True Myths: Mythopoeia and The Collective Unconscious

Noelle Houston as Pandora in Zion Theatre Company’s upcoming production of “Prometheus Unbound.” Photo by Greg Deakins.

As evidenced by the upcoming production of my play Prometheus Unbound, I’m a big lover of mythology. As a child I remember delightedly pouring over a book of myths about Hercules I found in my elementary school’s library. The mythology units in my high school English classes were always some of my favorite. In recent years, I’ve expanded my interests to all sorts of world mythologies, from the Egyptian to the Australian Aboriginal to the Norse to the Native American. All cultures, at their heart, have some splendidly interesting myths, legends, and stories. However, as time went on it became more than an imaginative interest fueled by escapism. Before too long studying mythology became a spiritual journey for me.

It’s easy to fall into the habit of finding patterns. Some may say that it is coincidental, that our mind tries to find meaning in a meaningless world. However, I for one am with psychologist Carl Jung in the opposing belief: “In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order” (Jung, “Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious”). In addition to Jung’s idea of a collective consciousness, additional scholars like Joseph Campbell (not to mention pop culture icons like George Lucas, who uses such archetypes extensively in his Star Wars films) have argued for just such a patterning that seems to spill out in human myths, fairy tales, and stories. So as I read and find corollaries between Osiris and Christ, Pandora and Eve, Iphigenia and Isaac, Loki and Lucifer, when I look at the universal flood myths, I am always fascinated.

But, historically, there have been many who have found this phenomenon to be more suspicious than faith promoting, finding basis to think that later stories, such as the Johnny-come-lately Christianity, were steeped in mythological plagiarism. This, in part, was C.S. Lewis’s objection to Christianity during his atheist stage before his conversion to Christianity made him one of greatest “defenders of the faith” of the 20th century. But, despite C.S. Lewis’s deep love of mythology (the Norse myth about Balder, a particular favorite of his, caused him deep yearnings when he was younger), the similarities seemed too blatant to Lewis. Christianity may have had many things going for it…originality was not one of them. He called such myths “lies…breathed through silver” (Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, p. 43).

On Saturday September 19th, 1931, C.S. Lewis had two of his friends over. One was Hugo Dyson, a Shakespearean scholar you probably have never heard of. The other, who you almost certainly have heard of, was J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien and Hugo, unlike Lewis, were deeply religious, which was a sore point in an otherwise very fruitful friendship. Lewis was in the middle of his conversion, having already had some spiritual experiences after the death of his father that he had difficulty explaining. But he still resisted against that final leap from theism to Christianity.

So, on a cool evening, as they all walked through the grounds of Oxford’s Magdalen College, Lewis, Dyson and Tolkien gravitated to that favorite subject of theirs, mythology, as well as the contentious other side of that coin, religion. To counteract Lewis’s “religion is just another myth” argument Tolkien counteracted with a very interesting idea:

…man is not ultimately a liar. He may pervert his thoughts into lies, but he comes from God, and it is from God that he draws his ultimate ideals…Therefore, Tolkien continued, not merely the abstract thoughts of man but also his imaginative inventions must originate with God, and must in consequence reflect something of eternal truth. In making a myth, in practicing “mythopoeia” and peopling the world with elves and dragons and goblins, a storyteller, or “sub-creator” as Tolkien liked to call such a person, is actually fulfilling God’s purpose, and reflecting a splintered fragment of true light. Pagan myths are therefore never just “lies”: there is always something of the truth to them…Had he not shown how pagan myths were, in fact, God expressing himself through the minds of poets, and using the images of their “mythopoeia” to express fragments of his eternal truth? (Carpenter, The Inklings, p. 43).

This idea helped Lewis with one of those last, final spiritual hurdles. But can such mystic explanations have relevance in a modern, secular world? Well, I don’t think Tolkien gave two figs about being modern—to the contrary he thought most of the literature that was written after the Middle Ages (including his friend Hugo Dyson’s beloved Shakespeare) was claptrap. So it may be a less than convincing argument to the Richard Dawkinses of the world, but to C.S. Lewis it tied to the yearnings and spiritual sense he had felt in reading the old myths. It connected to that ever elusive “joy” he was seeking.

And thus, to a fellow myth lover like me, the idea also hits home.

Couple this “mythopoeia” idea with Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, where “there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents” (Jung, Archetypes of the Collective Unconsciousness, p. 43). Or, in other words, beyond our individual identity, there is something our mind (or spirit) is connected to that gives us access to a stored knowledge of archetypes, patterns, symbols, and inherent wisdom. We’re all connected to it, we all unconsciously, instinctively access this depository of hidden knowledge, and these patterns and symbols often tumble out in the form of stories and myths.

