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The New Mythology of the
Space Age
by Sylvia Engdahl - Page 5 of 16
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8. More About Mythopoeic Thought

First, a caution about the term: it’s “mythopoeic,” not “mythopoetic”—there is no second “t” in it (although alas, I see that my new dictionary lists “mythopoetic” as a second choice, just as it lists certain other misspellings on the grounds of their being common). It is derived not from “poetic” but from “mythopoeia,” pronounced myth-o-PEE-a, which means “the making or perpetuation of myths.”

There is a lot of controvery about mythogenesis and the kind of thought—mythopoeic thought—that it involves. Part of this is its too-frequent equation with “pre-logical” thought, as I explained in lecture 7. Not only have there been claims that mythopoeic throught is “pre-logical,” but scholars who oppose these claims have said that therefore, there’s no such thing as mythopoeic thought! But most recognize that there are indeed two fundamental modes of human thought, of which the rational mode is only one, and that myths arise from the other mode—which is also the source of dreams, art, and many other expressions of human creativity.

As I also mentioned in lecture 7, the most fashionable terms for these two modes of thought outside the field of mythology, among laymen in any case, are “left-brain” and “right-brain” thought. These terms have become pop-psychology metaphors, to the dismay of scientists who realize that the issue is not nearly so simple. Ideas do not really arise from separate halves of the brain, and there is increasing doubt that even abilities do. A more promising theory is that the brain works like a hologram (still another metaphor). However, I will use the terms here because they are likely to be familiar to you, and are convenient shorthand for a concept that doesn’t yet have a good label.

So-called “left brain” thinking is logical, and is predominant in language and mathematics. So-called “right brain” thinking involves images and feelings. The “right brain” mode of thought is also what’s involved in altered states of consciousness, although it is by no means necessary to be in an altered state to think in “right brain” ways. In artists and poets “right brain” modes of thinking usually predominate, for instance. It’s important to realize that neither of these modes is “better” than the other except for specific activities. Culture does influence which is preferred, and a lot has been said about our culture teaching people to be “left-brained” and undervaluing cultures that go to the opposite extreme. Individual predisposition also plays a part. (For example, I am much more “left-brained” than average, which made me a good computer programmer but has interfered with my ability to write fiction except during brief periods of my life when, for reasons I wish I could explain, my “right brain” capabilities emerged.) On the whole, normal individuals use both modes of thought to one degree or another, and that’s as it should be.

Mythologists don’t use these terms, but they are talking about the same distinction when they argue that myth doesn’t arise from the same source as science, and is not perceived in the same way. Cultures in which myth is more important than science do—or did—value and encourage “right brain” thinking, whereas ours encourages “left brain” thinking. The crucial significance of the difference is that it’s unfair to judge myth as if it were meant to be understood in the “left brain” mode. It’s not (except insofar as we may learn to understand it by analyzing, which is a “left brain” activity). We cannot say that people are silly or stupid to find meaning in myths, any more than we can say that they’re silly or stupid to find meaning in art. And this goes for our current ones—those related to UFOs, for instance—as well as for ancient ones.

There is some evidence that the human mind actually perceives in terms of metaphors when in the “right brain” mode of thought, and that the brain cannot distinguish such visualizations from reality. Psychologists used to assume that “hallucinations” were always pathological, but that view is being challenged. The practice of employing visualization techniques for therapeutic purposes, and even for athletic training, is spreading; and this trend is uncovering fascinating new facts about how the mind operates. These recent developments have not yet, to my knowledge, been applied to the study of myth; but they are potentially very significant. It may be that mentally-healthy people who believe they’ve conversed with gods or angels (or with UFO aliens) really do have such metaphoric perceptions.

