What Myth Now?

By Thomas Singer

MANIFEST DESTINY: America's Old Myth of Dominion. By John Gast (painter) - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs ID ppmsca.09855. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=373152

We have been through a brutal, emotionally draining election cycle accompanied by a pandemic, economic collapse, ever-deepening division, racial violence, floods, and wildfires that have felt apocalyptic.  Americans of all stripes have been in a state of great distress, wondering what the future will hold—yearning for a vision, new or old, that will help resolve what I term “cultural complexes” that divide us on issues of immigration, race, gender, abortion, health care, the relationship between rural and urban populations,  between the individual and the broader community, and our views on the role of government today.

The profound fault lines that have been growing in our country for several years inspired my recent book Cultural Complexes and the Soul of America exploring the many narrative threads that have contributed to the fragmentation of our old mythologies. As a Jungian psychoanalyst, I have a deep interest in the underlying stories of our culture—and the many movements from feminism to gay rights to civil rights to economic and healthcare reform that have surfaced in our new national narrative.  We anxiously hope for the emergence of a new guiding vision of who we are and who we want to be as a people going forward. 

Anselm Kiefer’s sculpture, The Breaking of the Vessels, wrestles with the awful intersection of myth and politics in the Nazi era, placing it in the context of the Jewish creation myth of the Kaballah, in which the oneness of the creation is shattered into many pieces.  Kiefer references Kristallnacht, the infamous night  in November 1938, when the Nazis smashed the windows of Jewish owned stores. Shards of glass spill onto the gallery floor in Kiefer’s sculpture. In recent times, many have felt as though the “oneness” of the United States’ democracy and constitution was threatened.   As in Kiefer’s sculpture, critics have been calling for tikkun, a healing of the shattered fragments.

In our search for a unifying mythology, it is not just a matter of a campaign slogan such as Trump’s “Make America Great Again” or Bill Clinton’s “Bridge to the 21st Century.” Unlike creating a brand, an authentic unifying myth can take centuries to develop as it wells up from the psyche of many individuals over generations.  Who is to say whether such a new or renewed myth for America, or the rest of the planet, will develop any time soon—or whether several competing myths will vie with one another for dominance.

Dreaming Our Way Forward

If we are serious about engaging the deeper meanings of our individual and collective lives, it is often best to begin at home by asking probing questions.  Who am I as a person? Who are we as a people?  Where is our country headed?  How do we heal our fractured national spirit and mend the larger rifts between our parties and our citizens?  How can we embrace the profound changes in our political, economic, geographic, and even cosmological reality as we awaken to the fact that we are living on a small, vulnerable planet in a vast universe? I have been contemplating these issues ever since Senator Bill Bradley asked me in 1989, “What myth now?”

At that time, I turned to my dream life with that question and I got the following response:  I am talking to an ancient sage about the meaning of the rapid changes taking place in the world as the millennium approaches. He has his hands on the skull of a black monastic nun from the early Christian era.

I have been walking around that dream ever since and, in many ways, it is as opaque and compelling to me in 2020 as it was thirty years ago. Major upheavals marked the early Christian era of 2000 years ago.  Rome was the center of a vast empire that was beginning to crack both at the periphery and at the center.  Early Christianity was competing with Mithraism for the allegiance of Middle Eastern conscripts in the Roman army. In Mithraism, a bull, representing strength and fertility, was the focus of elaborate initiation rites.  

At critical junctures in human history, when empires are threatened, different mythologies compete until one emerges as dominant—Mithraism vs. Christianity 2000 years ago, Communism vs Democracy in the 20th century, or the Economic model vs  Ecological model in the 21st century.

In our new millennium, many have already prophesied  what is in store for our civilization and planet. They shout at us with enormous conviction, filling our heads with Utopian promises of extended life and leisure, thanks to science and technology, or with predictions of imminent catastrophe due to famine, war, or ecological disaster.  As we grapple with the awesomeness of a truly unknown and un-envisioned future, one Jungian analyst’s dream and meditation on the skull of a black nun from the early Christian era does not provide any better crystal ball.

But the dream seems to underline the turmoil of a world in rapid transition; and behind it lies a religious mystery in the form of a long dead, black spiritual woman.  Why black and feminine?  Is this an image of the introverted soulfulness that we so desperately lack in our contemporary culture and politics?  Like a monk contemplating a skull in daily religious practice, my “sage” seems to look upon the skull as a reminder that death is always our companion whether we are staring at the death of civilizations or of individuals.


Magdalena by Mateo Cerezo, 17th century Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I like to think that whatever new myth or myths emerge, they will be in the category of “recombinant visionary myth.”  I like the word recombinant because it likens the formation of a living mythology to the biological process by which genes rearrange themselves to create new life forms.

It further suggests that the building of mythology is an evolutionary process whereby bits and pieces of a myth are rearranged to suit changing needs.  The Christian story with its claim of a reborn man/God incorporated messianic yearnings and beliefs that had circulated widely in the Jewish faith as well as in pagan religions that celebrated a literal “eating” of the God. 

I add the word “visionary” to this process of myth-building to incorporate our emerging view of the cosmos and the relationship between the human, nature, and spirit.

And I also imagine that there will be competing myths vying for our attention for some time to come.

