Joseph Campbell opens The Hero With a Thousand Faces:
“Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale: it will always be the one, shapeshifting yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.”
With that tremendous single-sentence paragraph he tells us that the story is universal no matter how unique the specific details might be and that it’s never completely finished. It’s our human story.
Campbell then reminds us that symbols in these tales don’t just pop up out of nowhere. They represent archetypal patterns of energy that arise from the collective mind and at some level are recognizable by all of us. Trappings may change from culture to culture but under the “clothes” we find the same energetic qualities.
Myths are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves as individuals, as a culture, as a species. If a society is based on “rationality” and “science” rather than on “illogical” and “irrational” myths, its members will still recognize, respond to, and even live out the forms and energies of the archetypal mythology. They will just do it unconsciously and perhaps wonder “what got into them.”
It’s not unusual for a culture (or individuals) to be affected by archetypal influences that are not understood and which it will refuse to own even though those forces actually arise from within. The qualities of these influences, desirable or otherwise, are then projected outward onto some other society, culture, individual, or even an age. It will try to co-opt them or elevate them or eradicate them or subdue them, anything, rather than take the Journey, do the hard work of learning about them and its own shadowy aspects.
Responsibility for our own life is thus abdicated because we perceive that some “other” apparently is always at fault or praiseworthy for what happens. And so we have crusades and pogroms and jihads; we attack Jews and Muslims and Christian sects; we attack skinheads and blacks and whites and gays, not to mention Mexicans and Asians and the French; we persecute or criticize lazy homeless people and lazy poor people and lazy rich people. We yearn for a “golden age,” or a “simpler time,” or the “good old days.” We don’t see our own qualities and our desires in our projections of those stereotypes.
The thing is, until we do, we can’t recognize and become Who We Really Are.
Our unconscious connections to the archetypes are multiple and various. There is the cultural connection, of course, as we buy into the group collective myths, “groupthink.” Then there is our personal and individual link to the images and energies of the collective. Finally, we also have our own distinct personal mythology related to, but distinct from, the collective.
One of our collective myths as Americans, our story about ourselves, says that we are a generous people and wish no harm to anyone who doesn’t mess with us and that we’ll always stand up for the underdog. Like all myths, this is true to an extent. However, to the degree that we don’t behave in accord with that or any myth we hold about ourselves, we unconsciously project that behavior outward onto others. We justify whatever we do based on that projection as if it were true, even if it has no basis in fact.
For example, if we are involved in a “war on drugs” and some of our citizens use illegal drugs, then we will make the providers of those drugs the fundamental problem and attempt to eradicate them instead of seeing and healing the problem of the users.
This ultimately doesn’t work, but the logical argument that says that if there were no users and buyers there would be no sellers is just smoke in the wind because to understand it and act upon it would mean we’d have to change something about ourselves as a society. This “Us and Them” mentality allows us to see others as different from us and therefore not subject to the same standards and rights as we have.
All cultures and societies do this to some degree.
Our personal mythologies are similarly built on ideas and beliefs we’ve accepted about ourselves, such as being the “good girl,” or the “rebel,” or maybe the “powerless victim” or the “martyr,” sometimes even the “hero.” Anything that’s not in accord with our ideas of what this means is repressed and stuffed into what is called our shadow. There it remains out of our conscious awareness but it still operates in our lives and affects our behaviors.
In my case, for example, I believed myself to be the good girl who worked hard and was a productive member of society, a strong person who albeit at times felt I was a victim, of circumstance if not of people. The myth allowed me to avoid much of the responsibility for what happened in my life.
Society, disguised as my parents, as well as religion and teachers and even various stories, ads, and commercials, told me how to be a good girl, what it took to be a productive member of society, and even suggested that “stuff” happens and there’s no help for it.
But was this mythological “good girl/productive society member/victim” really me? Oh, yes. And no. There was, and is, so much more to me, and to all of us, than that. It’s just a difficult process to sift through all of the overlays to find out what that is.
Besides being blindly expressed in our collective and individual behaviors, archetypal mythological images and situations arising from the collective are often revealed in our “irrational” dreams. Here we may do totally uncharacteristic and inexplicable things that might appall or astound, awe or surprise us in waking life. Some of these dreams might even inspire us to actions we’d otherwise avoid.
Even our apparently ordinary dreams can have a mythological motif. I had a dream long before I was aware of the Heroine’s Journey, that even in my ignorance of mythology and symbolism I recognized as being significant. There’s nothing weird, like blue sparkling ball-people, in this dream, but it had a lot to say.
