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The Boundary-Blurring Nature of Myth

BY Bradley Olson May 1, 2022

double exposure
Double Exposure, by Bill Reynolds, via Flickr. CC by 2.0.

This month in the MythBlast Series, we’re exploring the relationship of blurred boundaries to heroism. Anyone who has ever been in psychotherapy is likely to be familiar with the no-nonsense injunction to have clear, defined boundaries, to prevent others from “invading” or ignoring your boundaries. The idea is that those solid, clearly defined boundaries are the key to a mentally healthy life. Indisputably, when it comes to emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, creating good boundaries are a necessary (but not solely sufficient) step in stopping abuse, as well as the prevention of further abuse. But I’d like to bracket serious pathological issues such as abuse, setting them aside for the moment, and instead explore boundaries from a less dire perspective.

Encountering boundaries is an inescapable feature of being human, and we should remember that boundaries are not simply human creations. Geologic features create boundaries: mountains, seas, and forests have all at one time or another been regarded as boundaries. Time, space, mind, and body are organically connected to boundaries. The very existence of nations, states, and municipalities are predicated upon boundaries. Perhaps the most interesting are the boundaries between inner and outer, and those are the boundaries I want to work with in this essay.

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In her remarkable novel The Black Prince, Iris Murdoch wrote that “being a real person oneself is a matter of setting up limits and drawing lines and saying no. I don’t want to be a nebulous bit of ectoplasm straying around in other people’s lives.” Like Murdoch’s character, Bradley (one must appreciate the irony), we want to be able to imagine ourselves as single and singular individuals. We want to believe that if the limits are clear enough and the lines drawn are incisively and bold enough, we can prevent others, and even the world, from “straying around” in our own lives. We’d like to think that boundaries are mostly unambiguous, self-evident, and inevitable. And yes, they certainly contribute order and clarity to the living of life, but we can’t escape from the messiness, the straying around in, and the sordidness of life to enter into a discrete, ordered, well-bounded life with aspirations to an undisturbed hermetic existence—nor should we want to.

I can’t help but wonder if we would benefit from less reliance on boundaries and let ourselves sink a bit more into the disarray and blurriness of life. Boundaries are ambiguous; what’s inside and what’s outside depends upon which side one’s perception lies. So, it follows that one culture’s hero is another’s terrorist, one’s treasure is another’s trash. Additionally, where there are boundaries there are defenses, and again, depending upon where one is positioned and the better those defenses work, the more easily they can become self-imposed prisons.

For Joseph Campbell, the hero’s adventure was all about moving beyond boundaries, and the primary mise en scene for the hero’s adventure is found within one’s own inner world. It seems that the inner world, particularly the unconscious, simply demands blurring movements among, across, and around boundaries. This is perhaps why, in the mythless, unheroic age of contemporary life, Campbell emphasizes that the Hero’s journey is primarily an inner one, and the boon achieved is that of an expanded consciousness. In his introduction to The Hero’s Journey, Phil Cousineau put it this way:

As a mythologist with a metaphysical slant on life, a doctor of things-beyond-appearances, [Campbell] dedicated his life to mapping out the experience of plumbing those depths, which is the journey of the soul itself. The cartography, as he drew it, was the geography of the inner or underworld, showing perilous territory to be traversed not by the faint, but by the stout of heart. If myths emerge, like dreams out of the psyche, he reasoned, they can also lead us back in. The way out is the way in. It is a movement beyond the known boundaries of faith and convention, the search for what matters, the path of destiny, the route of individuality, the road of original experience, a paradigm for the forging of consciousness itself: in short, the hero’s journey. (xxiv)

William Blake insisted that there is the known and the unknown, and in between them, there are doors. I would suggest that myths are the doors between the known and the unknown, and serve to make such boundaries as the known and the unknown blurred and permeable. Myth is perpetually blurring boundaries, and I would argue that the singular quality of myth is its ability to do just that. Myth constantly smudges the edges of ourselves and the world, it blurs boundaries between the material and the immaterial, between gods and humans, between past, present, and future, between ethics and morals, and between emotion and catastrophe. Myth peregrinates through all these and more, leaving one to conclude that the body of myth is itself a unifying symbol. As C.G. Jung wrote, a unifying symbol is:

[…]running its course in the unconscious of modern man. Between the opposites there arises spontaneously a symbol of unity and wholeness, no matter whether it reaches consciousness or not. Should something extraordinary or impressive then occur in the outside world, be it a human personality, a thing, or an idea, the unconscious content can project itself upon it, thereby investing the projection carrier with numinous and mythical powers.

