In recent years we have seen increasingly strident, polarized, and factually false narratives emerge and circulate in our society and political life. This situation is confusing, and fractures our society and politics. We wonder how this all came about, and what we can do about it. In this series of posts on myth in contemporary society, I argue that this situation is most fundamentally understood by viewing it in mythological terms. We must recognize that myth is alive and well in modern society. Understanding how myths arise and function will better enable us to address this problem.
At the outset, let me say that myths can be either helpful or harmful, whether on the personal or collective level. As Joseph Campbell and other mythologists and psychologists have shown, myths can be important for positive and valuable personal and societal transformation. But in this series of posts I deal mainly with pernicious myths. We need to understand how these work too, in order to compare and contrast how myths can work for the good.
Historically, we have thought of myths as involving deities, heroes, the creation of the cosmos, other supernatural events, etc. These were traditionally the subjects of myths because for ancient peoples the natural world was mysterious and threatening; people were anxious and sought answers regarding how the cosmos and nature work. Myths arose to provide answers. Later, science answered many such questions, so hardly any new myths have arisen about such things. Other questions, such as what happens after death, remain, so we continue to spin out myths about those subjects. Even more questions, derived from the modern uncertainties in American and globalized culture, have produced additional myths, which are the main subject of this series of posts.
In the Age of the Enlightenment, thinkers hoped that the application of reason would lead to the end of myth. Over the past century, however, depth psychology on the one hand and postmodernism (or deconstruction) on the other have exposed what is now recognized as the “myth of mythlessness” in modern society. Aristotle called man “the rational animal.” Although, unlike other animals, we do possess highly developed reason, when it comes to our behavior, fundamentally we are mythmaking animals, and myths ultimately have non-rational origins in our unconscious psyche. Reason, which is a conscious function, often ends up operating in service of our myths, to support and elaborate them further, in order to make those within a community feel more secure with the community’s myth.
What Is a Myth?
With the above background, we can now consider an updated definition of myth. I like to define myth on the phenomenological level, by seeing what it looks like and how it works. (We can later and separately explore the underlying (e.g., psychological) explanations for it.) Here I offer a working modern definition:
A narrative (story) communicated, maintained, and further developed using symbols, imagery, and ritual, that becomes popular and important —often to the point of having a sacred quality — within a community because it reflects and resonates with the community’s fundamental concerns, thereby providing explanation, assurance, meaning, value, and often a model for behavior in both everyday life and community rituals.
Under this definition, a myth has at least the following key characteristics:
- It uses symbols to best express things (especially subconscious contents) that are difficult to express in words. Accompanying rituals can do the same.
- It is a narrative. Symbols and images can operate as shorthand to convey the whole narrative or parts of it (e.g., the cross).
- Myth is a social phenomenon within a community. A story does not become a myth unless it is important – even sacred – and is embraced by a certain community. This means that the social psychology of groups is important.
- The definition accommodates communities of various sizes. For present purposes, the communities are largely subsets of America as a whole (e.g., evangelical Christians). Nowadays, such a community can be principally a virtual one functioning on the Internet.
- A myth provides the community with self-identity and meaning, comfort in the wake of disturbing emotions and events, and answers to questions of community concern. It also can model behavior. Myth-based rituals can arise.
- This definition is free from particular ostensible subject matter (e.g., gods). It is thus a functional definition that illuminates the perennial dynamics of myths that apply to any period in history as well as the present.
It follows from the above definition and characteristics that it is difficult for people outside the community in which the myth arises to believe it. This can result in conflict, and underlies much of the polarization that we see today.
The Psychological Origins of Myths
According to depth psychology, myths and their symbols originate in the unconscious. As Joseph Campbell put it:
Myths . . . come from below the threshold of consciousness, as do dreams. They arise from down in the belly, from the source of the body’s energies. It is the business of the ego not to dictate to the self . . . , but rather to try to bring the impulse system into relationship with the conditions of the environment that the ego has constructed. Culture is the result of a cooperation between the self and the ego. Mythology is the language of the self speaking to the ego system, and the ego system has to learn how to read it. (Campbell lecture)
There are two sources of myths in the unconscious. First, they can arise out of the archetypes of the collective unconscious (Jung 1960, 152), which are evolved structures in our psyche that tend to produce instinctive patterns of behavior and mentality, in order to help us cope with typical situations in human life (mother and father archetypes, anima, animus, the shadow, etc.). “The archetype,” Jung explained, “is a kind of readiness to produce over and over again the same or similar mythical ideas” (1966, 69). According to Jung, the same basic archetypes are common to all humans. Second, myths can arise from complexes. Complexes can arise from archetypes, but they are more closely tied to an individual’s own life experience, so are more linked to a person’s personal unconscious, which is particular to each person (see Jacobi 1959, 6-30).
Both archetypes and complexes store psychic energy (libido). This energy is triggered by events in people’s lives that concern them, and it becomes conscious. It can be powerful, taking possession of one’s ego consciousness and overwhelming reason. In order for ego consciousness to understand and give meaning to this energy, the energy needs to take concrete form, in the form of symbols and narratives, yielding myths. Myths are fueled by psychic energy and take form through archetypes and complexes, yielding symbols and ultimately a story.
Because myths ultimately originate in the unconscious, they are at bottom non-rational. Thus, myths inevitably to some extent depart from rationally derived, objective facts as known by our waking (ego) consciousness. Humans are naturally and unavoidably mythmakers. Thus, myths in society – even contemporary society – are inevitable. This means that it is incumbent upon us to learn to understand and deal with them in their own mythological terms, including the psychological aspects. If we fail to do so, mythmaking can spin out of control, which is what we see happening today.