It’s essentially a presentation of a part of the myth of the Journey. It could easily be the basis of an adventure story, an animated fairy tale movie, a work of science fiction, a novel, or any one of the myriad ways myths can be presented to us. The gist of the message was clear but I was well along in my spiritual journey before I began to understand the archetypal symbolism of many of the details. This was the dream of which I wrote previously (A Real (and significant) Dream August 21, 2014)
I would term this an archetypal dream. Perhaps you recognize some similarity to the ancient Sumerian story of Inanna, that is, setting out clear and bright and confident, then going down into a dark place, being stripped of all forms of identity, finally feeling bereft and alone. Carl Jung said that the myth of Inanna is “another variation of the motif of the Hero and the Dragon…” expressing “the psychological mechanism of introversion of the conscious mind into deeper layers of the unconscious psyche.”
That is, it is the experience of the ego as it turns to look inside to find a true identity. It is the story of people over the ages taking their journeys into their mental and spiritual interiors where live their dragon-shadows, those rejected and/or unknown aspects of ourselves with which we desire no contact for whatever reasons. I was going to meet my dragon, even if I didn’t know it existed.
(Dragons are often held to have major spiritual significance in various religions and cultures around the world. In many Asian cultures dragons were, and in some cultures still are, revered as representative of the primal forces of nature, religion and the universe. They are associated with wisdom—often said to be wiser than humans—and longevity.)
Now, a brief depiction of the story of Inanna. She was Queen of Heaven and Earth (a being of light) and her older sister, Ereshkigal, was the dark Queen of the Underworld. The most common version of the myth of Inanna begins with the statement that she “opens her ear” to anguished groans from below. Thus, until this point she’s either been unconscious of them or she’s ignored them, denied their existence.
These sounds of agony are coming from Ereshkigal and Inanna decides that she will descend into the depths to see what’s going on. She girds herself in bright finery (my dream white suit?) that identifies her as a goddess of light and upper world substance (all that important baggage?). At the gates of the underworld she tells her faithful servant (ego – note that ego is a servant) to wait three days. If she hasn’t returned by then, go for help.
The gatekeeper refuses her access because Ereshkigal is upset that this dazzling creature wants to enter her murky realm. None of this bright light and its implied criticism for her. She finally relents but tells the gatekeeper to open each of the seven gates (perhaps representing the seven main energy centers/chakras through which the body communicates with its various energy layers?) that lead to her deep chamber only the tiniest crack. At each gate Inanna must remove some article with which she’s arrayed herself in order to barely squeeze through that gate.
Finally Inanna is without everything that had identified her as Queen of Heaven and Earth, (just as I was dream-stripped of all that I felt identified me as me). Naked, she enters the throne room of her sister where the waiting judges of the underworld immediately condemn her to death. Ereshkigal strikes her and Inanna is killed, turned immediately into a rotting corpse that’s hung on a hook on the wall.
After three days Inanna’s servant goes for help but can’t find any until finally Enki, the god of Wisdom and Waters, fashions two creatures, who are neither male nor female, and gives them food and drink for Inanna. These tiny beings, creeping like little insects through the cracks in the gates, slip into Ereshkigal’s underworld. In the throne room they find Ereshkigal still writhing and groaning in her agony.
Instead of trying to comfort her, they merely echo back to her the various pains and ills as she cries them out. “Oh! My back!” she cries. “Oh! Your back!” the creatures reply. “Oh! My arm!” cries Ereshkigal and they reply, “Oh! Your arm!” Their simple validation of her anguish finally relieves her torture. Somebody noticed! There’s nothing so painful as being ignored or unseen. (Sounds like fibromyalgia, to me!)
Grateful to the creatures for having acknowledged her distress, she promises to grant them any wish they have. They ask for the corpse of Inanna, which they revive with the food and water, and they then take Inanna back to the upper world. Restored, Inanna now has a clearer understanding of the shadowy depths that make up the world she shares with her sister. She no longer ignores her.
From a rational point of view this myth makes little sense. All it says is that someone who went to visit her sister is treated badly and is rescued by nonhuman characters. But from the symbolic mythological and psychological point of view, the message is significantly different. Inanna as goddess of heaven and earth represents our physical conscious ego, that “awake” part that lives in the outer world, the part that most of us think of as our identity, along with all the trappings of career, reputation, life station, etc. And yet, that is not all there is.
