Every worldview, whether religious or cultural, is steeped in the structure of a story. Christians, for example, elevate the value of love through the archetype of Jesus, the ultimate picture of faith and compassion. Buddhists understand the value of spiritual seeking through the image of the wandering Buddha, finally enlightened under the bodhi tree. American mythology upholds the “American dream,” and the rags-to-riches story is retold again and again through the currency of Hollywood movies and reality TV.
We all grew up with our own mythologies and worldviews populated by archetypes that are meant to show us how we should be. Though we may not realize it, we also develop a personal mythology that describes from a very young age who we want to be. We don’t always realize that we are actually the fabulous storytellers of our own lives.
There is a very simple way of discovering these personal mythologies. According to astrologer and teacher Gahl Sasson, there is an easy way to find out what kind of story we are already telling, and once we do that, we have the tools to shape those stories in even better and more interesting ways.
Sasson framed this exercise within the archetypes of masculine and feminine. Everyone has a masculine and a feminine side, and understanding and developing these polarities can help guide us toward whoever it is we are trying to be. This is a pretty literal exercise in terms of gender, so let’s remember that archetypes are simplistic forms that represent your masculine and feminine, and are not about the the complexity of real live humans with complex genders.
I highly recommend doing this exercise on a first date: it will cut the ‘getting to know you’ phase in half. Try it with me:
First, think about when you were a child, maybe five years old. Who was your female hero at that time? What feminine person did you look up to, maybe even want to be? It could be a cartoon character, a family member, a friend, a historical person, anything. How does she look to you when you see her in your mind’s eye? What is she doing in this image? Write it down.
Now think about your male hero at that same time. What male person did you look up to? Again, it can be absolutely anyone that spoke to you. Maybe this hero appeared to you a little later in life, that’s okay too. Write it down.
The first thing to notice here is how quickly those characters jumped to mind. If you have a more difficult time finding one of the genders, that just tells you you may need to nurture that aspect of yourself a little bit more. If you have a harder time finding a male hero, for example, spend some time thinking about men that you do admire. What qualities do you like about those men?
My heroine popped up right away. Wild white hair against black skin, eyes white in a trance as she floats off the ground, summoning thunder and lightning: Storm from X-Men. I love her wildness, her connectedness to nature, and how much space she takes up when she accesses her power. I am also fascinated by her story: her people worshipped her as a goddess until the X-Men appeared to tell her she was no goddess but a mutant, and must leave her home to save the world.
It took me a little longer to access my male hero. After a few moments he appeared. Of course: Bill Nye the Science Guy! No question. Bill Nye loves learning and teaching, he is a seeker, he wants to understand the way the world works, and he wants to share that with anyone who will listen, always in an accessible and sometimes goofy way.
So this is how I want to see myself: sometimes the goddess, sometimes the scientist. Right away, I understand a bit better the way I look at the world and who I want to become. Regardless of the archetypes I have inherited from my religion and culture, these are the characters I’ve chosen. They can become totems for me, and teach me what qualities to draw on in different situations. My personal mythology is my story, and I think it’s a good one.
So, who are your childhood heroes and heroines? What’s your personal mythology?
Art Out of Personal Myth
Play a song for twenty different people, and you might get twenty different experiences. Or you might get only a handful of similar experiences. The industrialization of the artistic process has created methods and formulas that are applied in attempt to homogenize the entertainment response of the audience, but we still remain in uncertain waters. No one can account for the specific experiences and feelings that will arise from the use of a series of symbols, when they interact with the specific experiences of a specific audience, at a specific point in time.
A common experience will likely arise in a large enough sample group, but as an artist, if you become obsessed with focus groups, you’re in the wrong line of work. Nevertheless, all traditional narrative techniques, literary or otherwise, are based around striking the common chords, much as Western music forces a system upon sound structured by a specific aesthetic sense of harmony. Again, the agreement on certain terms is essential. Culture is inherently self-referential. From a marketing standpoint this allows for the production of media that will strike those most common chords. Thus, so many say that so-called mass market media drives at the lowest common denominator.
