Reflecting on the soul, myth and Jung

Standing Stones, Ilse of Arran Scotland


New Blue Mosque

A recent project to explore how disenfranchised people can use their cultural mythological heroes and heroines to build on their courage and hope, resilience and resourcefulness has lead me to various readings such as Myths to Live By (Joseph Campbell, Bantam Books, 1973) and Jung’s first chapter in Man and his Symbols (Aldus Books Ltd, London 1964), Approaching the unconscious. The people that I am considering are those who seek asylum in countries and cultures far from their own. I hope that by recounting and sharing their mythologies they not only find common stories but also reconnect with their own cultural heroes in a foreign country.

Both Jung and Campbell point out the universality of mythological heroes and the echo of the archetype in them and their power to help us realise psychological and developmental challenges. Campbell writes:

They are telling us, therefore, of matters fundamental to ourselves, enduring essential principles about which it would be good for us to know; about which, in fact, it would be necessary for us to know if our conscious minds are to be kept in touch with our own most secret, motivating depths. (p 24)

Another writer that I have referred to is Rollo May (The Cry for Myth. Delta, N.Y. 1991) who describes myths as being “….like the beams in a house: not exposed to the outside view, they are the structure which holds the house together so people can live in it.” (p. 15).

Myths arguably tell us something of the soul. It seems difficult to talk about the soul without appearing to be melodramatic or trite despite it being central to deep emotions and meanings. Campbell examines not necessarily the soul itself but its landscape, bringing together Christian, Islamic and Buddhist beliefs.

He points out that the story of the Garden of Eden signifies delight and innocence and the loss thereof. This paradise is a walled garden (taken from the Persian para = around and daeza = wall) with two trees (knowledge and immortality), four rivers that replenish the garden from all directions and fruit. Two cherubim stand guard on the eastern gate. It is, he says, a metaphor for the landscape of the soul. Because we have tasted the fruit of good and evil we are unable to re-enter it; knowledge threw us out, pitching us from our own centre although it remains hidden within us. It is a desired spiritual place.

Consider the similarity of Siddharta sitting under the tree, facing east, awakened by the light of his own immortality. The Buddhist serpent is symbolic of immortal energy rather than of destructive temptation. It sheds its skin to become reborn. The cobra balancing Earth on its head is similar to the tree that protects Buddha when he is threatened by a great storm.

In Christian teachings Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden because of the serpent whereas in Buddhism we are invited into the garden and are protected by the serpent. We do not need fearsome cherubim to block our way back; we block ourselves out because of our attachment to materialism.

Middle Eastern mythology, arising in Mesopotamia, gives us the Tower of Babel. Here is a place of peace and abundance: Man is housed within a structure where giant ziggurats reach upwards, like the protecting tree that sheltered Buddha, and where civilian life is unified and knowledge integrated.

Jung’s entrance to the discussion is through dreams that access archetypal heroes and their echo in the unconscious. He argues that we have become separated from our world because of the emphasis on the rationale at the expense of intuition, which often has no logical explanation and is therefore easily dismissed. We compartmentalise information about our world rather than integrate it. There is little space for the universal hero myth that refers to a powerful man or god who overcomes evil, offering us liberation.

Consider the Sumerian/ Babylonian mythical figure of Gilgamesh, part Man, part god. Gilgamesh was a flawed king who through his love of Enkidu, his archetype, becomes less dangerous to all. Enkidu, like Adam, is fashioned from clay by the sky god, Anu, and the mother god, Ninlil, in order to counter Gilgamesh’s excesses. He, unlike the ‘civilised’ Gilgamesh is rough and beastlike, threatening farmers and their livestock. He is tamed through the love of a woman thereby losing his bestial innocence. He and Gilgamesh after a fierce challenge become inseparable as two brothers, each reflecting the other’s archetype. When Enkidu dies, not as a hero in battle but from a fever, Gilgamesh is not only heartbroken he is confronted with his own mortality. He sets off on a quest for eternal youth and immortality, denied to all except Utnapishatum, a Noah-like figure. Utnapishtum echoes the Buddhist teaching that nothing is permanent and that we all must die.

The story of Gilgamesh encapsulates Jung’s observation that Man’s life consists of inexorable opposites:

… -day and night, birth and death, happiness and misery, good and evil. We are not even sure that one will prevail against the other, that good will overcome evil, or joy defeat pain. Life is a battleground. (p.85).

Like Gilgamesh, we seek to defy death and disease and desire immortality and eternal youth even though many religions promise paradise after death. In a way we are constantly seeking to return to the Garden of Eden or Paradise.

Jung would argue that we approach symbolic stories, metaphors and archetypes too literally, without living them and allowing ourselves to become animated by their specific form or meaning to our own particular situation. In other words, the symbol may be universal but its meaning is specific to the person at a particular time of life, often a crisis, and arises in the unconscious. Jung argues that this applies equally to societies and cultures. At the time of his writing, we were living in the era of the Iron Curtain and Cold War, western capitalism versus communism. He argued that each is the archetype of the other. He suggested that people felt hopeless because they realised that the difficulties were of a moral nature that an arms race was not going to solve. What would he say of today’s mess, some sixty years later: East versus West, religious warfare that includes Buddhists, Capitalism versus Climate Change?

One can guess from the following:

Our intellect has created a new world that dominates nature, and has populated it with monstrous machines. The latter are so indubitably useful that we cannot see even a possibility of getting rid of them or our subservience to them. Man is bound to follow the adventurous promptings of his scientific and inventive mind and to admire himself for his splendid achievements. At the same time his uncanny tendency to invent things that become more dangerous, because they represent better and better means for wholesale suicide (p 101).

He concludes that we need to return to our soul and its symbols and their meaning. After all, he said, life is not about one’s business and the bank account (in modern parlance, growing the economy and real estate). Jung believed that we have become detached, separated from the world around us and our relationship to it.

In this age I think he would be on the streets among the protesters fighting against our economic complacency in the face of Climate Change.

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