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                              What is Myth? 
 This article appeared in Web of Wyrd #10, and is by Anna from Canberra.
 Mythology can be approached from various perspectives, such as anthropo-
 logical, sociological, folk-lorist, psychological and metaphysical. Our
 understanding of what myth is depends on the perspective we use. The
 folk-lorist is interested in the variety of myths and their spread with
 migrations of peoples.  The anthropologists study myth as part of a
 peoples' culture. The sociologist is interested in how it helps society
 to function. The psychologist studies its effects on peoples' perspec-
 tives, and how it helps them cope with the world in which they live. The
 occultist and mystic regard it as a tool to help them achieve their
 aims, whether that be union with the divine, or a greater understanding
 of themselves and the divine within.  Myth occurs in the history of
 most, if not all, human traditions and communities, and is a basic
 constituent of human culture. It occurs both with and without associated
 rites (though not all rites have myths associated with them). This paper
 discusses the purpose of myth, and how we may use myth more effectively
 in the magical context.
 Some definitions of myth:
      "Myth is the secret opening through which the
 inexhaustible energy of the cosmos pour through into human
 cultural manifestation."
           (Campbell: The Masks of God - Primitive Mythology)
      "Myth is a psychic phenomenon that reveals the nature of
 the soul."
           Jung: The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious)
      "Myths are accounts about  how the world came to be the
 way it is, about a super-ordinary realm of events before (or
 behind) the natural world."
           (Keesing: Cultural Anthropology - a Contemporary
      "A myth is a statement about society and man's place in
 it and the surrounding universe."
           (Middleton: Myth and Cosmos)
      "Myth is a collective term used for one kind of symbolic
 communication and specifically indicates one basic form of
 religious symbolism, as distinguished from symbolic behaviour
 (cult, ritual) and symbolic places or objects (such as temples
 and icons). Myths are specific accounts concerning gods or
 superhuman beings and extraordinary events or circumstances at
 a time that is altogether different from that of ordinary
 human experience."
           (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
 From these definitions it can be seen that myth has two functions,
 esoteric and exoteric. The exoteric function is to:      "...bind the
 individual to his family's system of historically-conditioned senti-
 ments, as a functioning member of a sociological organism." (Campbell:
 In this role myth is exploratory and narrative. An example is the North
 American tale: Old man saw a circle of cottontail rabbits singing and
 making medicine; they would lie in the ashes of a hot fire and sing
 while one of their number covered them up; it was lots of fun. Old Man
 asked to be shown how to do this, and was covered in the coals and ashes
 and was not burnt. Then he wanted to be the one to cover up the others,
 and all the rabbits jumped into the fire. Only one got out, who was
 about to have babies; Old Man let her go so that there would continue to
 be rabbits. She went off with a dark place on her back where she got
 singed, which all rabbits since have had. The others he roasted and laid
 on red willow brush to cool. The grease soaked into the branches and
 even today, if you hold red willow over a fire, you will see the grease
 on the bark.  This myth is explanatory; it explains two observed
 features of the natural world.
 Another myth explains not the natural world, but the use man puts it to.
 This is an Ojibway myth explaining the origin of maize and man's use of
 it. To summarise this myth: a young man went to the forest to fast for
 seven days and search for his spirit guide or guardian. During this
 period he was visited by a richly-dressed handsome young man, sent by
 the Great Spirit, whom he had to wrestle, despite his weakness from his
 fast.  Before the last time the visitor told him he would prevail this
 time, and gave him instructions: how to prepare the ground, how to bury
 his body, how to care for the ground after, and how to harvest the maize
 that would grow. This he did, so his people now have maize. This myth
 not only explains the origin of maize, but also gives instructions for
 planting, care and harvesting, thus ensuring that all the tribe know how
 to grow it, as well as learn where it came from.  Other myths are
 justifying and validating, answering questions about the nature and
 foundation of ritual and cultic customs.  
 An example is the Blackfoot myth about the origin of the Buffalo Dance.
 The Blackfeet hunt buffalo by chasing them over a cliff, but at one time
 they could not induce the animals to the fall, and the people were
 starving. A young woman, seeing a herd of buffalo near the edge of the
 fall said, "if you will only jump into the canal, I shall marry one of
 you." The buffalo did so, and a big bull came and carried her off. Her
 father came looking for her, but was trampled to pieces by the buffalo.
 The woman got a piece of his backbone and sang over it until his body
 was restored and he was alive again. The buffalo allowed the woman and
 her father to go, on condition that they learn the dance and song of the
 buffalo, and not forget them. For these would be the magical means by
 which the buffalo killed by the people for their food should be restored
 to life, just as the man killed by the buffalo was restored.  This myth
 tells the people why they do the dance, and the consequences if they
 don't. It is also a piece of sympathetic magic designed to increase the
 fertility of the buffalo herds when the dance is performed. As such it
 gives them a sense of control over some of the important factors of
 their environment and indicates appropriate action if the buffalo do
 Myths also have a descriptive function, explaining facts beyond normal
 reason and observation. Creation myths are an example. The Norse
 creation myth describes Niffleheim forming out of the Abyss, with ice to
 the north and fire to the south.