The most visceral myth we can deal with is our own. If an artist is true to their own experience, it will naturally resonate with like minds. This seems like the only way to avoid going insane wondering if the work we create will have the intended, or at least some, effect on an audience. Of course, standing on the periphery of a manufactured mainstream, the honest portrayal of a life may seem quite alien to those moving in lock step with the more accepted narratives of the time.
Artists re-interpret and externalize elements of this, but that does not mean that those without the artistic obsession live without the raw material. An individual’s internal, linguistic history is like the genetic code of their identity. On a basic level these common elements are a cultural binding glue, but on a more personal one, it may be the de-individualizing impulse of a relationship whereby two or more become as one, operating with a shared center of concern. This begins with the sharing of the inner life of this “linguistic history.” Coming to know this language, and what it means to them, is a means of coming to learn their story, through their story their myth, and through their myth — them.
It is this association of meaning, this “naming” of things, which is the root of our ability to build worlds. The power of this ability must not be understated. The simple choice to consider the base biological drives a hindrance to spiritual life, rather than the path to it, helped create one of the predominant ideological trends of Western History.1 It is this ability to choose to create and give meaning, to turn sand to pearl, which defines man as myth-maker.
This capacity exists within us all. We construct our reality through mental images and words which we use to represent our experience. The references become bounded to that which they refer. In this light, many of the so-called “primitive” magical beliefs may seem less bizarre. For instance, the clichéd tribal beliefs that a person’s true name shouldn’t be given away lightly, or that a photograph might steal or trap someone’s soul. We also see this aversion with the Druids, of whom we know so little because they refused to commit much of their beliefs and traditions to writing.2
To this extent myth can be considered a disease of language, as Ernst Cassirer notes in The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: “The source and origin of all mythology is linguistic ambivalence, and myth itself is a kind of disease of the mind, having its ultimate root in a ‘disease of language.’” This is the case because “…man puts language between himself and the nature which inwardly and outwardly acts upon him, that he surrounds himself with a world of words in order to assimilate and elaborate the world of objects.”
This idea seems to derive from Friedrich Max Muller,3 “According to Muller human language is a wretched device hiding and corrupting the purity of thought and is in constant danger of disintegration through the decay of metaphors. The creation of myth is a defense mechanism against the evanescence of metaphors, a kind of antibody formation to this disease of language.” (Emphasis mine.) Certainly, when looking at myth from the perspective of the arts, this statement takes on a sense of validity that it might lack when approaching myth from other angles, such as the historic.
All literary conventions show us intrinsic myths about how we perceive ourselves and the world. The centrality of a protagonist or group of protagonists we can identify with, the need for a plot that moves coherently forward, these things are based both on how we are trained to conceive of narrative, and it is how also how we expect or want it to be. They do not strictly follow the pattern laid out by life. Rather, it is a narrative structure imposed upon life. Even the sense of time, place, and gender afforded by the language that a story is written in, encodes the limitations of the thoughts that can be expressed within that language.
Take “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall…” Even this snippet of a nursery rhyme reveals how much languages can differ from one another. In English, we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we say “sat” rather than “sit.” In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can’t) change the verb to mark tense.
In Russian, you would have to mark tense and also gender, changing the verb if Mrs. Dumpty did the sitting. You would also have to decide if the sitting event was completed or not. If our ovoid hero sat on the wall for the entire time he was meant to, it would be a different form of the verb than if, say, he had a great fall. In Turkish, you would have to include in the verb how you acquired this information. For example, if you saw the chubby fellow on the wall with your own eyes, you’d use one form of the verb, but if you had simply read or heard about it, you’d use a different form.
Do English, Indonesian, Russian and Turkish speakers end up attending to, understanding, and remembering their experiences differently simply because they speak different languages?
These points may seem dully self apparent to some of you, but think about the conventions of fiction literature: not only different genres but also different literary movements. For instance, the so called post-modern desire to attack or change linearity or the self within a piece: also a psychological orientation. What is post-modernism but a hall of mirrors, a boundary which could not be traversed? Many tried to use the bricolage of all times, all cultures to create a new, open narrative but found themselves bounded, all the same, within the confines of what they were. What they know.
