Healing Myths

Whether or not we attend Comic-Con and fall dramatically at the feet of Darth Vader before he can get down to business, we live in a world of myth and story-telling. During a lifetime, we will have our quests and our failures, our deaths and second comings. Odysseus is there, out front in the fog, reminding us to be aware of the Siren calls. Depending on luck and our fate, we might spend some time on the byways traveled by the gods who populated the Greek Pantheon.

Without deep-felt cultural myths, our summers would be without the inevitable blockbusters. The Avengers would be out of work. Spiderman would no longer be climbing walls. Forget about The Godfather, Jaws and The Phantom of the Opera, all of which have roots in Greek mythology, which represents our ancient imagination. Even though sometimes Hollywood makes a mess of the Greek Pantheon, the characters that resonate with us do so because they are archetypes or reservoirs of timeless images, remembrances and pathologies. Any film director worth her salt knows that fashioning psychologically convincing characters along archetypal lines is what makes movie goers squirm in their seats.

The distance between our local cinema and the office of a Jungian psychologist who uses myths, archetypes, dreams, images and nightmares to help us understand the landscape of the psyche is the distance between our inner and outer worlds. Batman appearing in living color on the wide screams occupies a very different narrative than when that masked man appears in our dreams and is not necessarily interested in saving souls.

I attended a number of sessions at the C.G. Jung Foundation in New York City, during which the healing power of myth, especially in the case of the disenfranchised and the troubled, was evident. A speaker from Akron, Ohio, showed how African myths delivered with a ritualistic beating of a drum could touch the soul of even the toughest of gang bangers. The speaker is a poet and a musician; he is a listener with long patience. His African-American male students understood the meaning of a myth that addressed what they must give up to become an adult. In this instance, it was their clothes and bracelets and the isolated safety of a tree, but from the videos shown, it was clear that the young men knew the myth was about casting off their bad habits. They seemed to fully understand why mothers would suffer enormous difficulties to travel to that city where people are mended. And there is real “mending” taking place because the teacher has found the images and the myths that touch the souls of these young men.

In another session, the speaker spoke about how living myths have helped children on the autistic spectrum. He said that engaging mythology is about the suspension of time, belief and space; myths provide an entrance to an interior, make-believe, imaginal world. Myths are really life animated.

Six-year-old Owen had not spoken for about four years and out of the blue said to his father that his brother Walter, who was celebrating a birthday, was like Peter Pan; he didn’t want to grow up. The father, Ron Suskind, was shocked to hear his son speak and to use a complex sentence as well. He started speaking to his son in the puppet voice of Iago from Disney’s Aladdin, always staying in character. Owen reciprocated and his recovery was underway. We were treated to a delicious video in which Owen is on stage with comic Gilbert Gottfried, who was the voice of Iago for Aladdin. Owen was the voice of Iago’s sidekick Jafar. The conversation continued and until Gottfried forgot his lines and Owen became both voices, talking to himself and talking to the world.

The instructor cautioned us that Disney is not necessarily the answer to spectrum disorders. Every child is different and has a different imaginal universe. For some, farm animals seem to work; others find their voice and purpose through Thomas the Tank Engine, Minecraft, and the Periodical Table. He mentioned an Orthodox Jewish kid who found his way through NASCAR.

I suggested that this represents a wide range of images that appeal to autistic children. Does that mean everything in our world holds a potential benefit? He said, yes — exactly.

On reflection, I thought of post-Jungian James Hillman, who spoke of an en-souled word where everything is image, everything is archetype. He wasn’t referring to autism when discussing a return to imagination and why we might want to see the gods from the mythic Greek pantheon, not as centers of belief, but as perspectives on life and on our tumultuous inner psychologies. The talking cure in its diverse forms is a patient, mythic medicine re-enacted over time inside the healing rooms and inside our souls.