Myth and Dream
Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlikemumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, orread with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnetsof the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell ofan argument of Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaningof a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale: it will be always the one, shape-shiftingyet marvelously constant story that we find, togetherwith a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remainingto be experienced than will ever be known or told.
Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under everycircumstance, the myths of man have flourished; and they havebeen the living inspiration of whatever else may have appearedout of the activities of the human body and mind. It would notbe too much to say that myth is the secret opening through whichthe inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human culturalmanifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social formsof primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science andtechnology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from thebasic, magic ring of myth.
The wonder is that the characteristic efficacy to touch andinspire deep creative centers dwells in the smallest nursery fairytale-as the flavor of the ocean is contained in a droplet or thewhole mystery of life within the egg of a flea. For the symbols ofmythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented,or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productionsof the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, thegerm power of its source.
What is the secret of the timeless vision? From what profundityof the mind does it derive? Why is mythology everywhere thesame, beneath its varieties of costume? And what does it teach?
Today many sciences are contributing to the analysis of theriddle. Archaeologists are probing the ruins of Iraq, Honan,Crete, and Yucatan. Ethnologists are questioning the Ostiaks ofthe river Ob, the Boobies of Fernando Po. A generation of orientalistshas recently thrown open to us the sacred writings of theEast, as well as the pre-Hebrew sources of our own Holy Writ.And meanwhile another host of scholars, pressing researchesbegun last century in the field of folk psychology, has been seekingto establish the psychological bases of language, myth, religion,art development, and moral codes.
Most remarkable of all, however, are the revelations that haveemerged from the mental clinic. The bold and truly epoch-makingwritings of the psychoanalysts are indispensable to thestudent of mythology; for, whatever may be thought of the detailedand sometimes contradictory interpretations of specificcases and problems, Freud, Jung, and their followers have demonstratedirrefutably that the logic, the heroes, and the deeds ofmyth survive into modern times. In the absence of an effectivegeneral mythology, each of us has his private, unrecognized,rudimentary, yet secretly potent pantheon of dream. The latestincarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty andthe Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-secondStreet and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.
"I dreamed," wrote an American youth to the author of asyndicated newspaper feature, "that I was reshingling our roof.Suddenly I heard my father's voice on the ground below, callingto me. I turned suddenly to hear him better, and, as I did so, thehammer slipped out of my hands, and slid down the sloping roof,and disappeared over the edge. I heard a heavy thud, as of a bodyfalling.
"Terribly frightened, I climbed down the ladder to the ground.There was my father lying dead on the ground, with blood allover his head. I was brokenhearted, and began calling my mother,in the midst of my sobs. She came out of the house, and put herarms around me. `Never mind, son, it was all an accident,' shesaid. `I know you will take care of me, even if he is gone.' As shewas kissing me, I woke up.
"I am the eldest child in our family and am twenty-three yearsold. I have been separated from my wife for a year; somehow, wecould not get along together. I love both my parents dearly, andhave never had any trouble with my father, except that he insistedthat I go back and live with my wife, and I couldn't be happy withher. And I never will."
The unsuccessful husband here reveals, with a really wonderfulinnocence, that instead of bringing his spiritual energies forwardto the love and problems of his marriage, he has been resting,in the secret recesses of his imagination, with the now ridiculouslyanachronistic dramatic situation of his first and only emotionalinvolvement, that of the tragicomic triangle of the nursery-theson against the father for the love of the mother. Apparently themost permanent of the dispositions of the human psyche are thosethat derive from the fact that, of all animals, we remain thelongest at the mother breast. Human beings are born too soon;they are unfinished, unready as yet to meet the world. Consequentlytheir whole defense from a universe of dangers is themother, under whose protection the intra-uterine period is prolonged.Hence the dependent child and its mother constitutefor months after the catastrophe of birth a dual unit, not onlyphysically but also psychologically. Any prolonged absence ofthe parent causes tension in the infant and consequent impulsesof aggression; also, when the mother is obliged to hamper thechild, aggressive responses are aroused. Thus the first object ofthe child's hostility is identical with the first object of its love, andits first ideal (which thereafter is retained as the unconsciousbasis of all images of bliss, truth, beauty, and perfection) is that ofthe dual unity of the Madonna and Bambino.
The unfortunate father is the first radical intrusion of anotherorder of reality into the beatitude of this earthly restatement ofthe excellence of the situation within the womb; he, therefore,is experienced primarily as an enemy. To him is transferred thecharge of aggression that was originally attached to the "bad,"or absent mother, while the desire attaching to the "good," orpresent, nourishing, and protecting mother, she herself (normally)retains. This fateful infantile distribution of death (thanatos:destrudo) and love (eros: libido) impulses builds the foundationof the now celebrated Oedipus complex, which SigmundFreud pointed out some fifty years ago as the great cause of ouradult failure to behave like rational beings. As Dr. Freud hasstated it: "King Oedipus, who slew his father La��us and marriedhis mother Jocasta, merely shows us the fulfilment of our ownchildhood wishes. But, more fortunate than he, we have meanwhilesucceeded, in so far as we have not become psychoneurotics,in detaching our sexual impulses from our mothers andin forgetting our jealousy of our fathers." Or, as he writesagain: "Every pathological disorder of sexual life is rightly tobe regarded as an inhibition in development."
For many a man hath seen himself in dreams His mother's mate, but he who gives no heed To such like matters bears the easier fate.
The sorry plight of the wife of the lover whose sentimentsinstead of maturing remain locked in the romance of the nurserymay be judged from the apparent nonsense of another moderndream; and here we begin to feel indeed that we are entering therealm of ancient myth, but with a curious turn.
