Six Global Theories of Mythology: Part Six – Myths express the Unconscious Human Mind

The Human Mind

The Sixth Global Theory – Myths reflect Man’s Unconscious Mind

After the intensity of the progression of mythological theories in their investigation into the psychology, values, phenomenology, history and rituals of any particular civilisation or society, the Psychoanalytical Theory of myths was inevitable. Freud’s ‘Interpretation of Dreams’ investigated the link between the language of dreams and mythological symbols based on the tribal belief that dreams and myths arise from the same reality. Freud (1856 – 1939) believed in a transhistorical and biological conception of mankind and furthermore that myth expressed repressed desires.

Sigmund Freud on the realities of Mythical Themes in the Individual and Society:

Hence, we can be content only with the statement that the process of civilisation is a special modification of the life process that is undergone by the latter under the influence of a task that is set by Eros at the instigation of Ananke (the exigency of reality) – the task of uniting discrete individuals in a community bound together by libidinal ties. However, if we focus our attention on the relation between the civilisation of mankind and the development and upbringing of the individual, we shall conclude, without much hesitation, that the two processes are very similar in kind, if not indeed one and the same process, as it affects different kinds of object.

Hence the realm of myth and symbol moved into the field of depth psychology and remained linked to the fields of sociology and anthropology through studies such as the 1910 work of Lucien Levy-Bruhl entitled ‘How Natives Think’. Although not strictly connected to the field of mythology, Levy-Bruhl’s theory was influential in the mythological studies of the father of Psychoanalysis, Carl Jung and his friend, the religious historian and classics professor Karl Kerenyi. Levy-Bruhl identified what he believed to be two separate mindsets of mankind: the primitive and the western. Levy Bruhl advocated an evolutionary and a historical teleology that led from the primitive mind to the western mind. To Levy-Bruhl, the primitive mind participated with the world in a mystical manner and did not differentiate between the supernatural and reality. The western mind was both speculative and logical. Influenced by Freud and Levy-Bruhl, Carl Gustav Jung (1875 – 1961) explored the inner space of the human mind. His extensive knowledge of myth and symbol helped him to explore the inexplicable link he senses between the individual human and humanity in general. This exploration led to his development of Freud’s theory to include the collective subconscious as a sort of psychic inheritance and a reservoir of experiences. Jung also developed his theories of archetypes and examined the synchronous and acausal relationship between man, myth and the symbols inherent within mythology. His theories are difficult to summarise due to their extensive and comprehensive nature and thus anyone wishing further information should refer directly to Jung’s works.

Carl Jung on Mythology:

Primitive man impresses us so strongly with his subjectivity that we should have guessed long ago that myths refer to something psychic. His knowledge of nature is essentially the language and outer dress of unconscious psychic process. But the very fact that this process is unconscious gives us the reason why man has thought of everything except the psyche in his attempts to explain myths. He simply didn’t know that the psyche contains all the images that have ever given rise to myths, and that our unconscious is an acting and suffering subject with an inner drama which primitive man rediscovers, by means of analogy, in the processes of nature both great and small.

In, turn, Jung’s ideas concerning the psychic nature of myths and symbols influenced, his friend and collaborator Karl Kerenyi (1897 – 1973), one of the founders of the modern studies of Hellenic mythology. As a professor of classical philology and ancient history, Kerenyi was learned in all the mythological studies of his time and was introduced to the fields of comparative religions and social history while he was in Greece in 1929. His friendship with Carl Jung introduced him to the psychological theory of mythology which changed the way Kerenyi thought about myths. Kerenyi’s great contribution to Hellenic mythology was the introduction of ‘Hermeneutics’ (the science of mythology). His works are highly recommended reading for any serious student of Hellenismos.

Kerenyi on Mythology:

In mythology, the shaping is pictorial. A torrent of mythological pictures streams out. But the streaming is at the same time an unfolding: held fast as mythologems are in the form of sacred traditions, they are still in the nature of works of art. Mythology is not simply a mode of expression in whose stead another simpler and more readily understandable form might have been chosen, only not just then, when it happened to be the only possible and appropriate one. Like music, mythology too can be more appropriate to the times or less. There are times when the greatest “thoughts” could only have expressed in music. But in that case the “greatest” is precisely what can be expressed in music and in no other way. So with mythology. Just as music has a meaning that is satisfying in the sense that every meaningful whole is satisfying, so every true mythologem has its satisfying meaning. This meaning is hard to translate into the language of science because it can be fully expressed only in the mythological terms. From this combined pictorial, meaningful and musical aspect of mythology there follows the right attitude toward it: to let mythologems speak for themselves and simply to listen. Any explanation has to be along the same lines as the explanation of a musical or poetic work of art.

As one of the pioneers of the later 20th century studies on comparative mythology, American mythology professor, Joseph Campbell, approached mythology through an understanding of Jung’s psychological archetypes. He did not agree completely with Jung and through his works brought forward his ideas concerning spirituality as man’s common search for the source of all existence. For Campbell, this ‘source’ could not be expressed in common words and could only find adequate expression through metaphor. Spiritual stories such as myths expressed this source and all spiritual systems expressed different ‘faces’ of this basic universal truth.

Joseph Campbell on Myths and Dreams:

Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth. The myth is the public domain and the dream is the private myth. If your private myth, your dream, happens to coincide with that of the society, you are in good accord with your group. If it isn’t, you’ve got a long adventure in the dark forest ahead of you.

Later Jungian analysts further developed the theory concerning the psychic nature and the archetypal relationship of symbolic images with the personal unconscious and collective subconscious of humanity.


About J. Isen

J. Isen is a writer with a love for the profound depths of the human mind and all the symbols it expresses itself with.
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3 Responses to Six Global Theories of Mythology: Part Six – Myths express the Unconscious Human Mind

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  2. Pingback: Carl Jung: Analytical Psychology | The Glaring Facts

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