Myth serves as an individual path into the collective unconscious. It is a means to attain at-one-ment with the greater forces that affect the individual life. That is, it informs life by putting it into context. We often disdain myth because it generally portrays less than perfect gods (and goddesses), whereas what we call religion rests on an assumption of divine perfection. How quaint it is to see the Springeresque antics of Zeus chasing women and Hera chasing Zeus, no wonder the Olympians fell out of favor to be replaced by a single, all-seeing, all-knowing God of perfection. But which set of beliefs would do an individual more psychological good when faced with infidelity?
In his practice, Carl Jung noted that Catholics had less tendency towards neurosis than Protestants or Atheists. He attributed the difference to the still heavily ritualized Catholic practice. A Catholic mass had the ability to bring the individual into direct contact with the mystery of the world and the Other, whereas Protestantism and Atheism (or secular humanism) left the individual mired in this world and without a means to put life in psychological context.
Years later, Joseph Campbell would reiterate Jung’s idea when he talked about modern society’s lack of myth and the psychological ills that resulted from it. That George Lucas used Campbell’s mythological template to structure the Star Wars trilogy proves the point. The cultural effect of those films far exceeded any passing wonder in new special effects technology. Lucas had produced a modern myth that was constructed from the seminal motifs of stories as old as mankind, and it struck a resonance with the public that can still be felt today. (But Star Wars and myth is a different Uncle-God Momma for a different day.)
Now, as then, people will rally to the mythological motifs when they are presented. It would not be hard to argue that the ascent of Barrack Obama followed the outline of so many other hero myths, which is not to say that he cast himself that way. It would say more about the population than it would about Mr. Obama, and would imply nothing false about him nor any gullibility on the part of his admirers. Myth reflects reality which reflects myth. It is, by now, ingrained in the human psyche even if it is mostly latent. All that it requires is something to awaken it.
Perhaps we yearn for myth, seeking to find it in our lives…while a lack of it in our culture makes the connection more difficult to make. But myth is by no means completely absent. It not only lurks in our subconscious, but sometimes gets presented in unexpected – and delightful – ways.
Next time you have a spare hour and a half, use it to watch the animated film, Sita Sings the Blues. (available here) Billed as “The greatest breakup story ever told”, it is a retelling of the Indian classic Ramayana. Nina Paley manages to do so much with the film that a brief description would never do it justice. It is a love story, a break up story, a myth, a comedy, and a musical told through multiple animation styles. The 1920’s style vocal jazz interludes (provided by scratchy old 78’s of Annette Hanshaw) would seem out of place, but Paley weaves them into the story in such a way that the tapestry only becomes richer. At times the story of the Ramayana is told relatively straight; at other times three shadow puppets (voiced by modern Indians) attempt to agree on, narrate, and explain their own cultural inheritance in a way that will make you laugh out loud. And Ms. Paley brings the ancient, Indian story into the modern world by way of reflection, rather than forcing the comparison to make a point.
Though it is one of those films that you hope will never end, the end may be the best part. Ms. Paley executes a closing that has Mr. Campbell smiling…wherever he is. She not only brings an old myth to modern light, but reminds us that the myths to live by are here for us to embrace.
More information is available at www.sitasingstheblues.com, and Ms. Paley is “giving” the film away. In reality, it cost her $50,000 to protect herself from corporate copyright lawyers (and that may not fully protect her).
Image credit: Nina Paley