What Triggers the Generation of Myths?
Myths usually don’t arise in connection with something well known and understood. Rather, they are connected with something unknown, mysterious, especially when such things give rise to fear and anxiety.
A good historical example is the nature of disease. Ancient peoples didn’t understand the cause of disease and feared it, so they attributed it to demons, other supernatural forces, sorcerers, and witches. They were also afraid that the sun wouldn’t rise tomorrow, that spring would not come again, or that wives would not be fertile, so they created myths to assure themselves that these things would indeed transpire.
Science has rendered myths about the natural world unnecessary, but people still have fears, anxieties, and uncertainties. Individuals and groups also have their shadows in the subconscious, as a result of which they create myths to explain away things and blame scapegoats. (I will cover scapegoating specifically in an upcoming post.) In recent years, we’ve seen this happening in myths about immigrants and minorities, Hillary Clinton, George Soros, Bill Gates, Covid 19, and just about anything touched upon by QAnon.
When investigating a crime, we often say, “follow the money.” When investigating a myth and its consequences, look for the underlying anxiety. As Carl Jung once advised, “Where the fear [is], there is your task!” (1976, 305) The key is to honestly confront and integrate the anxiety, not give in to it and let it run one’s life, or spin out compensating tales.
Social Aspects: Cultural Complexes and Myth Generation
While a myth may originate in an individual’s psyche, full-fledged myths have a collective, social character, and grow and flourish in communities. So the question arises of how myths transcend the individual and take hold in a community.
In recent decades psychologists, such as Thomas Singer and others, have developed the notion of “cultural complexes” within communities (see generally Singer 2004, 2019, 2020). They have discerned – in the psychology of groups – complexes, archetypal defenses, and notions of a group Self analogous to those found within individuals (Singer 2019). These factors facilitate myths taking hold and become important in supporting communities facing anxieties.
In order for a myth to take off in a community, it must resonate with the community’s cultural complexes. Otherwise, the myth will remain private to the individual. As a myth grows into the community, it will become more detailed and refined as the community’s conscious efforts develop it. In this process, the group’s complexes will tend to make the myth more strident and partisan, projections will proliferate, and scapegoats will become prominent. The myth thus hardens, and in particular strays from factual reality. We end up with what Trump’s former advisor Kellyanne Conway called “alternative facts.”
Charismatic Leaders and Myths
Another aspect of the appearance and evolution of modern myths is the appearance of charismatic community leaders who symbolize the myth, propagate it, and elaborate it further. The leader does not necessarily invent the myth, but he recognizes it and senses how to redirect and exploit it for his own benefit. In this way the myth becomes central in politics. The myth grows through conscious group activity, steered by the leader. It feeds into and can pander to the cultural complexes of the community and indeed magnifies them into grand proportions. In due course, the leader personally becomes mythologized, often fitting into archetypes (e.g., father archetype, and the workings of the shadow archetype). Cult behavior and group hysteria can result (Jung 1964a and 1964b; Hassan 2019).
Last century, prominent examples of such leaders were Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Chairman Mao, and Fidel Castro. Now leading examples are Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, who indeed have embraced each other. On our own far left, Bernie Sanders emerged as something of a cult figure with his enthusiastic band of followers.
Where We Will Go from Here
The above background provides the basics that we can use to identify and analyze contemporary myths and their role in contemporary society and politics. In subsequent posts I will analyze particular examples of recent and contemporary myths.
Sources and Bibliography
Campbell, Joseph. Lecture available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hcogiUUNnM
Hassan, Steven. The Cult of Trump. New York: Free Press (2019).
Henderson, Joseph. Cultural Attitudes in Psychological Perspective. Toronto: Inner City Books (1984).
Jacobi, Jolande. Complex/Archetype/Symbol in the Psychology of C.G. Jung. New York: Princeton University Press (1959).
Jung, Carl. “The Structure of the Psyche,” in The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. Collected Works, vol. 8 (1966), pp. 139-58 (cited as Jung 1960). Cites to the Collected Works are to page numbers, not the numbered paragraphs.
Jung, Carl. “Wotan,” in Civilization in Transition. Collected Works, vol. 10 (1964), pp. 179-93 (cited as Jung 1964a).
Jung, Carl. “After the Catastrophe,” in Civilization in Transition. Collected Works, vol. 10 (1964), pp. 194-217 (cited as Jung 1964b).
Jung, Carl. “On the Psychology of the Unconscious,” in Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. Collected Works, vol. 7 (1966), pp. 3-119 (cited as Jung 1966).
Jung, Carl. Letters: Vol 2: 1951-1961. East Sussex: Routledge (1976).
Singer, Thomas, ed. The Vision Thing: Myth, Politics, and Psyche in the World. New York: Routledge (2000).
Singer, Thomas, ed. The Cultural Complex: Contemporary Jungian Perspectives on Psyche and Society. New York: Routledge (2004).
Singer, Thomas, ed. Cultural Complexes and the Soul of America: Myth, Psyche, and Politics. New York: Routledge (2020).
Singer, Thomas. “Trump and the American Collective Psyche,” in Lee, Bandy, ed., The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” rev. ed., New York: Thomas Dunne Books (2019).
© Arthur George 2022
Art, Looks great, but do you realize the content is repeated twice?You only need half the number of pages. Hank GalganowiczMiddletown, DE
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Thanks. Yes I noticed and corrected it.
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Myths are simply thoughtforms produced locally or from away, which become so emotionally charged that they take on a life of their own. Myths are active thoughtforms which function and spread like a contagious virus, to infect many minds. Jericho is a classic Christian myth which inspired 35 centuries of Christian violence commonly known as colonialism, the most criminally destructive process to have cursed humanity and the environment.