In his essay on The Cultural Complex and Addiction to Dominion,  Jerome Bernstein zeroes in on our centuries-old belief that human beings have dominion over all creation on earth.  He then goes on to describe the emerging paradigm of reciprocity—another recycled view.  The primary characteristic of reciprocity as a psychic force, he says, “is a deep spiritual knowing that all life is sacred and, given that tenet, that a healthy life force requires respect for all species and living in balance with all its forms.”

He is not speaking about an external belief system but of “a knowing from within the self and between humans and non-human life forms.”

In a parallel but different articulation, Betty Sue Flowers frames the Economic Myth as being challenged by the Ecological Myth.  She does not dismiss the positive value of the drive for growth and profit.   The economic myth, she says, fuels globalization which is “necessary in order to solve the most pressing problems of the future, which are global in nature, including climate change, inequality, and rules for the governance of artificial intelligence and biotechnology.”  But she posits the emergence of the new Ecological Myth as a counterbalance:

“In the Ecological Myth, the supreme value is…health, or well-being. Health, which comes from a root meaning wholeness….Here the health of societies and of the planet is not sacrificed for economic growth. We are struggling together as a human species,” says Flowers, “to move into that new myth because it requires an unprecedented level of imagination, cooperation, and transformation.”

For some time, I have embraced the emerging scientific myth that climate change has led us to the brink of the abyss in terms of life on the planet.  Almost every scientist in the world who studies this phenomenon has come to the same conclusion.  But, recently I have returned to the dream of the sage and the black monastic nun of the early Christian era and found my way to this larger ecological story. 

When one discovers the myth on an inner level, it leads to a different kind of knowing, less honored perhaps than the “objective” scientific truth.  But such an inner experience often has far more impact than a commonly accepted narrative.   Although I have embraced the growing reality of climate change and have on occasion experienced the sacredness of the earth, only recently have I felt a deeper awareness of what is happening to the planet.  I know that many have come to the inner awareness of the ecological myth long before I have, but for us to take action on a collective level, more of us need to have such a personal revelation.

Our new mythology will emerge, not from political spin doctors, but from the depth of the unconscious.  And it is our task to begin listening on that level.  That means tuning in to our dreams, and looking for the “big ones” that speak to our relation to the culture, and to the value of life itself. 

Mosaic: Orpheus serenading the animals. By Foto di Giovanni Dall'Orto - Own work, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1303452

My understanding of my own deep dream has been aided enormously by Jules Cashford, our era’s foremost scholar of lunar and Gaia mythology.  Indeed Jules has become the real-life equivalent of the sage who knows something about civilizations in transition and meditates on things that endure the passage of time. I know that the skull of the black, monastic nun of the early Christian era suggests something dark, inner, spiritual, and feminine.  I know that the sage with his hand on her skull suggests that this knowing is “hands-on” and that whatever the skull symbolizes seems to be as true for our era as for the early Christian era.

But Jules took an intuitive leap, suggesting that the dark spiritual feminine energy in my dream is lunar.  Lunar knowing begins with gazing at the phases of the moon and literally learning to reflect on things in a different light.  It focuses on recurring changes—the movement of natural, living processes, of becoming and disappearing, of being born, growing, dying and being born again. And thus it reveals the sacredness of Mother Earth, of Gaia.

Jules then sent me a rare, esoteric image of Jesus from the earliest Christian era.  He is is on the cross, beneath a crescent moon (indicating rebirth), and the seven stars of the Pleiades.  The inclusion of the words “Orfeos Bakkikos” generously embraces other people’s gods, in particular honoring the Orphic tradition that celebrated the story of Demeter and Persephone, and the creation of the seasons—the way the year itself progresses from the darkness to the light. 

Courtesy of Jules Cashford

The Jesus of the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas (150 AD) embodied a different kind of wisdom than that which was codified in Christianity centuries later.  Cashford writes:

“The early Christians saw their own Christ in the mythic lunar tradition of the dying and resurrected god of a unified world – in the tradition of Dionysos and Orpheus and the crescent of the Pleiades above, the oldest of whom is Maia the mother of Hermes.”

In the beginning, myths are open-handed, generous, and draw unabashedly on other traditions.

In the dream, the sage calls on me to reclaim this early mode of understanding where the Earth is not experienced as “dead” but as living and sacred as is everything else. 

What might the skull of the black nun be bringing back to life?  As we begin to open to a new myth,  it reminds me of a time long ago when another new vision came into the world, of loving one another, and of loving the whole universe as oneself.  In the Gospel of St. Thomas,  “Jesus said: I am the All. Cleave a piece of wood and I am there. Lift up the stone and you will find me there.” 

I envision spending the rest of my days meditating on this strange, compelling dream.  Jules says there is plenty of good guidance here:

“If we take this kind of knowing back far enough, the lunar way of thinking includes darkness and does not oppose it, even finds in the darkness a place of rebirth. The dream sage might be pointing to a new vision of the whole which, looking upon the Earth from beyond the Earth, might have already begun, Earth becoming a ‘person’ – animate – who deserves a name not just as the ground we tread upon, and put pesticides in. It seems to me that the term Gaia, the last time Earth was held to be sacred, is already there.”

Thomas Singer, MD, is a psychiatrist and Jungian psychoanalyst, practicing in San Francisco. He is the editor of a series of books exploring cultural complexes in Latin America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and North America.

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