How do we define myth? Myth is usually defined in dictionaries as something - a story, person or thing - that is untrue, but to rely upon this definition is to miss the integral importance of myth to our psyche and our worldview. All cultures, in all times in Earth's history, have their myths, which are used to explain, rationalise and explore. There are many stories and myths and it is easy to read them as just fiction, but to understand myth we should also consider from where the myths arose, and in what circumstances.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was one of the prominent thinkers of the modern age and considered myth in relation to dreams. He believed that as well as the conscious mind, there exists a personal unconscious, from which stories arise, and where a person hides those things he cannot deal with. Freud, however, concentrated most upon dreams, which he described as "Myths of the individual". His student and protege Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), however, took Freud's theories one step further, and in the process fell out with his erstwhile mentor.
Jung believed not only in the personal unconscious, but also in a "collective unconscious". He believed that each person has deep in his unconscious mind a racial memory, linking him to the rest of humanity, and that myths come from this collective unconscious. Within this racial memory, there are "Archetypes" and myths are the conscious manifestation of these archetypes. These archetypes link myths and legends across cultures, and across time.
It is an interesting conjecture: how else do we explain the similarities between myths in societies that had had no contact; the recurrence of themes throughout the ages? And there are similarities to be found even when two myths are outwardly different. Through considering archetypes we can link Chinese dragons and modern vampires, Princess Diana and the Virgin Mary, Greek Gods and Celtic heros.
One of the most important archetypes in both Jungian psychology and myth is the Shadow. The shadow is the dark side of humanity, the separation of those images and ideas that frighten us. It is a common theme in many myths: demons in theological myths, Grendel, Darth Vader in the Star Wars movies; Mordred in the Arthurian myths; vampires and monsters are all aspects of the shadow. With these shadows, societies were able to explain the darkness within and rationalise them. Once the shadow was described in myth they would not only be explicable and less frightening, but they could be combated by the hero archetype. As the dark side of humanity, the shadow is often a reflection of the hero: a classic example of such a shadow comes from the Arthurian/Celtic cycle: Mordred is a reflection of his uncle (and in some variant of the myth, father) Arthur and represents directly Arthur's dark side. When Arthur kills Mordred, and is in turn fatally wounded, he is not only good defeating evil, but also a good man defeating his own dark thoughts, and dark actions.
Of course, the dark lord is a standard of fantasy and myth, but myths can be modern as well as ancient. How does the modern world anthropomorphise the darkness? The modern world has modern monsters: serial killers and child murderers, psychopaths and sociopaths are the shadows of the present. We embody our fears in these figures, as our predecessors embodied them in animalistic monsters: they are both aspects of the shadow.
A common aspect of shadow myths is the theme of redemption. George Lucas recognised this is The Return of the Jedi when Vader confronts the dark side, achieves redemption and is no longer the shadow. He becomes instead the Wise Old Man. This mentor figure is another archetype. Often, the mentor is personified as a wise old man, but can be any companion who brings advice and aid to the hero. It is the Mentor who explains the inexplicable. He cannot defeat the shadow himself, but provides the hero with the knowledge to do so. Examples in myth include Merlin, Obi-wan Kenobi, Lugalbanda and Eabani from the Gilgamesh myths. The Mentor can also be described as the Father figure: he nurtures and trains the hero, without necessarily being hero himself.
And of course, the Hero. The antithesis of the Shadow, the light against darkness. Hero myths occur at all times, though they predominate from times of trouble, especially invasion. The Arthurian myth cycle first arose in that form in the 5th or 6th century when the post-Roman Britons were attempting to stave off conquest from continental invaders; Robin Hood myths arose soon after the Norman invasion when the Saxons were being oppressed by their new masters. It is unlikely that either really existed in such a pure form, and though several English locations claim Hood, it is these multiple claims that make it less likely he existed: he is the hero archetype, a story to bring hope in troubled times: that similar stories emerged in different locations is to be expected.
While some heros emerge to combat a specific threat, like Arthur, Hood or Beowulf, others were more generalised images of the better qualities of humanity: Heracles (Hercules in Roman myth) and his legendary labours were both the actions of a hero in combatting the shadows - most of the labors involved the destruction of some monster - but also acts of redemption: Heracles accepted the labors to redeem himself after killing his family in a fit of divine-inspired madness. If he could become a hero after so heinous an act, then ordinary man could also be saved. Indeed, many heroes were flawed, and their heroism despite their faults that was often a theme of their myths. In particular, the Babylonian Gilgamesh myths have King Gilgamesh beginning as a tyrant. The Gods send Enkidu, a wild man, to destroy Gilgamesh but the two become friends and together have incredible adventure before Enkidu's death.