As an author, thankfully, we can embrace these limitations, or at least choose them with greater freedom than ever before. We needn’t escape ourselves, but we do need to be aware of relationships between consciousness, experience, and culture to be a writer. However, we must also learn the mystical art of making a living in an industry built from paper-thin profits, and it wouldn’t hurt to be able to reverse engineer a tank and create an irrigation system out of branches and vines while you’re at it.
The publishing world has moved far away from the position of post-modernism, seeking as always to find a safe, dark place where it can grow, unchallenged. (In my imagination, the publishing industry has just transformed into Shelob.) The menu is ostensibly based on what people are buying, and people buy off the menu because it is menu we are trained to pick from.
Genre fiction does not rule in sales just because of its ease, but because it primarily serves to provide a kind of predictability, a kind of preselected experience, which we find lacking in life. It is comfort food in all times, but we need it most in times when the most well-adapted learn that hiding in fantasy can be a survival technique. Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, etc are intrinsically “special.” We are not. At the least, we believe we are not, and we seek to be. How many stories depend on some variant of this principle? The narratives of pop culture further simplify and centralize the desire for an ego to be gratified in its uniqueness, to be recognized and rewarded. To stand out, to have meaning conferred from the outside. This too is the opiate of consumerism, value granted not from within but without. (And any amount of self-congratulation falls pretty flat when your stomach is empty.)
Certainly it would seem odd to us to have a story full of protagonists who accomplish fairly little, a story arranged in no particular order which begins somewhere around chapter 3 and ends at chapter 6, right before it seems it just might go somewhere. (Heart failure. Poor guy.) But this might be a more accurate portrayal of many of our lives.
This approach too could be analyzed as the need for banality to structure experience. All attempts at rendering story, or of obscuring all the parts that we think of as story, belies an underlying intent. John Cage’s 4'33" of silence still attempts to make a statement. It is impossible for a piece of art or literature to be spoken of, even if the actual piece is a blank page, without a myth or narrative forming around that empty space. Perhaps the narrative is simply “the man has gone stark raving mad, clearly.” But then that is the story, and for all we know the artist could play that up and his relatives could make millions long after his impoverished body is interned under some unmarked grave.4
Let’s take this full circle: the form and format of an art form, literature in this case, shows things not as they are, not even as we personally wish they may be (though some try), no — to those in the process of crafting a message, they represent what various people in between the artist and you think you want to hear. Agents, film studios, publishers, etc want to get behind something they think represents an identified — codified, even — mechanism of desire. What is the point of a piece then? To satisfy their concept of your desire, represented and quantified through sales, focus groups, and so on ad nauseam. When you’re framing something for them, then, it’s a guessing game. You’re pitching to what you think they think you want to read. That’s convoluted, right? It’s the kind of thing that’ll trip you up worse the more you think about it.
Formulas, genres and so on obviously work on this method, as a cost/risk value assessment, and the only way to expand them is to go straight to the source. In other words, some guy over in the corner can write a book or maybe — if they’re really resourceful and have a ton of talented, reliable friends — make a movie. Or someone can pitch an idea and “crowdsource” the funds. They can do so without any consideration of the psychological desire that the piece fulfills. Or they can base it on something else, something rooted in their personal narrative.
However, there is no solid mechanism for taking that and delivering it to people who may find value in it. You’re lost in the wilderness and now you have this nice paperweight to keep you company. It’s called your novel. Or album. Or film. Whatever it is, it’s an albatross across your neck until you “Sell It” one way or another. Some people might like it but most likely they won’t hear about it, and even if they do, and they’re interested, ten thousand other things with larger budgets are vying for their attention. Every. Waking. Second. (If you want to really experience what this is like first hand, go to Comic Con and try to push your book with a budget of $500. Make sure to get a booth right next to Marvel.)
So, the mythic artist must take these things into account, be aware of them, and yet be able to completely ignore them in the midst of the creative process if there is any hope of the sacred ever peeking its head through. In this regard, the sacred must be conjoined with the creative act. When we speak of religion without any sense of understanding of the sacred, we are indeed not talking about religion at all but rather politics or history. Even the most “devout” atheist, without realizing it, is committing a deeply religious, deeply sacred act if they are creating a work of art with mythic resonance.
