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The Sword and the Grail: Restoring the Forgotten Archetype in Arthurian Myth

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table...

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, surely is PD because of the age of the engraving – The Middle Ages (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This following excerpt has been posted with permission. Read the entire article at johnadcox.com

© Copyright John Adcox

If it were even possible to assemble them in one place, the volumes written on psychological and mythic approaches to the Grail quest in Arthurian myth would bend even the sturdiest, stout oak bookshelves. From Emma Jung and Maria Von Franz’s definitive work, The Grail Legend, to the work of later luminaries ranging from Joseph Campbell to Robert Johnson, the Grail quest has evolved from Celtic lore to become a metaphor of astonishing power that continues to guide generations of seekers on their own journeys to individuation, to use the Jungian term.

The Arthur stories are no longer purely Celtic-they have become universal. It’s not too great a stretch to call the Matter of Britain, the cycles of legends surrounding King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, the definitive myth of Western civilization. Here we find our modern concepts of equality (the Round Table had no “head” and no corners), romantic love, strength protecting the weak, and spiritual growth and enlightenment based on the achievements of the individual expressed in a single source-and arguably expressed with more power and greater resonance than in any other myth cycle. How else can one explain the enduring popularity of the Arthur story? There have certainly been other romantic stories, probably even greater ones. Adventure? Our heritage of myth is full of it. Magic? We’re lousy with it. Fellowship and super human accomplishment? Look no further than the adventure tales of Fionn McCumhail, Jason and the Argonauts, or Robin Hood and his Merry Men. All of these cycles, and thousands of others, have been enormously popular through the ages. Robin Hood and the men of Sherwood, especially, have inspired countless novels, songs, poems, films, and television productions. But none of them have approached the Arthur stories for enduring and significant popularity. It’s more than a subgenre-it’s an industry.

The Round Table experience a vision of the Hol...

The Round Table experience a vision of the Holy Grail. From a 15th century French manuscript. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dreams of lost, golden ages are called “Camelot.” Remember the Kennedy administration? A Google search on the Internet reveals more than 100 different companies and products with Excalibur in the name. Truly special treasures are “Holy Grails.” Remember the “Holy Grail of Christmas presents,” the coveted Red Ryder BB gun, in A Christmas Story? Metro Atlanta boasts at least five different neighborhoods with streets named after Lancelot, Galahad, Guinevere, and King Arthur himself.

When I began thinking about this article last month, I stopped by a tiny mall bookstore, and quickly located no less than 16 different contemporary novels, not counting children’s books, books that use the theme but aren’t specifically or overtly Arthurian (Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, Stephen King’s Dark Tower, or C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, for example), or classics, on the Arthurian legends-in three different categories.

At present, two big-budget King Arthur films and one new television series are in various stages of development. Dan Brown’s current bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code, offers a new take on the Grail quest, but the core elements are the same: a man’s quest through terrible danger for a healing symbol of the Divine feminine. For some reason, the Arthurian legends have struck a chord that is arguably unmatched in Western culture, surpassing even the myths of classical Greece.

The question, again, is why?

Read the entire article, “The Sword and the Grail: Restoring the Forgotten Archetype in Arthurian Myth” at johnadcox.com


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The meanings of myth

By Michael Clark

The word myth has a lot of different meanings, depending on who’s speaking. Myths can be ordinary (like a popular idea), sublime and heavenly or, possibly, something horrible and scary.

Perhaps all contemporary usages share the idea that myth points to something beyond the scientific method. But in reality it’s not quite that simple. Many postmodern thinkers critique science as a modern myth. And scholars like the Indologist, Wendy Doniger, say that most myths contain an inner structure and rationality.

To further complicate things, the pioneering mythographer Sir James. G. Frazer believed that, underneath their colorful imagery, myths are a kind of protoscience.

Literary and artistic types tend to see myth as an artform. But others say that myth is more sacred than the arts because at different points in history myth connects with ritual. To counter that notion, others observe that ritual, itself, doesn’t guarantee the presence of the sacred. And the definition of ritual, itself, is also open to debate. Could getting together with your pals every Wednesday night to watch your favorite Sci-Fi TV show be considered a ritual? This isn’t too far-fetched. Not a few academics see Star Trek as a religion or, perhaps, a mythology. Another point to consider here is that many artists see their practice as a kind of spiritual discipline. So who can really say that myth is more sacred than art?

