‘Post-heroic stories aren’t focused on individual glory; they’re focused on community. On diversity. It’s not about slaying the dragon, but about harnessing his special skills – making him part of the team. It’s about understanding, and valuing, the black, feathery, croaking wisdom of a crow. It’s about living with a half-empty stomach so you can feed some of your porridge to the hungry mice – who, if you are lucky, will help you to sort the wheat from the chaff. Post-heroic stories aren’t about winning the hand of the simpering, golden-haired princess: they’re about kissing the boar-toothed, blue-faced hag.’
Sharon Blackie, ‘The Mythic Imagination’
In April, I was invited to participate in a TEDx event entitled ‘The Inspired Life’, in the beautiful Stormont parliament building in Belfast. The talk was entitled ‘The Mythic Imagination’, and the video (around 13 mins long) is now available on YouTube; you can watch it below if you’d like to. The (approximate) transcript of the talk follows.
The Mythic Imagination: the transcript
We are storytelling animals, hard-wired for story. We don’t always appreciate the extent to which stories dominate our lives, and the many ways in which we’ve been shaped by them. But we’re born with an innate storytelling capacity. In their pretend play, toddlers as young as two and three years old create their own uniquely plotted dramas, populating them with people and animals, pitching their voices differently for different characters, and ascribing clear personality traits to them. Their play-acting covers a wide range of human experience, too – it’s not all about polite chit-chat at dolls’ tea parties. Sometimes it’s positively existential, portraying a world which is changeable and dangerous – just like the fairy tales they almost always love to be told.
We begin to perceive, explain and make sense of the world through the stories we find in childhood – or the stories which find us. They are the stars we navigate by. Stories teach us everything we know, and their lessons are deep and rich. Anywhere, there may be a door to another world: learn to look for it. Always leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find your way out of the dark wood. Don’t maim yourself trying to fit into the glass slipper which was made for someone else. Gold is never a good goal. Never take your skin off and leave it unattended.
The characters in stories are great teachers, too, and as a child I think I learned more about ways of being in the world from characters in books and stories than from people I actually knew. My preferred companions were the solitary heroines who were strong enough to win through the tough times. I studied them carefully, thinking about how they cultivated resilience, analysing their strategies for winning through against impossible odds. I especially loved the story of Eliza in Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Wild Swans’. After her 12 brothers have been changed into swans by a wicked stepmother, she is told by a good fairy how to save them. She must pluck stinging nettles with her bare hands, spin yarn from their fibre, and weave a shirt for each brother. She’s to endure this long pain whilst remaining silent. Her voice is taken away from her, and because she’s deprived of the power to tell her story, a suspicious bishop almost succeeds in burning her at the stake as a witch. Her brothers sweep down and save her just in the nick of time – and at the same time as she saves them, casting the shirts over them one by one. Except for the brother whose shirt she doesn’t quite finish in time, and so who is left half-man, half-swan. This story taught me that transformation is a gift which comes from the stinging, the thorny, the prickly. Tolerate the blistered hands, it whispered to me: out of the pain, magic is born. And no matter how close you come to the burning, help may still arrive. Even today, a nettle is never simply a nettle. It is a symbol of everything that is possible, even when all hope is gone.
In fairy tales like this one, the tasks which must be undertaken are the stuff out of which souls, not just shirts, are forged. This kind of story helps us to reimagine ourselves, because at the heart of them is transformation: they help us to believe in the possibility of change. We come to see that there are other ways of imagining the world and our place in it – and of living more intensely, and more richly, in a world that is filled with challenge, and sorrow.
We’ve always told stories which explain how things came to be. Since the dawn of human history, groups and communities of humans around the world have sat around campfires, or gathered inside royal halls and humble huts, to tell such stories. This particular kind of story is called a myth. Myths tend to deal with weighty matters: gods, heroes, the creation of the universe, the purpose and meaning of life; they provide the foundational narratives for entire civilisations, underpinning their beliefs and morals. Which makes it all the more curious that the word ‘myth’ is often used to convey something quite different today: a belief or idea which is false.
All cultures, all civilisations – all tribes and groups of human beings – have their unique guiding mythology, whether or not it is overtly recognised as such. These aren’t just religious stories; there are other kinds of guiding mythologies at work here in the West. So how do they actually impact our daily lives? Let’s look at a couple, and see.
Let’s begin with the myth of more. The myth of more is a myth of progress. It tells us that every generation must do better than the last. Must have more money, bigger houses, better jobs, must live longer and be healthier … The myth of more tells us that we must always produce more. And we must buy more of the stuff that is produced, because a) that will make us happy and respected individuals, and b) if we don’t, ‘the economy’ will collapse. And the economy must always grow, right? It’s a given; a law of nature.
But what if we stepped out of that cultural narrative for a moment, and asked ourselves whether this is the story we really want to be in? What if we found different myths to live by, and what if those myths taught us to truly value what we have, rather than always striving for more? What if they taught us to value enchantment rather than exploitation?
Then, all tied up with the myth of more, there’s the myth of the hero. We can all be heroes, just for a day. The hero personifies more. It’s not about being the best we can be; it’s about wanting to be better than everyone else. This striving to be the best or the greatest is reflected in our cultural worship of the hero. The most popular books and movies today are profoundly heroic in nature. Swashbuckling, swaggering hero – male or (increasingly) female – conquers all, or saves the world. And when common-or-garden human heroes aren’t enough for us any more then there are always the superheroes to help us out. Vampires, of course, are the new superhero, and teenagers all over the world who long to be more special, more magical than everyone else, are falling for them like flies. Because let’s face it: everyone wants to be Harry Potter. No-one – but no-one – wants to be a Muggle. This attitude is derived from the intensely individualistic, human-centric cultural mythology that has us firmly in its grip.
