The New Myths: A Conversation with Willi Paul

I just completed an interesting online conversation in PlanetShifter Magazine with mythologist Willi Paul in which we interviewed each other on the subject of the “new myths.” Many of Willi’s questions to me are based on my June 23 post below. You can read both sides our conversation by clicking here; Willi’s interview of me is below. Hope you enjoy it! I look forward to your comments.

1. Can you offer a vision of what the present day Eden would look like? Are there actual examples that we could critique?

I don’t consider Eden, even in the original story, as ultimately having a clear concrete geography or detailed physical characteristics. As Joseph Campbell observed, the Eden story “yields its meaning only to a psychological interpretation,” and the Garden of Eden is really a metaphor for our minds (Thou Art That, p. 50). While in the Garden prior to their transgression, Adam and Eve were in what we would call an unconscious or pre-conscious state, where they did not perceive or understand opposites, whether those of good vs. evil or otherwise. In reference to the creation, the post-Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann called this primitive state where all was one unity the “uroboros” (The Origins and History of Consciousness, pp. 5-38). Adam and Eve’s gaining the knowledge of good and evil gave them the faculty of mind to perceive and understand opposites, which today we recognize as ego consciousness. Thus, this step was really the completion of the creation of humans, at which point they could walk out of the garden and live in the real world. In light of this, any attempt to recreate and live in any new “Eden” would be regressive. Rather, human consciousness must move forward and upward, further from Eden (see Question 10 below). It would be best for modern myths to be oriented in this direction, as was this line (aspect) of the Eden myth.

2. Is chaos central to our modern mythic resource pool?

Ultimately it has to remain central, though “chaos” is no longer the best term for this. In the ancient creation myths, the pre-creation state was described as one of primordial waters, which were chaotic in the sense of lacking form or order. Creation was visualized as establishing an ordered cosmos from earlier chaos, bringing into being things like time, multiplicity, opposites, and cause and effect. As psychology shows, water is a prime symbol for the unconscious, which is reflected in the primordial waters in this creation motif. In her book Creation Myths (pp. 2-4), the post-Jungian psychologist Marie Louise von Franz wrote that the creation motif of order being created out of chaos is rooted in our own experience of coming into consciousness; in psychic terms, our becoming aware of the ordered world and the world coming into existence are equated. We experience this when waking in the morning as the outside world of space, time, order, and cause and effect fall into place. Similarly, developmental psychology shows that infants don’t initially perceive such an orderly outside world, but that within a few years it falls into place as a sense of self emerges. Since “chaos” is nothing other than our own unconscious, this is not something that will disappear. And since our unconscious is the source of myths, of course it will remain central to our mythic resource pool. We can stop calling it chaos, however, as that suggests that it had/has an external metaphysical existence.

3. Do you subscribe to my thesis that there are old, time-worn and almost forgotten myths and new myths emerging based on many ideas including permaculture, Nature in peril and corporate evil?

Certainly we see that many of the old myths no longer resonate with our psyches and are dying. Any new myths are in their infancy and so are hard to assess at this point. In order to be successful, they must “move” us, which is to say they will need to come from and resonate with the same inner parts of the psyche that gave the old myths wings. I’m not so sure how successful we can be in consciously thinking up “ideas” and trying to build myths around them, because historically the mythmaking process has worked the other way around, from the unconscious to ego consciousness. But as discussed in the context of Questions 9 and 10 below, this process could evolve as our psyche itself develops so as to reintegrate suppressed and repressed unconscious content into our conscious selves. Nevertheless, since so many of the old myths were based on our awe of and essential connection with nature, there is reason to believe that the new ones can too; we just need to dress them up in ways that we can better understand and accept using elements from our own culture. I agree with you that permaculture can have a role here, as can sustainability in general.

4. What is the meaning and value of the serpent in today’s mythic conversation?

Serpent symbolism is probably the most complex and varied around, encompassing even various opposites (e.g., life vs. death, wisdom vs. evil, chaos vs. creation, causing and curing illness). This is because the various physical characteristics and behavior of serpents resonate with various parts of our psyche. Serpent symbolism is very much alive (it continues to be prominent in our dreams), so it has mythic value and should remain a component of myths. Given the multivalent nature of serpent symbolism and the fact that it is a product of our unconscious, however, it is hard to predict what myths may emerge containing serpent symbolism.

5. Where is the center of the world? Who owns it?

In the ancient world, a Center (sometimes actually called “the center of the world”) was a sacred spot where the divine, in the heavens and the underworld, connected with the earthly, including with us humans; it is where the 3 planes of the cosmos meet and thus lies at the heart of reality. Archetypically, it was also thought of as the place of creation. As such, a Center was a sacred place, where a temple or other sanctuary (including sacred trees) was situated and people could interact with their deities and experience transcendence. Thus, the Garden of Eden, a sanctuary where humans interacted with God and gained the godlike knowledge of good and evil, also can be considered a Center. In reality, various peoples and communities each had at least one Center of their own. Such multiplicity of Centers was not considered a contradiction and nobody fought over the matter, because people were thinking mythologically: What was being experienced was sacred space, not earthly geographical space. Such ancient way of viewing the matter provides the key for us too. Sacred space is existential for humans, and can exist anywhere on earth. The lesson to draw is that the Center really lies within ourselves, so it can be anywhere we are, when we are attuned to it. So each of us owns it (our personal Center), and communities also can own one collectively. The key to it for each of us is finding an approach to spirituality that works to make us, as Campbell said, transparent to transcendence (see Question 9 below).