"I dreamed," wrote a troubled woman, "that a big white horsekept following me wherever I went. I was afraid of him, andpushed him away. I looked back to see if he was still followingme, and he appeared to have become a man. I told him to goinside a barbershop and shave off his mane, which he did. Whenhe came out he looked just like a man, except that he had horse'shoofs and face, and followed me wherever I went. He camecloser to me, and I woke up.
"I am a married woman of thirty-five with two children. I havebeen married for fourteen years now, and I am sure my husbandis faithful to me."
The unconscious sends all sorts of vapors, odd beings, terrors,and deluding images up into the mind-whether in dream, broaddaylight, or insanity; for the human kingdom, beneath the floorof the comparatively neat little dwelling that we call our consciousness,goes down into unsuspected Aladdin caves. There notonly jewels but also dangerous jinn abide: the inconvenient orresisted psychological powers that we have not thought or daredto integrate into our lives. And they may remain unsuspected,or, on the other hand, some chance word, the smell of a landscape,the taste of a cup of tea, or the glance of an eye may touch a magicspring, and then dangerous messengers begin to appear in thebrain. These are dangerous because they threaten the fabric ofthe security into which we have built ourselves and our family.But they are fiendishly fascinating too, for they carry keys thatopen the whole realm of the desired and feared adventure of thediscovery of the self. Destruction of the world that we have builtand in which we live, and of ourselves within it; but then a wonderfulreconstruction, of the bolder, cleaner, more spacious, andfully human life-that is the lure, the promise and terror, ofthese disturbing night visitants from the mythological realm thatwe carry within.
Psychoanalysis, the modern science of reading dreams, hastaught us to take heed of these unsubstantial images. Also it hasfound a way to let them do their work. The dangerous crises ofself-development are permitted to come to pass under the protectingeye of an experienced initiate in the lore and language ofdreams, who then enacts the role and character of the ancientmystagogue, or guide of souls, the initiating medicine man of theprimitive forest sanctuaries of trial and initiation. The doctor isthe modern master of the mythological realm, the knower of allthe secret ways and words of potency. His role is precisely that ofthe Wise Old Man of the myths and fairy tales whose words assistthe hero through the trials and terrors of the weird adventure.He is the one who appears and points to the magic shining swordthat will kill the dragon-terror, tells of the waiting bride and thecastle of many treasures, applies healing balm to the almost fatalwounds, and finally dismisses the conqueror, back into the worldof normal life, following the great adventure into the enchantednight.
When we turn now, with this image in mind, to consider thenumerous strange rituals that have been reported from the primitivetribes and great civilizations of the past, it becomes apparentthat the purpose and actual effect of these was to conduct peopleacross those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand achange in the patterns not only of conscious but also of unconsciouslife. The so-called rites of passage, which occupy such aprominent place in the life of a primitive society (ceremonials ofbirth, naming, puberty, marriage, burial, etc.), are distinguishedby formal, and usually very severe, exercises of severance, wherebythe mind is radically cut away from the attitudes, attachments,and life patterns of the stage being left behind. Then follows aninterval of more or less extended retirement, during which areenacted rituals designed to introduce the life adventurer to theforms and proper feelings of his new estate, so that when, at last,the time has ripened for the return to the normal world, the initiatewill be as good as reborn.
Most amazing is the fact that a great number of the ritual trialsand images correspond to those that appear automatically indream the moment the psychoanalyzed patient begins to abandonhis infantile fixations and to progress into the future. Among theaborigines of Australia, for example, one of the principal featuresof the ordeal of initiation (by which the boy at puberty is cutaway from the mother and inducted into the society and secretlore of the men) is the rite of circumcision. "When a little boy ofthe Murngin tribe is about to be circumcised, he is told by hisfathers and by the old men, `The Great Father Snake smells yourforeskin; he is calling for it.' The boys believe this to be literallytrue, and become extremely frightened. Usually they take refugewith their mother, mother's mother, or some other favorite femalerelative, for they know that the men are organized to seethat they are taken to the men's ground, where the great snake isbellowing. The women wail over the boys ceremonially; this isto keep the great snake from swallowing them." -Now regardthe counterpart from the unconscious. "One of my patients,"writes Dr. C. G. Jung, "dreamt that a snake shot out of a caveand bit him in the genital region. This dream occurred at themoment when the patient was convinced of the truth of theanalysis and was beginning to free himself from the bonds ofhis mother-complex."
It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite tosupply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteractionto those other constant human fantasies that tend to tieit back. In fact, it may well be that the very high incidence ofneuroticism among ourselves follows from the decline among usof such effective spiritual aid. We remain fixated to the unexorcisedimages of our infancy, and hence disinclined to the necessarypassages of our adulthood. In the United States there is evena pathos of inverted emphasis: the goal is not to grow old, but toremain young; not to mature away from Mother, but to cleave toher. And so, while husbands are worshiping at their boyhoodshrines, being the lawyers, merchants, or masterminds theirparents wanted them to be, their wives, even after fourteen yearsof marriage and two fine children produced and raised, are stillon the search for love-which can come to them only from thecentaurs, sileni, satyrs, and other concupiscent incubi of the routof Pan, either as in the second of the above-recited dreams, or asin our popular, vanilla-frosted temples of the venereal goddess,under the make-up of the latest heroes of the screen. The psychoanalysthas to come along, at last, to assert again the tried wisdomof the older, forward-looking teachings of the masked medicinedancers and the witch-doctor-circumcisers; whereupon we find,as in the dream of the serpent bite, that the ageless initiation symbolismis produced spontaneously by the patient himself at themoment of the release.
Excerpted from THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACESby JOSEPH CAMPBELL Copyright © 1949 by Bollingen Foundation Inc.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.