These days we ponder what should be the “new myths” in light of our modern-day reality, but upon reflection we can see that many already exist and are playing themselves out on the public stage, in the form of people’s “personal myths” that drive their words and actions. In our Internet age, “personal mythology” is not merely a private matter of each person’s individuation process. The manifestations and consequences of personal myths are often bizarre, tragic, and dangerous to society. We have seen this recently: in the minds of the shooters in the massacres in Charleston and elsewhere, the takeover of Oregon’s Malheur wildlife refuge by an armed self-styled militia, attitudes toward Muslims, the debate over immigration, race relations, and in much of the rhetoric of the current presidential campaign. In order to understand events and control our future, it has become more urgent than ever that we be able to recognize and understand myths when they see them, which is the first step both to controlling their dark side as well as to developing healthier new myths that will inspire individuals and society in a more positive way.
At the most basic and broadest level, a myth can be thought of as nothing less than our psyche’s construction of reality, or parts of it. As psychologists have shown, myths, like dreams, are essential to our psychic well-being; we can’t do without them. The challenge becomes how to tend them.
Historically, myths were developed, taught, and ritualized in a public manner, so that everyone in a community shared the same myths and therefore the same essential vision of reality. Myths thus bonded societies together and served to enforce society’s rules and control its members. But this is no longer the case in our modern world where the old myths have lost their hold on most people. Among other things, science now explains things formerly explained by religion and myths; globalization has taken hold, breaking down the cultural walls that supported traditional religions and mythologies; technology and media have a dominant role in culture; there has been unprecedented migration and intermixing of cultures and of people themselves; and the rise of women has been unsettling and threatening to many men. The pace of change in society and culture has accelerated, to the point where it has outpaced the possibility for the traditional kind of public myths to develop and take hold.
Many elements of this process have been going on in Europe for centuries, where the various nations with differing languages and cultural traditions and myths lived closely together and worked out and minimized their differences at the cost of many wars, followed by integration. But in the USA we were more isolated from this dynamic. Even after WWI when we emerged preeminent on the world stage, we imposed on others’ cultures rather than exchanged with them, and the Cold War rendered our relationship with the rest of the world rather one-dimensional. We have felt the shock more acutely since the end of the Cold War. Without a superpower enemy to unite us, we had to look more inward to find our identity. For this we needed new mythmaking, but in the new era the traditional public mythmaking could no longer work so well. Enter personal mythology, which when practiced at its best is what Joseph Campbell called “creative mythology” (see below).
“Personal mythology” is one way to describe the result of a person’s psychological individuation process (or failure in that process) as visualized by Carl Jung. As a mythologist, I like looking at individuation in terms of mythology, because it results in one’s own “story.” This perspective begins by recognizing that our view of the world, including ourselves, is shaped fundamentally by common unconscious patterns within our psyches called archetypes (together forming our collective unconscious), together with elements of the unconscious accumulated from our personal experience, especially from childhood. This is the ultimate source of mythological symbols and motifs. Our waking, ego consciousness, interacts with what wells up from the unconscious to produce a somewhat coherent (to ourselves) narrative or construction about ourselves and the world. In that process, our shadow asserts itself, with our ego rejecting what doesn’t match its image of our self (suppression/repression), resulting in corresponding projections of the same onto the external world (e.g., scapegoating). If this process is left to proceed on its own, we become passive prisoners of our archetypes and are carried through an unaware, unenlightened life, living according to corresponding myths, with pernicious, destructive consequences to our psychic balance and the outside world (in Star Wars terminology, going over to the dark side, which indeed has power). Historically, when myths were imposed by society, they served to control people’s individual actions, while resulting pernicious behavior was often collective (e.g., witch trials, the Inquisition), but when the controlling function of the old myths is lifted in society at large, anti-social individuals with their own destructive mythologies can more easily surface to wreak their damage directly, which we see increasingly today.
Not only Campbell (from the perspective of the mythologist) but also a number of psychologists including David Feinstein, Stephen Larsen, Stanley Krippner, Rollo May, and Jean Houston recognized the problem and developed methodologies for proactively developing one’s personal mythology along a more enlightened path. This is a centering/individuation process that involves identifying what one’s initial personal myth has been, as well as competing myths, integrating them, and then living out the new vision (Feinstein and Krippner). At bottom, this is an exercise in self-mastery. Such well-balanced, self-aware, integrated individuals in turn can help generate a healthier society. Campbell agreed. He wrote that creative mythology springs “from the insights, sentiments, thought, and vision of an adequate individual, loyal to his own experience” (pp. 6-7, emphasis mine). Such people are able “to relate to the wealth of mythological images and meanings in a creative and life-enhancing way” (Larsen, p. 15). In the end, argued Campbell, the new myths will come from such inspired individuals, who most commonly will be artists. Jung viewed this process as the most fundamental and important thing a person can do, and in fact described his whole lifelong journey as one of finding and developing his personal myth (Jung).