Thus the borderline between the realms influenced by the two modes of thought is being blurred. We can no longer say that what we consciously perceive as real is determined solely by the rational processes of our minds. Nor can we say this of our memories. Current research centered on recovered memories of abuse is revealing that although there are many cases in which abuse did occur, not all such memories are reliable; false memories indistinguishable from real ones are both common and normal. In her book The Myth of Repressed Memory (“myth” here in the sense of mistaken idea) psychologist Elizabeth Loftus suggests “that the ‘literal’ and the ‘metaphorical’ be respected as separate and distinct entities... [I]t would seem wise and prudent to appreciate the metaphor for what it is—a symbolic representation rather than a literal re-creation... [I]f the patient’s [unconscious] mind is playing with symbol and imagination to create idiosyncratic poetry while the therapist is searching amidst the metaphors for literal fact, somebody is bound to be confused.” She quotes psychotherapist Donald Spence: “Narrative truth is confused with literal truth, and the very coherence of an account may lead us to believe we are making contact with an actual happening. Conviction emerges because the fit is good, not because we have necessarily made contact with the past.” In a quite different context, then, there is new recognition not only of one possible basis of the alien abduction phenomenon (which we will examine later in the course) but of a fundamental idea essential to the understanding of mythology.

Mythopoeic or “right brain” thinking involves more access to the unconscious mind than “left brain” thinking. It’s easy to see this in the case of dreams, but it is also true of all creative activity—even the inspirations of scientists, which sometimes arise in dreams and in any event arise prior to the rational analysis applied to them. And it’s in this area that the controversies among mythologists are grounded; the basic differences between them lie in their different conceptions of the unconscious mind. The major competing theories of myth are those of Freud, Jung, and Levi-Strauss (none of which, in my opinion, is wholly satisfactory). Theories that don’t acknowledge the role of the unconscious mind are on the wane, because it has become apparent in our era that the unconscious mind can’t be ignored, even if both Freud and Jung were wrong about its nature.

I will go into more detail about the major theories in later lectures, even though I don’t agree with them, because you will encounter them in your reading. Briefly, Freud believed the unconscious mind contains only material that’s instinctive or has been repressed; Jung believed it also contains inherited archetypes; and Levi-Strauss believes the metaphors that arise from it have a structure based on that of the brain. The question is, can any of these theories fully account for the spread of specific mythological metaphors or for the strong emotional impact they have on people?

In my opinion, they cannot. What else, then, can explain it? Someone is bound to ask that question, so I’ll mention my own view at the outset. Personally, I believe there is some sort of “paranormal” communication involved, not only in mythogenesis, but in most “right-brain” activity. Obviously this is a more heretical view than my other ideas, and the necessity for dealing with it is a major factor in the delay of my work on a scholarly book-length presentation of my ideas about Space Age mythology. I don’t want to be classed as an “occult” or “pop New Age” author. However, some scholars have recently published similar speculations; there’s a lot of current research into areas involving the so-called paranormal, and there are signs that the mention of it is becoming more respectable than it used to be. I think I’ve been wise to wait before trying to develop my hypothesis. In any case, this course doesn’t depend on it, since our focus here is on the role of the media in reflecting and disseminating the new mythology—which is surely very large, no matter how many other factors contribute to that mythology’s emergence.

9. Ancient vs. Modern Mythic Images

Here is a quotation from a chapter on Egyptian mythology by the scholar Rudolf Anthes from Mythologies Of The Ancient World. Though it refers only to the Egyptians, his definitions also apply to other mythologies. (His use of the term “divine world” may be misleading in other contexts, but his definition of it isn’t limited to what we would necessarily term “divine.”)

Referring to Egyptian cosmology, Anthes says, “Four different Egyptian concepts of the sky are attested to here: a cow, an ocean, the woman Nut, and a roof. All of these concepts were accepted as correct by those who were responsible for the ornamentation of the royal tombs... Nobody in Egypt was supposed to believe in one single concept of the sky, since all the concepts were accepted to be valid by the same theologians. Furthermore, since the Egyptians had as much common sense as we have ourselves, we may conclude with certainty that no one, except perhaps a very unsophisticated mind, took the composite picture of the heavenly cow at its face value... There is no question that at the very beginning of their history, about 3000 B.C., the Egyptians were aware that the concept of the sky could not be understood directly by means of reason and sensual experience. They were conscious of the fact that they were employing symbols to make it understandable in human terms. As no symbol can possibly encompass the whole essence of what it stands for, an increase in the number of symbols might well have appeared enlightening rather than confusing.”

... “An Egyptian ‘mythological concept’ is a concept by which man tried to make comprehensible in human terms a figure, an event, a group of figures, or a sequence of events which appear to him to belong to the ’divine world.’” (Under “figure” he seems to include entities such as sky and sun.)

