Mythology has accompanied humanity throughout its journey to modernity. Certainly mythology is not simply a vestigial accessory or a thing learned of in a literature class, for we build and maintain new myths under new guises to this day. Joseph Campbell, a leader in the field of comparative religion and comparative mythology, hypothesized that the primary function of mythology is “the reconciliation of consciousness to the preconditions of its own existence.” Through the brief analysis of passages from two Greek examples, this hypothesis will be shown to be relevant and even insightful into the nature of mythology.
Joseph Campbell asserted that religion arises from the misinterpretation of mythology, whether purposeful or not. If Campbell’s hypothesis is assumed to be true, then this extrapolation is not only reasonable, but pertinent, for is not religion itself simply an organized, ritualized, and simplified adaptation of spirituality and mysticism in particular? A mystic aims to commune directly with the Absolute, the union of the Relative; the dichotomy of binary opposites. This transcendental experience is ineffable; incommunicable through the limited mechanism of language. A cursory reading of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave will enlighten and dissuade any mystic from attempting to convey this understanding to a materialist, whose experience is limited to the mundane, in a direct manner. Truths as these have always been transmitted through the ages in the arts, and in particular in the symbolism of mythology.
Before an examination can be done, it must be determined exactly what Campbell is referring to in his hypothesis. Campbell was influenced by the work of Carl Jung, a major figure in the realm of transpersonal psychology. Jung’s concepts of archetypes and a collective unconscious were influential to Campbell and were influenced themselves by the spiritual ideas of the East. The archetypes are features of the collective unconscious, our species psychological predispositions, and represent the ultimate prototypes of each personality and are commonly found within mythological stories. The content of the collective unconscious serves to drive humanity toward self-actualization, or “the reconciliation of consciousness to the preconditions of its own existence;” this polar reunion.
In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus is constantly battling not only his enemies but his own sensual urges, arrogance, and pride, all of which are metaphors for the unconscious. Early in his adventures he succumbs to his unconscious, through sexual escapades with Calypso and Circe, raiding the home of the Cicones, his men opening Aeolus’ bag of wind, his arrogance with Polyphemus, and much more. Eventually the last of his men are lost on the island of the sun-god Helios, where their hunger overwhelms their reason. Odysseus does not partake in the act that finds them their death, because he is asleep. It could be argued that he was as equally unconscious as the rest in parallel with the previous sleep metaphors, or it could be understood that Odysseus continuously denied them the permission to hunt Helios’ cattle, thereby overcoming the unconscious. He eventually falls asleep, this time not a symbol of being unconscious, but of reconciling the conscious and unconscious after defeating his hunger urges. Sleep is similar to the mystical state of communion with the Ultimate, and here could be as such and the turning point which ultimately allows Odysseus to return home after his imprisonment by Calypso.
In an opposing conclusion, Euripides’ Medea presents the conflict between Jason and Medea, who represent reason and emotion, respectively. Jason, the more-civilized, and Medea, the barbarous, engage in a fight where Medea plots and eventually murders many. A theme of this play is the Greek concept of homophrosyne, which represents like-mindedness, or in this case, the reconciliation of conscious and unconscious. This like-mindedness is never attained and emotion overwhelms reason in this dismal ideation. But still, the element is present, supporting the hypothesis in light of this ground-breaking unorthodox play.
As is seen through the two previous examples, and countless others, mythology attempts, through symbolism and metaphor, to disclose the not so widely accepted mystical wisdom. This wisdom is the experience of the reconciliation that Campbell speaks of in his hypothesis, of the consciousness to the preconceived conditions of its existence, or self-actualization.