A Mythic Pattern Language

How to bring a myth to life (and share it with friends)

Kevin McGillivray
Apr 13 · 14 min read

In the Dark Forest, in the shade of the oldest tree, a circle convenes around a yearling trunk. Druids, young and elder, consult in hushed tones. A new seed is growing.

Dear Buster,

I’ve been enjoying a long simmer on your sagacious post on why and how we might rebuild the mythic realm. Following your lead, I’d like to share one way I’ve been experimenting with personal mythologies and how it’s going. However, I share your sense of difficulty with setting context, so I’ll start with a re-phrased summary of my takeaways from your post, both for my own anchoring and as a map for others who may be jumping in here (the next part is primarily a recap of Buster’s post, dear reader, so if you’re already caught up, feel free to skip ahead!).

🌿🧙🏻‍♀️🌿🧙🏻‍♀️🌿🧙🏻‍♀️🌿🧙🏻‍♀️🌿🧙🏻‍♀️🌿🧙🏻‍♀️🌿🧙🏻‍♀️🌿🧙🏻‍♀️🌿🧙🏻‍♀️🌿

We need a bridge

We have a deeply embedded need to feel connected to the meaningless universe, and we tend to feel meaning and clarity of purpose is slipping through our fingers every day. We all have responses to this feeling, which often contradict each other as we swing wildly from one “stance” to the other in an attempt to grasp something solid. Sometimes we throw ourselves into “missions” and burn out in work. Sometimes we rely on traditions and the belief in an eternal, ordering principle. Sometimes we connect our identities to tribes to feel belonging. Sometimes we fragment ourselves into brands across social media while privately practicing how to be a more authentic, true version of ourselves.

Like Fleabag in Fleabag Season 2, we long for the relief of someone to just tell us what to do, to tell us what clothes to wear, to have an unquestionable answer to what is good and meaningful:

I want someone to tell me what to wear every morning. I want someone to tell me what to eat. What to like, what to hate, what to rage about. What to listen to, what band to like. What to buy tickets for. What to joke about, what not to joke about. I want someone to tell me what to believe in. Who to vote for and who to love and how to… tell them. I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong. But I know that’s why people want people like you in their lives, because you just tell them how to do it. You just tell them what to do, and what they’ll get out of the end of it. Even though I don’t believe your bullshit and I know that scientifically nothing that I do makes any difference in the end anyway, I’m still scared. Why am I still scared? So just tell me what to do.

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In our complexifying, fragmenting, nebulous experiences, our already unreliable responses are becoming even less effective. Like an unstable material with a half-life, strategies that may have worked for a few generations, a decade, a few years, a month, a week in the past, are now unstable to the point of being completely ineffective. This is the root of the meaning crisis.

As our experiences have complexified, so have our tools within the realms of the Head, Heart, and Hands. We have attempted to discover ways connect to ourselves, our communities, and shared ideologies in these realms, but these tools have accelerated dissolving the old strategies, and there is a high frequency of translation errors and value disconnects between the realms. What matters in the Head realm rarely overlaps with what matters in the Heart realm.

So, we need a bridge between these realms. We need a realm that can provide translation services while also giving space for problems that each realm individually may not be able to contain. This bridge looks suspiciously like the one we dismantled because it didn’t seem useful anymore: the mythic realm. The realm of deities, demons, divine inspiration, fables, and witchcraft. Isn’t reliance on myths, legends, and rituals an ineffective strategy, no more “useful” to meaning today than the ruins of ancient temples would be useful as a supermarket?

And this is where your insights deserve repeating, Buster: we should take our time, be candid about the limitations of each realm, and carefully re-seed the mythic realm only with things that pass our own sense-making tests using the tools of the Head, Heart, and Hands.

Story and space

As you wondrously demonstrated with Snake Fables, Book I, one path forward is to re-imagine old mythic forms in our new context. Fables, and other forms of storytelling, are an ancient and effective package for sharing meaning and tradition.

