Continuing on with republishing my series of ‘MythLines’ columns from EarthLines Magazine … here is my offering (slightly expanded for this blog) from Issue 16, in November 2016.
(Featured image by Martin Stranka)
I’ve spent a lot of years studying the psychology of myth. My personal perspectives can be reduced to this, in a slightly oversimplified nutshell: Sigmund Freud’s theories on anything – inevitably, interminably, explaining everything in sexual terms – rarely interest me much at all; Carl Jung is marvelous (an inexhaustible, treasure-filled, deep well) but often a little too human-centred for my tastes; archetypal psychologist James Hillman takes psychology and mythology out of our heads and back into the world again, and so is always to be revered.
Whatever my own theoretical proclivities, what I do for sure know about myth as a psychologist is that it both illuminates and informs the way we see the world, and the way we live, today. Every day. To live mythically – that is, to live in full awareness of the mythic structures underlying my life, the mythic elements informing it – is the only way I care to live. That’s a multi-layered life, rooted and grounded and gritty, yet rich with image and symbol. I’m with Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko, when she declared in her novel Ceremony:
I will tell you something about stories … They aren’t just entertainment. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death. You don’t have anything if you don’t have stories.
Whilst taking my Master’s degree in Celtic Studies, I’ve specialised in researching ideas about the Otherworld in Irish and Welsh mythology (ideas which have fascinated me ever since, as a very small child, I was given two life-changing books: one of WB Yeats’ poetry, and another of Irish myths and folk tales). Inevitably, those ideas have merged with other ideas springing from several decades as an academic and/or practicing psychologist. And so follow along with me while I tell you a story: a psychologist-mythologist’s story of how the world is, which derives not only from close study of the original traditions and literature of my native lands, but from my own experiences of belonging to these mist-bound, storm-tossed wild Celtic edgelands of Europe, where the Otherworld is not only just as real as any other, but is still seen to be inextricably interwoven with this one.
Carl Jung and James Hillman both argued – Hillman as the root of all his work – that psyche (or ‘soul’) and its associated archetypes (the deepest patterns of psychic functioning) have an independent existence, outside of us. Myth is alive. Myth is present in the world. Myth isn’t only a key aspect of the structure of our own consciousness; it is a key aspect of the wider consciousness of the world. As Hillman put it: ‘It is not we who imagine, but we who are imagined.’
What’s interesting is that these ideas can also be found in traditional Islamic philosophy, and Hillman declared himself, in founding the field of archetypal psychology which is associated with him, to have been greatly influenced by Henry Corbin, a theologian and philosopher who explored Islamic Sufi traditions. What Corbin called the mundus imaginalis is, in effect, equivalent to a mundus archetypalis.
Corbin used the term mundus imaginalis to describe a particular order of reality which is referred to in ancient Sufi texts. These texts tell us that, between the physical world and the world of abstract intellect, lies another world: the world of the image; a world that is just as real as either of these other two. And so, in Corbin’s expression of this ancient Sufi philosophy, we find the idea that the material world, which is the only one in Western thought that we are accustomed to thinking of as ‘real’, is in fact totally enveloped by an Otherworldly reality which not only influences, but perhaps even determines it.
The reality of the mundus imaginalis communicates itself to human beings through images, so that the act of imagining then becomes an act of connection to it. But we’re not just talking about any old imaginings; as Corbin said:
We must be careful not to confuse it with the imagination identified by so-called modern man with ‘fantasy’, and which, according to him, is nothing but an outpour of ‘imaginings’.
This is an important point, and Corbin was at pains to differentiate between the simple everyday acts of daydreaming and fantasising (which are what we usually mean when we speak about ‘imagining’) and the reality of this world of archetypes and visions. The mundus imaginalis is the place from where all spiritual and transcendent experience derives. It is the source of synchronicities, ‘psychic’ experiences and creative insights. This world penetrates into our dreams and other visionary experiences; it could be perceived by what Corbin called ‘the psycho-spiritual senses’.
The idea of an Otherworld (or several) which runs alongside this one, which can (sometimes) be reached from this one, which influences this one, which is inhabited by archetypal images, and which has characteristics of the mundus imaginalis, isn’t restricted to the Sufi tradition, but is a key aspect of several mythologies throughout the world. It is clearly fundamental to the Irish (and probably, though there are fewer old sources to back it up, the Welsh) traditions too. Belief in an Otherworld which coexists with our own has always been a defining feature of Irish culture and literature – and our Otherworld is not a land of the dead: it is very much a land of the living. It is a land of beauty and harmony; its occupants are gods and other supernatural beings; it is full of magical, archetypal creatures and objects. It does not have a defined physical location, though the old texts variously situate it on islands, underground, inside hills, beyond forest clearings, at the bottom of lakes or the sea – or they describe it as a place which can be reached while passing through mist, or following a deer into a forest. Humans can, on occasion, pass into it – either by invitation, at specific times of the year, or by happening upon a suitably liminal or threshold zone. These human ‘adventures’ in the Otherworld can occur precisely because it exists alongside and is very much intertwined with this one. There are differences, though; in most conceptions of the Otherworld in Irish and Welsh literature, the ‘normal’ rules of existence do not apply: time passes differently, for example, and the seasons may be inverted.
