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The Blessing of Spiritual Poverty,” with Mythologist Norland Téllez, Ph.D.”

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    Norland Téllez, Ph.D., is joining us in COHO this week to discuss “The Blessing of Spiritual Poverty,” his latest contribution to JCF’s MythBlast series (click on title link to read).

    I’ll open the discussion (please don’t hold the length of my post against our guest), but this is not an interview. Please engage Dr. Téllez  with your own thoughts, observations, comments, and questions about his essay, or the discussion below.

    Let’s begin:

    Wow, Norland – thank you for another thought-provoking, paradigm-challenging MythBlast! I have a few comments, and a question that I trust provides an opportunity for you to expand further on the points you have made.

    In your essay, you write:

    Without giving way to harsh value judgments, we can say at least this much: the solution to all our present problems with the Judeo-Christian tradition must be worked out from within this tradition—that is, our tradition here in the West.”

    And here is Joseph Campbell, making the same point in an interview:

    Parabola: There are many people in America today who feel themselves to be Hindus or Buddhists. Do you think it is possible for them really to be a Hindu or a Buddhist?

    Campbell: No. Absolutely not.

    Parabola: Why not?

    Campbell: In the first place Westerners do not usually have much contact with these traditions until they are already at least adolescents––sixteen, seventeen, nineteen years old. And so they’ve had at least fifteen years of the building of an occidental psyche. What’s the difference between an occidental and a traditional oriental psyche? In the Orient, as I’ve said, one’s duties are put upon one. One is not a freely choosing individual and the whole accent is on ego-suppression, ego-dissolution. The East has never distinguished between what Freud called the id and what he called the ego. The id is the “I want” function––I want, I want, I want. And in the Orient this is mastered by the superego function––you must, you must, you must. So one goes from “I want” to “you must” and one does not go to what Freud calls the reality function of the ego––that function of the psyche that puts you in touch with the actual circumstances of your life now, the life of your society now, the world situation now, and gives you the charge of judging and evaluating, and then acting upon your own evaluations.”

    Campbell expands on this later in the same interview:

    “I would define the great value of the Oriental instruction for us as this: the translation of mythological symbols into psychological references. We have read our own mythological symbols as historical references. Moses did go up the mountain and get the tables of the Law from God, came down, broke them, went up, got a second edition, came back again. This is taken to be literally true. The Jews did go through the waters of the Red Sea and after that they did go through the waters of the Jordan. Jesus was born of a Virgin, did rise from the dead, did ascend to heaven. So here are these symbols, important symbols of revelation, of spiritual birth, of exaltation, all read as historical facts. The same symbols come to us from the Orient, read however as having psychological reference, representing powers within the human spirit, within your spirit, my spirit, which are to be developed and which can be evoked by contemplation and meditation on appropriate symbolic forms. The symbols then point to things that are in ourselves. This is what the Orient is telling us. But then you go and take over, also, all their old archaic sociological problems. Doesn’t fit. You dress like a Japanese or like a Hindu. So you are deracinating yourself––you are not reading the message in terms of your own condition, but are trying to change your condition and it just doesn’t work. Or rather very, very seldom does it work, and it works only in the most sophisticated people––those who have absorbed the oriental material thoroughly and know where it meets them, where it doesn’t meet them, know how to move into it. If they want to continue practices in Buddhist monasteries and that sort of thing they know precisely its value to them. But this is extremely rare.”

    (“Living Myths”, Parabola, Spring, 1976)

    You then turn to Jung: “We are, surely, the rightful heirs of Christian symbolism . . .” (CW9i ¶28). True, a few pages later on (CW9i ¶81-82), he does suggest turning to alchemy, the Tantric chakra system, the Tarot, “the mystical nerve system of Chinese yoga,” or the I Ching to form a picture of the symbolic process, which he describes as “an experience in images and of images”; nevertheless, seems the point he is making is much the same as Campbell’s above, about the value of mythological symbols from Oriental traditions, which is a far cry from telling people to become Hindus or Taoists or yogis (though I will note that Jung practiced yoga on a regular basis for decades – a practice that, best as I can tell,  faded off after his visit to India in his sixties).

    From my perspective, Jung’s deepest, most profound and sophisticated writings on the Christian mythos can be found in Aion (CW9ii) published in 1951, his 1952 “Answer to Job”, which appears in Psychology and Religion: West and East (CW11), and Mysterium Coniunctionis (CW14). I will be unpacking these the rest of my life (and I thank you for giving me a reason to return to these works). In a follow-up post I hope to share a related observation I have and pick your brain a bit, but we’ll save that for later.

