Oedipus on a Pale Horse, Journey through Greece in Search of a Personal Mythology Novelsmithing, The Structural Foundation of Plot, Character, and Narration The Mysteries - Daughter of Darkness  Story Alchemy: The Search for the Philosopher's Stone of Storytelling 

[For more information on this subject see Personal Mythology Project.]

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 its story.

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.

What does myth mean to us?

The 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 the Gods:

Besides 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.

This “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

 The 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 autobiography: 

Thus 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.

The 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 on Amazon.)

The 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.  

Searching for a personal mythology:  

The 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 his autobiography:  

The 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.  

Bill 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.  

Every 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?

Some suggestions:  

-Interrogate your life

          Who are your heroes?
Who are your villains?
          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, etc.).
- 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 resolution.
- 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 witnessed them?


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