True Myths: Mythopoeia and the Collective Unconscious, By Mahonri Stewart

As evidenced by the upcoming production of my play Prometheus Unbound, I’m a big lover of mythology. As a child I remember delightedly pouring over a book of myths about Hercules I found in my elementary school’s library. The mythology units in my high school English classes were always some of my favorite. In recent years, I’ve expanded my interests to all sorts of world mythologies, from the Egyptian to the Australian Aboriginal to the Norse to the Native American.  All cultures, at their heart, have some splendidly interesting myths, legends, and stories. However, as time went on it became more than an imaginative interest fueled by escapism. Before too long studying mythology became a spiritual journey for me.

It’s easy to fall into the habit of finding patterns. Some may say that it is coincidental, that our mind tries to find meaning in a meaningless world. However, I for one am with psychologist Carl Jung in the opposing belief: “In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.”[1] In addition to Jung’s idea of a collective consciousness, additional scholars like Joseph Campbell (not to mention pop culture icons like George Lucas, who uses such archetypes extensively in his Star Wars films) have argued for just such a patterning that seems to spill out in human myths, fairy tales, and stories.

image

So as I read and find corollaries between Osiris and Christ, Pandora and Eve, Iphigenia and Isaac, Loki and Lucifer, when I look at the universal flood myths, I am always fascinated. But, historically, there have been many who have found this phenomenon to be more suspicious than faith promoting, finding basis to think that later stories, such as the Johnny-come-lately Christianity, were steeped in mythological plagiarism. This, in part, was C.S. Lewis’s objection to Christianity during his atheist stage before his conversion to Christianity made him one of greatest “defenders of the faith” of the 20th century. But, despite C.S. Lewis’s deep love of mythology (the Norse myth about Balder being a particular favorite of his, that caused him deep yearnings when he was younger), the similarities seemed too blatant to Lewis. Christianity may have had many things going for it…originality was not one of them.  He called such myths “lies…breathed through silver.”[2]

On Saturday September 19th, 1931, C.S. Lewis had two of his friends over. One was Hugo Dyson, a Shakespearean scholar you probably have never heard of. The other, who you almost certainly have heard of, was J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien and Hugo, unlike Lewis, were deeply religious, which was a sore point in an otherwise very fruitful friendship. Lewis was in the middle of his conversion, having already had some spiritual experiences after the death of his father that he had difficulty explaining. But he still resisted against that final leap from deism to Christianity. So as they all walked through the grounds of Oxford’s Magdalen College, Lewis, Dyson and Tolkien gravitated to that favorite subject of theirs, mythology, as well as the contentious other side of that coin, religion.

To counteract Lewis’s “religion is just another myth” argument Tolkien counteracted with a very interesting idea:

…man is not ultimately a liar. He may pervert his thoughts into lies, but he comes from God, and it is from God that he draws his ultimate ideals…Therefore, Tolkien continued, not merely the abstract thoughts of man but also his imaginative inventions must originate with God, and must in consequence reflect something of eternal truth. In making a myth, in practicing “mythopoeia” and peopling the world with elves and dragons and goblins, a storyteller, or “sub-creator” as Tolkien liked to call such a person, is actually fulfilling God’s purpose, and reflecting a splintered fragment of true light. Pagan myths are therefore never just “lies”: there is always something of the truth to them…Had he not shown how pagan myths were, in fact, God expressing himself through the minds of poets, and using the images of their “mythopoeia” to express fragments of his eternal truth?[3]

image

This idea helped Lewis with one of those last, final hurdles of his spiritual hurdles. But can such mystic explanations have relevance in a modern, secular world? Well, I don’t think Tolkien gave two figs about being modern—to the contrary he thought most of the literature that was written after the Middle Ages (including his friend Hugo Dyson’s beloved Shakespeare) was claptrap.  So it may be a less than convincing argument to the Richard Dawkins of the world, but to C.S. Lewis it tied to the yearnings and spiritual sense he had felt in reading the old myths. It connected to that ever elusive “joy” he was seeking.

And thus, to a fellow myth lover like me, the idea also hits home.

