Personal Myth. What is it?
In its true sense, myth pertains and is limited to the gods while legend applies to
humanity, the heroes. Such a distinction also applies to time. For the gods,
time is primordial and unstructured; for mankind it is historical and linear. The gods
live in the mythical world though they occasionally come to earth and walk amongst
us mortals, or at least so we’re told. But the lives of the gods and humanity
are so intertwined as to be inseparable, so the term “myth” has popularly come to
stand for both. As to the significance of these myths and legends, we can say
that it is much more than just “stories.” As Thornton Wilder put it:
…myth-making is one of the means whereby the generalized truths of human knowledge finds
expression and particularly the disavowed impulses of the mind escape the
‘censor’ of acquired social control and find their way into indirect
confession. Myths constitute the dreaming subconscious soul of the race telling
The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, who developed his theories from experimentation,
put this on firmer footing. Jung saw the ancient gods as archetypes of human
behavior and saw mythology as the personification of subconscious “forces”
at work in the human psyche mixed with real events. As such it is cultural.
We’ll discuss his psychological theories in more detail in a later class. It
is interesting to note, however in passing, that culture is not an externally
produced phenomenon but internal created and projected onto the external world.
does myth mean to us?
individual mythology of modern men and women is a synonym for their
“collective psychology.” Sometimes events in our lives trigger this
collective part of our inherited nature, and we step into an unusual state of
existence. In short, our lives at times parallel myths, and when that happens,
it reeks havoc. We live out a Greek tragedy. Murray Stein speaks of the personal
experience of myth in an essay in Facing
giving voice to the depth of experience and relating separate pieces of
experience into a configuration, the connection of personal experience to myth
can produce or consolidate a psychological inflation (assimilation of the ego by
the unconscious, often archetypal, content). The individual is unconsciously
living a myth rather than a life. More accurately, an unconscious content is
living him, rather than he it. …one telltale clue is the individual’s
inability to reflect in a novel way on his experience, his thoughts, and
behavior patterns. Inflation closes the doors to such reflection; and the person
becomes “locked in” to a restricted field of vision.
“psychological inflation” constitutes the underlying subject of this class.
The gods of the ancient Greeks are the archetypes of human existence and the
primary forms that govern the psyche. The principal and irreducible language of
these archetypes is the metaphorical discourse of myths.
Discovering Your Personal Mythology
intellect has a propensity for storytelling. It’s the way we structure our
past experiences and, in some ways, create reality. In this sense, your personal
mythology is the story of your life seen looking backward.
We are mythical beings, but generally we only realize this in past
tense. We view and analyze our lives through the process of storytelling and
thus become mythical beings. As Carl Jung said in the prologue to his
it is that I have now undertaken, in my eighty-third year, to tell my personal
myth. I can only make direct statements, only “tell stories.” Whether or not
the stories are “true” is not the problem. The only question is whether what
I tell is my fable, my truth.
story of our lives is our myth. People in the later stages of life seem to
become more mythical, to enjoy looking back and spinning yarns about what they
experienced. One thing to keep in mind is that myths don’t necessarily pertain
to the literal part of our lives but how we experience events internally, our
perceptions and emotional reactions. These reactions can be radically different
from what one might expect based solely on what actually takes place.
(As an aside, I have gone to considerable lengths to developed my own personal
mythology. I traveled Greece for ten weeks, kept a journal and turned it into a
paperback book. I developed a website for it, and the paperback maybe purchased
primary focus of this class is the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.
The degree to which the student might wish to get into the development of a
personal mythology is left up to the student. Reference material for such an
activity is contained in any number of excellent books on the subject. In
particular, Personal Mythology, The
Psychology of Your Evolving Self, by David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner
provides a detailed, structured approach. Murray Stein’s In Midlife provides considerable details and insight into what many
people experience while going though midlife and how it relates to Odysseus’
ten years of wandering about the Aegean in Homer’s The Odyssey. Hillman’s essays in Oedipus Variations provide insight into the psychotherapeutic
process and how the Oedipus myth relates to all of us. I’ll be talking a great
deal more about Hillman’s essay in a later class. The components of
personality are covered in Jean Shinoda Bolen’s two books, Goddesses in Everywoman and
Gods in Everyman.
for a personal mythology:
mind is ever constructing stories as a form of communication. When someone asks
you, “What happened?” you construct a story around the event in question.
Immediately the memory crystallizes into story. Such constructs are an attempt
not only to portray but also to find meaning. On a philosophical level, meaning,
or the search for it, has always been at the basis of story. As Jung states in
need for mythic statements is satisfied when we frame a view of the world which
adequately explains the meaning of human existence in the cosmos, a view which
springs from our psychic wholeness, from the co-operation between conscious and
unconscious. Meaninglessness inhibits fullness of life and is therefore
equivalent to illness. Meaning makes a great many things endurable—perhaps
everything. No science will ever replace myth, and a myth cannot be made out of
any science. For it is not that “God” is a myth, but that myth is the
revelation of a divine life in man.
Moyers has said, “The story of our lives is crucial to understanding who we
are and to which we have to ascribe some meaning. That’s where we find
meaning.” Sam Keen (author of Your
Mythic Journey) tells us to “Rewrite your autobiography every ten years.
Telling our stories may be the most human thing we do. By telling stories we
remember our past, invent our present and envision our future.” Telling
stories is the most human of all acts. Building a personal mythology not only
provides meaning, but also constitutes a celebration of our lives.
time we retell the stories, they evolve, as does all myth. Are the changes
always due to evolution resulting from different perspectives or are they
sometimes affected by accuracy, our inability to face the truth about our lives?
Do we sometimes deliberately distort them? How does our personal myth change
based on the audience?
Who are your heroes?
Who are your
Where did you come from?
Who are your people?
Contemplate your own life story and those concerning your family.
Write down your life story.
Identify your family rituals (birthdays, marriage, Thanksgiving, Christmas,
Write down your dreams and the impact they’ve had on your life.
Religious beliefs and how they have affected your life.
- Identify how your family recognizes the changes in life status, e.g.,
the passage from adolescence to adult, "coming of age". Note any differences between the way
women and men are treated.
- Identify any conflict resulting from the change in life status and its
- How does religion or philosophy of life fit into your personal myth?
- What major events have influenced your life? In what way have these
events been the hinges whereby the story of your life swings?
- Think about the story elements in your own life, then look for the
meaning beneath the surface.
- How does your interpretation of events differ from that of others who