Mythos for Beginners


There is a story collected by the Grimms and beautifully told by Michael Meade in which a son comes home from University because his father’s money has run out halfway through the course. He joins his father, a poor wood-cutter, in the forest, having borrowed a second axe for the day. There, growing restless while his father takes a needed break, he wanders off to search for birds in the branches of tall trees. Looking up he hears a tiny voice calling from below ‘Let me out. Let me out.’ Looking down, he unearths a bottle tangled in the roots of a giant oak. He uncorks the bottle. A dark misshapen cloud bursts out and settles into the form of a huge genie, furious after long confinement. The genie vows to kill the son. The son protests without success but manages to trick the genie back into the bottle. Trapped, the genie now promises a reward for his release. He keeps his word and gives the son a piece of cloth, of which one end turns base metals to silver while the other causes wounds to disappear. The son verifies this and thanks the spirit. Then he returns to his father, who berates him for indolence. The son swings his axe, not noticing that it brushes one end of the cloth. The axe turns silver and collapses when it strikes the tree. In shadow, the father sees only that it’s broken and launches into a new tirade against his educated son. The son persuades him to finish early and takes the broken axe to an assayer. The father is amazed when his son returns a wealthy man and is easily convinced to give up his life of toil. The son completes his education and works famously as a healer until his death.

Of what relevance is such a story in a book like this? Genies in a bottles! There may be a quaintness about it but surely we’re not expected to take it ‘too seriously’? It’s more like something you’d find in a children’s book. So what is it doing here? Before answering, I want to look briefly at two other stories which reflect interestingly on each other when taken as a pair.

The first – ‘The Water of Life’ – was also collected by the Grimms. It opens with the imminent death of a Father-King, for whose sickness no cure can be found. The King’s three sons are weeping by a fountain in the courtyard of his castle when an Old Man comes by and tells them that there is a cure. It’s called the Water of Life but he doesn’t know where to find it. The oldest brother promptly sets off on his horse, thinking to earn the King’s favour and ensure his own succession. He gallops contemptuously past when a dwarf at the side of the road tries to gain his attention. The second brother acts likewise when the first fails to return. Angered, the dwarf imprisons him also in a rocky defile. The King is reluctant to let his third son take up the quest. What can he, a ‘fool’, achieve where his older, more experienced brothers have managed nothing? The fool persists. The king relents and the youngest brother, when hailed by the dwarf at the side of the road, stops, gets off his horse and admits that he has no idea where he’s going. The dwarf then gives him very valuable aid.

The other story is an old Rusian folktale called ‘Vasalisa the Wise’. Here a Mother has already died, leaving her young daughter in the position of ‘fool’ in a household dominated by a Stepmother and her two older daughters. Vasalisa waits upon them hand and foot. She does everything to please them but never succeeds. Eventually they conspire to get rid of her altogether. They let the fire go out and order Vasalisa to go deep into the forest where she must ask Babi Yaga, a fearsome witch and keeper of the flame, for a new light. Vasalisa sets out alone, walking by night through the dark and terrifying forest, guided only by a doll which she keeps in her pocket. This doll was bequeathed by her true mother and moves her in the right direction now whenever she’s in doubt.

So we have on the one hand a foolish young man, the son of an ailing father with two older sons, who sets out on horseback, by day, in search of water. On the other, we have a foolish young woman, the ‘daughter’ of a stepmother with two older daughters, who sets out on foot, by night, in search of fire. Could the symmetries apparent here be merely fortuitous? Or is it possible that there might be some element of unconscious design involved, something which intuitively engages and yet eludes our rational sensibilities? Both stories are very old. What purpose did they serve in the cultures where they originated? Did they function simply as entertainment – orally transmitted soap-operas of their day? Their persistence suggests otherwise. To move this enquiry forward we must first be prepared to look back. 

Specifically, we need to look again to the time of the European Enlightenment, which hailed scientific rationality as the paradigm of a new Universal Reason. With the elevation of this Reason which proclaimed its own universality, older forms of codifying what used to count as knowledge were reduced to superstition. This measure was applied to all the mythologies and teaching stories of pre-modern cultures, including those of Europe itself. These stories were first sanitized and then presented as children’s stories: ‘Fairy Tales’ suitable for bedtime recitation. This has led to a peculiar irony whereby stories that were originally intended to wake adults up are now used for putting children asleep. Enlightenment Europe was not appropriately attuned to the symbolic heights and depths of these stories – the high branches and deep roots of the tree at the centre of ‘The Spirit in the Bottle’, for example. You may be able to verify from your own intuitive response that there is more than anachronism involved in mythic quests for water and fire. After all, these stories have been around for a long time. To appreciate what may be involved, I would like to step back and examine a traditional worldview in relation to which their sense may become more apparent. Let me begin with the following simplified model:

                                              — INSERT FIG. 13.1 —

The three lines marked  ‘Upper’, ‘Middle’ and Lower’ represent the most fundamental articulation of  a vertical structure of reality which is recognised by all the shamanic-mystical traditions I know. The Lower World is populated by animal and ancestral spirits; the Upper by ‘higher’ beings such as the angels and archangels of Christian tradition. We occupy the Middle world of Earth. In esoteric tradition, it is said to be possible for humans to make contact with both of these other realms under certain circumstances. Many cultures offer more differentiated schemas than the one shown here. All pre-scientific cultures retain some traces of it.

