As we move into discussions on mythology (starting on Sunday, November 20 at 9:00 AM in the Arch Room of the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca on the corner of Buffalo and Aurora streets in Ithaca New York) one of the themes that will come up over and over again will be the comparison of the way that people live today and the way that people lived in the stories of ancient mythologies.
It is often proposed that our society (call it “Western”, “modern”, “industrial” or “digital”) is unlike all other societies that have come before it in that it is bereft of myth, and nearly emptied of all ritual activity. Malidoma Some, in an essay in Crossroads: The Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage, speaks of his perception of the “modern culture” into which he was forcibly initiated as a child: “Social decay creeps in when everyday living displaces ritual as the focus. The fading and disappearance of ritual in modern culture is, from the viewpoint of the Dagara people, expressed in several ways: the dangerous weakening of links with the spirit world, the general alienation of people from themselves and each other, the frightening violence spreading like a gangrene from the middle of cities, and the militaristic approach to its resolution. In a context like this there are no elders to help anyone remember through rites of passage his or her important role in community and in life.”
Joseph Campbell, in The Power of Myth, presents a similar idea, telling Bill Moyers, “If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any rituals, read the New York Times. Society has provided them no rituals by which they become members of the tribe, of the community. All children need to be twice born, to learn to function rationally in the present world, leaving childhood behind.”
Ritologist Catherine Bell described this belief in a division between the mythic, ritual past and the secular present in her book Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. She wrote, “Traditionally, ritual has been distinguished from other modes of action by virtue of its supposed nonultilitarian and nonrational qualities… It has also been invoked to express an underlying difference between modern and primitive societies, as well as between profane and sacred ways of looking at the world.”
This analysis rings true for us. We feel a sense of separation from the past, from the ways of our pre-industrial ancestors. Where are the legends and ceremonies, we ask ourselves, that once held together our forebears?
If we are careful in our consideration of what we consider now to be the mythic past, however, we will see that the anxieties we believe to be special to our times are mirrored in the very myths that we mourn. Folklore about the faeries, for example, advises that the wee folk could be driven away with an object made of iron, a traditional material for us but a new technology at the time of the first faery tales. The realm of faery was already regarded as receding into the mists in the face of the new metalworking civilization.
Long ago, Hindus explained that the world had fallen into an age of decay in which dharma was in disintegration. The classical Greeks told of the lost glory that was Atlantis. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are are built upon the idea that people were alienated from an ideal past during which humanity was in regular direct contact with a higher plane of existence. Australians believed in a lost dreamtime, when myth was alive.
The feeling of alienation from an earlier Age of Myth and Ritual may be an aspect of the human condition that is as ancient as myth and ritual themselves. The belief in a mythically-alienated present may itself be part of a recurring mythic theme that we have merely adapted for our own time.
Psychologists will tell us that it is usually difficult for individuals to identify their own irrational ideas and behavior. Just so, our society may have a blind spot for its own myths and rituals, mistaking them for merely rational and utilitarian activity.
We can identify the metaphorical, non-literal meanings of other cultures because they are not our own. A significant difference between our industrial society and what some call traditional societies is that industrial society does not hear from anthropologists and folklorists who have come to visit it from the outside in order to search for its own manifestations of irrationality.
Given that we are not likely to receive visits from any such outsiders in the near future, the best we can do is to strengthen our self-reflective abilities, and to attempt to examine ourselves as true foreigners might do. Our best chance to align our work with the power of myth and ritual may lie in a deeper, symbolic understanding of our present day culture and technology rather mere repetition of the myth of the past.
The first two weeks of the upcoming Mythology Discussion sessions (9:00 AM and 12:00 Noon at the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca, corner of Buffalo and Aurora streets) will be built upon a conversation between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers about the “Hero’s Adventure”. Campbell first wrote about this theme 62 years ago, in a book entitled The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
In that book, Campbell described the journey of the hero as having the following structure:
Part 1 – Departure
Part 2 – Initiation
Part 3 – Return
Describing part 1 of this experience, Campbell writes of crossing the threshold, and in part 3, crossing the “return threshold”. This structure matches the interpretation of ritual first described by Arnold Van Gennep in his book The Rites of Passage. Van Gennep writes of the “liminal” experience created by ritual acts in rites of passage. The word liminal is derived from the old word limen, referring to the threshold, the space within a doorway between spaces, a place in which the identity of a person moving through the doorway is itself betwixt and between.
In The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell only briefly refers to to Van Gennep’s work, writing of the “numerous strange rituals that have been reported from the primitive tribes and great civilizations of the past” that “the purpose and actual effect of these was to conduct people across those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change in the patterns not only of conscious but also of unconscious life… so that when, at last, the time has ripened for the return to the normal world, the initiate will be as good as reborn.” Still, it’s clear that Campbell’s work stands firmly on the shoulders of Van Gennep.
Van Gennep’s concepts of the structure ritual were introduced into American academic culture by Victor Turner, an anthropologist who lived and worked for a time right here in Ithaca, New York. Turner’s fieldwork shows that the symbolic structures that Joseph Campbell wrote about weren’t just a matter of myths as stories that people like to tell, but are present in the symbolic activities that create and communicate meaning in people’s lives in cultures around the world – including our own.
For those members of the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca, the organization that is hosting this mythological discussion series, let me propose the following as a subject for consideration in the period leading up to our first meeting on November 20:
How are we using ritual to spark the Hero’s Adventure for members of our congregation in the many passages of life?