Like Inanna, we have a dark sister/shadow/unconscious side that must be acknowledged. Most of us would prefer to deny this prickly truth, much like Ereshkigal’s existence was rejected and denied until her pain became overwhelming and Inanna could not ignore her cries. Before her descent Inanna hadn’t experienced the depths of darkness. She suspected they were there but she avoided them, avoided even thinking about them. She thought she had all the important truth, the truth that is seen in the light. Naïve and immature, she believed that being a pure child of the light was all that was necessary.
Until she acknowledged her dark half, and accepted not only its existence but even its right to exist, she would be a creature aware of only half of herself.
In our conscious lives in the midst of this Journey we might be diagnosed as depressed, and why not? It’s a depressing situation. We’re about as down as we can get, trapped in our underworld, just meat hanging on a hook on the wall. No matter how we wriggle and squirm, we can’t get ourselves off that hook. Finally we just hang there in misery.
Most likely we’ve tried desperately to get out of this dismal time, what has often been called a dark night of the soul. Our intellectual and physical energy is of no use here and, indeed, it often seems to have disappeared.
Desperately we may try medication and/or therapy in an attempt to find relief. Medication has its place and it may very well get us back to “normal” again. However, avoiding this pain and discomfort by medication can actually abort a significant opportunity for personal and spiritual growth through an experience of the darkness. If we listen to pains and ills and cries of anguish that arise from our darkness and validate their existence, we can start to alleviate them and begin the return to the light.
We can bury them or ignore them with medication but they won’t go away until they’ve had their day with the judges. A good counselor or therapist can help us, with or without medication, to find our way through this dilemma but even then, the goal must be personal growth and not just an attempt to “get back to your old self again.” Being “your old self” was what helped to get you here.
I don’t want to romanticize serious conditions such as depression. Being miserable for the sake of being miserable doesn’t make us better or more spiritual. Still, there is a wisdom in depression if we can only recognize it and will listen to it instead of simply trying to escape it.
Depression can be an agonized Call from our rejected depths, a Call that forces us to go inward, into the obscure unconscious deep in which our Self abides along with our dragon-shadows. Most of us have seldom done this to any great extent and almost certainly not deliberately. If we inadvertently touched upon it once in a while, we recoiled from it and scrambled back to the light as quickly as we could.
This avoidance is generally encouraged by conventional medicine and psychotherapy. As a society we prefer to live always in lightness and forced optimism, as unrealistic as that may be, medicating both the lows and highs of real life for the lukewarm comfort of our egos.
It’s better to encourage understanding of the meaning and growth potential of that dark depth process and to support those who are undergoing it. However, most of us are generally caught up in the exigencies of making a living and caring for our families, living a life that cannot include this kind of “time out,” so we see no other recourse but to medicate and plow onward through the fog.
This is our challenge for these times, to be able to experience the dark and unconscious depths required for spiritual growth, growth of consciousness and awareness, then bring back our hard-won knowledge so that, like Inanna, we can maintain a less naïve and more conscious presence in the light of the everyday world.
Over past ages monks, mystics and nuns have withdrawn from the world in order to undergo this long process at the personal level but our test now, in this age, is different. It’s up to our generation to begin to consciously bring together the two sides, the light and the dark, the yin and the yang, the male and the female, to make a whole world, not just a whole individual.
This is a very large order, indeed. It can only be done one by one by one although the results are cumulative in the collective psyche.
Of course, ego goes into this descent reluctantly and with its shell of conscious identity. Baggage like careers, good reputations, social standing, and well-behaved children, amassing things and accomplishments, the whole lot that we think are so necessary to proving who we are to the world and to ourselves, has nothing to do with our true identity. It’s all extraneous paraphernalia that get in the way of finding out Who We Really Are.
If, however, our ego, our painfully and carefully constructed physical consciousness of who and what we are, does make the descent into the darkness and is divested of these trappings of identity, we will be surprised to discover that even without them we don’t cease to exist. We may not like the way we feel in this naked, exposed condition and we may be confused and uncomfortable, perhaps even in great pain, but we do still exist. That tells us that we are not the egos we thought we were.
I’ll stop here. This has gotten to be a very long post and I have much more to say on the subject than I want to add right now.
So, I’ll leave you to yourself here, to think about this and see how you feel about it. Thinking and feeling are the two faculties that we need to use together even though they often come to different conclusions. They’re a good way to understand the saying that “the opposite of a profound truth may just be another profound truth.”