Myths and Fairy Tales

According to professor T. Henighan,1 the Freudian child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim says that myth:

  • Contains particular heroes with unique names
  • Tells of heroes that are ‘larger than life’
  • Involves majestic and ‘spiritual’ divine beings
  • Relates an often tragic and pessimistic story2
  • Reveals conflict between the superego (i.e. internalized social conscience) and id (i.e. instinctual drives of love and death that seek gratification)
  • Sets unrealistic demands that normal human beings can never fully achieve

Whereas fairy tales are a type of folk tale in which:

  • The names of heroes and heroines are absent or ordinary3
  • Supernatural but not divine beings are mentioned
  • Positive outcomes are the norm
  • Childhood and adolescence figure prominently
  • The actual content (i.e. Oedipal material) is obscured through elaborate symbolism

This, of course, is just one point of view. Specialists hardly agree as to whether myths and folk tales are basically the same or different. Moreover, some contend that myth precedes the folk tale, others, the reverse.

True and False Stories

In Myth and Reality Mircea Eliade maintains that “societies in which myth is—or was until very recently—’living,'” distinguish true from false stories.4

Eliade gives examples from two American Indian groups, the Pawne and the Cherokee. And from Africa he cites the Herero and the inhabitants of Togo. As any good sociologist or anthropologist will observe, however, Eliade seems to naively take existing ethnological research at face value. He says these cultures believe their myths are true stories, while folk tales apparently are seen as morally instructive but false stories.

However, he rightly notes that mythic stories were not universally accepted as truth in ancient societies where different beliefs and philosophical schools competed for legitimacy.5 Eliade is not referring, for example, to ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian myths.

But the idea that all members of a given “living” society privately regard hegemonic myths as true stories is open to question. It would be unwise to assume that mythic beliefs are universally accepted in any culture or, for that matter, subculture. As with the ancient world, external displays of acceptance – among both leaders and community members – very likely could be feigned out of prudence or political expedience.6

Hard to Define

As to a defintion of myth, Eliade says:

It would be hard to find a definition of myth that would be acceptable to all scholars and at the same time intelligible to nonspecialists. Then, too, is it even possible to find one definition that will cover all the types and functions of myths in all traditional and archaic societies? Myth is an extremely complex cultural reality, which can be approached and interpreted from various and complementary viewpoints.7

While there’s no unanimous agreement as to the meaning of myth, this multiplicity speaks to its richness and importance. The following point form list summarizes some of the leading and interrelated theories on mythology. It’s far from exhaustive but hopefully illustrates, among other things, the contemporary relevance of myth.

Psychological

  • Conceals our instinctual and repressed unconscious desires and tendencies (Sigmund Freud)
  • Reveals our “personal infantile history,” particularly with regard to the creators and followers of hero myths (Otto Rank)
  • Reflects transpersonal, elementary ideas (Adolf Bastien) or a collective unconscious revealing through mythic images a deeper meaning in life (Carl Jung)
  • Provides imaginal signposts along an inner and outer journey, helping heroic individuals gain enhanced wisdom (Carl Jung, James Hillman, Joseph Campbell)
  • Mythic thinking may be a survival mechanism for painful ritual abuse but in the negative unresolved instance, mythic thinking may culminate in sociopathic behavior-e.g. the ethical insanity of a Hitler (Chrystine Oksana)

Sociological

  • Codifies, legitimizes and strengthens dominant beliefs, practices and relationships based on power in a given society (Antonio Gramsci, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault)
  • Fosters social cohesion, functioning, development or chaos (Talcott Parsons, Robert Merton, Emile Durkheim);
  • Contributes to egoism, altruism, alienation and anomie (Emile Durkheim)

Cultural

  • Reading myths affords aesthetic charm to the, at times, “stale, flat and unprofitable” task of living (C. S. Lewis, [quotation: William Shakespeare])
  • Provides religious or heroic legends that the audience knows are fictional (Robert Graves)
  • Helps us to meaningfully interpret and transform our world (Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung)

