It was Jungian analyst D. Stephenson Bond, in his 1993 book Living Myth, who first used the phrase ‘falling out of myth’ to describe what happens to us when we cannot live by the dominant myth of our culture – in other words, when the ways of life that previous generations pursued, when the values they espoused and beliefs they held, become intolerable to us. In every generation there are people who fall out of the dominant cultural myth, but today it seems that there are more than ever before. And that’s because our cultural myth is dying.
A cultural myth is alive and thriving when it offers up a way of life which inspires us, nourishes us, and satisfies our need for meaning. But when the heart bleeds out of our cultural myth and it grows arid and lifeless, we in turn become alienated and rootless. Our lives are lived outside of any meaningful context; they become storyless, curiously plotless – because it is myth that provides the meaning by which we structure our lives. Myth is many things, but above all, myth is meaning. If we fall out of myth, we fall out of meaning. We are trying to find a path back out of the dark woods, but when we set off on the journey originally, the stores were all out of breadcrumbs. There’s no trail to follow which will take us home. There is no home.
As we all know, the dominant myth in Western culture has for a good few centuries now been founded on the premise that humans are superior to ‘nature’ (and, as a not-unrelated by-product, that men are superior to women). Progress and growth, and a constant striving for personal achievement and supremacy (we are told) are what a meaningful life is all about. But if we cast aside the veil and look around us today with clear and wide-open eyes, it’s not a thriving, vibrant civilisation that we’ll see, but rather the consequences of a long slow slide into cultural decay. That cultural paralysis has been caused by the death of the prevailing myth on which our culture was founded: a myth which has not only led our own species into worldwide social and political turmoil, but has led us to inflict a series of environmental catastrophes on the rest of the planet. None of this is likely to end well.
So the dominant cultural myth is dying. What happens next?
What needs to happens next, of course, is the transformation of the dying cultural myth into something a little more … functional. But that doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen by popular acclaim. Usually, cultural myths begin to be transformed by individuals who fall out of the prevailing myth, and who begin to live in a new one of their own making. Because, as Jung suggested, when the declining myths of earlier generations begin to fade, the mythmaking process resides in individuals. The birth of a personal myth in the imagination of a single individual, or a group of individuals, may lead to the rebirth of new myths in the imagination of the culture.
It’s the mythical misfits, then, who kickstart the transformation of the world, and who begin to imagine more sustainable and meaningful ways of living. Sustainable, because the strongest, most enduring and most satisfying cultural myths are those that spring out of a functional and harmonious relationship to the environment in which its people live. The myths that call on people to live balanced lives, taking no more than they need, respecting the land and the nonhuman others we share it with, are the myths that will lead a culture not only to survive, but to thrive. Most indigenous mythologies do this. Our own native mythologies do this, as I discussed in a recent blog post for Immanence, a new journal of myth and folklore, entitled ‘Archetypes and the Ecological Imagination’. And when we live in a myth that doesn’t spring directly out of our own heads, but which is an act of co-creation, a myth which comes out of that imaginal space between us and the land – only then can psyche truly be in balance with nature.
Today’s mythical misfits know this. Today’s mythical misfits are rejecting a culture which values neither intuition nor imagination, which values neither the land nor its nonhuman inhabitants. They’re deserting the crumbling institutions, and creating communities of their own which celebrate life rather than destroying it. When the great blazing bonfire of a culture goes out, what remains are a few individual flames. It’s when those individual flames come together that we can kindle a new fire. Mythical misfits of the world, it’s time to unite!
If you’re interested in exploring these aspects of mythology and psychology in more detail, you might enjoy my online course, The Mythic Imagination, which you can enroll in at any time.
Art by Sarola Ban