    Which brings me to my question:

    In a letter on March 20, 1951, to Professor Adolf Keller, a Swiss Protestant theologian – addressing the subject matter of Aion – Jung declares “

    If Christ means anything to me, it is only as a symbol . . . I do not find the historical Jesus edifying at all. Merely interesting because controversial.”

    (C.G. Jung: Collected Letters Volume 2, March 20, 1951, p. 10)

    For the sake of clarification (I am pretty sure I know the answer to this, but please correct me if I am wrong), when you talk about our mytho-history and working within the legacy of our Jude-Christian tradition, you aren’t claiming the Christian mythos is literally true (e.g., Jesus was literally born of a virgin, was literally the son of Yahweh, was literally raised from the dead and is sitting up in heaven), but rather can be viewed through the lens, to borrow Jung’s term, of the “the symbolic life.”

    Or, to put it another way, as Jung notes, “Christ––like Buddha––is an embodiment of the self, but in an altogether different sense. Both stood for an overcoming of the world: Buddha, out of rational insight; Christ as foredoomed sacrifice” (Memories, Dreams, Reflections 279).

    For those Campbellophiles who might have only a passing familiarity with Jung, could you expand a bit on the image of Christ as a symbol of individuation (and what the heck does Jung mean by individuation), and/or why you share Jung’s perception that Christ the sacrificial victim is a more appropriate symbol of individuation for us today than Buddha sitting in meditation at the foot of the Bo Tree?

    Forgive my excessive verbosity – I fear I may have lost everyone except thee and me, but I am eagerly awaiting your response.


      Thank you so much Stephen, thank you for bringing out Campbell’s texts, to put into a broader context this whole issue of “cultural appropriation” which circles around the issue of working from within our own tradition. In an ironic way, we are dealing with the lack of cultural appropriation of our own culture in the Occident! And of course, when it comes to importing culture from the East taking into account our [the West’s] long history of geopolitical interventions, of imperialistic wars of expansion on both sides—the situation becomes even more complicated! Not even Marco Polo could traverse the ocean of this mythic history in a paragraph or two!

      Your question about my possible advocacy of a literal interpretation of the Christian myth, on the other hand, was a little more surprising. And although my very style of writing and thinking speaks to the very opposite, to making things more complicated and gnarly than they literally seem, to the annoyance of some critics—this charge is not altogether out of line. In so far as it points to the conflation we ordinarily make between literalism and the concrete, I stand guilty as charged of the sin of “concretism,” with which Jung often chastised Freud. I am more with Freud here than with Jung but could never charge Freud for having a “literal” interpretation of Judaism, the Bible, or the Christian mythos. On the other hand, it is symptomatic of the Jungian “symbolic life” to wrestle with a certain anxiety about the body, about having to rescue the body from the purely symbolic—not having a clue about the meaning of “symbolic castration,” a whole psychological dynamic discovered by Freud and elaborated by Lacan, mythologists in their own right, who have much more to say about literalism, the imaginary and the symbolic, as well as the Real.


      So I understand this confusion and general lack of knowledge on these obscure psychological matters, especially when we regard the unconscious, of course.  But to be clear, in general, we tend to con-fuse the literal and the concrete as the literal sign often takes the place of the concrete experience, but in fact nothing could be further from reality than the literal. The literal is in fact, a highly abstract position.


      I don’t want to get sidetracked, but briefly to explain why the literal is not to be equated with the concrete. In a counter-intuitive way, the literal is literally highly abstract. It reduces the richness of life into a rigid designator, whereas a “concrete” rendition of the human experience would have to include all the “abstract” invisible frameworks, mythic fantasies and institutional forces that make up any given historic event.

      In this regard, yes, I am in favor of a more concrete or “existential” grasp of the individuation process—not only as a ”symbolic life”—but as an actual life in mytho-historic consciousness. My point of view would not be far from a kind of “dialectical materialism,” or even an “existential psychoanalysis,” both of which would be at odds with a certain Jungian conception of the “symbolic life” which is construed upon a literaldualistic opposition between the literal and the symbolic, the abstract vs the concrete. From a mytho-historic view, on the other hand, the symbolic life and the actual life are indissolubly whole.  On the other hand, the “symbolic life” could be a stand-in for an inauthentic and unexistential—or non-committal “pagan”—aestheticizing of all life, which is a perfect way to worship the status quo and embrace fully the illusions of the wish-fulfillment program of the pleasure principle. Whereas the authentic Christian path is decidedly beyond the Pleasure Principle, as Freud and Kierkegaard understood the immortality of death drive, spoken in terms of the passion of the infinite…

      The fact that Western Buddhism can dish up our well-worn “pursuit of happiness” as a consequence of enlightenment only shows to what extent we can appropriate Eastern religions as a cover-up for the smooth functioning of status-quo wisdom—where even Coke will sell you happiness in a can.

