The Eternal Drama: The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythologyby Edward Edinger
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Zeus, Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis, Athena—do the gods and goddesses of Greece have anything to say to us that we haven't already heard? In this book, based on a series of his lectures, the eminent Jungian analyst and writer Edward F. Edinger revisits all the major figures, myths, oracles, and legends of the ancient Greek religion to discover what they can still reveal—representing, as they do, one of the religious and mythic foundations of Western culture. Building on C. G. Jung's assertion that mythology is an expression of the deepest layers of mind and soul, Dr. Edinger follows the mythic images into their persistent manifestations in literature and on into our modern lives. He finds that the gods indeed continue to speak as we grow in our capacity to listen and that the myths express the inner energies within all of us as much as ever. Heracles is eternally performing his labors, Perseus is still confronting Medusa, Theseus is forever stalking the Minotaur, and Persephone is still being carried off to life in a new realm.
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Chapter 1: What Is Mythology
What is mythology? There are almost as many answers to this question as there are different human standpoints. On the broadest level, we can say that a people sharing a system of religious belief has a common myth. In this sense, a myth expresses metaphysical truths and gives answers to the basic questions of life.
What we see more commonly today are conceptions of mythology that differ according to the field of thought from which they arise. By scientists mythology is often seen as a primitive effort to give explanations of nature—in short, as just inferior science. Philosophers and theologians tend to think of it as primitive philosophy or religion. The historically oriented read the great stories as the half-forgotten deposit of historical happenings that are left in the folk mind in the form of myth. Anthropologists and sociologists see myths as describing changes in social structures. For artists and poets, mythology is a treasury of images to be used in their craft, a common coin of the imagination for reminting into new forms.
Although a case can be made for each of these conceptions, there is now an understanding of mythology that incorporates all these partial explanations and describes myth as it can be understood by the modern mind. This is the psychological view of C. G. Jung, which can be summarized by saying that mythology is the self-revelation of the archetypal psyche. Jung conceived of the human psyche as consisting of two interpenetrating levels, the personal and the archetypal (or transpersonal). The personal level derives from the immediate experience of one's own life history. The deeper, archetypal level does not have its source in personal experience, but is an innate psychological structure, present at birth and common to all human beings just as the physical structure of the body is. This inner structure is composed of the archetypes, universal patterns representing the typical experiences of mankind. The archetypal level is revealed in religions, the arts, in the fruits of human creativity, and in dreams and visions. Jung suggests that mythology, too, arises from this nonpersonal layer of the human psyche. In the myths we find particular forms and images through which we can grasp the archetypal realities that underlie all psychic experience and to a large extent determine it. From this it can be seen that a knowledge of the mythological layers is instrumental in our becoming aware of the deep levels of the psyche.
Jung recognized that mythological images give us ways of under-standing the archetypal dimension. If the conscious mind does not contain such categories of understanding—religious concepts, mythological concepts—it will have no bridge to the deeper psychic layers. In such a case, the conscious mind will either be totally alienated from its psychic depths or it will be identified with them. Without a conception of God, for example, we are apt to behave as though we were God ourselves. Of course, this would not be a conscious thought,
but in behavior and reactivity the ego is likely to identify with the very thing that it has no way to conceive of—in this case, divinity. And the category of divinity—the gods—is what myths tell us about.
Why should we study mythology? As we reflect on the mythological images, we are studying the facts of the psyche and trying to interpret them. Some of these interpretations are fallible, of course, but the facts are not. The facts, the mythological images themselves, have a reality that transcends interpretation.
As we consider the basic images of Greek mythology, we should ask what the particular images could mean in our own individual lives. It is important to read the myths psychologically, to connect them with living experience so that they are not just remote abstractions.
specific technique can help to do that. With every myth, one can bring personal associations to each figure and image, just as in dealing with a dream. When
Heracles is condemned to serve Eurystheus or Omphale (he is forced into a life of perpetual service) the question must be asked: "How have I had an experience like this one, where tasks have been imposed upon me, that parallels this myth?" Asking such questions feeds the unconscious and is apt to draw up an association—a thought or memory. By paying attention to these associations one will start to build a personal connection to the myth;
particular myths, at least, will be living themselves out in one's own life.
Asking these questions will be rewarded every now and then by a shock of recognition that says: "This is my myth. This is myself I am seeing here."
Greek myths are sacred scripture, no less than the Hebrew Bible and the New
Testament. Certainly the Greek myths and what was built on them—the science and philosophy and literature—form some of the basic roots of the Western unconscious. Myths are not simply tales of happenings in the remote past but eternal dramas that are living themselves out repeatedly in our own personal lives and in what we see all around us. To be aware of this adds a dimension to existence that is usually reserved for the poets. To the extent that we can cultivate awareness of this transpersonal dimension, life is enlarged and broadened. Just as Moses is eternally bringing down the law and Jesus is forever being crucified and resurrected, so Heracles is eternally performing his labors, Perseus is still confronting Medusa, and Theseus is forever stalking the Minotaur. All these dramas are happening in us and around us constantly. They are eternal patterns of the way life happens below the surface, if only one can see
While myths can lead us to a comprehension of the larger dimensions of our being, an understanding of myths can teach us as well what we are not. Jung tells us:
The libido that will not flow into life at the right time regresses to the mythical world of the archetypes, where it
activates images which, since the remotest times, have expressed the non-human life of the gods, whether of the upper world or the lower. If this regression occurs in a young person, his own individual life is supplanted by the divine archetypal drama, which is all the more devastating for him because his conscious education provides him with no means of recognizing what is happening, and thus with no possibility of freeing himself from its fascination. Herein lay the vital importance of myths: they explained to the bewildered human being what was going on in his unconscious and why he was held fast. The myths told him:
"This is not you but the gods. You will never reach them, so turn back to your human avocations, holding the gods in fear and respect."