 From the melting ice where these two realms met formed a giant, Ymir,
 and a cow, Audmulla, who became the wet-nurse of the gods. From Ymir
 came the frost giants, and Audmulla's licking of the ice freed the
 progenitors of the gods, Odin, Vile and Ve. And so the myth goes on,
 describing the creation of the world, the gods and mankind. This myth
 does not describe or explain the world as it is, but how it came about
 in the first place. It is an explanation of something that man couldn't
 see or comprehend, that is beyond his knowledge and experience.
 One purpose of myth is to help tie a community together. When
 myth is expressed in ritual, it builds the community, or
 specific segments of it, together. An example is the
 Aborigines' use of myth in boys' initiation rites. Myths are
 revealed to the boys as part of their initiation to manhood;
 since the women and children do not know these mysteries, they
 serve to bind the men together, and important factor for a
 group that needs to hunt together.
 Myth gives a community a common framework, a common view of
 the world. The whole community has the same understanding of
 why the world is the way that it is. It also tells them how to
 behave in certain circumstances and why they should do so; why
 their society is structured the way that it is, and what will
 happen if they break cultural taboos.
 An example in our cultural context is the myth of David and
 Goliath. This myth tells us how to behave in a situation where
 we are faced with overwhelming odds. It teaches us courage
 rather than running away, and suggests an approach that can be
 used to cope with the situation.
 Myth provides the moral values of the culture. Many of our
 moral values, for example, come from the Christian myths. The
 story of David and Goliath is one reason why we revere
 courage. Murder and theft are regarded as wrong, evil, as the
 myth of Moses teaches us. The myth of Noah and the Ark tells
 us of the consequences of evil and righteousness. To summarise
 then, myth provides a guide for the individual throughout his
 life; one that aids him to live in health, strength, and
 harmony in the particular society in which he was born.
 Myth also has an esoteric function, which is almost the opposite of the
 exoteric function. Myth transforms the individual, detatching him from
 his local historical and cultural condition, and leading him to some
 kind of ineffable experience. It provides a bridge between an in-
 dividual's local consciousness and universal consciousness. Myth and
 rites constitute a mesocosm, a mediating middle cosmos through which
 the microcosm of the individual is brought into relation with the
 macrocosm of the all, the universe. Myth, "... fosters the centering and
 unfolding of the universe in integrity with himself (microcosm), his
 culture (mesocosm), the universe (macrocosm) and finally with the
 ultimate creative mystery that is both beyond and within himself and all
 things." (Houston: The Search for the Beloved)
 Myth bridges the gap between ourselves and godhead, providing a path
 that we may use to become aware of the cosmos, the godhead. In this
 context, R J Stewart describes creation myths not as explorations but
 as, "... resonant re-creations that echo the original creation... an
 organic timeless flow of images and narrative within which such
 questions [of the nature of the world] were by-passed altogether, for
 the 'answers' of such mythology come from deep levels of
 consciousness, in which universal patterns or intimations are
 apprehended." (Stewart: The Elements of Creation Myth) 
 When we imagine a creation myth, irrespective of our belief or 
 disbelief in the myth, we re-create or re-balance ourselves.  Another
 function of myth is to act as a filter. The full, unadulterated
 experience of the universal consciousness is more than our minds are
 capable of holding, and there are those who went too far and fell into
 psychosis and other imbalances as a result. Myth provides a way of
 experiencing universal consciousness or godhead without it overwhelming
 us to the point where we cannot return to ourselves.
 There is an alternative way of looking at the esoteric levels of myth.
 C G Jung considers mythological processes to be, "symbolic expressions
 of the inner unconscious drama of the psyche which becomes accessible to
 man's consciousness by way of projection." (Jung: ibid.) He views the
 unconscious as having two levels; personal and collective. The personal
 unconscious contains experiences that have been forgotten, whereas the
 collective unconscious has contents and modes of behaviour that have
 never been through consciousness, and are more or less the same
 everywhere and in everyone. The contents of the collective unconscious
 are called archetypes.They are expressed in myth and fairy-tale in a
 specific form, but can also be experienced by the individual in a more
 naive and less understandable form as dreams and visions.
 An archetype is a memory deposit, derived from endless repetition of a
 typical situation in life. It is the psychic expression of an anatomi-
 cally physiologically determined natural tendency. Archetypes are
 normally referred to as figures; the wise old man, the mother, the
 trickster. However, they also include experiences, of which an example
 is the birth experience. Everyone goes through this experience, so it
 has made a strong imprint on the collective unconscious. As a result,
 rebirth experiences are a very powerful mythic image, and form the core
 of initiation rites and the process of becoming a shaman.
 For example, as part of his initiation into manhood, and Arandan boy,
 after the trauma of circumcision (which mirrors the birth trauma),
 stands in the smoke of a fire, a repetition of the smoking he underwent
 as soon as he was born. Similarly, many shamans, ind escribing the
 experience that made them a shaman, report being swallowed or eaten by
 an animal or spirit person, then being reborn. Taking on a new name at
 initiation is an outward symbol of the rebirth that has occurred.
