The Study of Myth


The folklore of indigenous tribes has been gathered by a variety of sources.  Frequently the people recording this information are not trained anthropologists and just as frequently it seems that their informants do not know the complete story that they are relaying.  However, even considering these drawbacks, there is a great deal we can learn from studying them.  In fact, as sources of primitive mythology diminish, the interest in studying them increases.

The question becomes how should these stories be approached?  How can they be studied so that they not only can be understood, but also so they can be interpreted?  Is there some way that the information they carry can be applied in new and unique ways?

Very different approaches to the study of mythology are represented by two greatly renown people who applied the study of the “primitive” folklore to their own work.  They are Claude Levi-Strauss, an anthropologist and Sigmund Freud, a psychologist.  Each man was a leader in his own field.  Although the approach and application of each man to the study of primitive mythology are quite dissimilar, they have taught us that this study can benefit us in many ways including a better understanding of ourselves and of other peoples.  I would like to look more deeply into the work of these two as it relates to their approach to mythological studies.

Sigmund Freud

Probably Sigmund Freud’s most well know work on “primitive” mythology is his book,
Totem and Taboo. His underlying basis for this study is the assumption that prehistoric man is reasonably represented by the modern primitive and these “savages” [Freud’s term, not mine] provide a “well-preserved picture of an early stage of our own development.”  Freud goes on to say: “If that supposition is correct, a comparison between the psychology of primitive peoples…and the psychology of neurotics…will be bound to show numerous points of agreement and will throw new light upon familiar facts in both sciences.” He introduces myth, ritual and customs as a means to penetrate the psychology of the primitive.

He approaches mythology as a detective looking for clues.  He observes a specific behavior, for example exogamy, then using the mythology of various primitive peoples, he finds evidence to explain the behavior and then extrapolates that this might be the origin of our own societal behaviors.  It is as if he sees these people and their folklore and customs as pieces of a puzzle; a puzzle he is determined to solve.  His sources tend to be from a very broad spectrum of geographic locations, language groups and time periods.

In his book, Totem and Taboo, Freud explores the definition of kinship especially as it affects exogamy and incest avoidance in the “religion” of totemism.  Kinship is commonly a sophisticated and complex system within a society.  For example, he cites Australian aboriginal tribes who receive their totem through their mother’s line and are forever prohibited intimate contact with women of that same totem, thereby preventing sexual intercourse with a sister or mother.  He discusses the lengths that these people go to by means of ritual and customs to avoid unacceptable social contact between various relations.

In this book, he limits his exploration of totemism primarily to sexual prohibitions, animism, magic and omnipotent thought.  In his study of the prohibitions, customs, ritual and mythology, he does not attempt to understand the primitive in their own world, but rather how to understand modern man.  He interprets these prohibitions not as self evident with inherent consequences.  He states that the prohibitions are necessary specifically because man has a tendency toward unacceptable behavior (for example incest) and therefore requires the restrictions to prevent acting these natural tendencies out.  He then goes on to develop the theory that modern man is not that far removed from his “primitive” brother and that these inappropriate desires are still active but suppressed in modern man.

Freud of course is first and foremost a psychologist.  His interest in mythology, especially primitive mythology, is to identify traits of humankind that very likely have not changed much over time.  He saw similarities between patient behaviors and those of the primitive.  For example, he could see how a client with “obsession neuroses” and “omnipotent thought” was not far removed from the primitive.  Of these clients he says: “This [obsessional] behavior as well as the superstitions which he practices in ordinary life, reveals his resemblance to the savages who believe that can alter the external world by mere thinking.” He builds a believable case that the study of the primitive as he was known to Freud does in fact offer us a picture of our own development. And this study is based primarily on the mythology of these people.

The approach of Claude Levi-Strauss is from a totally different perspective.  He is primarily an anthropologist.  Here psychology has little to no influence.

