Myth defying circumstances

How to account for the continuing popularity of Jung’s crackpot theories? The “collective unconscious” is mysticism lite, and has a strong whiff of racialism about it. And no one ever prayed to an archetype.

The myth-mongers perpetuate a number of questionable assumptions, in my opinion: 1) that the main purpose of religion is to answer ultimate questions; 2) that the role of the individual storyteller in shaping religious narratives is minimal; 3) that sacred stories point inward, rather than outward; and 4) that our experience of inwardness is universal, or at least the norm.

On the contrary: 1) In actual practice, where universalizing ideologies intermingle with local traditions and everyday concerns, religion can play many different roles for many different people. Generally speaking, I think, very few people ever concern themselves with so-called ultimate questions on a regular basis. Those who do may be revered as saints and holy (wo)men, their tombs may become sites of pilgrimage, but few seek to follow their example. Instead, the great mass of believers want from saints the same sorts of things they want from their gods and ceremonies: good luck; affirmation and security; therapy; miracle cures; guidance through life crises; a sense of belonging; better stuff; inspiration; social status; etc. To posit a higher plane where the Big Questions only are permitted simply recapitulates the elitist views of the promulgators of official, institutionalized religion.

The other three generalizations I’ve identified are also colored by ethnocentric and elitist biases unsupported by ethnography. 2) Some peoples do indeed view sacred stories as received wisdom that the storyteller alters at his/her peril. But others expect and celebrate improvisation in the retelling or reenactment of divine escapades. (See examples below.) 3) The ego/environment split is no older than the Industrial Revolution. Reactions included not only the Romantic revolt but also the so-called Great Awakening, where for the first time the fate of the individual soul trumped any concern about community. Before this time, I think it is fair to say that accounting for customs, preserving a community’s sense of identity and inculcating social norms were chief among the purposes served by sacred narratives. 4) A division between inner and outer is fairly meaningless in societies where individualism is not highly stressed, and/or where what we conceive of as the environment is seen as a kind of divine rebus. The World Religions all stress inwardness, but this strikes me as less an innovation than an attempt to compensate for the loss of richness that attended the cancerous spread of hierarchical and warlike societies across the globe. For example, according to one theory, monasticism played a pivotal role in the growth of armies: a conscious attempt to rein in the bands of marauders and brigands that had always posed such a threat to the established order. The shaved head of both the soldier and the monk testify to their submission to collective order and unity.

As commerce and empires spread their monocultures of the mind (in Vandana Shiva’s evocative phrase), cultural diversity suffers. Where once the body might have been thought to harbor three or more souls, now it houses only one. Where once one’s afterlife destination(s) might have been viewed as a consequence of the circumstances of one’s death – to the extent that it was thought about at all – now it is seen as reward or punishment for the conduct of one’s life. (This points in two directions: toward the breakdown in social taboos associated with the growth of polities to a point where anonymity is possible, and toward the projection of the apparatus of the state upon the cosmos.) Local gods are abandoned or subsumed by an ever-more-remote godhead, and tricksters vanish or turn sinister. Divine possession and other forms of ecstasy are demonized or pushed to the social margins. Ritual performance becomes the monopoly of an elite few. Religious behavior becomes monotonal, a matter of high seriousness. With the growth and spread of literacy, the stories can be effectively frozen in time. The sacred text becomes a new idol. The world of nature becomes increasingly stereotyped, its revelations dismissed as illusory or worse. Eventually, even reading out loud is abandoned for the quintessentially inward experience of silent reading and study.


Myths of the origin of humans vary widely in the Chaco, not only from tribe to tribe but from teller to teller. . . . In a Lengua account the Creator is said to have been an enormous beetle, who first caused evil spirits to come out from under the ground, then produced a man and a woman from the grains of soil he had thrown away.
John Bierhorst, The Mythology of South America (William Morrow, 1998)


Weep Wizard, 1979:
One of the Power-People had a dream. Some say it was the first Power-Man, some say it was the Ultimo and some say Maria Castellana: one of them had a dream. They would find what they wanted in a place struck by lightning, said the dream. Well, let’s say it was Diego Poklaj: he walked along the ridge of Volcano-Volcano and on down to Volcano-Her-Children [= local toponyms]. There he was caught by a strong south whirlwind rain until he took refuge under a tree. He got soaked. A big lightning struck there and he knew it was a sign, but a sign of what he didn’t know.

In the afternoon, the sun came up and nearby where Diego Poklaj, Diego dust, had taken shelter and had his dream, there was this old, beaten up tree: a tz’ajtel tree, an old one, really cut to pieces and hacked about. Diego Poklaj looked at it and said to himself, ‘Christ! They couldn’t mean this thing, it’s a mess, it’s far too soft, it sucks!’ And he passed it by. So he heard a whistle behind him. He went back to the tree and asked, ‘What’s the big idea?’ the tree just grunted back. ‘Are you the chosen one?’ said Poklaj. The tree just grunted. So Poklaj took out his stone hatchet and chopped.

Nathaniel Tarn with Martin Prechtel, Scandals in the House of Birds: Shamans and Priests on Lake Atitilan (Marsilio, 1997)


Abstractions do not provoke loyalty in [the Vodou priestess] Alourdes. She continues . . . to locate those individuals who can be called her people because she knows them and because they have earned the title.

But these days she casts her net more widely, and the group she includes in it is more diverse. Alourdes has always shown courage and creativity in taking on the new and the foreign. Through her, at my marriage ceremony, Danbala moved her whole community to a broader response to the question, Who are my people? This may be the way of the future for Vodou in the immigrant communities. But such a path leads to both gains and losses. Vodou can share its wisdom and its healing techniques with a larger and more varied group; but as the group of potential devotees expands, the spirits will also become more universalizable, the faces of the spirits less transparent to those of the ancestors, and the stories that carry the wisdom of the religion more abstract.

Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (University of California Press, 1991)

See also That old-time religion, Cat’s cradle and It’s art, dammit!

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