Myth, Mind, and Theory

The greatest strength in a Jungian interpretation of myth lies in the fact that psychological archetypes can cogently explain the origins of all myth. This strength is also its greatest weakness, for if every ancient myth is a product of the unconscious, then the next logical step is to describe all narrative as a projection of the unconscious. One can no longer differentiate the material; the Epic of Gilgamesh is qualitatively no different than Mary Poppins.

Still, one can believe in a collective unconscious and psychological archetypes without making the definitive move to describe all of myth as mirroring those archetypes in the direct manner in which Jung positions his theory. Jung writes, “The collective unconscious […] appears to consist of mythological motifs or primordial images, for which reason the myths of all nations are its real exponents. In fact, the whole of mythology could be taken as a sort of projection of the collective unconscious” (Segal ed. 79). For Jung, mythemes were components of psychological constructs which “arise autochthonously in every corner of the earth and yet are identical, because they are fashioned out of the same worldwide human unconscious” (Segal ed. 61-62). Thus myth is not a product of a conscious, synthesized system: “The widely held view that mythologems or myth motifs are always connected with a tradition proves untenable, since they may reappear anywhere, at any time, and in any individual regardless of tradition” (Segal ed. 64).

The truth is scholars of all stripes have had great difficulty in explaining the commonalities shared between myths around the globe independent of time and tradition. There are two camps of thought which attempt to explain these common mythemes: the diffusionists, who believe that a myth system began in one place and time and slowly spread around the globe; and the inventionists, who believe that mythemes can spontaneously generate in different places and times because the human psyche is the same everywhere and will produce similar products when faced with similar psychic and experiential inputs. Among these two camps are sub-groups, as in the case of the inventionists where many scholars believe in the autochthonous nature of myth without believing in Jung’s archetypes. Joseph Campbell himself took portions from both theoretical camps, stating that both diffusion and psyche play a part in the spread and formation of myth.

Without going into alternative explanations as to the universal nature of myth motifs around the globe, my chief complaint against the Jungian interpretation of myth, which also happens to be my chief complaint against almost all modern or older theories of myth, takes a different tack. Often, the modern interpretations of both history and myth are projections from modern thinking. With so little material at our disposal, we align the bric-a-brac of archaeological and anthropological debris into dot to dot constructions which supposedly try to make sense out of the amalgam historical conglomerate. Yet what is the mortar by which we build these bricks of the past to form the edifice of our choosing? Some will say that mortar is the theory one employs while compiling the historical or mythological bricks. While true, I say that such an insight is already in mid-stride, for there is already an a priori assumption at work within almost all the modern theories of myth, and it is this a priori assumption which I find untenable.

In order for Jung to propose his theory he relies heavily on an evolutionary model of the human mind, which is in step with the evolutionary model of the biological organism. Yet one can believe in Darwin’s Theory of biological evolution without ever applying such a theory to the mind. Here is where I part company from almost all myth theorists, who like Jung, believe that ancient civilizations were mythopoeic because ancient man had not evolved mentally or consciously to the point of modern man. Repeatedly we are told that the Greeks were the first to introduce Reason and Science, and that before the Greeks there was only Myth and Religion. Jung explains, in part, this view:

In the individual, the archetypes appear as involuntary manifestations of unconscious processes whose existence and meaning can only be inferred, whereas the myth deals with traditional forms of incalculable age. They hark back to a prehistoric world whose spiritual preconceptions and general conditions we can still observe today among existing primitives. Myths on this level are as a rule tribal history handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Primitive mentality differs from the civilized chiefly in that the conscious mind is far less developed in scope and intensity. Functions such as thinking, willing, etc. are not yet differentiated; they are pre-conscious, and in the case of thinking, for instance, this shows itself in the circumstance that the primitive does not think consciously, but that thoughts appear. The primitive cannot assert that he thinks; it is rather that “something thinks in him.” The spontaneity of the act of thinking does not lie, casually, in his conscious mind, but in his unconscious. Moreover, he is incapable of any conscious effort of will; he must put himself beforehand into the “mood of willing,” or let himself be put–hence his rites d’entrée et de sortie. His consciousness is menaced by an almighty unconscious; hence his fear of magical influences which may cross his path at any moment; and for this reason, too, he is surrounded by unknown forces and must adjust himself as best he can. Owing to the chronic twilight state of his consciousness, it is often next to impossible to find out whether he merely dreamed something or whether he really experienced it. The spontaneous manifestation of the unconscious and its archetypes intrudes everywhere into his conscious mind, and the mythical world of his ancestors–for instance, the alchera or bugari of the Australian aborigines–is a reality equal if not superior to the material world. (Segal ed. 83)

It never occurs to Jung or a great many other scholars that the Australian aborigines might not be the correct model upon which to compare prehistoric man. The various primitive tribes in existence around the world today are assumed to be vestiges of the earliest state of the species, but this is due to the fact that with Darwin not only did our sense of the biological organism change but so did our entire cosmos, and with it out sense of Time. Moderns think of time linearly. Ancients thought of time cyclically. Either way, our conceptions of time are nothing but mental projections upon the cosmos whose actual frame of time and space are as yet inscrutable. The aborigine or tribesman, under ancient, cyclical thinking, may not represent a parallel with early humanity, but may only resolve as an offshoot, a disjecta membra of a once more sophisticated era. This seems counter-intuitive only because modern assumptions on this issue are firmly entrenched within linear lines.

Poignantly, however, accurate comparisons between the aborigine and prehistorical man remain insoluble. This has a great many consequences. Which came first: civilization with its temple cults, mythological systems, and priesthoods? Or the individual Shaman with his magic stick, sacred tales, and cosmological maps? Modern thinking favors the latter, though the truth is the Shaman might be a descendant or cultural outcast from some high off time when an entire system of cult and myth was in place for millennium. Regardless of where one comes down on this issue, definitive answers remain unproven and unprovable.

Further, the very idea that the ancient mind did not think consciously, and in this pre-conscious state invented a world of magic and gods; of totems, fetishes, and taboos; of animism and myth, is a speculative notion indeed. One certainly can cite all sorts of modern text books and find totems and fetishes at every turn, but I remind the reader that these constructs are categories of the modern imagination and as such are often modern inventions. I personally consider much of this theoretical conglomerate nothing but highly inventive thinking, informed as it is, by an a priori assumption rooted in an unproven metaphysic.

I therefore ask, what happens if one pulls this mental evolutionary peg out of the theoretical stick pile? What if the human mind and with it the psyche remain the same in all eras, albeit operating under a different context, that is, the nature and structure of orality? Being that this stick is the first one in the pile, its removal has large consequences for a great many theories of myth. It is not just Jung who relies heavily on the mental-evolutionary metaphysic: Freud, Frazer, Tylor, Müller, Lévy-Bruhl, Malinowski, Durkheim, Lang, Cassier, Campbell and a great many other theorists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries all follow suit in varying degrees. Even Mircea Eliade, in his conceptions of sacred time and sacred space as experienced by prehistoric man relies upon an evolutionary universality.

One comment to Myth, Mind, and Theory

  1. Paul Reynolds says:

    You are brilliant!

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