We have…succeeded in forgetting that an indissoluble link binds us to the men of antiquity…By penetrating into the blocked subterranean passages of our own psyches we…establish a firm foothold outside our own culture from which alone it is possible to gain an objective understanding of its foundations.
-C.G. Jung, CW5, para. 1
Two decades ago, the notable post-Jungian writer, Wolfgang Giegerich, declared that the modern psychological situation is without parallel, that ancient mythology can no longer illumine the psychology of modern people. We have broken, he states, “with the entire level of consciousness on which truly mythic experience was feasible” (1999:175)*.
Like Giegerich, we may point to our post-modern engagement with information technology, the internet, virtual reality, social media, and cyber communication as proof that the realities we construct have few, if any, links to our ancestors’ mythic sense of reality or their foundational stories.
Jung would likely not agree. As our quote from Symbols of Transformation suggests, Jung rejected the idea that modernity could sever our ties to the mythic imagination of our ancestors. He spent a lifetime elaborating this position through his work on the archetypal structures that inform and organize human thought, emotion and behavior.
The unconscious presence of mythic modes thinking, as well as the ongoing influence of foundational mythic themes in the Western psyche can be broadly illustrated. Ancient mythic underpinnings can still be cited in narrative patterns, basic cultural assumptions and behaviors. And because mythologems may express themselves constructively or destructively, we have an ethical duty to bring them out of the shadows.
As I will demonstrate in my presentation to the Jung Society of Washington in December, critical examination of Biblical creation stories casts light upon the Western psyche’s dissociation from the land, our continuing investment in economies of extraction, and the industrial exploitation of human and non-human others. Despite its depth and beauty, the Biblical creation myth found in the second chapter of the Book of Genesis paints a bleak portrait of humans in relation to the larger creation. Human identity and existence proceed out of a fallen state; the curse of Adam severs our kinship with the land and its non-human inhabitants. The myth prescribes hierarchical family and social structures and attributes mortality to sin.
Combined with other ancestral and ideological narratives, these creation motifs continue to inform our sense of time, our relationship with the land and with non-human others. They mirror back to us our fear of death and aging. And sometimes, when not interpreted metaphorically, but instead wielded as inerrant, literal truths, they foster communal warfare.
Of course, it is important to consider the larger context of any motif. The narrative of “The Fall” is prelude to a much longer story about divine-human relations over the course of history. Our job is not to dismiss the mythic currents flowing out of the past and informing the present, but to think critically, dare to acknowledge how foundational stories inform society and culture, and to track how they underpin one’s sense of self and the world.
To acknowledge and take responsibility for ourselves as mythic animals we must consider, not just what we think but how we think. We meet ourselves as mythic creatures through this work of tracking ancestral influences, but we also access the restorative and enriching experience of mythic imagination through those states of mind where conscious and unconscious psyches intersect: metaphoric communication, day-dreaming, story-making, night-dreaming, and socalled “mystical states.” I would like to suggest that the much-needed healing of the Western body-psyche may be supported by envisioning the path of individuation as an ecological process, one that fosters the healing of our broken kinship with the land through (what I am calling) “polyvalent awareness.” Working intentionally with the mythic dimension of our humanity, we foster multiple ways of perceiving: Western (differentiated), mythic (weaving ancestral with contemporary story-making) and holistic (explicable only by reference to the whole).
Differentiated consciousness allows us to approach ancestral narratives with a critical eye. Mythic perception connects us with our deeper resources, allowing us to formulate meaning through metaphor and symbol. Differentiated thinking may help us locate ourselves within our ancestral stories while mythic thinking may carry forward the stories in forms that restore our kinship with the land and help us meet the experiences and needs of our time. Holistic awareness graces us with momentary glimpses of our participation in the greater whole. Polyvalent awareness allows us to receive the stories that rise up from the land. It links us to our ancestors and to one another through symbolic ways of perceiving, and it fosters personal authority in the face of powerful, unconscious currents flowing through us as a people.
I look forward to sharing this exploration with you in December.
*Giegerich, W. (1999) The Soul's Logical Life: Towards a Rigorous Notion of Psychology, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.
Melanie Starr Costello, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, historian, and senior Jungian analyst in private practice in Washington, D.C. She earned her doctorate in the History and Literature of Religions from Northwestern University and is a graduate of the C.G. Jung Institute-Zurich where she currently serves as a Training Analyst. Dr. Costello has taught and published on the topics of psychology and religion, medieval women’s spirituality, individuation and ecology, aging and clinical practice. Her study of the link between illness and insight, entitled Imagination, Illness and Injury: Jungian Psychology and the Somatic Dimensions of Perception, is published by Routledge Press. Her presentation and workshop, “Natural Symbols, Natural Cycles: Individuation as Ecology,” is scheduled for December 7 and 8, 2018 at the Jung Society of Washington.