      When Jung notes, as you quoted above, that “Christ––like Buddha––is an embodiment of the self, but in an altogether different sense. Both stood for an overcoming of the world: Buddha, out of rational insight; Christ as foredoomed sacrifice” (Memories, Dreams, Reflections 279). The contrast of archetypal styles could not be made more clear. Where Christ as an archetype of the self puts the notion of love-sacrifice at its core, the Buddha exalts human reason as the highest lore—yet they all advance a fundamental teaching on the meaning of human suffering in the suffering of the world.

      Through the Christian imagery, we get a religion of passionate attachment, a religion of Love, and with Buddhism you get a philosophic detachment from the world and a release from passion as its highest goals. This is why, as a passionate person deeply engaged in the material world, I could never be or become a proper Buddhist, nor do I have any need for special meditation techniques outside the ones provided by my own creative disciplines. Of course, I have nothing against these spiritual practices which I deeply respect. But I am more like Campbell in this regard. You remember when he was asked if he did any meditation at all and his answer was: “I read and underline books—that is my meditation!” Or something like that.

      So yes, you could say that I have a more “literal” or material reading of Christianity but obviously not in the mindless sense of believing literally in the virgin birth, etc. On the other hand, neither do I literally believe in the “symbolic life” in a one-sided way. A purely symbolic or “spiritual” reading of the Bible is just as bad as a purely literal one. The one gets lost in myth and the other in history. Having been taught by Kierkegaard to regard an authentic leap of faith with fear and trembling, so to speak, I am glad to affirm the existential edge of Christianity as something more than a symbolic life, as something that reflects existentially an actual life. The model of individuation that Christianity proposes, therefore, includes the “literal” material conditions of life alongside the symbolic or “spiritual” aspect of the mind. In this intersection of matter and spirit, where the Word becomes flesh, the eternal symbol enters the body of historic time. In this crucible of time and eternity, the Christian myth takes on a unique significance. Rather than a creed or a conscious scheme, Christ becomes an embodiment of present mytho-historic consciousness.



        Now allow me to respond now more specifically to your question about the appropriateness of the image of the bloody Christ nailed to the Cross vs the placid visage of the Buddha sitting in profound meditation beneath the beautiful Bo Tree.

        I know, the contrast could not be more striking; it is not a fair comparison. These are not apples and apples but altogether distinctive fruits of the mytho-historic imagination. Each image manifests a level of its own according to its own mytho-logic. They are two different keys and tempos which have so much to do with their respective environs, their territories and landscapes, their particular historic spaces, in their native lands and mythic birthplaces.

        If it were a question of pure aesthetics, we could talk about the contrast between the beautiful and the sublime which Immanuel Kant wrote about. Or we could see it in Nietzschean Greek models of Apollonian and Dionysian forces of creation. In fact, this was Nietzsche’s critique of both Christianity and Budhism, that they were altogether too “Socratic” or had become too Apollonian. At the level of the mythic image, however, there is no doubt that the Crucified Christ is a Dionysian image per excellence; it is even linked historically to the Greek archetype. We could also have a psychoanalytic take, and view the placid image of the Buddha beneath the Bodi Tree as an image of perfect contentment, of divine complacency with the status quo, i.e., in perfect agreement with the program of the pleasure-unpleasure principle, the principle of homeostasis. The “beautiful” is after all equated in aesthetics with that which gives pleasure. So beauty must leave behind or push aside all the “ugliness” and unpleasurable dimension, the dimension of suffering, of actual existence. This is why the primordial image of the sacrificial victim intersected by the cross moves in the order of the sublime, the order of the numinosum proper, as what lies beyond the pleasure principle; it is an immense power which evokes a sense of awe and terror in the face of the transcendent.