In all European traditions, as the old mythologies were overthrown by Christian dogma, the potent and deeply influential Otherworld was downgraded to a mere ‘fairyland’. The process is especially clear in Irish tradition; once, the Otherworld was the home of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the old gods. When, as the myths tell us, they were overthrown by the Sons of Mil (the Milesians, the Gaels – humans) they were forced to retreat into the mounds, the hollow hills, where afterwards they were known as the Aos Sí (the people of the mounds). Later, under the influence of the Church, the Aos Sí were no longer thought of as gods, but began simply to be called ‘the fairies’ – and consequently became reduced in physical stature, too, in the imaginations of the people. And yet the residues of the old beliefs live on in Ireland to this day in the creideamh sí, the ‘fairy faith’. In this country, in this specific place where I live, the Otherworld is still just as real as any other. It, and its inhabitants, are still thought to be able to influence our lives. To me, it’s always been a defining feature of the Irish way of looking at the world.
In the Irish tradition, the crane, or heron, is associated with the Otherworld.
Why does all of this this matter? It matters for a very simple reason: because our relationship with the mundus imaginalis – the Otherworld – is believed in our native Celtic traditions to determine what happens in this world. Again, the two are inextricably intertwined, and if, for example, we cut ourselves off from the Otherworld, then we cut ourselves off from the source of life. We become half-people, trapped in a Wasteland of our own making.
The Otherworld was the source of inspiration, insight, and knowledge – for which there are many different terms in Irish, and for which the word awen is usually used in Welsh. The Otherworld was a source of wisdom and authority and, as a matter of interest, that authority was largely female. We can see the consequences of cutting ourselves off from the Otherworld in the old story of the rape of the well-maidens. This story, which constitutes the first part of a 484-line text entitled ‘The Elucidation’, was composed in the early thirteenth century to serve as a prologue for Chrétien de Troyes’ unfinished Perceval, le Conte du Graal. (For more on the origins of this story, please see this link: https://theartofenchantment.net/2016/10/31/finding-our-way-out-of-the-wasteland-reclaiming-the-voices-of-the-wells/.) It tells us that the source of this world’s life came from the sacred water of the wells, which flowed up out of the deep potent waters of the Otherworld. But one of the Otherworldly well-maidens who emerges out of the wells to offer nourishment to travelers, is raped by a king called Amangon; other well-maidens around the land are then, in turn, raped by his men. The well-maidens come no more out of the wells, and the story tells us that the Voices of the Wells – the voices of the Otherworld – are lost. And as a consequence, the land becomes a Wasteland.
The message is clear: cut yourself off from the Otherworld (or, in my psychologist’s perspective, from the mundus imaginalis) and you cut yourself off from life. The sacred waters of the Otherworldly wells no longer flow; the enchanted court of the Fisher King can no longer be found, and the world – and your life – becomes a Wasteland.
In Irish mythology it was from the Otherworld, too, that Sovereignty arose, and Sovereignty was a quality of the goddess of the land who was its guardian and protector – a deeply ecological force. The power of Sovereignty was also the power to determine who should rule the land, and in the old Irish myths, Sovereignty’s power was paramount. If the power she bestowed was abused, then we invited disaster. During the reign of a king favoured by the goddess, the land was fertile and the people prosperous, and the tribe was victorious in war. But if the king didn’t match up to her expectations, he didn’t last long. And what she expected more than anything was that the king, and through his example, the people, would cherish the land. So it was that the ancient rites of kingship in Ireland included a ceremonial marriage, the banais ríghi, between the king and the land, and those rites lasted into the sixteenth century. In this sacred marriage, the king swore to uphold the land and his people and to be true to both; in return, Sovereignty granted him the gifts which would help him to keep his oath.
This, then, is what our old myths tell us: while there is mutual respect between the two partners – between the land and the people, between nature and culture, between this world and the Otherworld – then the world is in harmony, and life is filled with abundance. But when the contract is broken and nature is abused, the fertile land becomes the Wasteland. The life-giving power of the Otherworld is withdrawn.
An awareness of the Otherworld, then, in our own native Celtic traditions (which are so potent, and yet so often neglected in favour of cosmologies from other parts of the planet) is an awareness of the power of the Earth itself. In the oldest stories we have, the Otherworld isn’t just a pretty place in a fairy tale – it is the source of life and inspiration. The powerful Otherworldly woman in our most ancient mythical traditions isn’t a mere fairy mistress, or a beautiful muse in a poet’s dream: she is the moral and spiritual authority of the Earth, the anima mundi – what James Hillman called ‘a psyche the size of the Earth’ – personified. The many powerful goddesses of the old Irish tradition – profoundly associated with specific places, and the people who inhabit them – are representations of the way the anima mundi manifests itself in those specific parts of the planet. They are emanations of the Earth itself, intertwined with the imagination of the people who inhabit it.
So it is that the Otherworld is more than just a myth; the mundus imaginalis is real. Just as Corbin suggested, these old stories tell us that the material world which we take as real is in fact totally enveloped by a spiritual reality which not only influences, but perhaps even determines it.
And we ignore it at our peril.
‘Mundus Imaginalis or The Imaginary and the Imaginal’, by Henry Corbin (1972), is available at http://www.bahaistudies.net/asma/mundus_imaginalis.pdf
James Hillman (1998) ‘Anima Mundi: The Return of the Soul to the World’ in The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World, Spring Publications