Death haunts the Hero. It is a recurring theme for heroes to cause the deaths of (accidentally or deliberately) their own fathers or mentors - classic Greek hero Theseus caused the death of his father; Sigmund, of the Germanic Volsung myth, kills his mentor Regin; Lancelot's betrayal of Arthur is a direct cause of the downfall of Camelot. And many heros die prematurely or tragically: Heracles is poisoned by trickery; Arthur dies in battle; Beowulf destroys Grendel and Grendel's kin, but does not live long after; Cu Chulain, from Celtic myth, is destroyed by the Morrigan after winning a decisive battle. To those hearing the myth it was a reminder of death, the mortality of all, and that though heroes would arise to defeat evil for them, their lives were invariably glorious but short.
And we still create myths and heros today. In the USA, John F. Kennedy was a typical example of the mythologising of a human figure: his achievements have become enhanced despite his failings and his tragic death sealed the legend. Similarly, Ataturk in Turkey or Gaddafi in Libya have been mythologised by their cultures. There are many others. We still need heroes, and are prepared to forgive their faults in return for their defeat of shadow, and their presence as beacons of hope.
One of the most difficult archetypes to understand is the Animus/Anima figure. Jung believed that every person is a duality, that every man has a feminine side, every woman a masculine side. These opposite sides are called the anima/animus, and are given separate life in myth. A good example of an anima is Princess Leia in the Star Wars films: she is the anima of Luke Skywalker, the feminine to his masculine, and it is revealed that she is, indeed, his sister and his flesh and blood. The Amazons of Greek myth could be argued to be animae of the (male) greek heros, and certainly some exhibit both femininity and heroism in equal measure.
However, female heros and anima are uncommon in myth, especially ancient myth, and women are usually aspects of the Mother, the Maiden or the Crone. The latter is itself a part of the shadow, perhaps it could be described as the anima of the shadow: its feminine form. It represents the dark side of womanhood: the witches, sorceresses and unknown and worrying aspects of femininity, as exemplified by Ceridwen, the witch from the Celtic tale of Taliesin.
The Mother archetype is more reassuring: she represents fertility, warmth, the protection of home and hearth. She need not necessarily be the mother of any of the protagonists, but fills the eternal need. Mother archtypes are particularly common in theurgical myths: Cybele, Hera, Gaia and Isis are all mother-goddesses, who began the race of gods, and represent the ideals of motherhood. Mothers are also the protectors and nurturers of heroes: Thetis, mother of Achilles, attempted to make him immortal - but significantly missed his heel; Finn MacCumhail's mother sent her son away to protect him after his father's death: without her actions he would have been killed and the Fianna destroyed.
The Maiden is also easily identifiable. She is the virgin, the pure object of love for the hero to protect from monsters and the shadows. Like the hero, she may have faults, and in many cases, the maiden causes the destruction of the hero because of her flawed (female) nature. It is a sad but true factor of myths that many are hopelessly misogynistic, for those hearing and telling them were invariably living in a male-dominated world. Most, if not all, myths contain the maiden in some form: Maid Marien, Guinevere, Helen of Troy, Ariadne, Deianira, Phaedra and Branwen are all maidens protected or rescued by heroes, though Guinevere causes the downfall of Camelot, Helen of Troy precipitates a war, Deianira accidentally poisons Heracles and Phaedra causes Theseus to kill his own son Hippolytus. There is a message here in myth: women may be beautiful and lovely, but also dangerous. Heroes, and mankind, beware!
Some women, of course, are not necessarily dangerous: in Christian myth Mary was both mother and maiden. She nurtures Jesus and attempts to protect him, ultimately losing him to the shadow (albeit temporarily). As such she is a good example of a character who is a mix of more than one archetype: other examples include the triple goddesses of many cultures - Morrigan and Brigid of Celtic myth, Helle of Northern European myth, the Erinyes and Moirae of Greek legend. These triple goddesses could be both cruel and just, nurturing and harbingers or bringers of death: they exemplified all of womankind in a single entity.
In modern times, there has been a wholesale mythologising of women: women would be fair maidens, innocent and pure; would marry and then become mothers, nurturing and the centre of the home, raising good daughters and clever and admirable sons. Of course, this mythological family was rarely the truth, but even to this day, it has not stopped some from believing it. In the wake of feminism we are more realistic, but even now, we sometimes make myths out of flesh and blood people. In the wake of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997, a great number of people (encouraged by the media) were quite happy to forget her failings and see her as a tragically lost 'saint', a maiden of charity, badly treated by those around her, cut down in her prime. In ignoring any semblance of reality, she became myth.
The last most common human archetype is the Trickster. He is a character (usually male) who delights in mischief, but more importantly for the society hearing that myth, he challenges and explains the societal taboos. The most famous trickster is problably Loki, the Norse god, who ends up suffering eternal punishment for his crimes but most cultures have some form of trickster, who often, while challenging the gods provides - albeit inadvertantly - humanity with some boon.
Other archetypes exist, and archetypes are not limited to humanity (or human-like Gods) alone, but with these core human archetypes we are able to look at most myths in a clearer light. We can understand their meaning and importance to their originating culture, and in doing so can better understand ourselves.
(c) 1998 Helen Steele