Claude Levi-Strauss

Claude Levi-Strauss developed an approach to the study of mythology called “structural analysis.” Structural analysis takes one story and breaks it down into “cells”. It then takes another story from the same tribe or neighboring tribe or even foreign tribe and similarly breaks this down into cells.  These stories are then laid out cell by cell and similarities become easier to see.  It also is easier to see where one story departs from another by using this method.

In his book, The Story of Lynx, Claude Levi-Strauss focuses on one family of stories.  In his analysis of these stories he sometimes becomes very specific.  He goes so far as to identify the species of flora and fauna mentioned in a story, frequently providing the Latin name.  On occasion he breaks a cell down further into smaller components as he finds meaningful some of the most minute detail.  He points out that the ecological system that a people participate in have significance to their mythology that should not be glossed over.

In this book he focuses on stories from the Pacific Northwest, but by applying his method of structural analysis he finds similarities in the native folklore from Alaska to the southern tip of South America. In this book he summarizes a story.  He then identifies the cells within the story and even sometimes isolates the cell from the story.  He is also able to identify what he calls inversions. An example of an inversion might be where one story explains when certain animals are not found in the same places; whereas a neighboring story might be presenting new conditions under which these same animals can be found together. He also finds a symmetry evident as the story “cells” change from one tribe to another, possibly thousands of miles apart or possibly bordering each other but speaking a different language.

Shown below is an example of a figure from his book showing the graphical representation of his structural analysis. In describing it he says, “This schema. . .shows how complex forms are, so to speak, grafted onto the simpler one. . . this later occupies the right part, while the others occupy the segments in the left part of the network.”

From "The Story of Lynx" by Claude Levi-Strauss

From “The Story of Lynx” by Claude Levi-Strauss

He also says about this same graph: “Finally, it must be noted that the network, drawn here in two dimensions, would require more dimensions…One the left of the schema, the dentalia shells have a positive function as a factor of conjunction. On the right side, where the indiscreet sisters are feature, dentalia shells fill a negative function; they cause the disjunction of the thieves from their parents.  By analyzing the schema, one would easily come across other dimensions that graphic constraints do not allow us to represent.”

Breaking down the native stories in this manner assists in seeing how stories change over time, change from one location to another and even how they migrate from one language speaking people to another with sometimes very little change sometimes with changes that make them almost unrecognizable.

Claude Levi-Strauss seems to want to protect the integrity of the native world from which these stoies came.  Structural ayalysis as an approach to the study of mythology appears objective and emotionally removed from the subject.  However, when Claude Levi-Strauss incorporates this tool into his study of the native people of the Pacific Northwest, a sensitivity to their world comes through. His primary interest in the study of these stories seem to be to enter the world as seen by the people he studies and to share that perspective with the rest of the world. He says,

We thus learn from the structural analysis of myths…each local mythology, matched with a given history and ecological environment, teaches us a lot about the society from which it comes, exposes its inner workings, and sheds light on the functioning, the meaning, and the origin of its beliefs and customs, some of them having, sometimes already for several centuries, raised unresolvable problems. this, however, requires that structural analysis meet one condition: it must never cut itself off from the facts…we should give up pursuing the structural analysis of the myths of a society for which we lack an ethnographic context or, at any rate, a context that is independent from the information carries by the myths themselves. [emphasis mine]

He was an anthropologist.  The conclusions he drew were more specific to his area of study. He was also concerned that structural analysis and the study of native mythology might be misused. He felt that if a story was removed too far from its origin, it would become distorted and lose any significance it might have.

Comparison and Contrast

Both of these men were drawn to study primitive mythology.  There is something about folklore, ritual and customs of these peoples that appealed to them.  But their approaches and application were so different from each other that it is hard to believe that they were studying the same thing. Freud seemed to be looking for some general mythology that might apply to all humanity (and it appears he was successful), while Levi-Strauss seemed to want to understand on a personal face-to-face basis how the native peoples perceived their world.

Freud did not take into account the ecological system of the primitive.  He took their stories out of the context of environment and circumstance and put them on a stand alone basis.  Levi-Strauss argued that if you stood far enough above, looking down on a mythology your perspective laced any detail and the image became indistinct and therefore meaningless. He says,

…the more the field of analysis is broadened, the more resemblances are uncovered, but they have less and less meaning.  Though this is the case for general mythology, it isn’t so anymore when comparison is undertaken within mythological systems bounded in time and space.  For these, the inverse proposition holds true: the more the field is restricted, the more differences are uncovered.  It is to the relations these differences have with one another that meanings are attached.

Levi-Strauss successfully compares these “mythological systems bounded in time and space” looking for the meaning those differences might hold.

Freud interpreted the myths psychologically, but he also seemed to moralize and judge.  He suggested that although primitive behavior still lurks within us and is acted out in the neurotic, it is inferior to what had been made possible with the “scientific” mode of being and immoral by a Victorian perspective.

Levi-Strauss on the other hand didn’t do either.  He uses his structural analysis to understand and explain how these people integrate their existence with their environment, create the structure of the respective societies, and function in a challenging world avoiding judgement or moral commentary.


The study of mythology is as richly varied as the myths that are under investigation.  The completely different approaches that each of these men applied in his study of the primitive folklore exemplifies the diversity of humankind and the uniqueness of the individual.  However, each in his own way, seemed to be searching to understand this thing called humanity, which clearly exemplifies characteristics common to all, such as the desire to understand who we are! We continue to be a curiosity to ourselves and the study of mythology is one of our ways to see more deeply into the species Homo Sapiens.

These difference of approach and their application are very striking.  But what is just as striking is that study of mythology can offer to such different people such satisfying results.  This is very exciting for the student of mythology but just as intimidating.  Which direction should the serious student of mythology go? And how can you follow in the footsteps of such eminent men? All I can say is that like these men, it calls to me and I anticipate the result being just as satisfying if not as eloquent or profound.

Persona or Authentic Self: Time to Change your Wardrobe?

Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach is a story from the Middle Ages of knightly exploits and romance centering around the Grail Quest.

The title character, Parzival, is an uncouth youth when he stumbles upon knights for the first time.  Observing these noble men he unhesitatingly and with determination decides to become a knight.  This intention is the first expression of a budding awareness of himself which plainly reveals–although in the form of a childish wish to begin with–what will prove to be his ultimate goal and true vocation.  Parzival is more than a story about a man in need of self-knowledge.  It is a tale of a unique individual in need of realizing his authentic self.

Although Parzival is young, inexperienced, and untrained, early in the story he engages the renowned Red Knight in battle and slays him.  Untutored in noble action, he removes the knight’s armor from the dead body and dons it himself, effectively concealing his own identity and simultaneously impersonating the true Red Knight.

As the story unfolds, Parzival receives expert training and becomes a true knight in and of himself. He does not need to masquerade as one with a spurious costume.  Parzival conceals his identity, continues to impersonate the Red Knight, or is misidentified until all but the final chapter of the book.  It is only in the final chapter where Parzival satisfies the Grail requirement, releases the Grail King from his ongoing torment, heals the Wasteland, and himself becomes the Grail King that identity issues fade from a prominent position in the story line.

Although Parzival commandeers the Red Knight’s armor and wears this military shell for most of the story, the Red Knight’s armor does not constitute Parzival’s true identity.  Through this costume his identity is confused with someone else.  In fact, the Red Knights armor constitutes a persona, a mask, with which Parzival presents himself to the world.  Emma Jung, C.G. Jung’s wife, so effectively describes Parzival and the Red Knight’s armor that I quote her at length.  Referencing Chrétien de Troyes’ version, Perceval, she says:

It is noteworthy that Perceval puts the armour on over his coarse Welsh undergarment, from which he will not be parted.  On the one hand this means that he feels the armour is essentially a part of him, on the other that basically he is not yet a knight, as he would wish to be, but only exhibits a knightly exterior.  This corresponds to the concept that analytical psychology designates as the persona (mask).  The term “mask” indicates that it is not the essential nature of an individual that is concealed behind the exterior and that a certain impression is the result when seen from the outside.  To some extent, therefore, the persona forms a façade and is usually so constituted as to be suitable to the society in which the individual lives; for this reason Jung considers it a segment of the collective psyche.  This means that the individual appears merely as a member of a race, clan, professional class, etc., and not as a human being with his own unique characteristics.  Such a persona comes into existence more or less automatically, since the human being belongs to a particular nation and a particular family or class whose traits of character and way of life he shares.  [. . .] At first he has simply to accept the role which falls to him as his share of the family or society to which he belongs.  Consequently one is the child, the son, the daughter, the young man, the marriageable girl, the father of a family, the wife, the mother, the representative of a particular profession and so on.  It is accordingly significant that Perceval does not know his own name, knows himself only as cher filz, beau filz or beau sire–the words his mother used in addressing him [. . .]

[…] the persona is not to be understood as nothing but a mask, as a wish to simulate something before the world; it is also an important and necessary mode of adaptation.  [. . .] The persona deteriorates into a mere mask when it no longer fulfills its purpose but only conceals a void or worse, therefore falsifying the essential nature of the individual (emphasis my own).  At the same time the persona-like clothing offers a defense against the world without which the individual would be all too vulnerable.  It also often represents, in a way, a prototype or ideal of what is to be achieved, of what one hopes to realize.  Thus it can serve as a valuable guideline.  But when the ideal is wrongly chosen, when it is unattainable or unsuited to the individual nature, then striving towards it can often lead one into error.

The Red Knight’s armor may constitute the means of recognition or an identity to those who see Parzival or hear about him.  However, Parzival’s armor is “only a defense against the world” protecting Parzival in his vulnerable state as he moves from being a youth to adulthood.  For Parzival, the armor is not an ideal wrongly chosen.  In fact, it represents a prototype or ideal of what Parzival is to achieve or hopes to realize. Nonetheless, it is a persona.

Sometimes an individual will identify almost completely with a social role, a piece of literal ego-history, or a persona-mask.  At other times there may be an unconscious identification with some universal pattern, an archetypal configuration, a collective and primordial image.  The problem is that the person is neither some social role nor an archetype.  Parzival, when he becomes the Grail King, realizes his true vocation.  His identity is not limited to this role and the persona-image of the Red Knight’s armor is no longer needed.  His sense of self is stable and his authentic role is only a portion of this newly realized sense of self.

From her book, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales, Marie-Louise von Franz says that in fairy tales “generally, we interpret clothes as having to do with the persona.”   For example, Little Red Riding Hood may be identified by an article of clothing within her community, however, the comment by von Franz suggests that the clothing equated as a persona is a superficial covering and is not her true identity.

Bruno Bettelheim in his book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales points out that in fairy tales “at the tale’s end the hero has mastered all trials and despite them remained true to himself [herself], or in successfully undergoing them has achieved his [her] true selfhood.” That is, at the end of the tale the character’s persona is no longer needed as a protective device.

In our everyday social context, a persona may be a defense against the world or it may be a prototype of a future intended achievement. Through these stories we garner an understanding of persona and identity and learn to differentiate between them.  We then may recognize that the province of the individual is to accept the task to discard the identity assigned by society and assume a more authentic personal identity which is rarely identical to the persona.

Ponder what’s in your closet. Is your wardrobe a defense against the world or a prototype of something authentic and true?  Has your “persona” deteriorated into a mere mask no longer fulfilling its purpose but only concealing a void or worse, therefore falsifying your essential nature? Are you in need of updating your wardrobe?

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Guide and Pilgrim Archetypal Images in Dante’s Divine Comedy

Whether we are on a quest for animal photography in Africa, attempting to traverse the corporate maze, or maintain some semblance of equanimity in the demands of parenting who can we turn to for guidance? Too often in this journey we call life we begin the journey without a guide and rarely find one along the way.

Where is the guide we can turn to?

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Dante Alighieri in his The Divine Comedy: Inferno; Purgatorio; Paradiso shows us what the archetypal guide can be to the weary pilgrim. An example comes from Book One, Inferno. In Canto VIII we meet rebel angels who invite Dante’s guide, Virgil, to desert Dante. This is a significant point in the canto.

The overpowering fear of being abandoned in this horrific place of hell inflicts Dante with panic. He is vulnerable in this Inferno and this canto explicitly conveys his deep felt awareness of this fact. He relies heavily on his guide. Dante is forced to contemplate his situation.  Without Virgil, could he continue? Without Virgil could he return to his everyday world? The potential loss of his guide is devastating as well as frightening. Without Virgil, “returning here seemed so impossible.” Dante’s reliance on his guide is substantial throughout the entire work, but it is emphasized here.

Virgil is an honorable, trustworthy and competent guide. When Dante pleads, “do not desert me when I’m so undone,” Virgil reassures Dante by responding:

Forget your fear, no one can hinder/our passage; One so great has granted it. / . . .feed and comfort your tired spirit with good hope, for I / will not abandon you in this low world.

There is a two way connection between the one being guided and the one guiding, especially on a perilous track. The guide, having traveled this way before, has the responsibility to safely make progress to reach the end of the trek. He or she is also duty-bound to accommodate the reasonable needs of the traveler.

The one being guided also has responsibilities. The one on the quest should not falter in determination to gain the journey’s end nor hinder the guide. In great measure, the pilgrim should take to heart the guide’s instructions and counsel. Virgil says to Dante:

You—though I am vexed— /Must not be daunted; I shall win this contest.

Dante confesses that his confidence has repeatedly been given back to him by his “dear guide.” Dante seems to believe he is no match for this formidable journey. However, with his confidence restored, once again by his guide, he finds within himself what it takes to continue on and he fulfills his part of the guide-traveler relationship.

Guide, traveler, fear of abandonment, comfort and hope are all archetypal images. Dante taps into this archetypal force to affect his readers profoundly. What traveler in distress in an unknown land does not wish for a knowledgeable, competent guide? Who does not need hope in the face of despair? And, is there anyone who couldn’t use a little comfort and confidence in order to continue?

I do not envy Dante his journey, but, I am slightly envious of his remarkable guide. If, like Dante, we cannot complete the journey nor can we return to journey’s starting point without a guide, it’s no wonder that so many of us falter or even fail for lack of one. In a culture where guidance is often rejected in the name of independence, Dante’s image and commentary remind us of the value of this age-old companion.

The Titanic Role of Myth in Modern Scriptwriting

James Cameron said in a letter to the Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1998, the movie, Titanic, intentionally incorporates universals of human experience and emotion that are timeless and familiar because they reflect our basic emotional fabric. By dealing in archetypes, the film touches people in all cultures and of all ages. These archetypal patterns turn a chaotic event like the sinking of an ocean liner into a coherent design that asks questions and provides opinions about how life should be lived.

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The Hero’s Journey is the foundation upon which the vast majority of successful stories and Hollywood blockbusters are based. Some successful writers subscribe to the notion that there is really only one story; what James Joyce named the “monomyth.” Every great story essentially alternates situations and superimposes them over the same structure. The Godfather, Slumdog Millionaire, Brokeback Mountain, Gladiator, Annie Hall, Shrek, The Fighter, The Shawshank Redemption and other successful stories are all one and the same – various situations built on the same foundation. Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola, Nolan, Cameron all use this structure. Shakespeare used this structure. Stories in the Bible, the Vedas, the Torah and the Koran use this structure.

As the late great script writer Stewart Stern said: “Structure is inevitable.” William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride, among others) says it even more strongly. He says: “Screenplays are structure.” Structure is more than simple three or four acts or plot points etc. Structure is a consistent, complex process through which your characters are led that results in their resolving their initial challenges; battling past their historical and personal limitations.

By familiarizing yourself with mythic narratives, you will see character archetypes in action and avoid making caricatures or stereotypes of archetypal images. You will be introduced to enduring mythic themes that showcase the human condition. You will see where these concepts that originated from the study of myths have been utilized in film and how to apply them to your story. Understanding myths helps writers better execute and deepen their stories.

