Mythology is one of the most popular branches of ancient oral traditions. Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell struck upon an explanation for this.
Mythology speaks to human universals, tapping into a latent pool of imagery that exists in all peoples around the world. That is their central claim. Seen in this light, we are invited to read mythology in a particular way. We’re invited to read these tales from both a cultural and a psychological point of view.
This means that Prometheus, for example, is not a lone or isolated figure. He is not entirely unique and historically bound. He is instead a symbolic figure.
Prometheus is broadly representative of mankind – or at the very least, representative of Greek society with all that implies in terms of values and world-view.
Myth tales can be read in several different ways. Each mode of reading, however, has one thing in common. Mythological characters and stories can be read broadly.
This, generally, is the approach outlined by Myth Criticism.
What does it mean to “read broadly”?
To read broadly means that we will understand characters symbolically, as representative models.
Characters like Ulysses in The Odyssey and Gilgamesh in The Epic of Gilgamesh are not seen as purely individual in this kind of approach. Instead, they are seen as representatives of a community or of mankind as a whole.
So, Gilgamesh is one man but he is also, symbolically, any man from the walled city of Uruk – or any man at all.
The journey undertaken by a hero in a myth is not only a particular adventure to slay a particular monster in a particular place. The journey is also symbolic for a social or psychological conflict and resolution.
This is one reason why the features of myth tales are very similar across the culture’s of the world. Mountains are featured in Gilgamesh in the same role that they are featured in the mythology of India’s ancient cultures. Trees and snakes too are repeatedly used as paired icons that represent very similar ideas in both Mayan and Buddhist mythology.
There is a shared iconography across the ancient literatures of the world. As the Jungian theory goes, this is because life is actually pretty similar for most peoples of the world and mythology reflects the common social and psychological conflicts that face everyone. Issues of developing and maintaining a system of rules and laws. Issues of aging and dying. Issues of friendship, family, loyalty and betrayal.
What makes mythology somewhat different from novels and plays that might deal with these same subjects is that mythology approaches these issues on the level of metaphor. Mythology is not as direct as other modes of literature. That is why we read it broadly.
Carl Jung was a renowned psychologist who worked for a time with Sigmund Freud. Jung was very interested in the way that the symbolism, imagery and iconography in dreams seems to match the symbolism, imagery and iconography of mythology.
In his studies of dreams and mythology, Jung also saw a striking similarity between the mythologies of different cultures around the world. He proposed an explanation – the collective unconscious.
The collective unconscious is a region of the mind that contains symbolic representations of the conflicts and crises that humans inevitably and universally endure as we move from childhood to adulthood, with all the social phases that this process also entails.
This part of the subconscious or unconscious mind depicts our struggles symbolically, appearing in our dreams. Mythology, for Jung, fulfills a similar function (if not exactly the same one) and uses imagery identical to that which appears in our dreams.
According to Carl Jung, mythology resonates with readers around the world because it contains archetypes or universal mythic imagery.
An archetype is an image that appears across cultures in dreams and mythology and which appears to represent the same idea everywhere it appears.
Carl Jung suggests here that dream imagery uses mythological imagery and mythological ideas to express universal human issues.
Here is a passage from Jung’s On Dreams where he explains some of these ideas.
On the Nature of Dreams
[Dreams] contain symbolical images which we also come across in the mental history of mankind. It is worth noting that the dreamer does not need to have any inkling of the existence of such parallels. This peculiarity is characteristic of dreams of the individuation process, where we find the mythological motifs or mythologems I have designated the archetypes. These are to be understood as specific forms and groups of images which occur not only at all times and in all places but also in individual dreams, fantasies, visions, and delusional ideas. Their frequent appearance in individual case material, as well as their universal distribution, prove that the human psyche is unique and subjective or personal only in part, and for the rest is collective and objective.
Thus we speak on the one hand of a personal and on the other of a collective unconscious, which lies at a deeper level and is further removed from consciousness than the personal unconscious. The “big” or “meaningful” dreams come from this deeper level. […] For these archetypal products are no longer concerned with personal experiences but with general ideas, whose chief significance lies in their intrinsic meaning and not in any personal experience and its associations. […] The dream uses collective figures because it has to express an eternal human problem that repeats itself endlessly, and not just a disturbance of personal balance.
All the moments in the individual’s life, when the universal laws of human fate break in upon the purposes, expectations and opinions of the personal consciousness, are stations along the road of the individuation process. This process is, in effect, the spontaneous realization of the whole man. The ego-conscious personality is only a part of the whole man, and its life does not yet represent his total life. The more he is merely “I,” the more he splits himself off from the collective man, of whom he is also a part, and may even find himself in opposition to him. But since everything living strives for wholeness, the inevitable one-sidedness of our conscious life is continually being corrected and compensated by the universal human being in us, whose goal is the ultimate integration of conscious and unconscious, or better, the assimilation of the ego to a wider personality.
Such reflections are unavoidable if one wants to understand the meaning of “big” dreams. They employ numerous mythological motifs that characterize the life of the hero, of that greater man who is semi-divine by nature. Here we find the dangerous adventures and ordeals such as occur in initiation. We meet dragons, helpful animals, and demons; also the Wise Old Man, the animal-man, the wishing tree, the hidden treasure, the well, the cave, the walled garden, the transformative processes of alchemy, and so forth – all things which in no way touch the banalities of everyday. The reason for this is that they have to do with the realization of a part of the personality which has not yet come into existence but is still in the process of becoming.
(Carl Jung, Dreams, 77-79)
Joseph Campbell is the preeminent expert in the field of mythology and myth studies. He’s no longer alive, but he is still the reigning scholar on the subject.
In the 1980s, he made a series of lecture videos which are great resources that offer a variety of insights into the context, purpose and meanings of mythology. He launched his career into mythology theory with the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
In both his lectures and his writing, Campbell emphasizes the notion that mythology has two functions – a psychological function and a social function.
The Monomyth: Tragedy and Comedy
It is the business of mythology proper, and of the fairy tale, to reveal the specific dangers and techniques of the dark interior way from tragedy to comedy. Hence the incidents are fantastic and “unreal”: they represent psychological, not physical, triumphs. Even when the legend is of an actual historical personage, the deeds of victory are rendered, not in life-like, but in dream-like figurations; for the point is not that such-and-such was done on earth; the point is that, before such-and-such could be done on earth, this other, more important, primary thing had to be brought to pass within the labyrinth that we all know and visit in our dreams. The passage of the mythological hero may be over-ground, incidentally; fundamentally it is inward – into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world. This deed accomplished, life no longer suffers hopelessly under the terrible mutilations of ubiquitous disaster, battered by time, hideous throughout space; but with its horror visible still, its cries of anguish still tumultuous, it becomes penetrated by an all-suffusing, all-sustaining love, and a knowledge of its own unconquered power.
(Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 21-22)