What is the power of the mythic imagination?

In the words of Carl Jung humans have always been mythmakers.

In the words of Carl Jung humans have always been mythmakers. The forces that govern our lives depend on myths, to amass power and gain legitimacy in the material world. Myths create and sustain cultures.

In the case of our modern globalised culture, the dominant materialist paradigm defined by the split between matter and spirit reinforces the idea of the world as deanimated and soulless, nature as unconscious, the mind as limited to the activities of the brain, and so on. These myths are woven through the history and identity of Western civilisation and permeate the way things are, from the linear logic of capitalism and the globalised economy to the materialist basis of Science and mainstream medicine.

Myths have always influenced (and been influenced by) the way we see the world, all throughout history. According to Travis Sheehan, in early civilisations a practical spirituality was abound where gods ruled nature and humans wanted to appease the gods to secure bountiful hunts and harvests, and avoid famines, plagues and droughts. The entrance into the era of empires and monotheism then saw humans beginning to see God (singular, fatherly, a “top-down magician”) as wielding control.

Sheehan narrates that myths shifted in character during the early Enlightenment: the likes of Newton and Locke “concretized the principles of Cause and Effect in the human psyche”. God(s) were no longer thanked for abundance, Earthly matters were explained by the laws of physics and philosophy. The Renaissance “slowly pulled the mysterious power of the Divine away from collective consciousness as the certainty of science filled the void.” “Free to affect the state of Earthly matters,” Sheehan explains, “entire populations would topple monarchies in the French and American Revolutions. Free to tame the forces of nature, seeds of the Industrial Revolution were sown. Mankind stepped fully into its power with this revolution”.

Humans have always been mythmakers.

Robert Bringhurst points out that myth “aims, like science at perceiving and expressing ultimate truths. But the hypotheses of myths are framed as stories not equations.” And while a scientist quantifies reality, he explains, a myth teller personifies it. Science and myth emerge from the same human curiosity to know the world and make sense of it all, to narrativise it. Sophie Strand offers that mycelium are an interesting way to think through mythology: “Just like mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of underground mycelial systems, so are myths the particular above-ground mushrooms of a specific ecology.”

Buried deep within the uncountable teaspoons of soil, the “miles and miles of mycelium, fungi and billions of bacteria”, there’s an “older and very much wilder mythology”, which Sharon Blackie refers to as the mythic imagination. One way to understand it is that this mythic imagination is the myth-making that functions below-ground, the seeds within ourselves: it is the more personal sense-making. Of course, this emerges above-ground and connects to the bigger-picture myths that spread far and wide and imprints into our collective consciousness, the kinds of myths that are told across civilisations, across peoples. But this wilder mythology is the one that is closer to home, closer to our selves.

As Blackie recounts: “When I was a small child, I inhabited, as most children do, a vivid imaginal world. But the products of my imagination weren’t created from inside my head: my imagination took flight as a result of my interactions with the physical and sensory world around me.” Blackie understood at an early age, “how profoundly we have come to devalue imagination in the West”, that “purposeful engagement with the imaginal as an everyday activity – or more than that, as a way of being in the world – is a rare thing here in the contemporary West.”

“But in cutting ourselves off from the imaginal world, and in relegating the powerful act of imagining to mere ‘day-dreaming’ or ‘fantasising’, we are also cutting ourselves off from what philosophers and poets throughout history have understood to be the underlying reality of our existence.”

Sharon Blackie, “The Mythic Imagination: A Manifesto For Cultivating The Mythic Imagination”

Blackie notes that it is imagination that allows us to “penetrate the veil”, to see the underlying structures of the cosmos. The work of the mythic imagination is about “descending into the deepest layers of our individual psyche, in order to understand the ways in which we are uniquely entangled with the world soul”. We return here to the work of psychologists like Jung. The work of philosophy and psychology and even archeology before it morphed into how these fields look like today.

Stephen Asma writes that we had an “emergence of imaginology in the middle of the 20th century”. “Before the great quash, archaeologists like Henri and Henriette Frankfort argued that the early human mind was mythopoetic. A mythopoetic paradigm or perspective sees the world primarily as a dramatic story of competing personal intentions, rather than as a system of objective impersonal laws.” Similarly, then, we had philosophers like Ernst Cassirer and psychologists like Jung who looked at rituals, objects and visual symbols of mythopoetic cognition as ways of enacting meaning, as “imperative rather than indicative”.

