A common question today might be: “Why do we need Mythology?” The common modern belief is that all those “ancient Greek gods and stuff” aren’t relevant to the human condition today.
What many people don’t realise is that the remnants of those ancient stories still help define our inner systems of belief today. Myths are stories that explain why the world is the way it is. Throughout history, all cultures have used them. They are stories of our search through the ages for truth, meaning and significance.
From a young age, we begin to ask the simple questions “why is the sky blue?” Or “What is the earth made of?” But, as we get older, we begin to ask the harder questions, that don’t necessarily have a simple answer: “Why am I here? What is death, and why must we suffer? How do I uncover my destiny?”
The more complex narratives of our lives unfold as we age. As we are approaching maturity, making sense of the confusion surrounding us, this is where stories and mythology throughout history have played its unmistakable part — guiding us, directing us through the collective and cyclical stories of our lives and times.
Consider the ancient tale of Icarus and Daedalus stuck in a maze has a teaching and a purpose. Daedalus made some wings for Icarus to fly out and escape the labyrinth, with his final warning to not fly too high. But what did Icarus do? He flew high, in hubris and glee, losing his temperament, ignoring the advice of his elder. He flew too close to the sun, his wings melted, and he fell to his death. Such a tale is used to remind us to listen for tidbits of wisdom from those wiser than us, to be careful and not let our hubris bring us down.
The tale of Narcissus, perhaps a story more relevant today than ever, is a warning against the dangers of vanity. It reminds us to be open to love from others, that our looks do not define us, and can be a dangerous distraction from what is truly meaningful.
These are classics that have stuck around in some form or another because they have been heavily represented in all cultures throughout time, the same symbols, metaphors and teachings formed from our collective unconscious.
Life is hard, and it was arguably far harder for those who lived in the past. Life was shorter, more uncertain and disease and pain were commonplace. The great myths explained to generations something vital about the order of the world. Helped them understand their place within it despite the misery of such times. Stories bridged the gaps, from a plaintive question to some semblance of understanding, even if not always clear.
One of the problems we face today is that we have become disconnected from our immaterial inner lives. Every day of our lives; news, facts and topical subjects impinge on our daily consciousness. They are distracting us from our traditions and heritage and values, which help us become centred within ourselves. The demands of every day only increase, and with everything in flux, we are left floundering for a foundation.
We all have a need to understand death and to cope with our mortality, to help in our passage from birth to life and then to death. We have a fundamental longing to understand the mysterious nature of life and find out who we are.
Despite all this, the appreciation and awareness for myths seem at an all-time low in our increasingly mechanised, modern world, which is understandable for a rational and objective-based reality focused on progress no matter the consequences.
The serpent is considered one of the oldest mythological symbols. The Ouroboros is one such variant of this. It is a symbol of eternity and continual renewal of life. The ancient Egyptians used it, who passed it onto the Greeks. The Aztec serpent God Quetzalcoatl is depicted similarly, and even the Chinese alchemical dragons have used it with similar meaning. Then European alchemists used it too and gave it meaning, believing it to hold special meaning for their work.
According to leading Egyptologist Jan Assmann, the ancient Ouroboros symbol “refers to the mystery of cyclical time, which flows back into itself”. A reminder that all things must die, but there is a chance for renewal when life is taken away. The Egyptians recognised the wisdom and mystical significance of the serpent, which through shedding its skin, they attributed it with this ancient and vital reminder. Nature is cyclical.
Many myths have clues that resonate within us, helping guide us to the spiritual potentialities of our inner life. Helping us come to terms with the collective tragedies of life, and the failures and successes we go through. They possess clues that resonate within us, help guide us to our spiritual potentialities, nourishing our personal life, to aid us in our transitions and trials in an uncertain world.
Ancient symbols and stories like the Ouroboros or Icarus flying too close to the sun have taught us to turn inward, and understand and internalise universal messages, to navigate the dangerous transitions from birth to death. To accept the inner mystery and being we all possess.
A saying in one of the ancient Upanishads is “When you are before the beauty of a sunset or of a mountain you pause and exclaim, ‘Ah,’ for you are participating in divinity.” This signifies a moment of participation involving the realisation and wonder of the beauty of existence. People living in nature experience this every day, living in recognition of something greater than our limited human dimension.
These mysteries and inner portals, if you aren’t aware of the guide signs, you must find yourself. So, we tell stories to come to terms with the world and match our lives with reality. To connect ourselves with reality and experience more profoundly.
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
― Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
In the medieval idea of the Wheel of Fortune, we find a metaphor for life that has had us in its thrall for millennia. According to medieval and ancient philosophy, the wheel belongs to the goddess Fortuna, who is known to spin it at random, so some suffer greatly, and others gain greatly on the inner rim of the wheel. This somewhat resembles the Wheel of Becoming too, throughout ancient Indian art and literature. No doubt, such concepts as fate and destiny has been mulled on for a long while. The fact that some of us are destined for greatness and others only suffering can be a difficult concept to understand as well as to accept for us all.
The wheel has a hub, radiating out to its rim. As it turns through time, we hang on to its rim, either going up or down, experiencing great highs and lows. In modern terms, chasing rewards like more money, more power or beauty, are all rim-hanging things. We hang on, sometimes for dear life, in this relentless cycle of pleasure and pain. However, the Wheel of Fortune contains its own solution: the possibility of learning to live at the hub, centred and balanced between the highs and lows.
Thankfully, the mythic imagination, if you consider it very broadly, can contain fairy tales, legends, parables and even novels and movies. Within all of these can be found the fundamental themes of discovery and development that are informed from myth. All classic mythological tales of the hero that follow a hero that undergoes a journey, and is changed entirely by it, symbolises the transition to maturity and thus benefiting society with the boon of their adventure and self-discovery. As was popularized by Joseph Campbell, who observed the template of the hero tales throughout history, influenced by Carl Jung’s view on myths.
In the classic Greek stories, we see the hero surmounting almost impossible odds. We come alive to the tales of such courage and sacrifice. The search for meaning seems integral to many mythic tales. How it is defined, how we justify our sacrifices and what is considered as truth. In the end, the stories we love, through the books we read, the movies we watch and the dreams we have are all indicative of the people we want to become, and the things we value. As our psyche evolves and we mature from the concepts, symbols and metaphors we experience, so does our ability to fetter the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, to transcend the limitations of our past failures, and meet the future with courage and ability, ensuring the survival of ourselves and our loved ones.
What human beings have in common can be revealed in myths. Mythical characters can act as archetypes of human ability, how they encounter problems, and how they then deal with them can give us insight on how we can handle them ourselves in universally tricky situations.
In mythology, we could never really feel alone, for within it are guides for the human spirit, belonging to everyone, providing a map for every cycle of life or experience we may go through.
With myth, all experience can be empowering; without it, life can seem just a meaningless series of ups and downs.
If we continue in life neglecting its teachings, the ancient teachings which have been handed down to us, that still resonate in movies, books and all forms of entertainment, one day when we have become older, having accomplished all we can, when we turn to our inner life, we might just see an emptiness without quite knowing why.
“A bit of advice given to a young Native American at the time of his initiation: “As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump. It’s not as wide as you think.”
~ Joseph Campbell