        We should be reminded in connection to the experience of the sublime, Rudolf Otto’s little book the Idea of the Holy in order to begin to understand this element of “awefulness” which is implicit in the ‘fear of God’ in the encounter with the mysterium tremendum:

        There are in some languages special expressions which denote, either exclusively or in the first instance, this ‘fear’ that is more than fear proper. The Hebrew hiqdīsh (hallow) is an example. To ‘keep a thing holy in the heart’ means to mark it off by a feeling of peculiar dread, not to be mistaken for any ordinary dread, that is, to appraise it by the category of the numinous. (13)


        So which image is more appropriate for our situation in the West? It depends upon the way we read our present situation and what we conclude is appropriate to it. Do we endorse status quo wisdom, the wisdom of “business as usual,” with complete faith in the market forces of unfettered capitalism, in the midst of ecological—including a pandemic— devastation? In my opinion, this is not a viable option. Those who cling to a notion of realism in which we continue this same route ad infinitum, are clinging to a utopian dream. The realistic option would be to change and transform a man-made system.

        So I prefer the religion that will awaken a revolutionary zeal to change the status quo in the direction of climate justice and economic equity. If you can do that out of Buddhist teaching and practice, forsaking a more “conservative” or rigid ideological encrustation of Christianity—by all means become a Buddhist! I have in mind, of course, personages like Thích Nhất Hạnh who embody a similar political will and orientation as our own Martin Luther King did working out of the Religion of Love and Sacrifice. But there is no doubt that the Christian myth has roots that go down deep in the American—and African American—psyche. I also see the need to include the Native American mythological traditions which extend even deeper into the history of this continent. But even here, we already view these Native traditions from the other side of mytho-history with the sacrificial image of Christ in the watershed of the Christian eon.



        So much to absorb here, so much that calls for deep thought and reflection, so much I want to respond to (only a fraction of which I will get to, or I would be typing for days).

        I’ll admit a literal interpretation of the Christian myth (in terms of what most people think of as literal) is not something I’d ascribe to you. The only explanation I can think of for that assumption is that’s what’s associated with the practice of Christianity historically, and reflects the experience of most people who were raised Christian: Jesus really was born of a Virgin, really did walk on water, turn water into wine, raise Lazarus bodily from the dead, etc. (you might say that’s part of our mytho-history). My guess would be unconscious projections are in play, based on the sense of personal experience and/or the preponderance of historical evidence, that all Christians believe scriptural accounts as referring to concrete facts that literally happened.

        As Joseph Campbell observed:

        “I think one of the great calamities of contemporary life is that the religions that we have inherited have insisted on the concrete historicity of their symbols. The Virgin Birth, for example, or the ascension into heaven—these are symbols that are found in the mythologies of the world. Their primary reference must be to the psyche from which they have come. They speak to us of something in ourselves. They cannot primarily refer to historical events. And one of the great problems that is confronting us now is that the authority of the institutions that have been presenting us with these symbols—the religions in which we have been raised—has come into doubt simply because they have insisted on talking about their underlying myths as historical events somewhere. The image of the Virgin Birth: what does it refer to? A historical, biological problem? Or is it a psychological, spiritual metaphor?” (Pathways to Bliss 88)

        I agree with Campbell ‘s observation, but if the default assumption whenever one hears the term Christian is that individual must be a literalist, that overlooks the rich strain of symbolic readings of the Christian myth stretching back to many Gnostic Christians in the early centuries, and all the way up to mystics and clerics of the modern age like a Thomas Merton or a Matthew Fox.

        Fortunately, Campbell’s perspective is more nuanced than that.

        (See what I did there, by the way, tossing in “literal” and “concrete,” though in the sense of common usage rather than that within more esoteric circles.  😄 This is why it is so important to define one’s terms, which does so much to clear up misunderstanding.

        I really appreciate the explanation of your distinctly different usage of these terms. When I hear someone say  “literal,” or “concrete,” I tend to embrace the common parlance – which means I would completely misunderstand what you intend [heck – it would never occur to be to think of “literal” as “abstract,” which is very much at odds with my Webster’s Unabridged – “true to fact; not exaggerated; actual or factual”].

        However, given your elegant and nuanced amplification, everything you say that depends on that definition now falls together in my mind. That might not necessarily change my embrace of the common usage in general – it’s not that one usage is right and all others are wrong – but it does enhance understanding and improve communication when discussing a different perspective. There have been moments in my life where I am certain I am at odds with what another person is saying – and then one or the other of us tumbles to the realization that we are using the same word differently, and voilà! –  turns out we are in agreement in our heart and mind, just separated by a common tongue. Defining terms in relation to how one is using them is always a plus.)

        Apart from that parenthetical musing, no need to go into the weeds discussing literal vs concrete, other than to thank you for taking the time to address that tangent.

        Far more fascinating to me is your subsequent post (#5884 July 20). Your observations rock, Norland! Especially that final paragraph, which just ties so much wonderful together from so many traditions (especially enjoyed drawing in the Native traditions on our continent).