The Upper world corresponds to the Cosmic Space occupied by mythological beings: gods, goddesses and other superhuman spirits. The Middle world corresponds to the level of Polis - the sociopolitical world of ordinary experience. The Lower world corresponds to the ‘inner’ world of Psyche and of Earth. It is generally held within esoteric traditions that these worlds interpenetrate and, also, that each reflects the essential structure of the other: ‘As above, so below’ in the ancient Hermetic formulation. This means that the structure of outer space is mirrored by the structure of inner space and both by the mesocosm of the human world.

By Mythos I mean the encompassing narrative structure operated by a culture in its ordering of whatever worlds it acknowledges. Mythos articulates and relates all levels of the Upper, Middle and Lower worlds distinguished by particular traditional societies. This doesn’t mean that the role of Mythos is important only in such societies, but rather that its importance is explicitly recognised by them. I like to qualify Mythos as a rationally accessible frame of understanding that is open to and permeable by the trans-rational. This permits development of a view of rationality that holds itself open to the trans-rational rather than repudiating as sub- or irrational any elements that cannot be comprehensively reckoned in terms of a scientific model. There is no reason, according to this definition, why Mythos shouldn’t function in an advanced industrial society in the same integrative manner as it has done in traditional societies in the past – except that we are not on the whole receptive to the idea of any order being trans-rational. Rationality seems always to impress us as the highest order there could be.

There are compelling reasons for this. Logos or Reason dominates our Earthbound, socio-political view of things. It is to be expected that as a species we should adjust ‘rationally’ to primary contexts of our physical evolution. Problems arise, however, when Logos acclaims itself as something distinct from and opposed to Mythos rather than something which arises within and evolves correlatively with it. There are two main points in Western history where I see this happening. The first is in a much vaunted Greek differentiation of Reason out of Myth.  Wittgenstein, in one of his ‘mystical’ reflections, says that the task of philosophy is to get the fly out of the bottle. In my opinion, it was philosophy in the guise of Plato which put it in there to begin.   The story behind this is interesting: essentially, I see Plato as a mystical philosopher who tried to squeeze his trans-rational vision into a rational form so that later generations wouldn’t lose the awareness he was attempting to convey but rather would re-member to a point of trying to liberate one day that part of us which ‘flies’ – i.e., to let our genius-spirit out of the bottle. Then Aristotle, the inventor of logic, sought to improve on Plato’s job and the wisdom of holding an appropriate balance between rational and trans-rational elements of human experience began to be obscured.

The imbalance was consolidated through a second major subjugation of Mythos by Logos. This happened when the European Enlightenment hailed scientific rationality as the paradigm of Universal Reason. No beings higher than ‘Man’ are acknowledged by this paradigm. Indigenous ontologies are relegated and Mythos is reduced to superstition. The Upper and Lower Worlds are collapsed as autonomous realms, to be assimilated to rational discourse by appropriate disciplines of science. Thus the vertical structure of reality is rescinded. Even the normative psychology of this new dispensation gets flattened: homo economicus is said to be perfectly self-transparent, self-present and self-controlling – all attributes of the Sovereign Ego. No heights or depths complicate this picture. It leaves nowhere for Wittgenstein’s ‘fly’ to fly to , much like the experience of our bottled genie until the woodcutter’s son went looking for spirit-birds. Of course this makes no sense in terms of Enlightenment understanding. Logos orders events only from perspectives of the Middle World to which it is adjusted. Hence its unbalanced application to Upper and Lower worlds is inherently reductive. It flattens Cosmos as it flattens Psyche.

Imagine now, by contrast, that we’re in a pre-scientific culture, long before European Enlightenment has re-ordered the world. Is it possible that we are simply ignorant of ourselves and the place we live in? Is it possible that our culture has failed to gather and transmit any information of value about the nature of Psyche and Cosmos? Such a claim now seems absurdly arrogant but it nonetheless bolstered the over-weaning confidence with which Europeans intellectuals dismissed the symbolic traditions of indigenous cultures as infantile superstition. In one sense, this dismissal is understandable since the traditions of native cultures were sensitive to dimensions of reality which scientific rationality was simply not equipped to comprehend. And dismissing what we fail to comprehend as irrelevant is always a tempting option. Notwithstanding the brutal impact of this dismissal, it remains true that myths function as teaching stories in all pre-modern/traditional cultures, where they are used to codify and transmit the culture’s sense of Cosmos, Polis and Psyche, which interpenetrate. This conjunction may seem odd to our contemporary commonsense but recall that it was Descartes and the blandishments of proto-capitalist ideology which first convinced us that mind was an individualised attribute of particular human beings alone in all the Cosmos. Subtracting Descartes’ God and adding colonial expansionism, we arrive at a philosophy of evolution out of nothing that discriminates in favour of white races: this from a mindset which deems quests for fire and water superstitious.

