The Pathless Quest: Creative Mythology

“For those in whom a local mythology still works, there is an experience both of accord with the social order, and of harmony with the universe. For those, however, in whom the authorized signs no longer work – or, if working produce deviant effects – there follows inevitably a sense both of dissociation from the local social nexus and of quest within and without, for life, which the brain will take for “meaning”. Coerced into the social pattern, the individual can only harden to some figure of living death; and if any considerable number of the members of a civilization are in this predicament, a point of no return will have passed.”

                                                         …Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God, Vol. 4: Creative Mythology

Mythology, according to the late Joseph Campbell, serves four major purposes:

  • To reconcile our individual consciousness to the mysteries of life as it is – that is, as it exists without our interpreting it or trying to relate it to our existence;
  • To make sense of the universe in a context our contemporary minds can grasp;
  • To enforce the moral order of the society we are born into;
  • To encourage us as individuals to grow, both inwardly and socially, in a manner that respects our relationships to ourselves, our culture, the greater world around us and the infinite mystery of being.

Leaders of Western Civilization long ago recognized that their mythologies weren’t working. So, they launched a reign of terror to destroy all the forces threatening the ancient order so many emperors, high priests and prophets had so long suffered to create, rather than admit that the world and its many societies, climates and ecosystems could not possibly be crushed into a single, all – encompassing, tightly controlled social entity.

The brutality of these attempts to conquer nature and reduce human existence to soul-destroying drudgery has left us shocked into numbness and psychotically clinging to literal interpretations of Bronze Age mythology that no one back then believed, knowing as they did the cosmological tale-between-the lines that gave these myths meaning at a level unapproachable by factual historic tales.

The only new mythology to have arisen since the bloody death-throes of the ancient religions is grounded in the all-too-human theory of historical progress and its dual doctrines of economic development and scientific knowledge. Too busy chasing after income to experience life, much less reflect on one’s place in the infinite mystery of being, the westernized person is left hollow by the bankruptcy of her society’s spiritual disconnection to the rest of the universe.

“The profession of views that are not one’s own and the living of life according to such views – no matter what the resultant sense of social participation, fulfillment, or even euphoria may be – eventuates inevitably in self-loss and  falsification. For in our public roles and conventional beliefs we are – after all! – practically interchangeable. “Out there” we are not ourselves, but at best only what we are expected to be, and at worst what we have got to be.

The intent of the old mythologies to integrate the individual in his group, to imprint on his mind the ideals of that group, to fashion him according to one or another of its orthodox stereotypes, and to convert him thus into an absolutely dependable cliche, has become assumed in the modern world by an increasingly officious array of ostensibly permissive, but actually coercive, demythologized secular institutions.

“A new anxiety in relation to this development is now becoming evident, however; for with the increase, on one hand, of our efficiencies in mass indoctrination and, on the other, of our uniquely modern occidental interest in the fosterage of authentic individuals, there is dawning upon many a new and painful realization of the depth to which the imprints, stereotypes, and archetypes of the social sphere determine our personal sentiments, deeds, thoughts, and even capacities for experience…”
(J.C., ibid.)

When a young person enters the workforce, she is expected to have achieved a state of detachment from the consequences of her actions. Yes, cars cause pollution, but she has to get to work. Fertilizers and pesticides are destroying entire bioregions, but organic food is too expensive or hard to find. And so on.

Older societies and cultures encouraged youth to take inward and actual journeys in order to find their place in the world, not – as our culture does – shut themselves away from themselves and their sense of empathy for and connection to other living entities. In the place of a feeling of at-one-ness, we are given a few limited social roles to perform.

A young man named Kip Kinkel walked into his high school one morning, armed – the day after he’d shot and killed his parents. He opened fire, wounding and killing dozens of his fellow students. Weeping as he surrendered to the police, Kip – when asked why he had done this – could only repeat over and over “I had to, I had no choice.” An awkward, shy boy, Kip’s parents were both educators – his father athletic, his mother scholarly, his sister both. Unable to match his sister’s performance in the classroom and unable to live up to his tennis coach father’s expectations, Kip was continually forced into categorizations he could not fit. And rather than allow Kip the freedom to explore his own potentials, his limitations were continuously exposed. He could not be what his parents tried so patiently to make him. Kip saw two options; to be seen as a complete failure while surrendering his life to other people’s worldviews, or to fight back in self-defense. The many other school-related massacres and the high instance of teenage suicides in the U.S. are indications of how greatly our cultural mythology fails to induce even so much as a perception of meaning to our lives.

A universal myth of earlier societies concerns the questing hero. The hero is caught up in some circumstance which requires a journey, during which she is presented with an array of challenges that she overcomes and leads her to some sort of gift – a magic object or an extra-ordinary revelation- which will bring to her people peace and prosperity.

In our spiritually dead society, such tales are seen as stories of a time long ago lost to us.

To living, dynamic people, however, these stories serve as instructions and preparation for their very own adolescent journey of quest, when an old child ventured into the wilderness for a time and upon returning, would have been transformed into an adult, ready to take her place in the community. This is such a momentous change in the person’s life that she usually takes a new name – a name suggested by her experiences during her wilderness quest. She has experienced the cycle of death and rebirth, like the seasons and the waxing and waning moon.

Human beings have the longest period of childhood of any animal on Earth. This is good in that it provides an ample time to learn and grow, to explore one’s self as well as one’s society and one’s relationship to it. Unfortunately, this lengthy period also provides us with time to flounder, to lose our way and to become disoriented and misinformed about our society, our communities, and ourselves. Indeed, this is the goal of our education system – to indoctrinate us into the belief that the world is progressing from an age of superstition to an age of scientific rationalism. The results of this blind faith in cold machinery and learning which denies inward growth are so profound now that few people are anymore able to turn a blind eye towards them. More people are beginning to doubt the validity of our society’s goals and our roles within it, and still more people are turning away from them altogether.

This is a time of human development that will define us as a species for all time. Will we redefine our lives in such a manner as to regain our place in the organic nature of this splendid, living world, or will we go extinct and take most of our fellow creatures along with us?

“Today the walls and towers of the culture world…are dissolving; and whereas heroes then could set forth of their own free will from the known to the unknown, we today, willy-nilly, must enter the forest…and, like it or not, the pathless way is the only way now before us…

“In this life -creative adventure the criterion of achievement will be, the courage to let go of the past, with its truths, its goals, its dogmas of “meaning,” and its gifts: to die to the world and to come to birth from within…

“Thus, creative mythology does not come from authority (like theology)…but from the insights, sentiments, thought and vision of an adequate individual…it corrects the authority…left behind by lives once lived…it restores to existence the quality of adventure …that is no thing but life, not as it will be, or as it should be, as it was or as it never will be, but as it is – in depth, in process – here and now.”

(J.C., ibid.)


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