One of the most enlightening "psychology" courses I took in college was not a psychology course at all, but, rather, a comparative literature course on mythology in different cultures around the world. I had always enjoyed reading myths as a child, so the course looked like an interesting way to help fulfill a university requirement in other cultures. The course turned out to be both highly interesting and highly educational in unexpected ways, and I would like to share three things I learned from the course
Universal Themes in Myths
One of the most surprising revelations, documented in one of the books for the course, David Leeming's Mythology: Voyage of the Hero, was the degree of similarity across religious stories and myths from around the world. Leeming shows how many myths follow an eight-stage pattern that reflects a heroic way of dealing with universal issues in the human lifespan, from the miracle of conception and birth through resurrection and ascension.
What got me thinking about that mythology course was an Easter service I attended with my family last Sunday. The pastor's sermon naturally focused on the resurrection of Jesus, and emphasized how this was a unique story. Clearly, he had not read David Leeming (or Joseph Campbell, whose work was the major source for Leeming's book). In the chapter on resurrection and rebirth, Jesus shares space with Heracles, Dionysos, Hyacinth, Adonis and Aphrodite, Telipinu, Amaterasu and Susanow, Buddha, Osiris and Isis, Hainuwele, the Corn Mother, Kutoyis, the Bear Man, Attis, Wanjiru, Cuulu, and Quetzalcoatl.
What I found particularly uncanny was that even the manner of Jesus's death was not unique, if we recognize the cross as a symbol for a tree. (Acts 5:30 reads "The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree" and Acts 10:39 says "They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.") Attis, a Phrygo-Roman god who was said to be born of a virgin on December 25, was crucified on a tree and resurrected three days later on March 25th. The Egyptian god Osiris was murdered by his brother, Set. Osiris's wife and sister, Isis, placed the pieces into a tree and resurrected him. The Norse god Odin engaged in self-sacrifice by hanging himself from the great tree Yggdrasil and stabbing himself with a spear. This sacrifice was said to give him access to the powers and secrets of the runic alphabet.
It was my original intent to discuss the psychological significance of parallels across myths around the world, but I eventually decided to spend more time on other lessons I learned in the mythology course. If you are interested in mythic parallels, I recommend to you Leeming's book, now available in an edition that is newer than the one I read in the 1970s.
Narrative Memory and Your Life Story
I liked the structure of my mythology course. Professor Kenneth Thigpen alternated between talking about different approaches to understanding myths and actually narrating myths. One of the first things I learned and was amazed by was how easy it was to remember the details of myths that I had never heard before. Normally a very thorough note-taker, I found it barely necessary to take any notes at all as I sat, entranced by the instructors stories from foreign and unfamiliar cultures. Come test time, I found I had effortless, almost perfect recall of the details of these stories.
Many years after the course was over, I would learn why. Apparently, narratives (stories) represent a particular way of constructing knowledge that comes naturally to us. One writer has even gone so far as saying "Remembering is narrative; narrative is memory." Research indicates that remembering a bunch of new, unrelated elements is difficult. But if the elements are part of a structured story, they are more easily remembered. That’s just the way the mind works. Research also indicates that memory is not a literal replaying of experienced events, like replaying a recorded video. Rather, it is a reconstruction of significant elements in a way that makes sense to us. We remember the past by making up stories in which the events relate to each other in a meaningful way.
The fact that memory is reconstructive story-telling can cause problems when we seek to know what actually happened, such as who-did-what during a traffic accident or a crime. Eyewitness testimony is not always reliable because when witnesses remember an incident there is a natural tendency to miss details that do not seem to fit the overall pattern of events or to add information if it makes the story more coherent and sensible. Research has indicated that when therapists try to "recover" forgotten memories they can actually implant false memories if the memories help the client make sense of his or her life.
On the other hand, we can use the reconstructive nature of memory to our own advantage when we are troubled by events in our past. Research has demonstrated that writing about stressful events in our lives can help relieve the stress and improve both psychological and physical health. Although simply expressing feelings through writing may have some benefits, writing appears to be most helpful when we can frame troublesome events in a way that makes them a meaningful part of an overall coherent life story.
Sam Keen, former professor of philosophy and religion before becoming a contributing editor of Psychology Today, has written extensively on the power of authoring our own stories in books such as Your Mythic Journey: Finding Meaning in Your Life Through Writing and Storytelling and Hymns to an Unknown God: Awakening The Spirit In Everyday Life. Keen points to the similarity between the words author and authority. By authoring our life stories in a way that is meaningful to us, we take charge of our lives and achieve a more satisfying life.
In a previous PT post on the writings of don Miguel Ruiz, I described a number of his ideas that have solid support from modern psychology. One idea I did not mention was his suggestion that we are all artists who are constantly narrating our own life stories. In an interview called How to Change the World, Ruiz suggests that we cannot change the world by trying to change the "secondary characters of your story" (i.e., other people). Instead, we can change the world by changing "the main character of your story" (yourself), specifically by changing "the message that you deliver to yourself." This principle is a mainstay of cognitive-behavioral therapy: change your self-talk, and this will change your feelings and your relationships.
Mythology and Truth
One last surprising lesson I learned in my mythology class concerned the relation between myth and truth. In everyday speech when we say "That is a myth," we mean "That is not true." Myth and truth are often seen as opposites. But in our mythology course we learned a more complicated conception of myth. A mythic story is not a simple proposition that can be judged as either true or false or even a string of true-or-false propositions. Rather, a mythic story attempts to make sense of our perceptions and feelings within our experience of the world in a narrative format. Certainly many aspects of myths are not literally true. The Greek gods did not really live on Mt. Olympus and meddle in the affairs of human beings. However, myths refer to very real human experiences, otherwise they would make no sense. We understand the stories about the Greek gods because they share some of our emotions and ambitions. The stories of Icarus and Phaethon resonate with us because we have seen or experienced within ourselves youthful tendencies to try to fly too high, only to crash and burn.
A myth is neither completely true nor completely false. A good myth is one that artfully represents human experience. Yet no myth can completely represent all of human experience because human experience is so multidimensional and varied. At best, a myth captures some important aspects of the domain of human experience it is meant to represent. Just like a map, which captures only important features of the terrain, not every detail of the terrain it represents.
I began this blog post by calling my mythology class one of the most enlightening "psychology" courses I ever took. My comparative literature course gave me three credits in the humanities, not the sciences or even social sciences. Because psychology purports to be a science, some readers might wonder whether talking about mythology in a Psychology Today blog is even appropriate. In my view, that depends on what we think defines science as a method for understanding the world.
My conception of science has changed over the years, partly because of my experience in my mythology course. I used to think that science was a way of establishing with certainty facts about the world, what is absolutely true beyond any doubt. As I read more about science and began to do science myself, I came to realize that in science we often attempt to model reality rather than establish indubitable facts. Scientific knowledge claims are always tentative and subject to revision. We strive for better models of reality, not just by looking for more facts, but by improving our insight and vision. A good scientific model is not one that attempts to capture every factual detail about reality, but is able to identify key variables that allow some accuracy in making predictions about the world. Just like a good myth provides enough insight about the world to help us navigate life's journey.