Anthropological

  • A non-scientific attempt to explain natural phenomena (E. B. Tylor)
  • Archaic source of oral stories, history and cultural identity (Micea Eliade, Clifford Geertz)
  • The second stage in mankind’s evolutionary sequence of symbolical, mythical and logical modes of thought (J. J. Bachofen)
  • Directs individuals through important stages of life, in many cultures marked by solemn or sacred “rites of passage” (Karl Kerenyi, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell)
  • Provides communal meaning about ancestors and the afterlife (Carl Jung)
  • Myth is best understood as the sum total of its variants and is a tool that can help solve cultural problems, paradoxes and contradictions (Claude Lévi-Strauss)
  • Offers a grid defined by its own rules of construction. This grid doesn’t explain the meaning of myth in itself but creates a “matrix of intelligibility” which facilitates understanding of the world by revealing structural laws of human thought, communication, interaction and behavior (Claude Lévi-Strauss)
  • Legitimizes beliefs in magic, which for so-called primitives is a kind of protoscience that may be used for practical purposes, such as regulating the harvest (Sir James. G. Frazer)
  • Magic is recognized a kind of myth by so-called primitives, used symbolically to relieve natural anxiety and express their hopes for positive outcomes–e.g. while hunting or fishing in dangerous places (Bronislaw Malinowski)

Historical

  • Provides information about historical conditions, especially about those with the power to create myths (John Noss)

Political

  • May be used as global propaganda (e.g. Marxist Theory of History) and for political agendas–e.g. glorifying oneself and demonizing opponents, as in election-time TV ads (Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Roland Barthes)

Ethical

  • Outlines right and wrong, and inevitable punishments and rewards for dishonorable and praiseworthy acts (Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell)

Pedagogical

  • Teaches individuals how to conform and advance in society, especially in archaic cultures (Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell)

Cosmological

  • Provides a working “map” of the conceivable universe (S. H. Hooke)
  • Relates to a Creation of the World and the subsequent interaction of gods, goddesses, semi-divine beings, human beings, animals, vegetation and the geographical landscape (Donna Rosenberg)

Magical

  • A story designed to evoke magical powers (Jane Harrison)

Spiritual

  • Symbolizes and possibly leads to an awareness of dimensions and beings beyond the mundane world (Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung)
  • Mythic rites and rituals bring forth a ‘sacred history’ within the context of human life (Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell)

Philosophical and Theological

  • Myth arises from incorrect insights, that is, intuitions about ultimate reality (or specific situations) which have not been questioned nor empirically investigated “until no further relevant questions arise” (Bernard Lonergan)
  • A symbolic means of expression through which mankind attempts to answer existential questions-i.e. achieve self-understanding in a world where the transcendental is often seen as immanent (Rudolf Bultmann)

Transformational

  • Recent figures like Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, Joseph Campbell, Mary Daly and Barbara Walker implicitly or explicitly say that their own modern myths (i.e. theories about myth and related cosmologies) contribute to the betterment of self and society

Economic and Entertainment

  • Film, music, videos, literature, TV, advertising, video games and most other forms of popular culture belong here (and in some of the above categories). To mention a few: Kyle XY, X-Men, Harry Potter, Star Trek, Star Wars, The Matrix, BattleStar Galactica, Stargate Atlantis, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Batman, Superman, Spiderman, The Flintstones, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, The Incredible Hulk, Xena the Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the TV Hercules, KISS, Marilyn Manson, Michael Jackson, HALO 3, Super Mario, Avatar (the movie)

Notes

1. Tom Henighan. ITV lecture for English 18.208 (Myth and Symbol) televised at Carleton University, Ottawa: January 29, 1998.

2. This is debatable, particularly with regard to Hindu myth.

3. Cinderella might seem an exception but as ‘Microglyphic’ pointed out at the former Askme.com, she’s renamed as such by her step-sisters. See, for instance the Brothers Grimm variant of the tale.

4. Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality. Trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harper & Row, 1963, pp. 8-10.

5. (a) Anaximander (611-547 BCE) and Xenophanes (570-480 BCE) for instance, directly challenged the anthropomorhpic gods of ancient Greece. And doubts most likely existed among the historically invisible (the vast majority of people who were never famous enough for the history books). Also, in ancient Egypt crudely made statues apparently mocked Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti, likely carved by dissenters.
(b) Military conquerors and occupying powers also influenced local myths in the ancient world. Conquerors would sometimes replace indigenous myths with their own. Other times they would import myths yet tolerate those of the subjugated. Military victors also synthesized their own myths with those of the defeated populations, as in India and Rome.

6. (a) John Noss in Man’s Religions (1957: 45-96) outlines some of the political and socially stratified aspects of pagan worship in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.
(b) A contemporary example might be found within the Roman Catholic Church, where penalties can be harsh for disobedience among the clergy and also among wayward believers (e.g. women ordained as priests).

