Myth and Meaning
Notes of Opening Lecture and Discussion

We need some sort of order in our world; a system of tales and traditions we can call mythology reinforces that order, be it social, political, religious, cognitive, etc. We seek to control and have power over certain aspects of the world in which we live. Myths tell us how that power and control can be won or lost. Our desire for order is the foundation of humanity. Stories help make the world coherent.

In the study of mythology we begin with an organizational strategy that is admittedly contrived but useful nonetheless. Myths tell us about (1) our relationships with each other, (2) our relations with the gods or god (the cosmos), and (3) our relationship to the natural world and all species that inhabit it.

Stories about how we treat each other often help us define ethics and humanity. These stories attempt to recognize the common and archetypal tension between the individual (and the power the individual possesses) and a hero's obligation to the community in which he or she lives. In the beginning of many mythic narratives, the hero faces a dilemma where his or her soul is divided between what I call the mythology of self and the mythology of state. Each generation faces this dilemma anew.

Stories about our relationships with the gods often speak of our relationship to authority. In the humanities, the Promethean view reorganizes the creativity of the individual and is certainly enticing, but mortal rebellion against divine authority mostly comes at a high cost. Mortals usually do not fair well in many relationships with the gods and thus many heroes suffer as a result of their free-thinking.

Stories about our relationships with the natural world have multiple outcomes including the way humans achieve a sense of identity and enlightenment in the wilderness. See Wilderness.


Mythology provides structure and drama.

              It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. --Charles Dickens.

Mythic patterns--narratives often use dichotomy, duality of life, tension of dualism. Campbell's field of opposites.

For instance TIME: chronos/kairos.

Once upon a time, time and time again, time's up. We have from the dawn of time tried to understand and control time. Yet Time is a mystery. Chronos is clocks, deadlines, watches, calendars, agendas, planners, course schedules, etc. The clock is the weapon through which we butcher our lives. Kairos is transcendence, infinity, reverence, joy, passion, even the sacred and the intimate. Have you experienced Kairos? Examples?

PLATO's "Allegory of the Cave. " What is an allegory?

Plato's allegory is about becoming aware of the Matrix. Veiled and unveiled truth. And as in the Hollywood version, threats to existing order are often met with brutality. Examples: Ptolemaic system--earth as center of the universe 127-151 A. D. The Pope and the Cardinals in Galileo's time saw the heliocentric view as a threat to existing order. By 1616 the Holy Office had suppressed the work of Copernicus and imprisoned Galileo in 1633.

Can you think of some other examples? Piaget's Concept of de-centering.

ORDER / Chaos--what happens when an existing system of order begins to fail or becomes insufficient or obsolete in a changing world: Confusion, fear, and as Nietzsche is quick to point out, nihilism.

Albert Camus' Caligula presents a man of authority coupled with a man completely oblivious to a sense of duty, responsibility, or conscience--Caligula becomes a monster because it is, not after all, such an illogical thing to do. Consequently we need a code of behaviors (myth of state) that makes our lives bearable and decent in relation to the lives of others. Example: Hemingway--"A clean, well-lighted Place" where the waiter knows that all of life is "nada y peus nada." Yet we must believe in something. The rules we choose may be artificial and arbitrary but the alternative is what Hemingway calls "messiness."

Other dichotomies that give shape to the world--God and Satan, pro-choice/pro-life; order/chaos; timber industry/ spotted owl; man/ nature; pleasure/pain; beautiful/ugly; civilized/ savage. Binary opposition is helpful but artificial as well.

--Achilles' choice--nostos/kleos which is related to mortality/immortality. The Iliad was written most scholars say after the Odyssey because the Odyssey transcends such an either/or existence exemplified by Achilles' choice.

Give the physical explanation of why we tend to see the world in this way.

Question: If human beings tend automatically to perceive the world in terms of tensions between opposites, how can myth function to mediate these assumed contrarieties? Teaching myth as the reconciliation of opposites.


--In art and myth and the epic then the potential absurdity of life is turned into a New World Order. Reversal as Aristotle calls human reality may be useful when married to Recognition.

Renewal: the cradle of civilization, evolution--charter myth, which includes the notion of a "Chosen one." The poet, the priest, the prophet, the seer, and in the case of the Hebrews (and contemporary America) a nation. Renewal has a pathological side as well. What might it be? marriage/ divorce, mid-life crisis, world of waste, disregard for consequences.

Optimism in history: German 1770-1831--Hegel's dialectic.

Hegel's dialectic as a Tripartition: thesis, antithesis, synthesis

--Plato's theory of reason, appetite, spirit; in Nietzsche man is driven not by reason but by the power of will. Nietzsche's madman.

--Freud's psychic drama between id, ego, and superego--the id houses biological desires (libido). The "I" is the ego, the conscious self and the superego is the awareness of taboos and ethical standards that impose public order. The self mediates between the two. How?

Mythic patterns: departure, fulfillment, return.

The Quest motif: threshold, gatekeepers, go alive into the unknown, beyond the threshold the hero encounters strange and unfamiliar forces. Some of the forces help him, some test him. The return--he sets forth with an emissary, the hero reemerges from the kingdom of dread, resurrection and revitalizes the world. The crossing--the boundary between civilization and wilderness. Thus all heroes are one hero. Myth and landscape have some common and interesting features.

--Agriculture (single site occupancy and the rise of genuine warfare); the realm of the civilized and the controlled--Demeter--a land dominated by human activity and a range of processes and technologies.

--Outside: pastoral beyond civilization where man is basically an intruder and where the forces of nature loom. Marginalized people. Pan which is panic. The realm of the nymph--wildness, undomesticated, uncivilized and therein in need of marriage.

--The Beyond: everything is divorced from the known standard of living, xenophobia, Giants and monsters which are contrary to civilized order.

--The quest integrates the individual into society: Gilgamesh and Homer.

--hubris and divine intervention are common characteristics--pulp fiction, the Odyssey, agisthos, patroclus, lucifer.

--The hero in a social setting. Casablanca. Individual action is linked to a creation of a better society (sometimes a good society that the hero cannot live in because of the violent heroic action as in the '50s western Shane).

--History is linked even married to myth in its most powerful form in about 300 BC by the Greek Euhemerus who asserted that myth reveals historical truth rather than cosmological truth, thus Euhemerism. This perspective was shared by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890). Schliemann attempted to connect myth and history and he claimed to have found the famous city of Troy. But Euhemerism is problematic at best. Was there a Helen of Troy or a Gilgamesh?

Another way we order the universe --We name things. Adam in Eden, the second cosmology in Genesis. Language. What would the internet be like without the term "internet"? A child's sense of the vast body of water without the term "ocean"?

--archetype, the collected unconscious. For instance, the view that women are dangerous and destructive: Clytemnestra, Medea, the furies, the vamp, the fatal attraction, femme fatal images and misogyny--the bad woman/mother archetype. Archetypes are energy patterns, primordial images that flow beneath the surface (subculture) and can emerge without warning--a leader that focuses national psychosis on a scapegoat--Paris is such a figure.

The mind deals with the world through the intervention of concepts including archetypes. Clarifying universals from which conventional reality comes. Beauty for instance (represented by Aphrodite) is realized to the degree that anyone participates in the knowing of the archetype.

Common Archetypes:the triad/ rite of passage or father quest./ heroic cycle / patriarch--male can create life without the mother--Zeus's children / /nature of women, Amazons / anthropocentrism, ethnocentrism

Myths as Symbols: myths embody the values and problems of the society that produces them, but admittedly mythology has multiple definitions within an open system.