What, then, would a post-heroic myth look like? What stories would we tell if we thought that living a good and meaningful was about learning to live more deeply, more beautifully, in the world that we now have?
Post-heroic stories aren’t focused on individual glory; they’re focused on community. On diversity. It’s not about slaying the dragon, but about harnessing his special skills – making him part of the team. It’s about understanding, and valuing, the black, feathery, croaking wisdom of a crow. It’s about living with a half-empty stomach so you can feed some of your porridge to the hungry mice – who, if you are lucky, will help you to sort the wheat from the chaff. Post-heroic stories aren’t about winning the hand of the simpering, golden-haired princess: they’re about kissing the boar-toothed, blue-faced hag.
Post-heroic stories are about understanding when we’ve taken enough. Like the old Irish tale of the great cow of plenty, the Glas Ghaibhleann. A great cow whose milk flow was so abundant that she could feed multitudes, and she travelled the land, giving her creamy milk to anyone who needed it, filling whatever vessel they carried, no matter how large or how small. But when a wicked person tried to take more than her share by placing a sieve under the cow – which enabled her to fill many buckets placed underneath the sieve, because of course the sieve never seemed to be full – the magical cow disappeared forever from the earth, offended by such greed.
Post-heroic stories are less about strength and more about compassion. Like the rich body of old European stories about the quest for the Grail, in which the question the adventuring knight must ask in order to gain the Grail, heal the wound of the Fisher King, and so heal the Wasteland, is a simple, pointed, empathic, ‘What ails thee?’ The answer is beside the point: the post-heroic journey isn’t about finding the answers – it’s about asking the right questions.
These are the stories which offer us a more enriching set of values to live by. These are the stories which remind us that, tucked up safe in the rambling, roundabout lines between once upon a time and happily ever after, lie all the secrets for a meaningful, sustainable life. They show us what it might be like to inhabit a world in which humans are fully enmeshed. In this world, animals always have something to teach us, trees and plants can save or cure us, and wise old men and women are waiting in the dark woods to help us. That sense of awe, of connection, of belonging to a mysterious world which has many depths and layers to explore, is missing in so much of our lives today.
Most of us, of course, don’t think of ideas like progress or heroism as ‘guiding mythologies’ for our civilisation; we just take it for granted that this is how the world is. The truth is, we have no idea how much we’ve been conditioned. Our social, economic and political institutions – as well as our own daily lives – are so embedded in this story that it’s hard for us to imagine there is anything outside it. That’s how dominant cultural narratives gain their power over us. They don’t present themselves as stories at all – but as definitive and unassailable explanations of how the world simply is.
But the way the world is, according to these stories, doesn’t seem particularly well-designed for anyone other than the wealthiest and most powerful segments of the human population. It’s not designed for the starving human masses in the desert countries, and it’s not designed for the vanishing non-human species caught up in the Sixth Mass Extinction of life on this planet. Our cultural mythology is failing us, and more importantly it’s failing the world around us. If we cast aside the veil we habitually wear to shield us from our unendurable everydays, and look around with clear and wide-open eyes, we see the consequences of the rapid disintegration of our guiding mythologies. We might be richer, but we’re certainly not happier, and the world around us is rapidly going to hell in the proverbial hand-basket.
The stories we tell about ourselves – our personal myths – are intimately related to these cultural narratives; our own individual stories develop and are played out inside the wider stories of our time. 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 heartless, we in turn become alienated and rootless. Our lives are lived outside of any meaningful context, because above all myth is meaning. When we can’t live by the dominant myth of our culture any more – when the ways of life that previous generations pursued, when the values they espoused and beliefs they held, become intolerable to us as individuals – we fall out of myth. If we fall out of myth, we fall out of meaning.
We need then to find new stories to live by – and along with them, new meaning. We need to tell ourselves new stories about how the world is, and how it, and we, might become. Or maybe – just maybe – we need to revisit some of the old ones.
Change always begins with individuals, and it always begins with imagination. With mythic imagination. It begins with a different story which succeeds in capturing our imagination more effectively than the now-crumbling old story. Which speaks to our longing for deeper connection, for deeper meaning. Which reflects the old ways of knowing that are still written in our bones: the knowing that tells us we are part of the great web of life on this planet – that we belong here – and that the black-feathered croak of a crow and the transformational power of a stinging nettle contain the only meanings we’ll ever need.
So if the dominant cultural myth is failing us and failing the planet, let’s transform it. Why not? Humans have always been mythmakers. Carl Jung wrote that when the myths of earlier generations fall into decline, the mythmaking process resides in individuals. The birth of a new personal myth in the imagination of a single individual, or a group of individuals, he said, might lead to the rebirth of new (and more functional) myths in the imagination of the culture.
It’s the people who I call the ‘mythical misfits’, then, who kickstart the transformation of the world, and who begin to imagine more sustainable and meaningful ways of living. Today’s mythical misfits are rejecting a culture which values neither intuition nor imagination, which values neither the living land nor its non-human inhabitants. They’re deserting the stagnant institutions, and creating communities which celebrate life rather than destroying it. The mythical misfits are the ones who choose different stories to live by. Different stories which we can choose to reenchant ourselves, and our children, and so re-enchant the world. Different stories which we can use to reimagine ourselves, our children, and the world. Because if we can imagine it, it’s real.
When the great blazing bonfire of a culture begins to splutter and die, a few individual flames always remain. And when those individual flames find a little air around them, and begin to burn brighter and reach towards each other, they can kindle a new fire.
Out of the flames of our mythic imagination, let’s start building that fire.
Featured image by Maxime Simoncelli