“The expression ‘divine world’ encompasses whatever cannot be explained directly by human reasoning and sensual perception even though it appears to exist. Naturally, many entities which can be grasped and explained directly in our present time, such as the sky and the sun, belonged to the divine world in the mind of the ancient Egyptians. In no event and in no time, however, can an entity of the divine world be grasped by the human mind except by means of a symbol.”

A ‘symbol’ is the manifestation of a human attempt to make an element of the divine world conceivable in human terms, that is, in terms of logic and sensuous perception, although these do not necessarily conform with the laws of nature. The Egyptian sages of about 3000 B.C. were aware of this fact and did not mistake a symbol for an actual replica of what it represented. An Egyptian symbol in this sense may take the form of either an object or an action or words. While not every symbol is a mythological concept, every mythological concept is symbolical of an entity of the divine world. Obviously, the truth of a symbol cannot possibly be judged by reason. A mythological concept is true if it makes something of the divine world conceivable in human terms and as long as it is accepted by man’s faith.

... “This was not a period of primitive men. The idea that a qualitative change of the human mode of thinking took place in history, from a ‘magical’, ‘prelogical’ or ‘mythopoeic’ mind in the past to a rational and scientific mind in our period, is not supported by the history of Egypt... It is not the quantity of knowledge which decides the quality of intellect. A necessary criterion for the intelligence of man seems to be the question of whether or not he is aware of the limits of his knowledge... Egyptian history suggests that at about 3000 B.C. in Egypt ‘magical mind’ and ‘rational mind,’ i.e., religious and logical manners of thinking, were in a better balance than they were at about 1000 B.C. in Egypt, or in the present-day world, for that matter. The early Egyptians employed reason in the highest degree where it was called for and approached with due reverence what was beyond their understanding.”

* * *

We still accept symbols on precisely this basis, knowing that they are symbols. Some people may believe in literal interpretations of them, but not everyone does. We usually separate religious and secular symbols and we don’t call whatever we can’t explain in rational terms “divine,” but the principle is the same for all things we can’t fully understand. We present what we don’t know in terms of metaphors taken from what we do know.

Science fiction is one set of metaphors we use for this—and notice that we do have a variety of conflicting symbols for the same concept, just as the Egyptians did. (It is more complicated with us, because we also have conflicting symbols for different concepts of the same things, due to the fact that we don’t all agree in our philosophies.) Science fiction does not deal just with things science can explain; more often it deals with those we can’t explain, even if we tend to feel the symbols are accurate.

For instance, we don’t know how to deal with vast interstellar distances, but it’s practically certain that it’s not feasible to travel around from one civilization to another with starships like the Enterprise! What we do feel sure about—as an intuitive feeling rather than on the basis of logic—is that we won’t always be limited to a single solar system (despite the pronouncements of many scientists to the contrary) and so we think in terms of a Federation with a fleet of starships traveling at warp speed. Centuries from now this will seem just about as naive as the Egyptians’ heavenly cow, and people will say, surely science knew that you can’t do it that way! And of course we do know, but we have to think in terms of symbols comprehensible to us. The incomprehensible can’t be described except metaphorically; if it could, it would no longer be incomprehensible.

There is, to be sure, a fundamental difference between our idea of the incomprehensible and that of ancient cultures. Such cultures viewed the incomprehensible as sacred and believed that it should be approached with reverence. They did not expect that humans could ever acquire knowledge about it in the same sense as they had knowledge of the mundane world. We do not look at things that way. We have the benefit of hindsight; we know that human knowledge can be increased. Consequently, our concept of sacred reality vs. human reality is unlike the ancient one, and some—though by no means all—in our culture would say that the very idea of a distinction is meaningless. Thus, although the study of mythology has traditionally been confined to study of ancient mythologies and most that has been written identifies it with views of the sacred, this cannot be a valid criterion in our era. The fact that Space Age mythology rarely displays reverence toward the universe, even when dealing with essentially religious questions, is a cultural characteristic rather than an indication that we have no myths.

Copyright 1995, 2003 by Sylvia Engdahl. All rights reserved.

If you got to this page by searching, please read the Introduction to the series.

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