        Two things I’d like to focus on from your post: mytho-history, and the sacrificial image of Christ.

        We’ll start with sacrifice. I recently came across this in a journal from a couple decades back:

        Sacrifice is a metaphor for the nature of the cosmos in which we live: transcendent eternity, pouring into the field of time & space (often represented as a cross). This Eternity is thus immanent in all of creation – fragmented into a multitude of forms that comprise the material universe, with each of us one of those fragments, containing our own little drop of Eternity.”

        Best I can tell, I was summarizing my take-away from Joseph Campbell’s theme in The Historical Atlas of World Mythology, Volume II: The Way of the Seeded Earth Part I: “The Sacrifice”

        Perhaps Campbell’s interpretation of sacrificial images from a wide range of cultures may have been formed, to borrow your phrase, in the awareness of “the sacrificial image of Christ in the watershed of the Christian eon”; nevertheless, for me that doesn’t alter the perceived resonance with other images of sacrifice from a wide range of cultures (which doesn’t mean there is a point by point correspondence, but rather a kinship). At the same time, that perception doesn’t negate that each is different from the others and unique to its own time and culture,

        What is undeniable, whether or not one subscribes to Christian beliefs, is that the Crucifixion is clearly central to Christianity. I am in no overt, conscious sense a Christian – but when my wife and I traveled through Italy last summer, image after image of Christ on the Cross – and also of the Pietà – whether on canvas, mosaic, or marble – triggered unexpected emotions and fluttery sensations in heart and gut.

        Such is the power of the archetypal image, especially within the context of my culture’s mytho-history.

        I’d also like to ask for a little more on mytho-history. If individuals can have radically different understandings of everyday  terms like literal, concrete, or myth, I suspect some may be vague about just what mytho-history refers to – or perhaps, what you mean by the term.

        Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen (whom Campbell references a few times in both Oriental Mythology and Occidental Mythology,) identified “the Eridu Genesis” from Mesopotamia and the Priestly source of portions of Genesis as evidence of “a new and separate genre” he designates the “mytho-historical” (Thorkild Jacobsen, 1981 “The Eridu Genesis.” Journal of Bible Literature 100: 513-529). The fragment that comprises the Eridu Genesis combines mythological motifs that were current in ancient Mesopotamia along with a historical accent as it details the succession of Sumerian kings and the dates of their reigns (akin to the accounting of the antediluvian patriarchs of Genesis whose lifespans stretched into centuries). That seems the earliest academic appearance of the term I can find. Mytho-history then inspired some theologians, like William Lane Craig, to move away from a rigid, literal interpretation of the many miraculous and mythic motifs in scripture, while acknowledging an historical context.

        And, of course, mytho-history relates to more than just the Bible-based religions (as you have noted in relation to the Popol Vuh of the Mayan culture). One can find this in the Illiad (mythological elements clustered around what archaeology reveals is a history of conflict between Greek cities and Troy), the Bhagavad Gita, and so on.

        Is this a fair summary, as far as it goes? Did the term originate with Jacobsen? Or does it go back to Renè Girard, who certainly seems to be stepping in that direction decades earlier? What would you add or expand upon to flesh out the understanding of this concept?

        Thanks for bearing with me . . .


          Stephen, as always, I am deeply appreciative of your thoughts and insights, wishing to pursue so many avenues and having to content with hints rather than concrete explanation.

          And yes, I know that in the dictionary definition the literal means the factual in the sense of existence. But to say that something is, that it is a fact, is to say almost nothing about it. Mere existence is the most impoverished notional determination of something. It is like saying that right now I am literally striking the keys of my keyboard. That is factually true but it gives you no sense of what I am actually doing in thought and imagination, attempting to communicate and formulate, etc. In order to know what I am actually doing beyond literally striking keys, you would have to read and interpret these ciphers of mine. The literal is the most abstract in the sense that it contains only the bare minimum of notional determination, the least amount of “information” we can have of a thing.

          To say that something is is the function of pure sensuous intuition. It does not yet tell me anything about what this thing is, nor how I may feel about it, neither does it help me imagine the existential possibilities of meaning produced by the context in which this thing is articulated, whatever it might be. Everyone knows that the best way to tell a lie is by using facts in distorted contexts. That speaks to the shallow notional emptiness that literal facts have by themselves.

          This is also the reason why the literal interpretation of the Christian myth, or any other myth for that matter, is so thoughtless—and consequently soulless. By taking something like the Virgin Birth literally, we no longer have to think about it. It becomes flat and empty, i.e., “abstract” in this Hegelian sense. (For it was Hegel who demonstrated the abstractedness of the literal in his Phenomenology of Spirit.)