6. Can you point out a modern day Mother Nature myth?

Cameron’s film Avatar brought these mythological themes out pretty well, albeit in Hollywoodized fashion. There the Na’vi lived close with nature and their spirituality reflected that: They had a mother earth goddess Eywa and connected with her at the sacred Tree of Souls, which was a means of transformation. In contrast, the humans had depleted earth’s environment and, through a corporation, were encroaching on Pandora without heed or care. The story thus touches on the issues that you asked about in Question 3 above.

7. Is a new universal creation story unfolding now? Or is it more likely a universal death story? Or are they being combined?

Many older mythologies did combine creation/life and destruction/death, either in cycles of the cosmos (Indian, Maya) or in seasonal cycles, but in light of scientific explanations for such things it is not clear to me that this motif will endure in future myths, at least without substantial updating. Although the matter of physical creation of the universe is now largely a subject for scientific study, the mere wonder of the universe (including how it came into being) and the mystery of life will continue to inspire us and can generate myths. The threat of universal death (e.g., environmental catastrophe, blowing ourselves up) should afford future mythological material since death itself in any form provides mythological material.

(The remaining questions quote from my June 23 post below, also posted on Willi’s site.)

8. “I would venture to say that the folks on the anti-globalization, pro-local and pro-diversity side of the fence also tend to be the very people who most appreciate myths.” Please expand on this.

I don’t have scientific poll data on this; this is just an observation based on my personal experience, including reading. In my experience, people who live closer to nature, embrace diversity in all its aspects, support local communities in their various aspects (culture, agriculture, businesses), have also been most sensitive to the things that generate myths, mythical content, and to knowing about and preserving myths.

9. “The above analysis confirms that we need to look to the same sources of creativity that have generated myths, spirituality, and art in the past: artists, writers, composers, musicians, and (more modernly) filmmakers. This is only natural because creativity springs largely from unconscious processes, which artists succeed in tapping for inspiration and then bring to concrete life for themselves and the rest of us.” In my recent piece, entitled: “Permaculture, Carl Jung and the New Archetypes” (+ PDF) by Willi Paul, New Global Mythology Group @ Depth Psychology Alliance, I propose that the symbol and archetype dyadic is a two-way data flow between the collective unconscious and the collective conscious. What is your reaction? Also, in your quote above, are you not referring to Campbell’s Creative Mythology (also developed in my piece)?

I see from your piece that you do see artists, etc., as playing a key role much as I do. The traditional Jungian approach is that myths proceed fundamentally from archetypes of the collective unconscious, while our conscious psyche refines that content into intelligible symbols and narratives. Your idea that the conscious psyche can also be involved in creating (new) archetypes is intriguing, and I look forward to seeing how that plays out in practice and in psychology theory. It would be great if that turns out to be the case, because we would have greater control (and responsibility) over the development of new myths and other elements of culture, and the new myths would evolve more quickly.

As to your second question, Campbell is indeed one of the influences on my thinking regarding this point and I do recall the passages from his Creative Mythology that you mention to that effect, but actually at the time I was thinking more of Chapter 3 of his later book, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, which he entitled “The Way of Art.” There he argues that the way and methods of art make one (both artist and audience) transparent to transcendence, which brings forth both myths and art.

10. “In the end, a key to having resonant, living global myths will require a corresponding effort to elevate (evolve) the human psyche itself so that we will be more receptive to global myths and better able to create them.”  

That’s a huge statement (of faith?). How do you propose the human race tackle this?

Actually, I don’t think this is so huge (in terms of being a departure from mainstream thinking) or a matter of faith, and it seems to me to be generally consistent with what you are proposing as mentioned in Question 9, which also involves developing our consciousness in connection with generating new myths. As I mentioned above, the Eden story is really about the elevation of our consciousness, which is a continuing historical process, as shown by a number of thinkers, such as Jean Gebser in The Ever Present Origin, by Ken Wilber in his Up from Eden, and by Neumann in his works. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently brought forth data showing that in biological evolutionary terms our psyche has evolved more rapidly than we previously thought possible (The Righteous Mind, pp. 247-52). Jung himself, in his Symbols of Transformation (Collected Works, vol. 5, pp. 7-33), traces about how humans moved from fantasy thinking to more directed thinking in language in the space of the last 2 to 3 thousand years. A problem resulting from our psychic development over that period, however, has been an over-dominance of ego consciousness resulting in the suppression and repression of unconscious content, which among other things has rendered our culture too masculine, warlike, and out of touch with nature. The human psyche needs to rise to higher levels where our conscious self better integrates the contents of our unconscious that in fact are seeking to break out into the open and be heard and accepted. Among other things, this would facilitate more and better new myths, as well as a more prominent “nature lens” that you write about. Describing exactly how to get there would take an entire book, and actually some thinkers such as Allan Combs and Ken Wilber have written extensively on this. I bullet point some suggestions at the end of my new book, and they include: dream tending; shadow work; attention to our sense of humor; meditation practices; artistic/creative activities and maximizing stimulation from the art of others; in some cases psychological therapy; nourishing the feminine and nature; and conforming educational theory, institutions, and practice to this overall paradigm.

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