7. Eliade, Myth and Reality, p. 5.

The meanings of myth © Michael Clark. All rights reserved.


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DVD Review – Robin Hood: The Truth Behind Hollywood’s Most Filmed Legend

Reality Films

Title: Robin Hood: The Truth Behind Hollywood’s Most Filmed Legend
Genre: Documentary, Robin Hood, Action and Adventure
Production Company: Reality Films

Robin Hood: The Truth Behind Hollywood’s Most Filmed Legend is a documentary by Philip Gardiner. The film opens with contemporary actors playing Robin Hood and his band of noble rebels, with enchanting scenes of Sherwood Forest and some medieval ruins and artifacts.

Within this authentic setting, Robin Hood digs into historical records, folkloric possibilities and mythological parallels around the legend of Robin Hood, the pervasive culture hero who “steals from the rich and gives to the poor.”

The film is rich and informative and the recreation atmosphere is convincing. While the actors portraying the outlaw community are obviously modern, they seem to resonate nicely with the Robin Hood myth, probably because most are local forestry workers who volunteered for the film.

The first half of Robin Hood covers all the proverbial bases. Then the film shifts to advance the filmmaker’s Gnostic leanings, which closely resemble those of the Swiss psychiatrist, C. G. Jung. At least, this seems to be the case. I’ve never met Philip Gardiner and am assuming that Gnosticism reflects his own beliefs. This seems a reasonable guess because many of his films depict Gnosticism as a shining counterpoint to a tarnished old Christian Church.

Christians who see the New Testament as a theological work containing elements of fact, myth and exaggeration, might balk at Robin Hood’s claim that Jesus Christ and John the Baptist are equals.

Consider the New Testament:

John replied to all of them, “I am baptizing you with water, but one is coming who is more powerful than I, and I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps. It is he who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).

Despite what the New Testament story pretty clearly says, Robin Hood suggests that the archetypal pair of Jesus and John also manifests in the images of Robin Hood and Little John, the Graeco-Roman twins Castor and Pollux, and in countless other mythic exemplars and cosmological models.

Carl Jung, who devised the modern idea of the archetype, also made liberal use of analogy in world religion and myth. Jung claimed that the basic truths underlying diverse archetypal imagery were discernible through his own brand of “analytical” psychology.

Some scholars, however, have little sympathy for Jung’s approach, maintaining that the extensive use of analogy is usually too loose and not connected to actual historical and cultural contexts. Unrestrained analogizing, they say, yields specious arguments and ultimately detracts from a given study’s credibility.

Scholars like this say that contemporary scholarship is quickly falling into a kind of black hole where any pseudo-historical truth claim is passed off as fact—as long as it sells. Meanwhile, other authors and researchers promote the liberal use of analogy, equating it with seeing “The Big Picture.”

Does the unrestrained use of analogy really give us the Big Picture. Or does it just seem to, if we don’t know any better?

Enter the Christian theologians, particularly Catholics, who say the contemporary Church doesn’t mindlessly bash Gnostic and Pagan elements but ennobles their worthwhile aspects within the higher, more comprehensive perspective afforded  by Christian belief. That’s why, they’ll argue, we find various artworks depicting Pagan themes within the Vatican museums.

Not a few Protestants, of course, object to this scenario. Some even pejoratively call the Catholic Church the “Whore of Babylon.” But this isn’t the place to delve into the complexities of religious rivalry.

Robin Hood has something for everyone. It brings to life the timeless tale of a notorious sinner-saint who, like many before him, takes refuge in the woods while seeking justice in the face of an ignoble ruler.  Even the most discerning of scholars might learn from this film, lest they get lost in the minutiae and miss the forest for the trees.

Special features include more commentaries and Gnostic/Pagan pop music videos.

—MC


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Review – Myth: A Very Short Introduction (Trade Paperback)

NYC - Rockefeller Plaza - Atlas: Wally Gobetz (note: image unrelated to publication)

NYC - Rockefeller Plaza - Atlas: Wally Gobetz (image unrelated to publication)

Title: Myth: A Very Short Introduction
Author: Robert A. Segal
Media: Trade Paperback
Publisher: Oxford (163 pp. with endnotes and index)
Date: 2004

Myth: A Very Short Introduction should be useful for those interested in the anthropological, philosophical and theological aspects of myth.