          I love that you keep returning to the notion of mytho-history, or what in the Mahabharata was also called the “poetic history of mankind,” as a touchstone of what we’re dealing with here. And to be sure, this notion is nothing new and has been affirmed from time immemorial. That is the nature of Sacred Books like the Bible, Mahabharata, or the Popol Vuh, as well as the Greek myths and mythologies around the world. It is in fact the original notion of historiography.

          As I said above, in the notion of mytho-history the symbolic life and the literal life are indissolubly whole. In other words, it rests on the assumption that myth and history, the symbolic and the concrete, are not external enemies or opposites, but are implicated in a dialectical relationship with one another.

          As far as where this notion comes to us in modern historiography as well as Mythological Studies, I’ve already mentioned in previous COHOs Joseph Mali’s book Mythistory: the Making of Modern Historiography. This is a great place to start. In that book Mali gives credit to Giambattista Vico, a contemporary of Galileo, who contributed to the subject an enigmatic tome titled The New Science. Joseph Mali’s own philosophical underpinnings are expressed in his dissertation on Vico published 1992, where he explains his chosen title:

          The Rehabilitation of Myth: I have borrowed this phrase and its principal connotations from Jean-Pierre Vernant’s well-known essay on ‘The Reason of Myth’. Vernant’s thesis is that the concept of myth that we have inherited from the Greeks belongs, by reason of its origins and history, to a tradition of thought peculiar to Western civilization in which myth is defined in terms of what is not myth, being opposed first to reality (myth is fiction) and, secondly, to what is rational (myth is absurd). If the development of the study of myth in modern times is to be understood it must be considered in the context of this line of thought and tradition . . . [which would ultimately result in] discovering the authentic and essential nature of that shadowy part of man that is hidden from him. This new attitude was eventually to lead, in various ways, to the rehabilitation of myth. Its ‘absurdity’ was no longer denounced as a logical scandal; rather, it was considered as a challenge scientific intelligence would have to take up if this other form of intelli­gence represented by myth was to be understood and incorporated into anthropological knowledge. / My main claim in this work is that this rehabilitation of myth was first conceived by Giambattista Vico. Furthermore, I shall argue that this was the main aim of Vico’s work, and that in so doing he initiated a seminal process of revisionism in various spheres of knowledge. I trust that this perspective, which might seem at first glance to be rather limited in its scope, will prove to be the ideal vantage-point from which to view the enormous range of the New Science. This work, then, is neither a comprehensive study of Vico’s works, nor even a conclusive commentary on all aspects of his New Science (let alone on the vast critical literature about it!), but rather an attempt to elaborate the full meaning and implications of one singular notion that undergirds that work: the definition of myth as ‘true narration’ (vera narratio). (2-3)

          This singular notion of vera narratio is, of course, the essence of mytho-history. That is where I derive my term true mythto express this notion, a usage which makes it clear that we’re not talking about myth in the usual vulgar sense of the word meaning a false narrative. That vulgar sense is allowed to stand as a synonym for ideology from which we would like to draw a line of distinction.

          When you read The New Science you also understand the central role that the notion of truth bears in the concept of mythology as mytho-history. Here’s one my favorite passages from the Scienza Nuova in which he shows the dialectical relationship internal to the concept of mythology as the marriage of mythos and logos in a single paradigm of truth. And he does this while advancing a theory of the origin of speech itself out of times of articulated silence:

          401 “Logic” comes from logos, whose first and proper meaning was fabula, fable, carried over into Italian as favella,speech. In Greek the fable was also called mythos, myth, whence comes the Latin mutus, mute. For speech was born in mute times as mental [or sign] language, which Strabo in a golden passage [1.2.6] says existed before vocal or articulate [language]; whence logos means both word and idea. It was fitting that the matter should be so ordered by divine providence in religious times, for it is an eternal property of religions that they attach more importance to meditation than to speech. Thus the first language in the first mute times of the nations must have begun with signs, whether gestures or physical objects, which had natural relations to the ideas [to be expressed] [225]. For this reason logos, or word, meant also deed to the Hebrews and thing to the Greeks, as Thomas Gataker observes in his De instrumenti stylo. Similarly, mythos came to be defined for us as vera narratio, or true speech, the natural speech which first Plato and then lamblichus said had been spoken in the world at one time [227].


          So many places we could go, so little time (too many balls in the air for me at the moment to devote the time I would like to this discussion).