Couple this “mythopoeia” idea with Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, where “there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.”[4] Or, in other words, beyond our individual identity, there is something our mind (or spirit) is connected to that gives us access to a stored knowledge of archetypes, patterns, symbols, and inherent wisdom. We’re all connected to it, we all unconsciously, instinctively access this depository of hidden knowledge, and these patterns and symbols often tumble out in the form of stories and myths.

And then I add onto this an idea which comes from my own Mormon worldview…the idea of a pre-existence. In my religious tradition, the Pre-Existence was where we lived before our spirits came to this world. There’s a part of us that is Eternal, that did not originate on this earth, that lived with God. And thus, instead of all of us somehow being characters without free will in God’s Great Novel, as Tolkien’s ideas could lead one to believe, if unchecked, this mythopoeiac, collective unconscious may rather be the result pre-existent memory.  We are accessing a shadowy part of ourselves that has a veil drawn over it, but still has some instinctive and unconscious influence over us…and our mythopoeiac stories.

But how do you bridge that idea with historical reality? Psychology and mythology and subconscious don

image

’t make the Christian story, or the other religious claims of the world’s dominant religions, actually true.  It doesn’t mean those stories actually happened.  No matter how they correlate with our unconscious mind, that bears no consequence on physical, historical events. All it means is that the Christian story is just another fancy of the mind, no matter how collectively meaningful.

Not so, Tolkien responded to C.S. Lewis’s similar reasoning.   In Christ, “here is a real Dying God, with a precise location in history and definite historical consequences. The old myth has become a fact. But it still retains the character of a myth.”[5] Thus, in Christianity, Tolkien believed there was the “True Myth” that all the other myths had been pointing to.

I find it interesting how often one can find Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” not only in myths and tales, but also in historical figures. I have found the pattern in the lives of heroic figures like Jean d’Arc, Joseph Smith, and Abraham Lincoln. The patterns of myth truly have, in historically quantifiable ways, played out. Thus Tolkien’s insistence that Christ was what all those myths actually meant and were directing us to, seems perfectly plausible to me.  But even more than that, it ties to those yearnings I had when I have encountered resonant pieces of mythology in my past.

One such instance was when in 9th grade honors English, we went into our Greek mythology unit. As I discovered for the first time the story of the myth of the Titan Prometheus, who was bound to a rock by Zeus and perpetually tortured because he had given fire to humankind. Prometheus, who had chosen to be humankind’s advocate, suffered so that they could benefit. The spiritual dimensions of this story reverberated deeply within me and I felt tied to the myth, so much so that I wrote a short play about it for a class assignment. A decade later, I would take up that story again and do a full-length play version of it.

And still I find myself going back again and again to mythology for inspiration in my other plays, as well as creating my own universe of mythopoeia. It is in doing so that I find some of my most religiously sublime experiences and I feel I come the closest in tearing off the veil that shadows pre-mortal memories.


[1] Jung, “Arcehtypes of the Collective Conciousness.”

[2] Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, p. 43.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Carl Jung, “Archetypes of the Collective Conciousness,” p. 43.

[5] Carpenter, The Inklings, p. 44

 

Mahonri Stewart

Mahonri Stewart

Photo shoot ( photos by Greg Deakins)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Official Trailer.

Have you seen the trailer yet?  If not you should.  Behind the scenes look into the rehearsal process and interviews with the actors.  See it here.  And speaking of behind the scenes, here are some pictures taken during the photo shoot last week. The official photos will be coming soon!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Pandora costume sneek peek

Weigh in with your opinion, should our pandora have a head covering or no?

Erysichton, played by Stephen Geis

I have always loved mythology. Regardless of the place the they come from, there are life lessons expressed through the stories. Through these lessons we gain a window into the lives and minds of the people who believed in the myths. We see how they think, what they fear, and what they value.

 
The story of Erysichton is a good example of this. The basics of the myth are that Erysichton desecrates a sacred grove of trees and is cursed with an insatiable hunger that only grows the more he eats. Eventually he’s so hungry that he literally eats himself. The fairly obviously lesson this story teaches is to not mess around with anything sacred or holy, or in any way connected with the gods or you’ll die a terrible terrible death.
 