Let’s take a look backwards and tie this into what has already been discussed, before moving forward. Because we create maps of our environment that are not the same as the environment, we may analyze our maps — our ideological history, as I said in Dissecting A Living Thing ― and through this, continually deepen our experience of our self. This deepening can occur in a dialog through the form of art that is informed by personal myth. Art is public psychoanalysis, and symbols are devices which refer to psychological realities, so long as you can decipher the reference, and avoid the disastrous consequences of fundamentalism. (Mistaking the symbol for that which is referenced.) Religious symbols are particularly potent in this regard; they too represent reality, but to the believer, they in fact represent ultimate reality. Through unraveling the reality that the symbols points at, and invoking it, one does not merely understand religious symbols ― one lives through them. This, not fanatical belief or even blind faith, is what religion is.
Just through looking at the etymology of the word, we can see this. “Religion” comes from the Latin religiō, religiōn-, perhaps from religāre, “to tie fast.” Note that the meaning of this word is fundamentally the same as the meaning of the Sanskrit word Yoga, literally “union, yoking,” or “to join.” In both cases it is an attempt at joining the reference, which the religion refers to but cannot in itself embody, the social body, and the individual. 5 “Sutra” also comes from the root from which we get the word “suture,” to bind or tie together. So it may seem strange to work our way into a discussion of sacred art through religion, but it is through that avenue that it can be best understood, if “religion” is stripped of baggage. Though I may be accused of the etymological fallacy by implying that the “true” meaning of these words is to be found in their origins, that does not dispel the underlying point. Perhaps if we simply think of it as a means of bringing the sacred into our consideration of the profane, this baggage can naturally fall away.
When we look at a Hindu God, or the brand representing a company for that matter, we see a symbol. They are symbols composed of many other interlocking symbols. We’ve dealt with some of the complexities and problems posed by this already. However, I’ve given no sense of what we can do with these symbols, how we can see it as immanent or more importantly, how we can interact with or otherwise invoke them.
How is such a symbol invoked? I’ll use the example given through the occult framework, as it is so generalized that it can be applied to many other seemingly incongruous frames. What I’m about to say should be taken as a metaphor which can extend into any domain. One steps outside of their normal role, making their body and mind a fit receptacle for a particular energy6 which is codified in symbols. These symbols may be impressed upon the mind as words, but during ritual, through art, theater, meditation, and so on, scent, colors, etc. all congruent with the nature of the invocation strengthen these associations, further exalting the mind to allow this “deity” to indwell within it.7 This is, as I said, the occult framework for how this is done. It is actually not much different from the religious formula. But the underlying method is not tied to any particular conceptual frame. Many artists work with the sacred, even if their work appears vulgar, even if they have no awareness of an occult tradition. We can look at it psychologically, as Jungians do, but that perspective also isn’t requisite for someone to build myths. Many modern occultists attempt to engage with these symbols in such a formalized way that their personal myth is nowhere to be found. There is no power in it. Words read blankly from a Medieval Grimoire have as little potency as a Catholic Mass, if you have no personal connection with either.8
One thing does appear to be certain. In the 21st Century we most commonly connect with mythology not through occultism or even religious ceremony, but rather through our media: movies, albums, video clips, books, etc. The Internet has created a new dissemination medium, the repercussions of which are not fully know. For many Americans, movie stars and the like have become our pantheon, and the mirage of Hollywood our Olympus. We have, perhaps, lost touch with the function of art because so many have lost touch with the function of myth. However, it is impossible to ignore the way that mythology overruns the life of popular artists and musicians.
The difference between different practices is cultural and aesthetic. I theorize that the ritual garb and mask of a Siberian shaman and the makeup of a pseudonymous performer like Alice Cooper or Marilyn Manson could serve the same function, if the performer approaches the act with this kind of intent, although this is not to say that Alice Cooper is a shaman. The mask serves as an interface with the audience.
In creating myths, working from the materials provided both by experience and the past experience of those who have come before, we don’t merely create new distractions. It has been observed that technological progress often follows a course set out years before in science fiction. Of course, in the process of actualizing such ideas, the technologies may change. But the seed of that progress comes from fiction.