(Civilization in Transition, Vol 10 of The Collected Works of C.G. Jung)

Myth, because it exists and functions between opposites, becomes an important point of entry, not just to imagination and the unconscious, but to the discovery of the capacity and potential of the human being. But mythology can assume this function only if we cease to understand myth as a relic, as a curiosity, a just so story, a religion, or any other clearly defined, bounded concept; to the contrary, it moves in and through and around life, disclosing that Will ‘O the Wisp quality of the vital spark, the élan vital. Mythology is not merely a museum-like repository of normative or once-orthodox narratives. Mythology is the final destination of singular thought and experience; the sublimely confounding creations that cannot be repeated, and which are diminished by attempts at replication. That’s why when we read myth, it matters little from where the myths come nor their historical context, we never fail to be moved by them.

Discuss this MythBlast with the author in our forums, Conversations of a Higher Order.

Thanks for reading,

Best regards, Bradley Olson, Ph.D. About Brad  Bradley Olson, Ph.D., is the editor of the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s MythBlast series. Dr. Olson is a Depth Psychologist in private practice in Flagstaff, Arizona; his work with clients is heavily influenced by his interest in Jungian Analytical Psychology, literature, and Mythological Studies.

Monthly Gift

Envoy: No Horizons

Our gift to you this month is eSingle. Access this download for free until the end of the month.

This eSingle is an excerpt from Joseph Campbell’s book Myths to Live By.

Campbell famously compared mythology to a kangaroo pouch for the human mind and spirit: “a womb with a view.” In Myths to Live By, he examines all of the ways in which myth supports and guides us, giving our lives meaning. Love and war, science and religion, East and West, inner space and outer space-Campbell shows how the myths we live by can reconcile all of these pairs of opposites and bring a sense of the whole.

News & Updates

It’s May: look up and behold Penawen, the Moon of the Camas Harvest. Camas is not yet on the endangered species list but has been pushed to the limit of congenial habitats along the shores of the Pacific Northwest. Once a dietary staple of the Coast Salish Peoples, this “wild carrot” tastes something like a particularly sweet potato. Harvest carefully: the white ones are lethal.

Beltane (May 1) falls halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice and is
essentially a fertility festival. Today’s Wiccans tend to emphasize less reproduction and more the sacred balance of goddess and god, female and male.

Bahá’ís take the day off on May 1 in observance of the one last day of Riḍván. For Muslims, the breaking of the fast, ‘Īd al-Fiṭr (May 2), signals the end of Ramadan.

A million years ago (so it is said), Lord Rishabha broke his fast by drinking sugar cane juice.
Many modern Jains will commemorate the sacred day, Akshaya-tritiya (May 3), by drinking the same. For other Hindus, May 3 is the day Veda Vyasa dictated the Mahabharata to Lord Ganesha. According to tradition, anything started on this auspicious day is sure to grow.

May 4, for Zoroastrians, marks the end of Ghambar Maidyozaren; for Jews it is Yom HaShoah, a remembrance for six million who died in the Nazi genocide in mid-twentieth century.

Weekly Quote

Another name for this doctrine is the Doctrine of the Net of Gems, in which the world is regarded as a net of gems, each gem reflecting perfectly all the others. It is also called the Doctrine of Mutual Arising, and represents a notion of universal karma, not individually separated karmas. This is the meaning of the term the flower wreath –– Kegon. Everything causes everything else.

Featured Audio

Featured Video

Campbell in Culture

Pete Holmes Points to Joseph Campbell on Late Night With Stephen Colbert

Featured Work

Hero’s Journey, The (book)

This masterfully crafted book interweaves conversations between Campbell and some of the people he inspired, including poet Robert Bly, anthropologist Angeles Arrien, filmmaker David Kennard, Doors drummer John Densmore, psychiatric pioneer Stanislov Grof, Nobel laureate Roger Guillemen, and others. Campbell reflects on subjects ranging from the origins and functions of myth, the role of the artist, and the need for ritual to the ordeals of love and romance. With poetry and humor, Campbell recounts his own quest and conveys the excitement of his lifelong exploration of our mythic traditions, what he called “the one great story of mankind.”

Book Club

“There’s hardly a tale centering a young person that isn’t at some point broadly referred to as a “coming-of-age” story, as if children are nothing but transitional creatures, pre-adults waiting to evolve into their final form. The chasm between childhood and adulthood is broadened and examined in this month’s book: Lydia Millet’s 2020 novel A Children’s Bible. This is a story that will remind adult readers of the ever-present unease of youth, an endemic harshness that keeps children acutely aware, by nature, of death and danger. Millet weaves the reality of current climate crises with Christian allegory to highlight evergreen questions central to humanity’s monomyth: What world have we inherited, and what will we leave behind for the next generation when our time is up?”

Gabrielle Basha
Communications Manager
Joseph Campbell Foundation

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