And then I add onto this an idea which comes from my own Mormon worldview…the idea of a pre-existence. In my religious tradition, the Pre-Existence was where we lived before our spirits came to this world. There’s a part of us that is Eternal, that did not originate on this earth, that lived with God. And thus, instead of all of us somehow being characters without free will in God’s Great Novel, as Tolkien’s ideas could lead one to believe, if unchecked, this mythopoeiac, collective unconscious may rather be the result pre-existent memory. We are accessing a shadowy part of ourselves that has a veil drawn over it, but still has some instinctive and unconscious influence over us…and our mythopoeiac stories.

But how do you bridge that idea with historical reality? Psychology and mythology and subconscious don’t make the Christian story, or the other religious claims of the world’s dominant religions, actually true. It doesn’t mean those stories actually happened. No matter how they correlate with our unconscious mind, that bears no consequence on physical, historical events. All it means is that the Christian story is just another fancy of the mind, no matter how collectively meaningful.

Not so, Tolkien responded to C.S. Lewis’s similar reasoning. In Christ, “here is a real Dying God, with a precise location in history and definite historical consequences. The old myth has become a fact. But it still retains the character of a myth” (Carpenter, The Inklings, p. 44). Thus, in Christianity, Tolkien believed there was the “True Myth” that all the other myths had been pointing to.

I find it interesting how often one can find Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” not only in myths and tales, but also in historical figures. I have found the pattern in the lives of heroic figures like Jean d’Arc, Joseph Smith, and Abraham Lincoln. The patterns of myth truly have, in historically quantifiable ways, played out. Thus Tolkien’s insistence that Christ was what all those myths actually meant and were directing us to, seems perfectly plausible to me.

Casey William Walker as Prometheus in Zion Theatre Company’s “Prometheus Unbound.” Photo by Greg Deakins.

But even more than that, it ties to those yearnings I had when I have encountered resonant pieces of mythology in my past. One such instance was when in 9th grade honors English, we went into our Greek mythology unit. As I discovered for the first time the story of the myth of the Titan Prometheus, who was bound to a rock by Zeus and perpetually tortured because he had given fire to humankind. Prometheus, who had chosen to be humankind’s advocate, suffered so that they could benefit.

The spiritual dimensions of this story reverberated deeply within me and I felt tied to the myth, so much so that I wrote a short play about it for a class assignment. A decade later, I would take up that story again and do a full-length play version of it. And still I find myself going back again and again to mythology for inspiration in my other plays, as well as creating my own universe of mythopoeia. It is in doing so that I find some of my most religiously sublime experiences and I feel I come the closest in tearing off the veil that shadows pre-mortal memories.

About Mahonri Stewart

Mahonri Stewart is a national award winning playwright and screenwriter who resides in Arizona with his wife Anne and their two children. Mahonri is currently attending graduate school in ASU's Dramatic Writing program. Mahonri has had over a dozen of his plays produced by theatre venues and organizations such as Utah Valley University, Zion Theatre Company, BYU Experimental Theatre Company, Art City Playhouse, the Little Brown Theatre, Arizona State University's Binary Theatre, and the Off Broadway Theatre in Salt Lake City. Mahonri also loves superheroes, literature, film, board games, lasagna (with cottage cheese, not ricotta!), and considers himself an amateur Church Historian. He is also a tireless advocate for Mormon Drama.
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3 Responses to True Myths: Mythopoeia and The Collective Unconscious

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Thanks for a very thoughtful post. It’s interesting to see what things speak to us as readers/viewers, and then go on to inspire us as creators of art of our own. Interesting, too, that for many artists myths maintain their power to creatively inspire even after belief has fled (though this was, of course, not the case for Tolkien and Lewis with respect to Christianity).

    Interestingly, one of the questions Tolkien addressed in his professional life was what kind of power the ancient pagan legends could and should have to Christian believers, such as the Beowulf-poet. It was a question he deeply felt, as a Christian who nonetheless felt drawn to create stories of mythologies in which he did not believe — except that, in a sense, he *did* believe in them.

    On a different point, I find that Campbell isn’t my favorite describer of archetypes. I much prefer Eliade, with his respect for religion *as* religion (and not merely as code for the quest for personal identity) and his placing of the archetypal journey as ultimately social, as opposed to individual and private.

  2. I’ve heard that complaint about Campbell before and totally understand it.

    I had never heard of Mircea Eliade until you mentioned him, Jonathan. Now I’m super curious! I’ll have to order some of his work at some point.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      I particularly recommend “The Sacred and the Profane” and “Rites and Symbols of Initiation”: both slender but elegantly written and deeply insightful, in my view. For people of a certain temperament, it’s my feeling that “The Sacred and the Profane” is the best single work for putting into perspective what you find when you go to the temple to take out your own endowments. (I had read it as a freshman in college prior to my mission, and then had my older son read it before his.)

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