Fortunately for me, this play does not follow that story at all except for the lack of respect that Erysichton shows towards anything even remotely connected to religion. He is the devil’s advocate through the whole process. He focuses his belief on logic and reason instead of faith and hope. I have absolutely nothing against looking at a situation logically, but Erysichton pushes this to an extreme level. Even when he is presented with evidence that supports the existence of gods, he refuses to accept it no matter how blatant it may be. He only acknowledges facts that support what he already believes, rather than honestly searching for what is the truth. He stands by what he thinks no matter what.
 
Despite how vehemently he fights for what he believes, there are multiple moments in the play where he admits that those beliefs do not make him happy. But, as far as I can tell, he is not willing to change his beliefs to make himself happier. He is not willing to take the chance of basing his life around anything that may not really exist. He is even uncertain about whether or not he should follow a moral code because morals may be just another illusion people have created.
 
 I can’t give any sort of complex or well thought out explanation about why Erysichton acts the way he does, or that I can relate to this way of thinking, but it has been fun to explore. I believe that theater gives both the actors and the audience an opportunity to better understand other people as well as ourselves. Erysichton’s beliefs, or lack thereof, lead me to wonder more about why I believe what I believe and how it really does change my life. It has even made me wonder about being wrong. If my beliefs are not the truth, would I come to regret acting the way that I have. or would I still be able to look back on my life and be happy about how it turned out? Am I happy with who I am? What am I searching for?
 
Hopefully Erysichton’s stubbornness can provide this, or really any, service to anyone who is able to see Prometheus Unbound. I agree with him in that we should always be questioning, we should always be willing to look for something more, even if Erysichton is much more willing to point that out to other people than he is to do the same thing himself. Let’s all keep asking, but more importantly, let’s all be willing to find the answers that come
Image

Artemis, played by Mariah Proctor

Once long ago, concealed on an island, a woman groaned in the agony of birth. She was called Leto and her twins were the illegitimate children of Zeus. The first that came forth was a strong and healthy girl and she immediately became her mother’s midwife to assist in the birth of her brother Apollo. It was a prelude to the role she would go on to play as the protector of women in childbirth.

That girl is called Artemis, the Hellenistic deity known in Roman mythology as Diana. She is the “goddess of the hunt, goddess of virginity, goddess of childbirth, goddess of the moon, [and] goddess of the sacred stag.” She is pictured with a bow and arrow and travels in a company of virgin huntresses and apparently I’m supposed to portray her in our story.

I’ve joined this production a little late in the game so trying to comprehend Artemis well enough to become her for the sake of this story has to be an expedited process, and it’s quite the emotional rush. It’s sort of fun to explore the ways in which we are the same and the ways in which we are different. The gods and goddesses of ancient Greek and Roman mythology are anthropomorphic—possessing of the jealousies and the tempers and the shortcomings of mankind only with the strength and power to react to disappointment in much more powerful and affecting ways than we do in our daily lives.

Artemis is a challenge for me, I have always preferred the company of men in my life, I grew up with lots of brothers and I’ve always been close with my Dad and most of my very best friends have been boys. Artemis meets all men with suspicion  and ruthlessness and that’s something about her that I have a hard time relating to. I’ve decided instead to look at her interactions and reactions in terms of her fiercely protective attitude toward women rather than a hatred for men. I think it is no coincidence that she is asked to accompany Phoebe (our protagonist) on this important journey and be there to encourage her and remind her of the strength and potential and merit she has as a woman and as someone the gods have trusted with truth.

Artemis is elusive to characterize as an actress, nothing like being asked to hunt the chief huntress, but I look forward to the challenge.

 

IMG_9665

Noelle Houston A.K.A. Pandora

The myth of Pandora is one of the first myths that I can remember learning about. I distinctly recall when I discovered my mother’s book of ancient Greek myths on an upper shelf of our living room bookcase. I climbed up two shelves to retrieve it and took it down to the couch, where I poured over the scratchy pictures of humans that looked more bird than man, decked inflowy robes with faded coloring. I’m sure that I asked my mother to read me other myths first, but the legend of Pandora and her box stuck. I can still picture the illustration at the end. Poor Pandora, her hair awry, thrusting away the ornate gold box filled with evil eyes and monsters as they rushed out at her.

 

According to my memory of the book that I had as a child, the Pandora story was fairly simple. She received a box from the gods who told her not to open it, took it home to her husband who wouldn’t accept it, and then, thanks to her foolish curiosity, disobeyed the gods and released suffering into the world. The bit about hope being left behind didn’t make that much of an impression on my little 4 year old mind.