          Bouncing back briefly to my initial post, I do appreciate Jung’s lifelong struggle to come to terms with Christianity – and it was lifelong, starting with his earliest years – not just recalling how much “I hated going to church” in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, but recounting a pivotal daydream on the cusp of adolescence, when he spent days trying to repress a fantasy image of God on his golden throne in heaven dropping a divine turd on the local cathedral below, shattering its roof, and triggering thoughts he was still working out in Aion, “Answer to Job,” and Mysterium Coniunctionis some sixty-odd years later.

          I do agree that we are products of our culture, which has been shaped by our myths and our history. Even if we push back against that, reject it, we still have to take it into account, a point James Hillman makes in an interview with Italian psychologist and author Laura Pozzo

          L.P.  We are not practicing Christians. . . . 

          J.H.  Yes, we are, because we are behaving Christians, we behave Christianity––we suffer in a Christian way, we judge in a Christian way, we regard ourselves in a Christian way. We have to see this, or we remain unconscious, and that means our unconscious is primarily Christianity. Psychotherapy can’t move anything, anybody anywhere, until it sees this Christian unconsciousness and that is why Freud had to attack religion and Jung had to try to move Christianity. ” (Inter Views 78)

          But our culture and its institutions are a product of Greek myth and culture as well. Our democracy has its origins in Athens, not Jerusalem – on Mars Hill rather than Golgotha. For generations, our children have learned about Greek myths and the Norse pantheon in school (reinforced by popular culture), rather than Hindu mythology or African tales (though those are finally appearing in education and media as well).

          This too is our mytho-history.

          Christianity’s core texts were originally written in Greek, drawing on prevailing mythological motifs (for instance, the resonance between the Apostle Paul and the imagery of the Greek mystery religions) . . . but Christianity literalized the myths (in the primary definition of the verb).

          As Hillman notes,

          “. . unlike Buddhism, say, or even Judaism, Christianism lives myths deliberately, insisting they are not myths, and this has dreadful paranoid consequences. We see it in the ego-self axis: this is a mythical fiction, but it is presented as empirical fact.” (Inter Views 84)

          Why do I keep returning to the concept of mytho-history? Well, on the one hand, I believe mytho-history is a concept central to your understanding – and when readers understand what this is and why it’s a key concept, I believe it clears up much of the “obscurantism” you note has been laid at your door. However, it’s likely many who read your current essay might not have read others of yours referencing the same concept, and even fewer may have seen the COHO thread this winter where you discussed this, so it’s worth bringing up again, for I find yours a fresh, complex, and nuanced perspective worth sharing.

          At the same time, what intrigues me about the concept of mytho-history is the path it offers believers out of an exclusively literal interpretation of the Judeo-Christian narrative. What I wonder is at work here – what is this image intending to convey? I mentioned in my previous post some relatively conservative theologians, like William Lane Craig, who are now open to mythologizing some aspects of Christian belief. Will this continue,  with mytho-history perhaps growing in acceptance, or at least being able to co-exist alongside a more fundamentalist theology – or will it fade away? No idea – but I do believe this embrace of mythologization is a plus (mythologizing going on all the time, in all of us and each of us and the collective culture as well, under the surface anyway).

          Jung certainly mythologized the Christian message. I do love his work, but one of the reasons I embrace Hillman is that, like him, I see Jung’s idea of the Self as sharing a more-or-less monotheistic perspective with Christianity. The idea of a unitary Self is a useful tool, but that does not strike me as the goal of psyche;I embrace the plurality of the self, and the many Gods, not just One (not that I exclude the one who thinks He – or They – is the only One).

          But that’s just my perspective. I am loving hearing your thoughts, and learning from you – which is the idea behind “conversations of a higher order” – we all have much to teach and learn from each other.


            Thank you Stephen, as always, deeply appreciative of your thoughts and insights. This is what makes these conversations of a higher order, and sometimes you and I share the impetus of Icarus, especially when we ere young, where we like to go as high as thought and imagination take us.

            From my perspective, after attending Pacifica set a blaze by Hillmania, I have to say that to me Hillman’s “monotheistic” criticism of Jung and Jung’s own understanding of Christianity share a common source in the same fallacy which points to the failure to recognize what is authentically new and groundbreaking about the Christian myth. From this point of view, the whole “monotheism vs polytheism” perspective slides out of relevance.

