This can be very difficult for people who were raised in a faith tradition which presents itself as fact, which most of us here in the USA were. I was raised in such a tradition. I grew up believing the Bible was literally true; burning bushes, talking snakes, resurrection from the dead and all. When I was no longer able to stretch my imagination that far – coincidentally, that happened at about the same time I discovered beer and actually got to touch a girl’s boobies – I rejected the whole thing. I threw the baby Jesus out with the holy water, so to speak. The Bible wasn’t literally true, therefore it was all lies, lies, lies and propaganda. Perhaps this sounds familiar.
The “myth is metaphor” concept came to me via Joseph Campbell’s Power Of Myth series which I watched with a girlfriend at her Mom’s place up in Maryland. We had to do something while her Mom was at work besides fuck. I was really high when we started watching it and kept running out to smoke more between programs. It blew my mind, man. I couldn’t make any sense of it until I got clean, which happened seven or eight months later.
So how does one read myth metaphorically?
Like dreams, myths come up from the unconscious mind. The genesis of any myth is the unconscious mind of one individual, a shaman, seer or visionary, who then tells the story to the group. If the story resonates with the group, if it reflects their own dream experiences, they will adopt it into their store of lore. Over time, the story gets worn in, so to speak, edited and refined to best suit the collective unconsciousness of the entire group. Myths, being dreamlike, should be interpreted as dreams are interpreted.
When you dream, everything in the dream is you. Say, for example, you dream that a monster is chasing you through your grandmother’s house. In the dream, you are you, the monster is you and your grandmother’s house is you. Of course, you most identify with the you in the dream, but when you’re interpreting the dream, you should also investigate the other components as aspects of you. It all has meaning, but the stuff that catches your attention probably has more meaning. That doesn’t mean that the background stuff doesn’t mean anything, just that the foreground action is more pressing. It may be that some little detail in the background stays with you despite the fact that it seems meaningless and random. Obviously, that niggling little detail matters.
There are plenty of dream interpretation books that will tell you what the symbols in your dreams mean. I generally avoid those on the grounds that symbols have different meanings for different people and that it’s going to be more profitable for me to interpret dreams using free association than some set of symbols that somebody else came up with. Nevertheless, I do recognize that I live within a cultural context. I have been implanted with some symbols by the literature and language of the culture and it behooves me to have some familiarity with the symbols that culture regularly uses. The same is true of myth. There are symbols which are used over and over and which can be said to have accepted meanings. One example would be: in Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s Parcival, Parcival is traveling in despair. He has lost all hope of finding the Holy Grail, but must continue to search for it. Having no idea which way to go, he lets his reins go slack, giving his horse the freedom to go where it will. In European myth, the horse/rider pair represents one individual in two parts: the rider represents the mind of the individual, the horse, the body which has its own knowledge. When Parcival lets go of the reins, he is relinquishing control of the adventure to the knowledge of his body. That is, he is letting go of his conscious mind and allowing his instinct/unconscious mind guide him. This particular symbol is probably applicable to any horse-riding culture. Dragons, on the other hand, have very different meanings in Europe and Asia. If you’re reading a myth which features dragons, the continent of origin of the myth is going to matter because that information will tell you what the dragons mean.
I’m going to assume that anyone reading this knows the story of Jonah and the whale. If you don’t, go find a King James Bible and read the book of Jonah. Seriously. A synopsis follows, but there is no excuse for not knowing the story of Jonah and the whale.
Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh to preach. Fearing violence in Nineveh, Jonah tries to avoid heeding God’s call. He takes a ship going the other way. A storm blows up. The sailors on the ship, being somewhat knowledgeable about this sort of thing, figure out that the storm is the result of divine anger. Jonah admits that he is at fault and the sailors throw him overboard to avoid sharing his fate. A huge fish, or whale, swallows him. Jonah repents of his refusal to obey God and begs for forgiveness. The whale swims to shore and vomits Jonah out on the beach. Chastised by the experience, Jonah goes to Nineveh.
As I read it, I am called by God, who is part of me as I am part of God, to perform some task, a task which I am capable of performing and which is suitable for me. Afraid that I will be unable to perform the task or fearing negative repercussions if I succeed, I try to avoid the whole thing altogether. In fact, I try to do the very opposite of what God, the small, still voice within, wants me to do. Nothing goes right, because I make everything go wrong. Finally, I find myself in a worse condition than I ever thought to be afraid of, trapped with myself inside myself. In desperation, I appeal to the very God I had sought to escape for help. Immediately, I am set on my feet and the way opens up before me. I realize that by following God’s plan, I put myself into accord with God’s plan, which is going to be done in Heaven and Earth, whether I want it to be or not.
The story of Jonah and the whale is one I’m especially fond of. I was raised with it and never got it until after I’d lived it. I followed the script to the letter. Now I’m out of the whale, looking and smelling and feeling much better than I was and preaching to Nineveh via The Big Drum In The Sky Religion.
I could have used The Bhagavad Gita instead of “Jonah and the Whale”. Or I could’ve continued with Parcival. They’re all about the importance of figuring out what one’s path is and following it even when it seems scary or futile or not profitable. The Jesus story is the same thing: follow your path even if it means death, which isn’t really death after all. The Buddha story is the same. Actually, most of the myths seem to be about following the path, Tao, God’s will, dharma, whatever.
There are other deeper symbols in “Jonah and the Whale”, but I don’t want to give it all away. Myths are written the way they are because they make for better stories that way and also because the act of deciphering them makes them more meaningful.
Maybe “Jonah and the Whale” doesn’t resonate with you in any way. The same approach works just as well with any myth. Think of one that does mean something. Perhaps one you remember from childhood. Lay in bed with your eyes closed and let that myth roam around in your brain. If you start to get sleepy, just let it happen. Pleasant dreams.