This suggests that this embodied, imaginative, mythopoetic interaction with the social world is not merely a way of describing, labelling, organising, modelling, of cognitively processing the world: it is sense-making and world-making. Acts of the mythic imagination are a way in which we are moved to act and a way in which we move the world too, fitting humans, as they should be, into a place in the world of many other beings. Asma makes the case for the mythic imagination: “it is time to acknowledge the vast mythopoetic or imaginative aspects of mind that shape our thinking and sense-making processes.”

He goes onto explain that imagination is not “merely a faculty of the mind”: it is an active dance of organisms, of bodies and minds, emotion and reason, facts and values. The imagination, and by extension human myth-making, “recruits from many brain-processing areas, such as perception, emotions, motivational/conative areas, memory, image representation, executive planning, and so on”, so it is a faculty of the mind. But take a look at what more it can do: it has “an involuntary mode (ie, mind-wandering and dreaming) and a voluntary mode (governed by conscious goal-direction).”

“Broadly stated, the imagination has five steps: mimicry; abstraction/decoupling; recombination; expression; and social feedback. First, our neural mirror-system generates embodied mimicry of our perceptions. Then representational techniques such as drawing or language decouple those mimicked experiences from their original contexts. Next, our combinatory cognition blends and mashes novelty (involuntary or voluntary), and then – in the final two stages – those novel combinations are expressed and read against social feedback. In this way, imagination does not just redescribe a world, but regularly makes a new world.”

Stephen Asma, “Why we need a new kind of education: Imagination Studies”

We are simultaneously, according to Asma, experiencing a “real” now, and an imagined second universe. And though we only recognise the artistic imagination, Asma says, everyday conversation, map navigation, political strategising, scientific hypothesising, and the mundane, daily activities are imbued with imagination and this sort of meaning and knowledge making. And if this is the case then what are we missing by failing to acknowledge the power of acts of mythic imagination in our lives?

We are closing the door to portals toward possibilities. On one level we are missing everything the mythopoetic cognition is processing, and the potent capacity of such processing. Where do those worlds that are generated go? Submerged beneath, stuck at the unconscious, relegated to the stuff of dreams and nightmares that we only allow ourselves to sink into in the depths (perhaps cover?) of the night. If this cognition also affects our day-to-day activities, then if we don’t acknowledge the mythopoetic when we strategise, plan, propose, organise, are the eventual products of these activities then incomplete too?

On another level, if acts of the mythic imagination are, as Sharon Blackie would say, acts that lead us to feeling immersed and embedded in place, because of the way in which imagination places humans as one force co-making the world alongside other forces that are in and of this world, could we perhaps also be turning away from portals toward less alienation, and more radical belonging, moving beyond “the limits of our ego”? In this view mythic imagination is a way of coming to know what the land is saying to us, accessing land-based, ecologically-situated knowledges that cannot be put into words. (In the spirit of Blackie’s work, perhaps we should also be asking what a multispecies (more-than-human, land, ancestors, et al.) imagination would look like.)

And if we return to the idea that mythologising is a way of making sense of the world, failing to acknowledge the power of the mythic imagination is to remove one crucial path forward in a world of uncertainty. As Martin Shaw asserts: “The correct response to uncertainty is mythmaking.” “We are tuned to do so,” he says, “right down to our bones. The bewilderment, vivacity, and downright slog of life requires it.” For him, mythmaking is “an imaginative labor not a frantic attempt to shift the mood to steadier ground. There isn’t any.” He is right: the very foundations of our world is now increasingly unstable. But perhaps they have always been (and we are only now seeing that the civilisational myth that we have progressed enough to seize control is entirely a made-up lie). After all, tectonic plates, the uppermost foundational layer of our Earth, the ground we stand on, is constantly moving: so too, we must not assume we can find steadier ground.

We as creatures on this Earth must learn to walk on unsteady ground, myths in hand, a way of moving through the world with the desire to behold and not see, to hear and not listen, to experience as much as we act. Mythologising and imagining are processes involving input and output in equal part, we take as much as we give back.

As sense-making and meaning-making processes, they equip us with what we need when uncertainty is all around us. If we had all the answers, we would not need myth. But we never will, so we must keep making myths.

“We feel stuck, faced with the impossible, and need to find a way out: a pile of jumbled seeds, a labyrinth of dead ends and false passageways. With the myth in hand, you can make a move: you step into others’ shoes, you alter the role, you go through the door, get yourself off the hook and then the world.”

Charlotte Du Cann, “In Search of a Lexicon for the Deep Core”


Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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