The same is true in any field. The power of the creative imagination cannot be understated. Even in business, where difference is overtly punished, there is a growing realization at the upper levels that the squashing of untamable creativity is having a retarding effect on profits. Career consultants and marketers like Seth Godin make their living, in part, by bringing this fact to the awareness of the stodgy powers-that-be. As he said once on his blog, “the future is unmatched socks.”
The narratives we build and symbols we use have a great, if conditional, power. They do not exist within a void, however. I do not mean to imply that simply by changing the linguistic structure and associations connected with a war zone we can transmute it into Shangri-La, though this is of course part of the rhetorical style developed by Rupert Murdoch and Fox News. We are social animals, and the “magic” that we work with language operates primarily in the social and historic, in other words, human sphere, even though mythic consciousness may not recognize this boundary. Under most circumstances, we aren’t capable of entirely changing the nature of reality outside ourselves merely by calling it by a different name, even though there is a “magical” power in naming which goes beyond mere representation.
This is how myth can serve an active function in our lives. Consider the Hindu goddess Kali. The quintessential image of Kali Ma shows her dancing on the slain body of her initiate (or Shiva, depending on the image), wearing a belt of human skulls, and a long tongue one could imagine licking the marrow out of a bone. She is the devouring side of the mother archetype, a symbol that appears in many forms but possibly nowhere so clearly as here. To some, this is just an odd image painted on canvas. But to others, those who wish to enter the psychological domain represented by the symbol, she is much more than an image, symbol, or idea. Worshipers of Kali become that initiate, offer themselves up as a sacrifice in a mythological sense, so as to effect a psychological shift whereby they release attachment to the elements of life that might otherwise bar them from becoming truly human. This path of practice does not require the asceticism of monk-hood because the binding glue, you might say, of possession is undone.
A similar transformation is possible through any of the symbols we deeply identify with. All mythic characters can be analyzed and experienced in this way: as elements of the complex that makes up the individual, the culture, the natural necessities of the universe. All gods, demons, heroes, and villains are constructed from symbols which can have real, psychological impact. But only if engaged with directly, rather than passively. This kind of engagement can be arrived at through mythic art, though the audience must meet the artist halfway, with this knowledge and a willingness to participate. This is a difficult task for the modern, mythic artist, because audiences almost have to be tricked into this kind of participation. Entertainment takes center stage, and jadedness has become the defense mechanism of an over-stimulated public.
I’d like to provide a more specific example of this process, though I hesitate for fear of implying that there is any one “right” way of exploring it. When I was in Asheville with my wife Jazmin, we saw a wide assortment of clearly mythological pieces of art. (That I keep seeing examples of this outside the sphere of my personal contacts only further amplifies my sense that there is a resurgence of this approach to the creative process, at least in a conscious sense.) Some of these were like miniature altars or sacred objects, many involved various pieces of found objects, re-constructed elements, miniature books, personal relics, and so on. This got us to thinking about building our own — not by way of forming a derivative current, but simply as a way of exploring a particular idea.
Jazmin found a number of $.25 books at the local library and this served as a jumping off point. 25 does not immediately have significance to me, but it is the square of 5, and that has many symbolic meanings. We chose to focus in on the Hierophant, (which is the fifth Major Arcana card), the throat chakra (which is the fifth), and the Fibonacci sequence (of which five is one number of the sequence), mostly to serve as a jumping off point for what these objects are to become.
One can get fixated on the symbolism and use it as a strict metric rather than a loose guide. This can be constricting. As you fixate in on such seemingly arbitrary things, you may begin to be taken by various connections ― for instance, the ideas behind the throat chakra, of taking the root power from the first and third chakras and expressing it upon the world, is something we both need to work on, or of the association of 5 and the Hierophant. This “meaning out of chaos” is, as we’ve said time and again, a root of the mythological process. So right away this becomes not only an exploration and meditation, but also a means of attempting to take a first step towards making psychological changes in ourselves.
The more you work with the objects themselves, in constructing and assembling them, the more opportunity you are given to infuse it with personal meaning, which is the ritual element. That is really where the power in ritual lies; the repetitive nature of it that can occur in large organizations, where people parrot the same motions generation after generation, eventually leeches it of its power. The sacred gradually becomes inert, the gold becomes ash. The sacred is turned profane.