The layout is well organized. Eight chapters deal with different aspects of myth (e.g. Myth and Science, Myth and Philosophy, Myth and Religion), followed by a conclusion, index and suggestions for further reading.

Mythology is a huge topic and Segal’s presentation is made manageable by using the myth of Adonis as a kind of maypole around which various theories are compared, not in a purely linear fashion, but more as a kind of dance of recurring themes.

Other myths are mentioned, usually when it’s too much of a stretch to apply the Adonis myth to a given theorist. As Segal notes, Myth is not a summary account of world mythologies. It’s a multidisciplinary presentation of recent attempts to understand why myth came into being, what it is and does.

Those familiar with Segal’s earlier work, Joseph Campbell: An Introduction (1987), will be impressed with the quantum leap that the author has taken in a relatively short period. Altogether, the exposition in Myth is tighter and the analysis more thorough. Not surprisingly, Myth provides competent observations on the notion of the hero.

My greatest reservation with Myth is Segal’s treatment of science. In several places Segal seems to trivialize earnest attempts to understand the scientific enterprise. Karl Popper’s idea of falsification and the postmodern view of science as stories are duly noted but Myth tends to dismiss serious contemporary thinking about science as if these inquiries are merely a “fashionable” trend (p. 13).

Moreover, Myth provides no working definition of science or a very inadequate one at best. The reader finds just a few asides about Segal’s perception of science and its supposed “authority” in the 21st century (pp. 12, 18, 128, 138). In contrast to his definition of myth, Segal’s commentary on science comes off paradoxically ambiguous and monolithic.

Another shortcoming may be found in the somewhat limited discussion within Chapter 8, “Myth and Society.” No mention is given to Roland Barthes and his seminal work, Mythologies. Nor do we find much on the idea of social power and how this might inform an understanding of both myth and science.

But in all fairness, this is part of Oxford’s A Very Short Introduction series. I imagine that various sacrifices were made for the manuscript to fit the concise format. As such, the writing style is a bit laborious in places. One would think that Oxford, the supposed crème de la crème of universities, would have provided a better editor. But then again, the times might be changing in an academic world compelled to make economic sense.

These difficulties aside, Myth: A Very Short Introduction is, on the whole, a good handbook. Casual readers should find this work more than adequate, whereas seasoned scholars and academics will perhaps gain some new insights.

—MC


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Review – Images and Symbols by Mircea Eliade

eliade_is

Mircea Eliade, Images and Symbols - Fair Use

This is the last of a long line of books by the celebrated Romanian scholar, Mircea Eliade, that have found their way into my library.

I’ve been familiar with Images and Symbols for quite some time, having browsed its pages at libraries and first run bookstores before finding an inexpensive secondhand copy.

For years I found the chapter “The ‘God Who Binds'” compelling. Here Eliade points out that the ‘binding of evil’ motif isn’t peculiar to the Christian story. However, each religious tradition has its own unique spin on the idea of knots and cords.

Some say it’s all about liberation–an untying or release from the bonds of karma, or an escape from hell or the symbolic labyrinth of the unconscious.

Other traditions more closely resemble the Christian story when telling of magically or, perhaps, spiritually binding fallen angels, demons and other invisible reprobates and sending them down below or away where they belong.

But there’s a lot more to this book than knots and cords.

The section “The Symbolism of Shells” is diverse and intriguing, as is Eliade’s treatment of the motifs of “The Center” and “Time and Eternity.”

Instead of separating religion and myth from history, Eliade makes every attempt to locate sacred stories within the cultural contexts that, at least in part, produce them.

Images and Symbols compares but does not superficially equate different world religions. This is particularly evident in the second paragraph of p. 166, where schematic similarities are noted but inner experiences are said to differ among some of the major religious traditions.

Here one could ask how Eliade knows they differ. And this is a tricky problem for religious studies and phenomenology in general. Be that as it may, I’m not convinced it’s an insoluble one.

All in all, a great book. One I’m happy to have added to my Eliade collection.

–MC


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Michel Montecrossa: The Mythic Odin meets Dylan, Roxy Music, Sri Aurobindo and much much more…

audio_icon_60_67.gifWe received an interesting link the other day about Michel Montecrossa, the “21st Century’s outstanding Cyberbeatpoet, Cyberrocker…”

Besides the Mirapuri Planet Radio (www.mirapuri-planetradio.net ) there’s also the Mirapuri Planet TV at www.Mirapuri-Planettv.net

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