Along with storytelling, another form we may be able to re-imagine is sacred space. Stories, fables, and parables have a central place in the old traditions, and when, where, how, and by whom those stories are told is equally important. Stories are deeply embedded in spaces. The “stories” of a building are called stories because each level of a church or castle contained sculptures and painted windows that told visual layers of stories and history.

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St. Norbert Abbey Church

Sanctuaries, holy sites, temples, and shrines are the environments where ritualistic storytelling and improvised roleplaying take place. The rhythm of storytelling in these spaces keeps the cycle of stories alive and relevant to the season, and the spaces themselves are designed to allow members of the community to enact rituals and play fluid roles as they continue their own journeys of becoming.

Sacred spaces aren’t limited to churches and temples, they’re also created in personal spaces and homes. In the Christian tradition, this Easter Sunday families will create the Easter Dinner Table pattern and carry out rituals around it that connect them to their stories, to each other, and to meaning. In each home this will look a bit different, and this year it may look very different and likely be mediated through a webcam, but the rituals continue in an adapted, improvised form.

Each individual and family knows exactly how to re-create the sacred space in a theme and variation that matches their own needs through a tradition described by a shared pattern language. Religions are great at distributing these shared patterns so everyone can follow a few rules of thumb and participate in the ritual on marked holy days and daily devotions.

Just like fables, I’d like to propose that we re-imagine how we create sacred spaces through new, mythic pattern languages. If we connect the pattern languages we use to shape our homes, neighborhoods, and towns to our personal and shared mythologies, we might enable deeper rituals of becoming and encourage access to the mythic mode both on special “holy” days and in the unfolding of our daily routines.

I’ll share how I’ve been experimenting with this, but first I’ll step back to share some context on what a pattern language is. If you’re already familiar with Christopher Alexander’s writing in The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language, feel free to skip ahead.

What is a pattern language?

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In The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander argued that everyone should participate in designing and building their own homes, and that our neighborhoods and towns should emerge from the millions of small decisions by individuals rather than from a top-down plan. For this to be possible and for a complex system to emerge that feels like a cohesive whole, everyone needs to share a pattern language — an easily understood set of rules of thumb and solutions to common problems — and a shared way of building that allows these patterns to emerge and evolve together as a whole.

In the context of building physical spaces, a pattern describes the layout and features of the space in rough guidelines along with activities or rituals that happen within the space. A pattern is complete when it includes the rhythm of events that “keep on happening” there.

Patterns resolve the forces at play within the psychological and physiological needs of the people and the space so they can come to a balanced state. A pattern that doesn’t resolve these forces falls apart in entropy, and a pattern that does sticks around and is able to be observed and recorded. In the nebulous cloud of forces at play, patterns lend coherence, relevance, and structure to a space. A coherent set of patterns allows people to live poetically and freely in the rhythm of their days.

Patterns aren’t prescribed from a theory or ideology, they emerge from the bottom up and are discovered through trial, error, and observation. When we see a thriving, beautiful place, we can sit and notice the patterns that are present in the space and make it feel alive with energy. By observing and recording these patterns, we can share them so that anyone can use them to create a space for themselves. When these patterns are sequenced and carefully described, they become a pattern language, a kit of parts with a set of grammatical rules that anyone can use to create new “sentences” that describe their spaces as they are or as they might be. Because every space is part of a whole with every other space, it’s important that the patterns are shared so our patterns support the patterns of others.

