All myths and symbols arise initially in peoples imaginations, and if they are artists they will express them in creative terms more or less understandable to those around them. All of human imaginative life is inherently influenced by the unconscious, that aspect of the psyche that’s outside of our awareness, containing such things as instincts and automatic responses. Many psychologists believe the imagination acts as a medium between the conscious and unconscious mind, and as a result the art we create often gives us glimpses of our deeper, instinctive selves. Our creative urges move in response to these unseen currents of our own psychology.
As a theory* the unconscious was developed by the early psychologists of the 19th and 20th centuries, a group largely identified with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, although in truth there were many other theorists involved. Through their research, Freud, Jung and many others came to perceive that the unconscious could be understood in mythological terms, although by today some researchers argue that the mythological description of the unconscious could be a convenient projection as opposed to a description of its nature. One way in which the unconscious appears to expresses itself is through primordial human figures and story-like narratives that gravitate around fundamental human experiences such as love, power, cunning, birth, death and self-knowledge. Jung called these deep, unconscious patterns archetypes, and identified some of them, such as the mother, the trickster and the wise old man. Its difficult to say how universal these archetypes are, but its likely that within a given culture there are basic, inherited mythological structures that condition cultural expression.
For example, the tidal movements of the mass media, the memes and trends, fashions and fads can all be interpreted as following the pull of archetypal figures and narratives. To this day, just like countless generations before us, we are fascinated by heroes and villains, the trickery and intrigue of politics and power, the magic of science, religion and art, the otherness and familiarity of nature. These mythological figures and narratives can all be traced back to shared, deep mythical structures. In this way, myths are one of the sources of culture and language, the basic stuff of meaning.
Artists who have a particular sensitivity to these shared myths will often create art that has a significant resonance within their own cultures. The fashion world exemplifies this process better than most aspects of modern culture, with designers reinterpreting old styles and garments within new contexts, finding what is most relevant to the most people. It could be argued that all art and culture has developed as an inherent aspect of our evolution, with the most successful expressions of collective myth being the most enduring and at the same time the most adaptable. Those myths and symbols that manage to retain their influence as they change contexts will surely last longer than those that do not. As reflected in modern consumerism, there is great value in being able to create and express symbols endorsed by popular opinion for successive turns of the cultural wheel. This is exemplified by the modern practice of branding that strives to perpetuate the popularity of a single iconic image for an extended period of time. These modern symbols, although not explicitly set in a mythological context, inevitably draw on the mythic substratum of a culture. Even though they have replaced older mythic symbols, they still exert a similar kind of power and influence.
Its not difficult to find in the concept of an archetype a rational explanation for gods and their powers. Many scholars have explored the idea that myths, even those expressed in a medieval form such as the Four Branches, were originally tales about gods. But it must be born in mind that the modern conception of gods and supernatural agency, particularly in the atheistic cultures of the West, may very well be far removed from how these things were experienced by people in the past. The well established practice of rationalism in modern academia necessarily separates gods and divine powers out from the individual so as to reveal them as cultural fabrications; once they have been separated out as such they naturally dissolve to the touch, converted into nothing more than words and ideas. But to experience such things as core elements of one’s self, as people in the past may have, means these gods could not be separated out from the individual in any meaningful way. We must therefore bare in mind that when we reduce ancient gods and their powers to rational concepts such as the archetype, we don’t automatically discount the power of belief in the creation of culture, for that would skew our own understanding of the historic past regardless of our own position on such things.
What symbols say.
But what exactly is a symbol in this sense? Its impossible to know what the unconscious actually contains; we can’t open up the brain and peer into it as we would a loft in a house. But we can guess at its nature by paying attention to how it influences the conscious mind. By watching the ripples on the surface we can make guesses at how the currents deep bellow are moving. By studying the symbolic images that rise up into conscious awareness, Jung believed that we could interpret the movements of the unconscious. This led him to perceive that one of the basic qualities of the unconscious is its continual attempt to redress psychological balance. He said:
The unconscious, [is] the neutral region of the psyche where everything that is divided and antagonistic in consciousness flows together into groupings and configurations. These, when raised to the light of consciousness, reveal a nature that exhibits the constituents of one side as much as the other; they nevertheless belong to neither but occupy an independent middle position.
(Carl Jung, Psychological Types, p.113)
Jung saw the unconscious as the place where the psyche attempts to regulate the different influences that flow into it. It brings conflicting elements together into what he called groupings and configurations that in turn are expressed in the conscious mind as symbols: images that contain a blending of the original influences. If this theory is correct, then when such symbols are expressed consciously, we should be able to see in them traces of those initially conflicting influences, but presented in a more or less stable state. I’ll explore this idea in the next post.
*It must also be stressed that the theory of the unconscious is by no means uncontroversial: many current researchers tend to remodel the notion of non-conscious processes according to recent developments in neurological science. But this new context of understanding doesn’t change the fact that regardless of their biological correlations and influences, non-conscious phenomena can still be interpreted on both individual and communal levels in terms of mythology.