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On resisting mythological consciousness

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 25 June 2015


We are used to calling something that is not true a myth. This often indicates a judgement coming from a positivist standpoint. For example, it is commonly thought that the creation narratives at the beginning of the bible are myth in that they do not give a true account of the beginning of the cosmos. Myth, in this case, means "not true".

However, there is a more nuanced understanding of what mythology is that comes from studies in anthropology, particularly as regards native religion that outlines what may be called a mythical consciousness. Such cultures understand the world and their place in it via narratives in which nature and culture are intertwined. Rather than understanding our relationship to nature as I-It they understand it as I-Thou, i.e. nature is understood to contain mind.

The I-Thou relationship produces a continuum of Being by producing a seamless connection between culture and nature. This is why, for example, tribes in South America believe that the leopard gave fire to the people and why many of the Egyptian gods have the heads of animals. In the mythological imagination animals become gods and gods become animals. Humanity and the cosmos are continuous. A reading of Ovid's Metamorphosis is instructive here.

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Mythology functions by integrating nature and culture so that we feel at one with the world. It relieves the tension that the otherness of nature produces; it diffuses the anxiety that we are alone in a strange world. For there is nothing more terrifying than to understand that we live in a world that is oblivious to our presence. By understanding humanity as an integral part of nature we defuse the alienation of Being.

In the Hebrew tradition the alienation from nature is not healed but emphasised. A prime example of this is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. We are told that .."cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you.." Farming in this narrative is a curse rather than of gift from the gods. Any continuity between humanity and nature that existed in the Garden was lost and the first couple were cast into an uncaring earth to eke out a living by the sweat of their labour.

Israel found itself surrounded by cultures that were mythological, Canaanite, Babylonian, Egyptian. Indeed, the first creation story was written as a negative response to Babylonian creation myths that had the world formed from the slain body of a mythological being. The old men of Israel replaced this by a narrative in which God commanded the world into being and created a distance between Himself and creation. The Hebrew God was never part of nature; He was the creator of nature. There is established in Hebrew thought a separation between God and creation and thus a naturalisation of the world. This means that there is no mind in the world, no spirit in the forests or gods in the volcanoes.

This indicates a reluctance to join in the mythical thinking of the nations. The flight from Egypt was a flight from a mythical culture and a sundering of the cosmic continuum. This is why the people grumbled against Moses, he had led them into more than a geographical wilderness he had led them also into an existential wilderness.

When the people made a golden calf to worship when Moses was busy on Mt Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, they stepped back into the mythological thinking of Egypt and incurred the wrath of God. (Exodus 32)

Thus Israel resisted the temptation to erase the anxiety caused by the gulf that existed between man and his environment. The cost to them was to recognise that they were aliens in the world. While a mythological consciousness had a tendency to produce harmony with nature it was also a kind of bondage that kept humanity in its place in relation to nature.

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The cost of breaking with that harmony was the recognition of alienation and ambivalence. The I-Thou relationship with nature was replaced by I-It. Released from the spell of mythological consciousness, humanity comes to self-consciousness through the trauma of finding himself alienated from things and animals. This means that humanity is also released from the conservatism and passivity associated with the harmony achieved by mythical thinking into unrest and striving.

While the sin of the inheritors of Hebrew alienation is that we cannot tell when we strive too much, use too much, pollute too much, the inheritors of the mythological conscious cannot seem to raise themselves out of poverty and helplessness. Such cultures have been called "cold" because they are frozen in traditions that are often cruel and counterproductive.

In such cultures it is difficult, if not impossible, to critique inherited mythology. They are able to add other cults but lack the ability to move away from the received. They often remain technologically primitive because the development of natural science and technology requires that we relate to the world as I-It. If the world is Thou then it contains mind and no regular laws of causation are possible.

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Key ideas for this essay were provided by H N Schneidau's Sacred Discontent.



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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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