            My problem with Hillman, however, is this dualistic ideological framework he deploys, setting monotheism against polytheism as if they were external opposites—esoecially in the face of a religion in which One is also Three or even Four as Jung would have it. Christianity is the sublation of polytheism, already having internalized the polytheistic form within it. In other words, Jung at his best touches upon the essence of the dialectical process, but Hillman slips down into ideology, i.e., into a “polytheistic” fundamentalism of his own.

            This is a problem with reducing everything to empty universal models for an understanding of myth; always reducing everything to the old makes us overlook the phenomenon of radical emergence, the idea that this very world of archetypes itself is subject to time and thus subjected to the evolutionary laws of life, i.e., the notion that the archetypal world is capable of radical transformation as a whole. Archetypes are not atemporal “eternal” patterns frozen in time, but forms of the very movement of mythic history across the ages.

            In order to understand what is unique in the Christian myth, I think Rene Girard’s work is indispensable together with Pascal, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the last two sharing a peculiar affinity for the modern world. That is why I wrote:

            The spiritual revolution inaugurated by the Christian eon is the thing that will not permit us to adorn ourselves with the false riches of borrowed pride. Rather than presenting a new myth, however, Christianity presents the usual mythic form in a kind of reversal of the direction of spiritual history which had been caught in mechanisms of victimization and sacrifice. With the Christian myth, breaking through the uroboric logic of the soul, allows the symbolic flesh of myth eat itself in the execution of new historic forms. For this spirit is so rich as to lose itself, rubbing against the metaphysical nakedness of the Real at the heart of the world.

            This shift in the mythic history of the soul reflects the “mythless” status of modern consciousness, its loss of Meaning in the capital sense, which has emerged from the womb of myth, born naked and fragile, utterly dependent on others, into the metaphysical nakedness of the world.

            This metaphysical nakedness expresses the meaning of spiritual poverty. It is the acceptance of the death of Gods and Symbols. Jung himself had a notion of this death of a symbols which expresses a key insight into the dialectical nature of the mytho-historic process:

            “So long as a symbol is a living thing, it is an expression for something that cannot be characterized in any other or better way. The symbol is alive only so long as it is pregnant with meaning. But once its meaning has been born out of it, once that expression is found which formulates the thing sought, expected, or divined even better than the hitherto accepted symbol, then the symbol is dead, i.e., it possesses only an historical significance. We may still go on speaking of it as a symbol, on the tacit assumption that we are speaking of it as it was before the better expression was born out of it. […] For every esoteric interpretation the symbol is dead, because esotericism has already given it (at least ostensibly) a better expression, whereupon it becomes merely a conventional sign for associations that are more completely and better known elsewhere. Only from the exoteric standpoint is the symbol a living thing.” (Psychological Types §816 )


            This is a passage above was quoted by Wolfgang Giegerich in his essay the End of Meaning and the Birth of Man into which Giegerich elaborates his own thesis:


            “Here, concerning the meaning of a symbol, Jung operates with the images of pregnancy and birth, and concerning the interpretation of a symbol, with the ideas of exoteric and esoteric standpoints. The symbol is only the unfinished embryonic form of a given meaning. As long as the symbol is alive its meaning is still unborn, has not fully seen the light of day. The birth of the meaning at once means the death of its former embryonic form, i.e., the death of the form of symbol, and it means that this meaning has received a better expression. The death of a symbol, inasmuch as it amounts to the birth of the better formulation of what it is about, is thus by no means to be viewed as an intolerable catastrophe. It is a transformation that, to be sure, goes along with a loss, but ultimately is a gain, a progress, just as in the case of the transition from biological pregnancy to birth. It thus is precisely the meaning’s destination to be born out of its initial enveloped form of mere pregnancy (implicitness, Ansichsein).” (End of Meaning 11)

            Of course, what Giegerich has in mind is the totality of the symbolic order as the womb of myth:

            “For the “symbol” that we are talking about now is meaning as such, Meaning with a capital M; it is myth, the symbolic life, the imaginal, religion, the grand narratives—not this myth or religion or grand narrative nor this meaning, but myth or religion pure and simple, Meaning altogether. And the “meaning” (lowercase) that has been born out of this “symbol” (i.e., out of Meaning capitalized) is Man himself or consciousness as such, human existence at large. Because consciousness has been born out of them, myth as such, religion altogether, higher meaning at large now possess only historical significance; they still exist, but in the plural, and shrunk into the reduced status of commodities—dead meanings. If they are nevertheless still used today to hold consciousness in their sway and thus to create a new secondary mystique or aura, a new sense of in-ness, then they can function this way because they now have the status of (spiritual) drugs used to benumb consciousness or to give it its highs.” (End of Meaning 12)



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