Restoring the Mythological Paradigm

Abstract from a talk by Jules Cashford at the Gaia Foundation, December 2007. Written by Stephen Frank.

Jules Cashford is a scholar in philosophy, literature, cultural myths and stories of the Earth, and a practising Jungian psychologist. She was written many books on exploring the universal patterns that structure the human psyche, as reflected in myth, image and literature. These include: The Moon: Myth and Image, The Myth of Isis and Osiris, co-author of The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, and translator of The Homeric Hymns.

This powerful story has come down through our culture from early Greek times: Having been cast out as an infant and not knowing his parents, Oedipus, later in life, kills the king of Thebes, who unbeknownst to him, is his own father. Gaining the kingship himself, Oedipus marries the ex-king's wife who is, again unbeknownst to him, his own mother. Suddenly everything around Thebes begins to die: the land begins to die, the fruit shrivels in the bud, mothers can't bear children. No one understands what is wrong until it is revealed through the Delphic Oracle that King Oedipus has killed his own father and married his mother. In doing so, he has profaned what is sacred.

This ancient story demonstrates the link between the moral order of humanity and the inner workings of nature: when the human moral order is kept, nature stays ordered and life flowers with joy and well-being. When human beings are out of joint, the earth suffers. This connection is expressed through all Greek tragedies. When something was wrong in nature, men and women looked within to find the cause. Becoming aware of what he had done, Oedipus, in his grief, blinded himself and then left Thebes. The curse was lifted, the moral order restored, and the earth flowered again.

This immanence - when the indwelling vital source of an incident and our sensible experience of it are one and the same.

Recounting a variety of myths about nature and the origins of the universe and using a plethora of wonderful images from the ancient world, Jules Cashford described the four stories of origin of the ancient Greeks, culminating in the Olympian version of creation with Zeus as king of the Olympian gods. This version was a combination of the Indo-European sky deities and the Earth Goddesses, who had lived in the soil of Greece for millennia. The Indo-Europeans saw and described order in the beauty of the heavens and perceived these patterns in human beings too. The name 'Zeus' came from the Indo-European dius meaning 'day' and 'light', the moment of lighting up. When people saw something magnificent in nature they clapped their hands and said, 'Theos (God), there's Zeus.' They saw him in his epiphanies - those numinous moments of divine presence; the 'wink' of the god. This is immanence - when the indwelling vital source of an incident and our sensible experience of it are one and the same; when the divine expresses itself simultaneously in and through nature and us. There is no separation.

This Greek notion of immanence was also inherent in the Goddess tradition - going back to at least 20,000 B.C.E. In this tradition, the earth and all her creatures, including humans, were part of the substance of the Goddess (who is later called Gaia in the Olympian version of creation). The mother Goddess gave us all things and there was no difference between the earth that we stood on, the plants we ate, and the Goddess earth. Divinity was immanent - it dwelt in creation; everything was alive, organic, and speaking - and we could hear and respond; there was no barrier between our earth and us. Gaia was present at all stages of creation and whenever creation was arrested, Gaia was there to forward it, to change it, to move it along. Jules Cashford likens this to the self-regulating system that James Lovelock has described so well, and it gives her a sense of optimism that we might, out of our present crisis, rediscover a living relationship with Gaia, and find a new dimension in which we can live again with this lost aspect of life on earth.

The occurrence of a transcendent deity develops through the Judeo-Christian story of origin where God is external to his creation. In Genesis, the first man, Adam, is made from the clay of the earth - adama meaning red clay, earth, soil. His life force - his Spirit - is breathed into him from without, by Yahweh, and this sets up a dichotomy between spirit and nature. An immanent theology would have described the clay itself as full of pregnant design. This development from immanence to transcendence was part of a withdrawal from our total involvement with nature. It happened in Judaic thought and in later Greek thought. In the evolution of human consciousness, it introduced a play of space between nature and humanity and it can be seen to have given us the opportunity to experience and understand the spirit within ourselves. We could say that the spirit was taken out of the natural world and introduced into human nature. This is the Judeo-Christian myth.

Jules Cashford depicts myth as one of the ways the human mind tries to understand itself and its universe. For example, when Hermes, the god of imagination, came into being, people understood a new world through this figure. Hermes revealed a dimension that we had not seen before and that we now could see through his presence. This is what these divine figures do in the psyche: they are magnificent lenses for us to see phenomena and focus in a way that we might not have been able to do without them. What happens to us then when we do not have gods and goddesses and the rituals associated with them any longer? Every culture that we know had its sacred stories and rituals. They are part of the very structure that is consciousness, not just a stage. For instance, at the time of the Eleusinian Mysteries, all the Greek states stopped fighting each other for 40 days, during which time the people went to Eleusis. There they entered the great caverns in the dark where they donned masks and re-enacted the myth of Demeter, wailing and mourning the loss of Demeter's child, Persephone. However, in embodying this myth they were also mourning their own departed loved ones and through the ritual were then able to begin to leave their own grief behind.

Myths offer deep and whole ways to think about things. Because they contain apparently irrational elements, they drive us to seek answers at a deeper level, beyond rationality. For instance, we might feel excited at this point in time because, at last, there does seem to be some thought about what is happening to our planet, even if it is only focused on climate change. But these concerns about our climate are mostly rational - they are motivated by what is useful to us rather than a new way of thinking of the earth as a whole and therefore do not quite reach the deep layers in our nature that make real change possible. Thinking rationally we are caught in fragmentary thinking and fragmentary language. So, on a day when the government pledges 20% for renewables, we have an airport expansion. On another day when we worry about running out of oil, we cut down a forest to grow bio fuels. In each of these cases one thing cancels out the other. Mythic thinking, on the other hand, has the capacity to weave complex and contradictory dimensions together so that incongruous solutions become contained within a single framework. Within a myth it would be impossible that you could do the two things and not realise that one cancelled the other out.

To live holistically again, we have to revision the world and restore mythological consciousness. The language of metaphor, symbol and analogy involves juxtaposing and combining one's imagination and feelings, attributes that the rational mind prefers to disregard or ignore altogether. To say that the earth is alive may be unprovable and therefore irrelevant to the rational mind. Nevertheless, in the imaginal world where the language of metaphor and symbol convey meaning, we know that the earth is alive.

While imagination deals with wholes, rationality has led to a fragmented, mechanistic, oppositional and anthropocentric thinking. Owen Barfield thought that if we systematically applied our imagination we could recreate the original participatory relationship, but at a new level, not denying the last 2000 years of our separation from nature. If we can allow the imagination to guide us and trust in the collective unconscious and think in wholes, we could return to the self-regulatory process of the earth.

From within our present paradigm it seems almost inconceivable that we will ever get out of our present plight. However, life is ever creative and deep imbalances have been rectified in the past. Here in the West, we no longer have slaves and every adult has the right to vote. How did that happen? The world appears to hang like a thread from consciousness. That thread, within an immanent paradigm, includes Gaia and the psyche of man.