Falling out of myth: why we need the mythical misfits

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

11 thoughts on “Falling out of myth: why we need the mythical misfits

  1. Thanks for this wonderful post. I’ve just finished my dissertation on the subject of afterlife beliefs and the devaluing of the feminine from ancient Greek times to the early Christian period, and I wrote it with a conviction similar to yours–that our culture myth is dying. In the chaotic aftermath, no one seems to recall how we got here, and I believe that if we don’t look at the mythical source of the problem, we won’t realize that it’s up to us to come up with a solution by forging new myths. I think in particular our attitude toward the “Feminine” (concurrent with our attitude toward matter, and the earth and what’s under it, which became Hell in the Christian afterlife) is remarkably tied up with our disdain for nature. Even women are uncomfortable with the “feminine”, and that needs to be changed. The term “mythical misfit” is terrific, and I’m sure I will end up using it at my defense!

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    1. I’d be delighted to pass it on to you 🙂 I coined it in a fit of inspiration, at a retreat of mine in Connemara with a group of seven other lovely women, staring out at an Otherworldly island. Best of luck with your dissertation; it’s an important subject.

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  2. Clear, crisp, and yes we need way way way more misfits, because the old myth is killing the planet. Literally. Leaders of the old myth discuss Global Warming as if it’s a political idea, rather than worrying reality. They even consider world war, without a blush of shame.
    Just as our bodies are 2/3 bacteria (!) and 1/3 cells, our whole planet is a living system, of which we are part. A cancer part. That’s the reality. The new myth is more realistic and humble and willing to serve, rather than control.
    The fun thing is, going totally green, will not only let nature flourish! It will give a new boost to a total economical overhaul. Lots of work for everyone. Work with purpose, meaning, urgency and play.

    Here’s my post on the need for new stories: https://medium.com/the-gentle-revolution/a-new-heros-journey-cdd8ca77a7d3#.hlwfln9qg

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  3. I like that term, mythical misfits. The fact that we can even see that there is a myth makes us misfits I think! My 12 year old son proudly declared that he doesn’t believe in God (religion) because he believes in science. Personally, I think there needs to be a third way that embraces the sacred and the empirical. Perhaps that is our next myth 😊

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    1. That sounds like a good next myth! I’ve argued on this site before that we don’t need to lose science, just see it as one way of looking at the world, not the only one. I’m sure your son will come to see that some day 🙂

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  4. Thank you Sharon – happy to receive your wise words and wisdom today. Very timely. I think what’s happening at Standing Rock is a place where mythical misfits are gathering – it is happening and it is huge, and it is from what I can see here in the middle of the old myth (geographically and politically speaking) totally unreported. Thank heavens for Amy Goodman.

    We (I) need more gatherings where we can come together to unite, to support and nourish..eye to eye. And how this will happen is in flux, our leadership practices and models are shifting from a vertical (top down, hierarchical) structure to a more horizontal structure – which is a new (old) way and hence has loads of fledgling energy in it. The desire to unite is there and yet how that happens is even being restructured. What a curious and glorious mess…I think of the story of the old caileach in the cave, weaving, weaving, weaving. It is all falling apart the the new way is so new we/I aren’t sure how to move it forward.

    Beautiful!
    Onwards!
    Love!!

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    1. Thanks, Tracy. And yes, I think true myth (like galaxies and planets) emerges out of chaos. You can’t bring it forth all neat and tidy and prettily sewn up. So we root around for a while in the threads and pick, pick, pick at those which seem like they might work together to make some new pattern … It’s a leap of faith, like all creation. Love back to you.

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  5. Kudos to you, Sharon, for the neat summation of value of myths in the upkeep of culture. Myths are truly the roots of cultures that sustains nature and societies. In keeping with generational progression, new myths need to be constructed recognising the primacy of nature, lest communities should be rendered rootless and fade out of existence. Best wishes…

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