Returning to the course of history, we can see how chaos in our public myths results, at least initially, in chaos in our personal myths. The roots of this unsettling process go back at least to the Renaissance, and it is interesting to compare today’s situation with the similar impact this chaos had on people’s psyches centuries ago. As an example, Joseph Campbell, in his book Creative Mythology, used Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote, as interpreted by him, with help from José Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Quixote. Campbell observed that by 1600 when Cervantes was writing, the Renaissance and science had just changed the world, but Quixote would not and could not recognize the cold facts of this new outer reality. Rather, he was a captive of old myths and his personal myth. Riding for the honor of his lady Dulcinea (a projected, imaginary form of his real-life farm-girl neighbor), he sees (projects) windmills as enemy giants to be overcome, but in the event he winds up in a heap. His aide Sancho Panza cries, “Anyone could have seen that these are windmills – not giants – unless he had windmills in his head!” But Quixote’s myth still drives him, creating a scapegoat shadow figure: “I am sure it was that necromancer Frestón who transformed these giants into mills, to deprive me of this victory. He has always been my enemy, this way. However, his evil arts will have little force, in the end, against the virtue of my sword” (my emphasis). Quixote’s will, remarked Campbell, had become “reality in itself” (p. 605).
Fast forward to the recent siege in Malheur, Oregon, where we have: a self-styled militia visualizing themselves as heroes and patriots, knights if you will, in cowboy hats instead of a knight’s helmet, fighting not for an imagined lady but for an imaginary version of the Constitution and against an imagined tyranny, attacking not a windmill but an empty federal wildlife sanctuary building, riding in pickup trucks and SUVs rather than on the imagined steed Rocinante, and wielding, instead of a lance, an American flag on a standard and automatic weapons. They imagined that ex-Navy Seals and other veterans would rally to their cause and join them, but no one came, and their self-perceived heroic exploit likewise ended up in a messy heap. While their actual motivations have been shown to be selfish economic ones, they were able to suppress that fact into the background and instead created and elevated for themselves and to the public their own dark myth, or more accurately became the prisoners of it. Their angst and that of like-minded people is an outcome the accelerated breakdown of their old myths and inability to adjust, prompting them to project enemies everywhere and construct new myths, which seem not to have been developed or held in a self-aware manner. Because the underlying process is psychological and largely unconscious, the manifestations are varied and in the end constellate into a whole complex of interchangeable vehicles that reflect the same underlying fears, leading such people to rally to multiple, interchangeable causes to vent them. Thus, for example, one of the Malheur militia protesting federal “tyranny,” Jon Ritzheimer, also maintains an anti-Muslim website and recently led an anti-Muslim rally in Arizona wearing a t-shirt saying “F**k Islam.” We can multiply the examples of (and vehicles for) tragic wayward personal and group myths, such as that in the mind of the crazed Charleston shooter, Christian (and Islamic, and Jewish) fundamentalism, Confederate flag lovers, extremist gun culture, the Tea Party, climate change denial, rising religious intolerance, and proposals to ban immigration by targeted ethnic and religious groups.
So looking ahead to the near future, it becomes important, for example, to evaluate the messages of the current presidential candidates in the above mythological terms, dysfunctional myths become more dangerous when held and promoted by those in power. What dysfunctional myths does Donald Trump hold and ask us to buy into when he wants to ban Muslim immigration (and throw them out of his political rallies), stereotypes unauthorized Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists and proposes sending them back to Mexico, characterizes various people as “losers” (and himself as a winner), and more vaguely vows to “make America great again”? (What mythological America is that?) And what about the evangelical Ted Cruz seeking to reinstate the old religious myths? But, then, what underlying myth has caused Trump (at least in some polls) to enjoy nearly as much or more support than Cruz among evangelicals? (Since seemingly competing manifestations derive from the same underlying myth, cognitive dissonance can be at work so that both of them can be held, even if one of them, well, trumps the other.) Hillary Clinton recently aptly reminded us of Mario Cuomo’s saying that while governing is done in prose, political campaigns are conducted in poetry. So beware not only of Greeks bearing gifts, but also of politicians bearing myths. And let’s do our myths the right way.
Sources and Bibliography
Campbell, Joseph. Creative Mythology. New York: Penguin, 1968.
Feinstein, David, and Krippner, Stanley. Personal Mythology. 3rd ed. Energy Psychology Press/Elite Books, 2008.
Jung, Carl. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York, Vintage Books, 1989.
Larsen, Stephen. The Mythic Imagination: The Quest for Meaning through Personal Mythology. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 1990, 1996.
May, Rollo. The Cry for Myth. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.