Remember the psychology of the self-transparent, supposedly sovereign ego? Even if this had depths, surely there could be nothing dangerous hidden in them?  A rational Ego casts no Shadow. It’s all been enlightened away. And then, from the heart of enlightened Europe, Holocaust! Jung described this as ‘the resurgence of Dionysus’. A very angry spirit that has been imprisoned for too long bursts out and nobody in a psychologically illiterate culture has the wit to trick it back inside its bottle. Instead we witness an utter inability to cope. Shock. Numbness. Disbelief. The incredible has happened. The unimaginable. But what if we had imagined better? Attended earlier? Perhaps then we might have heard the pleas of what was clamouring to be released. In our story, the son tames the spirit and they end by respecting each other. But it could have been very different. The son was almost killed. The angry spirit might then have continued its rampage. The father would have toiled into a harsh old age and all the healing brought into the world by virtue of a gift wrested from the spirit by the son would never have taken place. This is what our story is about: the integration and intelligent application of spirit(ual) energies which become destructive whenever they are denied. The interpersonal relationship between father and son, beautiful as that is, is subordinate to a much larger symbolic pattern. We must bring this into focus now.

                                       — INSERT FIG. 13.2 —

Fig. 13.2 shows a shaman sitting under the World Tree, which echoes the tree in our story. The branches of this Tree stretch into the Upper World while its roots reach down into the Lower. The shaman, by ascending or descending (figuratively), uses the Tree to access Other Worlds. S/he does so by making an ‘inner journey’, which is essentially what we do in meditation. The shaman goes into herself and, through journeying on ‘Inner Planes’ accesses other worlds. This is bound to seem strange to us, especially if we imagine her still sitting against the trunk of the tree, immobile in a trance-like condition. We think of her as being trapped within her body, like the genie in his bottle. But what, ultimately, is the body? Our ‘New Physics’ tells us that it’s made up of atoms, which are in turn made up of particles, which are like tiny specks moving at incredible speeds through relatively vast reaches of empty space, colliding and disintegrating back into a void of pure potentiality from which they arise. Our apparently solid, supposedly imprisoning body, that is to say, is made up almost entirely of empty space!

This permits us to conclude that the shaman actually is journeying in an ‘inner space’. It also shows that our distinction between ‘Inner’ and ‘Outer’ is ultimately arbitrary, since it presupposes the interposed materiality of our bodies, which turns out to be illusory! Not even subatomic particles are remotely like the ‘things’ of materialist commonsense. They are, rather, fluctuations of energy and information which cannot be known except in transaction with our technologically amplified cognitive activity. They have no ‘independent’ existence. Mystics have been reporting on this ‘particle dance’ for millennia, with full awareness that they themselves were parties to the dance, manifestations of it. They knew this because they encountered on their ‘inner’ journeys dimensions of ‘inner’ space which are also ‘outer’ and which become apparent to us as we attain higher levels of energy/awareness in the course of our journeying. This is how our ancestors knew about the ‘vertical structure of reality’. Such knowing is currently denied us due to our habit of identifying exclusively with a picture of reality which takes shape at the commonsense level of perception in Newtonian Space and Time. We will return to this in due course.

For now, we rejoin the youngest brother, the ‘fool’ of our water story. He receives directions plus an iron rod and two loaves of bread from the dwarf. He uses the rod to open the gates of a castle where the Water of Life can be found. He uses the loaves to appease two hungry lions who stand guard just inside. He then makes his way to a hall where he encounters a company of men turned to stone. Each of them carries a gold ring, which he collects. Reaching an inner chamber, he meets a woman of great beauty who thanks him for breaking a spell that had been cast upon her. She directs him to the Water of Life and warns him not to fall asleep. He must be out by twelve o’clock. She also invites him to return after a year and reign with her. He leaves her and finds a room richly adorned with scenes from ancient stories. Mesmerised, he lingers and falls asleep. He wakes just before twelve and dashes to the Source, where he fills a cup with the Water of Life. The gates are already closing as he hurries to escape. He loses a part of his heel while clambering out.

Returning, he meets the dwarf again and petitions for his brothers’ release. The dwarf advises against this but the youngest son persists. The dwarf relents. The older sons are released and feign nonchalance as their younger brother tells his amazing tale. They trick him when he falls asleep (again!) by substituting sea water for the Water of Life, which they take to the King, along with a story about the youngest son’s treachery. The King sentences him to death in secrecy but the Old Hunter to whom the execution is entrusted has doubts and lets the youngest son escape into the forest, after exchanging clothes with him. The youngest son wanders in the deepest parts of the forest for a year, after which he sets out to keep his appointment with the Lady of the Fountain. In the meantime, the King has been given cause to rethink his verdict. The Hunter reveals that his youngest son isn’t dead. The older brothers flee and the story ends with scenes of reconciliation and forgiveness as the King blesses the marriage of the youngest brother to his new queen.

I know that this is moving very fast and am happy to let you mull over it for a while. There is a zen maxim which states that ‘Jewels brought in through the front door are not family treasure.’ It is in the spirit of this saying, which may itself warrant some mulling, that I leave you to ponder our story a little before adding to it.

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