By using a pattern language, anyone can create a space that feels as alive and beautiful as any they’ve experienced. By following the “timeless way of building,” bringing one pattern at a time to life in order from most influential to smallest detail, anyone can have the ability to make a space that makes them feel alive. In A Pattern Language, Alexander shared a set of patterns he had experienced and recorded. For example, this might be a pattern language to describe a home:

- House for one person
- South facing outdoors
- Wings of light
- Positive outdoor space
- Site repair
- Main entrance
- Entrance transition
- Cascade of roofs
- Roof garden
- Sheltering roof
- Intimacy gradient
- Farmhouse kitchen
- Bathing room
- Home workshop
- Light on two sides of every room
- Sunny place
- Tree places
- Alcoves
- Window place
- The fire
- Bed alcove
- Open shelves
- Ceiling height variety

Each of these patterns has a description of what forces it resolves, the elements that make up the pattern, and its relationship to other patterns in the language. The list of patterns follows a sequence, with the most influential patterns near the beginning. A single home might be made of a hundred patterns, but the specific patterns, sequence, and construction of each pattern will vary in each building process to create a home that is unique but movingly beautiful. Each expression of a pattern is similar but unique to other expressions of the pattern. They aren’t exact duplicates, but shape themselves to match their own context, the way every leaf on a tree is the same but different.

Mythic pattern languages

Patterns are on the border between the Hand realm and the Heart realm. They are practical and tested suggestions for solving defined problems, to resolve forces at play within a space, and also a way to make spaces where humans feel alive and connected to meaning. In this liminal Hand/Heart space, perhaps they’re already a part of the mythic realm, or at least a gateway to it. The names of the patterns feel like timeless archetypes, and they’re all about rituals and rhythms.

Perhaps if we put on the “mystical spectacles” we can look deeper into these patterns that make up our environment and see further into the mythic realm. Perhaps by applying mythic mode directly to the pattern languages we use to shape our environments, our environments can become sacred spaces where we can fully immerse in improvisation and deep roleplaying rituals, not only telling stories but “experiencing the story from the inside” in our daily activity. And if we’re able to do that, perhaps we can even identify mythic patterns— patterns that resolve mythic forces — that can become a new shared language to make it easier to approach shared challenges in the space between the head, heart, and hands realms (and maybe even wicked problems).

Making a fantastic map

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A map from my weekly Dungeons & Dragons game

Dr Jason Fox has a wondrous way of talking about his work in an imaginative narrative. As he writes at a desk he also dwells within a tall wizard’s tower deep in a dark forest. His newsletter is list of emails in a database and a missive delivered by an Unkindness of Ravens. His website is a domain address and a server and it’s also a skyship, the Cleverness, that “explores nöospheric realms.”

Inspired by Jason’s story-like description of his work, I started to wonder what a fantastic map my own overworld might look like, and how that overworld might map to the actual spaces I live in each day. I wondered if by describing my work and interests within a fantastic landscape, it might be more accessible for others who want to connect with me.

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A prototypical map from Robin Sloan’s new game, Perils of the Overworld

As you know, this is the year of the diver for me. So themes of water, diving, and nauticalia are influential in shaping my myths, but the patterns that emerge on my map are diverse and reflect many facets of mythic forces at play.

Three primary Fantastic Locations have emerged: The Druid’s Treehouse, the Convivial Kitchen, and the Cozy Sailboat Cabin. There are also many other areas that I’m discovering and beginning to explore such as the Hinterland, the Ocean, the Reef of Small Wonders.

I often think about my own home in terms of a pattern language, but now I also think about how each pattern might become an expression of these mythic locations in my overworld. My desk is a Home Workshop from Christopher Alexander’s pattern language, and through the mythic lens it’s also the Druid’s Treehouse where I convene over web-roots with other druids (a daily standup with the software engineering team). My kitchen is the Cooking Layout, and also a Convivial Kitchen, a deep pattern that ties into my needs for familial conviviality and kitchen-y hobbies. The chair in the corner of my apartment is an Alcove and a Window Place, and also the Sailboat Cabin where I pen correspondence to stuff into bottles and reflect on deep dives.

Recently I also applied this idea to an update to my personal website. The patterns of the site follow the pattern language of many personal websites (Site Navigation, Home Page, Button, etc.). But the home page is both a home page and a harbor. The summary sections are a sea chart. The newsletters are letters in bottles. The site navigation is a compass rose.

