Aztec myths, they are subject to distortion by colonizing forces. In reading a mythology textbook, you are always reading a version of a version of a version, and so on.

4) Myths from the oral tradition can only be understood properly as performance pieces, as the scripts for elaborate cultural or religious rituals, civic rites, or entertainment events featuring large audiences, music, and sometimes human and animal sacrifices. To complicate matters, some myths are derived from the initiation rituals of mystery cults, resulting in texts that are intentionally esoteric and hostile to outside interpretation.

In other words, grab your mythology textbook and some drums and get together with your friends for three days of wine and chanting. Maybe you’ll get a sense of how mythological texts are supposed to exist.


Now that we have that out of the way, how does the reality of oral tradition affect how we read or interpret mythology?

Certainly, it is impossible to ask, “What is the author trying to say about X?” which is a common formula I encourage in introductory literature classes.

First, there is the obvious problem of not having an author, or of reading a text cobbled together with words and ideas from multiple poets, translators, editors, authority figures, priests, and local performers.

Second, the author (whoever that is) might not be trying to say anything. That is, perhaps the myth is an occasion for some pre-existing and mysterious ideas to manifest in the world through poetry. (More on this in Part 3, when I will discuss archetypes and mythopoetic language.)

Third, if you thought “The Wasteland” was complicated, get ready for mythology. A poet like T.S. Eliot might use multiple languages, allusions, and styles of discourse to create a dense, inscrutable collage poem, but that poem still has a one-dimensional function: it functions as poem to be read out-loud or silently by one person so that we may engage it in some literary setting: classroom, library, bookstore, under a tree, or, god forbid, a poetry reading.

Not so with myths, which aren’t just literary documents (though we treat them as such in the college setting). Instead, since myths were created before the specialization of knowledge and (as the previously beaten dead horse reminds us) before widespread literacy leads to obsessive data collection, myths had to hold everything. Myths were the storage unit for a civilization’s history, poetry, religion, politics, entertainment, and so on. Cultural historian William Irwin Thompson refers to this as “Myth-as-Fugue.”

I’ll finish Part 2 by posting a video lecture I recently made on this concept and how it applies to The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known epic tale: