What is the Function of Myth?

“Therefore I submit that other than mathematical statements (i.e., statements implicit in nature) are likewise capable of pointing to irrepresentable realities beyond themselves–such, for example, as those products of the imagination which enjoy universal acceptance or are distinguished by the frequency of their occurrence, like the whole class of archetypal motifs. Just as in the case of some factors in mathematical equations we cannot say to what physical realities they correspond, so in the first case of some mythological products we do not know at first to what psychic realities they refer. Equations governing the turbulence of heated gases existed long before the problems of such gases had been precisely investigated. Similarly, we have long been in the possession of mythologems which express the dynamics of certain subliminal processes, though these processes were only given names in very recent times.” (C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. P. 311)

In the middle of this statement in his personal biography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung makes the radical claim that myths, like mathematical equations, do not always correspond to physical realities. He instead suggests that at first myths may correspond to some psychic or mental reality. But what, really, is the evidence for some psychic reality, and what is the distinction between the psychic and physical, and how do we make sense of it? The relation between the two “realities” seems to be represented by the existence of what is called neurosis by contemporary psychologists, and the function of myth, therefore, is to bridge the gap between the differences in one’s perception of reality (physical or psychological) and reality itself. For as will be suggested by the psychologists and mythologists below, the distinction between physical and psychical reality is a false one, and the more important question is how one bridges the gap between one’s perceptions of reality and reality itself, especially to relieve the suffering of a person or culture.

Therefore, when we look to the noted classicist and psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz, she suggests that the purpose of myth is to restore balance to a culture which has lost its connection between its every day living and its unconscious roots or collective myth. The function, then, of myth is to restore life and vital energy into  a people who have lost it. Or put in the language of the psychologists, to reduce the suffering of neurosis on the personal level or spiritual crisis on the collective level. Does hearing of a culture cut-off from the vivacity of life and utterly neurotic sound at all sound familiar? One need not look any further than the prevailing economic attitude present in America today to realize that the governing forms of thought which govern our people have calcified and become brittle, unmotivating, and weak.

“The cause of this transformation process, which can be shown to occur again and again in the spiritual history of its peoples and which we have only briefly outlined here, is to be found first of all in the tendency of spiritual forms to rigidify. This is connected with the fact that it is the nature of human consciousness to wish to, or even to have to, formulate and pin things down in a clear and ambiguous fashion [viz. Vernant, Campbell, and Jung below; my addition]. By contrast, the unconscious psychic life tends towards more fluid and less precise modes of behavior. That is the reason why, in individuals, as well as in whole cultures, consciousness and the unconscious can fall into opposition. When this happens, we speak of neurosis in individuals and in cultures, of a spiritual crisis.” (Marie-Louise von Franz, Archetypal Dimensions of the Psyche, P. 11)

So, if a person or a people lose their connection to the creative or collective unconscious, which creates the myths which a people express, interpret and live–a rift manifesting in neurosis on the individual level and spiritual crisis on the societal level is the result. What then is the solution to a person or a people losing contact with his creative myth, though? Again, we turn to Dr. von Franz:

“The old sick king is a symbol for the rigidified spiritual forms of culture referred to above, which are no longer in harmony with the sphere of the instincts, nor with the unconscious spiritual tendencies of the collective unconscious. The renewal is usually brought about in the myth by a hero, who is often a simple man or a simpleton altogether. His naive genuineness is capable of bringing the creative transformation completion. This myth is to be found among all the peoples of the earth, and its existence shows how important this kind of historical-psychological transformation is.” (Ibid, P. 12)

Dr. von Franz’s argument is that in order to heal the rift between the conscious mind of a person and people and the creative unconscious which provides the “vitalizing” myth of a person or people’s life is to live-out the archetype of the hero. This means to rejuvenate a people or person by discarding the former, outdated myth of the “old king” in place of a far humbler, less regal, and more vividly living myth. But in what language, exactly, would such a myth express itself? How is one to know if one is receiving the living myth which will bring meaning and order to one’s life, or even to one’s people’s life? Let us look to Jean Pierre Vernant, Joseph Campbell, and Dr. Carl Jung for help in interpreting both the function and language of myths.

“What characterizes the human level as opposed to that of other creatures on the animal scale is the presence of these vast mediatory systems–language, tools, religion. However, man is not aware of having invented this language of religion. He feels that it is the world itself that speaks this language[my italics] or, to be more precise, reality itself is fundamentally language. The universe appears to him as the expression of sacred powers that, in their own particular forms, constitute the true texture of reality, the being behind appearances, the meaning that lies behind the symbols that manifest it.” (Jean-Pierre Vernant, Myth and Society, P. 104, tr. Janet Lloyd)

And in agreement with Vernant, Campbell, in one of his more mature works writes:

“Mythological symbols touch and exhilarate centers of life beyond the reach of vocabularies of reason and coercion. The light-world modes of experience and thought were late, very late, developments in the biological prehistory of the species. Even in the life course of the individual, the opening of the eyes to light occurs only after all the main miracles have been accomplished of the building of a living body of already functioning organs, each with its inherent aim, none of these aims either educed from, or as yet even known to, reason[my italics]; while in the larger course and context of the evolution of life itself from the silence of primordial seas, of which the taste still runs in our blood, the opening of the eyes occurred only after the first principle of all organic being had been operative for so many hundreds of millions of centuries that it could not then, and cannot now, be undone…” and “The first function of a mythology is to reconcile waking consciousness to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of this universe as it is: the second being to render an interpretive  total image of the same, as known to contemporary consciousness.” (Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology, P, 4)

The two mythologists above agree in one important respect: mythology is the language of reality which must be interpreted by the minds and words of men.  A myth, as explained above, therefore directly represents the reality of both the psyche and the reality of which it is a part (and the psyche, which is a part of reality, interprets reality). One might even suggest that it is the psyche and its tools which exist precisely in order to understand and express the truths of myth, rather than the more mundane and wrongheaded point that one’s psyche or mind “creates” a myth. The important piece that is added to Dr. von Franz’s quotes is essentially, then, that the neurosis of an individual and spiritual crisis of a people is the result of not perceiving the reality of myth or of misinterpreting one’s personal or societal myth or worst one neglects the myth of the creative unconscious in favor of a more rigid and less current image of the unconscious. In agreement with the mythologists above, Dr. Carl Jung, the psychologist explains the relationship between myths, the creative unconscious, and the expanding consciousness man has of the reality in which he is placed and lives. And in so explaining, perhaps a solution to today’s spiritual crisis might be suggested.

“Only here, in life on earth, where the opposites clash together, can the general level of consciousness be raised. That seems to be man’s metaphysical task–which he cannot accomplish without “mythologizing.” Myth is the natural and indispensable intermediate stage between unconscious and conscious cognition. True, the unconscious knows more than consciousness does; but it is knowledge of a special sort, knowledge in eternity, usually without reference to the here and now, not couched in language of the intellect. Only when we let its statements amplify themselves, as has been shown above by the example of numerals, does it come within the range of our understanding; only then does a new aspect become perceptible to us.” (C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections)

Just as Dr. von Franz wrote above, the purpose of myth is to connect the conscious mind of a person to his unconscious roots, and just as Vernant and Campbell wrote that myth is the representation of the language of reality, Jung here suggests that myth occupies a middle place between the “conscious mind” and the “unconscious mind” in order to act as sort of a bridge between the two in order to raise the level of the conscious mind to greater heights. In that lies the solution to both the neurosis of a man and the spiritual crisis of a people–as well as to the problem of the function of myth. Myths do not exist simply as stories to be rigidly adhered to and to be told over and over again. No, they exist as the language of the unconscious for raising the level of the consciousness of a person or a people who is suffering to a new and healthy level of being in accordance with reality. As a myth’s stature rises (to the old king) and moves away from its roots in the unconscious, it seems to partake of less and less reality, therefore experiencing both diminishing marginal returns and a corruption of its purpose. By following a rigid or outdated mythology, one stops following, perceiving, and correctly interpreting “reality itself” as Vernant puts it–and in failing to take account of reality, one’s mind, spirit, and even body at the personal and societal level begins to become corrupt. It is therefore the duty and function of the myth, particularly that of the hero myth, to renew, reinvigorate, and bring about a renaissance or renovatio of the human spirit on a personal or collective level.