 

But the beauty of Mahonri Stewart’s play is that he takes familiar (and not so familiar) mythological characters and incorporates them into his play for very specific purposes. Pandora is such a character. And because of her story’s function, Stewart uses more of the myth than I learned about as a child. Pandora was used specifically by Zeus and his fellows to punish Prometheus (the creator of humankind) by inflicting suffering and pain upon his children. She was flattered and groomed, sent on her way to deliver the box to Prometheus’ brother, and left to battle with her insatiable curiosity. In Stewart’s version it isn’t much of a battle, really. Just two lines of unbearable torture before the box is opened. But instead of leaving the story there, where Pandora is left to be cursed by mankind for inflicting horrors upon them, Stewart latches onto the idea of hope and turns myth into allegory and Titan into a type and shadow of Christ. “What have I done?” cries out Pandora, in despair. Prometheus appears, chained to his rock of torment. “Come to me,” he asks. “Look in the box.” And Pandora does so, seeing the hope that Zeus left behind. This hope is a major theme that Stewart explores with his other characters and their dilemmas throughout the play: Erysichton’s decision to - as much as he tries to deny it - have hope in Phoebe’s quest, Phoebe’s hope in her gift, Prometheus’ hope in the children that he chooses to fulfill his mission to save humankind.

I adore the story of Pandora even more now that I remember the hope that’s a part of it. I haveloved the opportunity I’ve had to really get to know the character and her story these past two weeks as I’ve rehearsed her scene. She’s a girl – a human – just like the rest of us, a girl who – just like the rest of us – makes mistakes. And yet, despite her terrible crimes, she lets hope light up her face and her heart. It’s a beautiful thing, hope is. It’s what makes the myth of Pandora one worth re-telling over, and over, and over again. And it’s my favorite thematic element ofPrometheus Unbound.Image

Casey William Walker

I have the wonderful opportunity to be playing Prometheus in Zion Theatre Company’s Prometheus Unbound. The play is about Greek mythology with a modern parallel to Christianity, my character in particular. The Titan Prometheus in early days of Greek mythology was seen as a trickster to the Gods because he was the creator of mankind and stole fire from the Gods and gave it to man. Subsequently Zeus bound him in chains for 1000 years and was caused inexplicable torture and pain when an eagle would devour his liver every day after it grew back from the day previous. But later his story evolved into one of heroism because he was seen as mankind’s advocate whereas the other Gods seemed selfish and looked upon man with little regard. This makes an easy parallel to Christianity where Jesus Christ is our advocate and suffered more than we can know for all mankind and is the Giver and Creator of all life. These are two very different stories but with the same message of hope for us all. I am honored to be a part of such a wonderful production that lifts and enlightens the soul.

Casey

Color in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek sculptures were long revered for their simplicity. Gleaming white marble, unadorned, understated and classic.  But modern science has proven that the ancient Greek sculpture were (at least for many of us) less classy and more kitschy.It has been known since the end of the eighteen century that many ancient sculptures may have been painted, however in the last 15 years we have just started to understand to what degree. Using chemical analysis under ultraviolet light, researchers have been able to recreate what many well known sculptures looked liked over 2,000 years ago.

So we must assume that if artists were painting their sculptures in such brilliant color, the inhabitants of ancient Greece were not running around in white bed sheets. Tomorrow I will be posting a blog from our costume designer, Allen Stout, he will be explaining why he decided to not go with the traditional monochromatic Greek color scheme.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Who is Prometheus?

Sculpture by Nicolas-Sébastien Adam

Sculpture by Nicolas-Sébastien Adam

Prometheus is a Titon from Greek Mythology who is credited with the creation of man from clay as well as the theft of fire for human use. He is known for his intellegence and as a champion of humanity

Prometheus was punished by Zues for stealing fire from the gods. He was chained to a rock where an eagle would eat his liver, only to have it regrow and eaten again, everyday, for eternity. In many forms of the myth Prometheus is eventually rescued by Heracles.

This punishment is a popular subject in both ancient and modern art.

Painting by Gustave Moreau

Painting by Gustave Moreau

 

 

 

Blog at WordPress.com.
The Esquire Theme.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.