Your story is uniquely yours.  The structure of the Hero’s Journey is a tool.  Tools in the hands of a master create art where the tool is transparent to the viewer. The toolbox then becomes a launchpad for freedom.  In the hands of a novice it can help get your hands around those random ideas and get them on the page. Structure is not a dirty word.  As quoted above “structure is inevitable.”  Your job is to harness it and utilize it to give voice to your story.


Mundus Imaginalis – A Panel Discussion

Recently, I was reviewing class notes from university courses I took, now over a decade ago. I came across this little gem on a panel discussion on the Mundus Imaginalis or imaginal world. James Hillman credits Henry Corbin as the source of this notion. Corbin, a French philosopher, is principally known for his interpretation of Islamic thought. From Corbin comes from the idea that the mundus archetypalis is also the mundus imaginalis. The mundus imaginalis offers an ontological mode of locating the archetypes of the psyche as the fundamental structures of the imagination or as fundamentally imaginative phenomena that are transcendent to the world of sense in their value if not their appearance. (This from James Hillman’s book: Archetypal Psychology: A Brief Account).

Hopefully this little summary of the panel discussion will open up the notion of “imaginal” for you and help you to differentiate it from “image” or “imaginative”.  And, remember: The primary and irreducible language of archetypal patterns is the metaphorical discourse of myths.

Panel Discussion of the “Mundus Imaginalis”

Our group discussion fairly immediately came across the first obstacle regarding the imaginalis, that of language. The difficulty of translating the experience and the “language” of the imaginal into everyday reality is much the same as attempting to fit a mystical shape into a practical mold. (The group also did not overlook the aspect of translating Arabic terms into English, which is already one step removed from the original translation of mystical to “sensible”). The danger of misinterpretation lies deep in the heart of any translation. When we talk about the levels and layers of meaning within culture, we are immediately at the mercy of the danger of our own assumptions. These assumptions of course come from the core of our own cultural schemata and its inherent limitations.

The limitations of our scientific civilization – which is said to have gained mastery over images, and is even referred to as the “civilization of the image” – are in its radical misunderstanding, or complete misapprehension of the image (the root and vehicle of the imaginal). Instead of the image being raised to the level of the world to which it belongs, instead of being invested with a symbolic function that would lead to inner meaning, the image tends to be reduced simply to the level of sensible perception and thus to be definitely degraded. Might one not have to say that the greater the success of this reduction, the more people lose their sense of the imaginal and the more they are condemned to produce nothing but fiction. In other words (worlds), the image/imaginal is brought down to the lowest common denominator and thus completely loses its potency.

If all is thus lost in translation, how can the imaginal be communicated? Perhaps this is entirely the wrong question, the wrong approach. At one point in our group discussion a subtle shift occurred that we might not have been quite conscious of at the time. This shift revealed itself in the realization that one cannot truly communicate one’s imaginal level of experience fully, directly or even clearly. But that we may be able to “read” or receive another’s experience of the imaginal as it connects to our own. The other’s experience/communications then acts as a trigger for us to enter our own imaginal experience. In other words, the memory of our own experience of the imaginal can be triggered by that of the other person’s; can create an entry point to the imaginal. And that creativity could in fact be a process of the magneticism of these entry points; invitations to the openings, so to speak.

From this vantage point we may be able to admit that we cannot communicate the imaginal because of the limitations of our “language”. But that this limitation is certainly not imposed on the imaginal, as it communicates to us constantly through forms that exist within and without us. And that truly our task and desire, even compulsion is to give shape to its integrity; To give color to its ecstasy; To know its gnosis; To step into the dimension of non-duality; To step out of time. And to do all of this we must access a certain kind of vulnerability that is a suspension of all we know yet maintaining a sense of all knowing. The quintessential paradox that creates an incredible surge of energy that may override the sense of helplessness we are confronted with in our constant struggle to give form to the formless, fitting the mystical into the sensible. Perhaps if we were to magically pull a mystical shape out of a practical mold we might finally be making meaning rather than just making sense.