Of course, some artists build objects like this and then say they can’t possibly sell it or even display it later because it means too much to them. However, I immediately think of Tibetan sand paintings, mandalas that require an incredible amount of skill to build and which are destroyed no sooner than they are completed. Such things become aesthetic rather than sacred objects the moment they are completed. At that point, they may reflect some of their meaning, or even different meanings, to an audience. They may inspire, as the pieces that we saw in the galleries we went to did for us. But their sacred purpose, the process of creating them, has already been spent. The artist moves on.
To summarize, and paint this large: ritual is an enactment of a mythology allowing us access to dimensions of our singular and collective being, through the language of symbols with specific connotations, in what is essentially a play-acting process. Yet by designating it as “play-acting” one should not be misled into thinking that this is merely representational. Far from it, the energies and beings dealt with may be thought of as real or psychological projections, depending on the mindset of the viewer, but ultimately they are as real or unreal as any other impression that we might have. Every action, word and gesture may have symbolic meaning or mythological resonance. This resonance must occur between the myth or ritual and the individual(s) enacting it, in whatever mediums they choose to work.
Many different myths can be woven from the same grouping of facts. Losing everything can be the beginning of a hero’s or fool’s journey, or it could be the beginning of a descent into the abyss. Even the descent into the abyss has transformational potentialities.
(First published in The Immanence of Myth, Weaponized Press 2011.)
1 This will be discussed in more detail in Pretty Suicide Machine.
2 “Among the articles and reviews by Dumezil appearing in 1940, one of the most interesting deals with the possibility that the well known Druidic aversion to writing stemmed from the notion that the vivifying spirit of the spoken word, the spirit that renders sacred words powerful in themselves would die if these words were committed to letters and thus ‘fossilized’.” 
3 As Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms was published in 1923 and Muller died in 1900.
4 This is part of what we’ve been playing with in “the world’s first Gonzomentary series,” Clark.
5 This “joining” may also apply to the social body of the religion, though it is usually through the imposition of social dynamics that the religion polarizes into its opposite, and atrocities (holy wars as with the Crusades, bloody in-fighting over interpretation as with the Protestants, inquisitions, etc.), occur.
6 “Energy” may not be the most telling word to use, but it carries less baggage than the term “archetype,” which in some ways is more appropriate. What we are speaking of is that disembodied character, whatever it may be, that the symbols refer to. Gods, spirits, and the like exist, in the least, as objectifications of existential, human realities, as well as the disembodied forces that may effect us on a variety of levels. So it is that the Gods resemble us, and are more like us than unlike — otherwise, what use would the Gods themselves have for War? At the same time, War reflects an aspect of the nature of the universe outside of the human sphere, and could be said to inform it: bellum omnium contra omnes. Does Hobbes’ war of all against all derive from man or nature? This is the paradox. There are some convincing arguments, for instance that in Marvin Harris’ Cannibals and Kings, that despite its historic prevalence, war is the result of a cultural rather than biological imperative. 
7 There are many methods of practice, however, a thorough investigation of them all would lead us far astray. There has also been considerable work done to provide systems for charting the semiotics of occult and religious symbol in a way that can be practically useful to individuals wishing to perform rituals, although nothing of the sort is necessary in terms of efficacy. Not surprisingly, these efforts often come in forms generally scoffed at by the scientific and academic community, on the one hand, and indigenous practitioners on the other. (Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth, Israel Regardie’s Garden of Pomegranates, and Dion Fortune’s Mystical Qabbalah, to name a few.) Less systematic approaches exist, shamanic traditions from around the world, internal martial arts, Voudon and Santeria, and so on, but of course these are more difficult to systematize, by virtue of what they are. For this reason I personally am more drawn to them, as the intuitive rather than rational function seem to be closer to the fault-line of the creative fire. Regardless, all of these studies are invaluable to artists that recognize that art is a form of ritual, and ritual is a (often theatrical) form of symbolic psychotherapy. As Aleister Crowley himself points out, in this regard, their historic accuracy is irrelevant, though all of them seem quite fond of inventing historical lineages for the sake of austerity, Crowley being a chief architect of this approach to cult-building.
8And by “personal connection” I mean driving passion. You have to feel it to your bones or get the hell out and find something where you do!