 Archetypes have given rise to the eternal images in myth and religion.
 These are meant to attract, convince, fascinate, overpower. They give
 man an experience of the divine, while at the same time protecting him
 from being completely overwhelmed. In this sense, archetypes and mythic
 images are the same; they are both the gateway for this experience of
 the divine. They are an image or a reflection of a god or goddess,
 but are not the divine itself.
 In the Greek creation myth Gaea is the archetype of the earth mother,
 the image of that aspect of godhead; the image that allows us to reach
 out and touch that aspect of godhead.
 However the mythic image of Gaea, the archetype image from the myth, is
 not actually godhead itself. Both are filters, not the actuality.
 Jung sees archetypes as having psychological as well as metaphysical
 significance. In our daily lives our attention is focused outwards to
 deal with the world, and we lose contact with our inner world, powers in
 our psyche such as creativity. Myth is a means to bring us back in touch
 with these inward forces. When archetypes are activated in our lives we
 have two choices: either let the archetype have its way irrespective of
 other factors, or block it, producing a conflict that leads to neurosis.
 Jung sees the symbols of modern psychology analogous to those of myth,
 and considers that we have replaced myth by psychology. We have done so
 as a result of a growing impoverishment of symbols; as our culture has
 become more scientific and rational, we have analysed our cultural
 mythic symbols until they have appeared to die, leaving us with a
 culture that seems superficial to many.
 Some individuals have coped with this by turning to the myths of other
 cultures, leading to the popularity of eastern philosophy in western
 culture. Others haven't coped at all, hence the increased violence,
 crime, despair, suicide, and so on, of our culture. Some are developing
 new modern myths, imspired by visions such as the blue-green jewel of
 the earth seen from space.
 Because myth is a means of regeneration for both the individual and the
 group, this turning to old myths, to myths of other cultures and to new
 myths coming out of our culture is seen by people such as Campbell as
 the beginning of a new age, a rebirth of mankind. Whether this is so
 remains to be seen.
 What does this teach us about the use of myth in magic? What we often do
 in Wicca is to take an old myth and apply it or adapt it in some way for
 our use in ritual. Understanding the distinction between the two levels
 of myth, exoteric and esoteric, aids in this adaptation. To modify a
 myth for use in ritual, those aspects of the myth relating only to the
 exoteric, ie the explanatory and justifying aspects, can be excluded
 with impunity. However, those aspects relating to the esoteric function
 (some, of course, may relate to both) cannot be excluded or modified
 without changing or destroying the myth's ability to take us beyond
 ourselves and towards the universal consciousness.
 Another aspect to consider is how this journey to universal conscious-
 ness is achieved. To experience myth fully requires the willing
 suspension of disbelief. Logic is set aside, imagination comes into
 play, and the masks used change from the symbolic to the actuality.
 Enactment of the myth becomes, not people masked and dressed up, but
 reality itself. Children do this easily; to a child playing, a piece of
 wood is a person or a horse, to the extent that the child can become
 terrified of a piece of wood that at the beginning of the game he or she
 pretended was a monster. To the adult westerner with his developed
 rational mind this is more difficult, and much of western occult
 training is aimed at attaining this child-like state of experiencing the
 world and myth again.
 Meditation stills the active mind. Visualisation and imagination create
 the symbols, the game, the mythic images. Ritual gives the images life,
 enacting the myth so that it might impact upon the individual. Con-
 centration maintains the images long enough that the desired effect is
 attained. The result: contact with, and experience of, universal
 Finally, the fate of our cultural myths warns us of a danger that lies
 in wait with the myths we use. The mind is a powerful tool that is very
 useful in magic; eg, it can prevent us from falling into the trap of
 self-delusion. However, abuse of the mind in relation to myths can be
 destructive. Myths are experiential. If we analyse and explain away the
 myths we use in the same way our culture has recently done with its own
 myths, we run the risk of devaluing them to the extent that they no
 longer have an impact on us and can no longer be used effectively to
 touch godhead.
 Campbell J:    "The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology"
                               (Penguin Books, New York, 1969)
           "Myths to Live By" (Bantam Books, New York, 1972)
 Encycopaedia Britannica, vol 12, macropaedia, 15th edition,1978
 Houston J:     "The Search for the Beloved. Journeys in Mythology and
                               Sacred Psychology" (Jeremy P Tarcher Inc., Los
                               Angeles, 1987)
 Jung C G: "The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious" (Bollingen
                Series XX, Princeton University Press, New York,1969)
 Keesing RM:    "Cultural Anthropology: a Contemporary Perspective"(Halt,
                               Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1976)
 Middleton J:   "Myth and Cosmos: Readings in Mythology and Symbolism"
                               (University of Texas Press, London, 1967)
 Stewart RJ:    "The Elements of Creation Myth" (Element Books Ltd, Longmead, 1989)
                "Magical Tales: the Story-telling Tradition" (Aquarian
                               Press, London, 1990)

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