Jung is referring to the danger of falling into grandiose identification with the archetypal images, which in its extreme form is psychosis. Knowing that the gods exist makes one less likely to mistake oneself for a god. In this way myths help tell the ego what it is not. As we shall see in the discussion of the Perseus myth, the whole body of mythology can be thought of as an example of Athena's mirror shield, which enabled Perseus to deal with Medusa. By reflecting it, mythology enables us to get some grasp of the transpersonal dimension, which otherwise would be overwhelming in its raw primordial power.
Where do myths come from? The psychological view is that they emerge progressively from the collective unconscious and gradually, by the collective endeavor of the race, are worked over and embodied in some durable form. But from almost the beginning this question has come up: do they not rather express the residue of some historical reality? Archeological studies suggest that there may indeed have been a Trojan war—which wasn't known a few hundred years ago. We also find some parallels to the labyrinth and the bull combat of the Theseus myth,
in Crete. The historical aspect of myth needs some attention. As far back as the third or fourth century BC,
a man named Euhemerus put forth the idea that myths are all derived from historical happenings, and that all heroes, for instance, were once actual kings or actual historical personages. This later developed into a reductive theory that took all the glory out of mythology. That euhemeristic idea has not died. It comes up again and again, for example in Robert Graves's commentaries on myths.
It is an indisputable fact that certain myths, and for all we know maybe all of them, had some historical origin or root. Certainly it is widely believed that the Christian myth derived from an actual historical personage. One observes that certain historical experiences, when they illustrate some basic and universal feature of the human psyche, turn into myth. So there is an interchange between history and archetype. For example, one can speculate on what might happen if there were a gap in all our records for a few hundred years and historians of 2500 AD were to look at the fact that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday. Would they believe that as a simple fact, or would they say, "Well, isn't that interesting. Here is this historical figure who we know existed, but he was so quickly assimilated into the
Christian myth that they couldn't make the distinction between who Lincoln was and who Christ was"? We, of course, know that he actually was shot on Good
Friday, but would a future historian accept that, if the records were lost?
So there is a true mystery as to just how the overlap and interchange take place between the historical process that individual egos live out and the archetypal dimension, which sometimes determines the drama of the ego and at other times seems to be influenced in its manifestation by the way the ego lives its life.
For example, in
at one point Helen says to Hector that Zeus has given them a hard fate so that thereafter they may be the subject of a "future song for men."
What she is saying, in a sense, is that we have to live our hard fate now because we are destined to exemplify an archetypal image for future man.
Another aspect of that same issue is a question about how the ego might contribute to the unfolding, development, and enlarged manifestation of the archetypal world.
A great man's hunger for fame and immortality can often be understood as the longing to fulfill his fate of augmenting archetypal imagery. In his poem
"Lycidas," Milton speaks of this yearning, quite explicitly and beautifully, as determined not by the ego, but by the transpersonal powers:
Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble mind)
To scorn delights, and live laborious days;
But the fair guerdon when we hope to find,
And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
Comes the blind fury with the abhorred shears,
And slits the thinspun life. "But not the praise,"
Phoebus replied, and touched my trembling ears:
He is talking about fame and praise, just petty ego ambition presumably. But here
Milton makes his point:
"Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil,
Nor in the glistering foil
Set off to th' world, nor in broad rumor lies,
But lives and spreads aloft by those pure eyes,
And perfect witness of all-judging Jove;
As he pronounces lastly on each deed,
Of so much fame in Heaven expect thy meed."
That is an example of how what we might call the power motive, if perceived in a personalistic framework, turns into a completely different thing if understood in the larger context of one's life opus.
Another reason for studying mythology is expressed by Keats. Everybody knows the first few lines of "Endymion." It is a mythological poem, and the familiar opening lines are really an expression of Keats's feeling about myths.
thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
on every morrow, are we wreathing
flowery band to bind us to the earth.
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o'er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in, and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
'Gainst the hot season; the mid-forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms.
Now here is his description of myth:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven's brink.
Of course poets know all about this spiritual nourishment because they are all mythologists. They make the mythical images visible. They live in a constant awareness of the archetypal powers. Theodore Dreiser, a literary man who had something of a poet in him, gave an impeccable psychological description of the reality of a mythical image when he said that he knew that the Furies existed because he had heard the beating of their wings.
final reason for studying mythology is expressed in the Baucis and Philemon myth. The story is that the gods Zeus and Hermes came to earth looking for a devout man. They took the form of travelers and wandered about seeking hospitality. No one would let them in until they came to the poor hut of a pious old couple, Baucis and Philemon, who brought out all they had and fed and took care of them. Then a flood came and only Baucis and Philemon were saved.
Their wish to be guardians of the gods' temple was granted. According to Ovid,
who tells the story, the moral is (and it is not badly put): "The gods look after good people still, and cherishers are cherished." That corresponds to what has been discovered in depth psychology, that when one pays attention to the Unconscious, the unconscious is likely to show some kindness to the ego that does so. The cherishers are cherished. The Baucis and Philemon myth expresses a good reason for studying mythology. It is like entertaining
Zeus and Hermes, letting them in and giving them whatever we have to offer. It is good for the soul.
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Meet the Author
Edward F. Edinger, M.D., a founding member of the C. G. Jung Foundation for Analytical Psychology in New York, is the author of many books on Jungian psychology, including The Eternal Drama and Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy.
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