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(Mythic) pattern language for a personal website

When visualized in a Roam graph, a pattern language even starts to look like a map with main roads, side trails, centers and hubs.

When I work with a pattern language in my home or my website, I follow the process outlined by Christopher Alexander in The Timeless Way of Building, building one pattern at a time, giving it as high intensity as I can as an expression of the pattern, and adapting it to fit the specific context it lives in. And now I simultaneously view the pattern through a mythic lens, to see how I might imbue it with a bit of magic from my fantastic map and deeply connect the rituals in the pattern to my own myths of becoming.

Qualities of mythic patterns

This is of course an experiment, but so far I’ve discovered a few interesting qualities of mythic patterns, distinct from the more “practical” foundation patterns they emerge from.

Portability

A mythic pattern is imbued into a physical space but it isn’t tied permanently to a single space. Your wizard’s tower can be your desk in an office at home, or a cozy corner table at a cafe. The pattern travels with you and can be evoked into a new shape at any moment when needed.

Narrative navigation beacons

As I go through my day, I can imagine where I am within my fantastic map, and I can tell a story about how I move through it. When I feel out of balance, I’ve probably been spending too much time in the Druid’s Treehouse and I could use some time in the Convivial Kitchen. When I feel dull and grumpy, I probably haven’t spent much time in the Cozy Sailboat Cabin, writing chatty letters and planning my next adventurous dive. As I transition between moments in the day, I can think about where on the map I should go next, and without knowing what’s going to happen or how the story will end, I can improvise my way through the rituals each space enables.

Heightened sensitivity to meaningness

Through physical layout and features, a pattern seeds an environment with meaning, emphasizing certain meanings out of the nebulous cloud of forces at play. Operating in mythic mode primes the recording plates of our perception to be sensitive to notice relevant meanings. Meaning itself is nebulous and patterned, and a mythic pattern language provides both the environment and the lens to see clearly through the clouds and co-create stories.

Immersive improvisation vs. entertainment

If mythic mode is a way of looking at the world through a story-like lens, a mythic pattern language gives us the scenic backgrounds, prompts, and props to improvise within the narrative without knowing the ending. Entertaining stories may provide a window into a realm of archetypes (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars), but the ending is out of our control and often predictable within the Hero’s Journey. A story that is improvised is a co-created emergence moving toward relevance for all players, “a myth of becoming.” A mythic pattern language gives us prompts to improvise through a series of scenes and rituals throughout the day in both our physical and digital spaces.

After building the pattern language for a space, the key is to leave builder mode and lean into mythic mode. To fully immerse in the rituals within the space, to experience the story from the inside and allow disorientation and un-knowing. The story’s ending is never certain and never the same twice, but through immersing and emerging we can get a real experience of meaning within the mythic realm.

🌿🧙🏻‍♀️🌿🧙🏻‍♀️🌿🧙🏻‍♀️🌿🧙🏻‍♀️🌿🧙🏻‍♀️🌿🧙🏻‍♀️🌿🧙🏻‍♀️🌿🧙🏻‍♀️🌿🧙🏻‍♀️🌿

Playing with these mythic maps is a lot of fun. It’s fun to spend time in this day-dreamy, imaginative state, to play with stories and immerse in seeing what happens next. I feel more nimble in how I transition through my day, and I feel more aware of my location within the map. I get fewer 404 errors within my own head. These are definitely familiar paths that I entered easily in childhood, and it feels like learning how to play again.

I’ve been exploring these mythic pattern languages in the context of designing physical and digital spaces, but perhaps this approach, along with fables, are part of a larger set of mythic patterns that are all ways to rebuild the mythic realm. I wonder what other folks think about this — does it add to the dialogue? Is it a possible way to internalize mythologies? Have I gone too deep or not deep enough? Either way, I’m leaving the Cozy Sailboat for tonight and I’m off to the Convivial Kitchen.

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

–Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658 (On Exactitude in Science . . . Jorge Luis Borges)

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