Home About Me My Books FAQ Reviews Essays etc. Space Miscellany Contact

Thumbnail: astronomical photo, nebula
The New Mythology of the
Space Age
by Sylvia Engdahl - Page 7 of 16
Thumbnail: movie poster for Star Wars

12. Theories of Myth from Depth Psychology

The revolution in understanding of myth that overturned the Victorian-era theories of anthropologists Tylor and Frazer (see lecture 6) occurred as a result of the contributions of Freud. Previously, the role of the unconscious mind in mythopoeic thought had not been recognized. Myths had been assumed to be rationally-based, primitive explanations of phenomena that differed from science only in their degree of accuracy; those made obsolete by science were viewed as superstitions. As the influence of Freudian theory spread during the first half of the 20th century, scholars in the fields of anthropology and literature alike began to realize that unconscious influences give rise to myth, and this view is now rarely contested.

However, to recognize the unconscious mind as the source of myth is by no means to accept Freud’s specific ideas about the meaning of mythic metaphors. These ideas were reductionistic and, in the eyes of many, far-fetched. As is well known, Freudian theory insists on reducing all symbols to sexual symbols. Freud even viewed religion as a sublimation of sexual impulses. His theories were very fashionable in the era before the sexual revolution (primarily, in my opinion, because they gave the intellectual elite an excuse to talk about sex when otherwise it wasn’t acceptable in polite society.) Now, when most of us aren’t shy about mentioning sex in other contexts, Freudian interpetations of myth are easier to judge objectively. (Again in my opinion, they’re often revealed as ludicrous.) This is not to say there is no sexual symbolism in myth; of course there is. But it’s certainly not the basis of every myth, and to take mythic ideas out of context, distort them to fit the confines of a narrow dogma, is surely a fallacy.

Freudian psychology in general, even apart from myth, has been on the wane for some time—first because it’s now evident that people have just as many psychological problems as they did when repression of sex characterized our society, and second because Freudian theory is not only sex-centered, but sexist. Feminists have rightly rejected many of its assertions. Nevertheless, there are still Freudians; the eminent psychiatrist Bruno Bettleheim was one of them. His book The Uses of Enchantment has been highly regarded and contains much of great value about the psychology of children and the effects of violence in fairy tales, applicable to myth of all types. It’s well worth reading if you can remain objective enough to remember the theoretical context from which Bettelheim derived his views—the most objectionable of which he did not originate—and ignore the extreme sexism in its interpretations of specific tales (which, if you’re a woman, may be difficult).

Although disagreement with Freud’s view of sex was one reason for Carl Jung’s break with him, it was not the most fundamental. There is a much deeper difference between the Freudian and Jungian views of the unconscious mind. Freud believed the unconscious contains nothing but material that has been repressed, and that it is thus entirely negative. Jung, on the other hand, believed that it is a also a source of positive, creative ideas, concepts that do not originate in the individual’s consciousness, but are present in what he termed the “collective unconscious” of the human race. Since this view corresponds much more closely to what we find in myth than the Freudian view, Jungian or semi-Jungian views now predominate among mythologists. Most of the popular-level books now appearing on myth are based on the ideas of Jung. Also, the use of mythic imagery in psychotherapy has become widespread not only among Jungian analysts but among clinical psychologists and counselors.

However, among academic psychologists and other scientists, Jungian views have been less widely accepted. The difficulty is that Jung could not explain how material from the “collective unconscious” gets into the individual unconscious mind. He believed that certain archetypes are inherited and thus universal, but he knew little about genetic evolution and did not try to discuss the issue in terms of biology. What he knew was that he observed particular metaphors from myth not only in diverse cultures, but in the dreams of patients who could not possibly have heard or read any myths in which they appeared. This happened consistently, and has continued to happen with the patients of Jung’s followers. The question of whether it is “paranormal” is sidestepped, and personally I feel no true evaluation of Jungian theory can be made until that question is confronted (which is not likely to happen soon in the field of academic psychology).

Jung emphasized over and over that he did not invent his theory and then force dream interpretation into it, as he was sometimes accused of doing; on the contrary, he derived the theory from his data about dream content. This important distinction is too often ignored by critics who claim that because according to today’s science there’s no such thing as a “collective unconscious,” the data collected by Jungians means nothing. After all, it’s never justifiable in science to sweep data under the rug. Mythologists have demonstrated, however, that archetypal images are not as universal in myth as Jung believed; even if his theories are valid with respect to some myths, they’re not applicable to all myths everywhere.

Jungian interpretations of myth are far preferable to those that attempt to reduce personal and religious concerns to biological or economic ones, and in this sense, I am in accord with them. But I also see problems. Jung, and to an even greater extent his followers, reduced all mythic images to a specific set of metaphors he called archetypes—a term with wider usage in other contexts—and asserted that these archetypes have specific psychological meanings. (Some of these, too, are essentially sexist, although modern Jungians are reinterpreting them.) For instance, Jung’s view of the UFO phenomenon focused on the shape of “flying saucers” because, in Jungian theory, circular images are archetypes representing the self, the center of the personality. This is only one step up from the view of the Freudians who used to call 40s-style rocket ships phallic symbols on grounds of their shape (a common interpretation no doubt related to the notion that space travel is an exclusively “male” interest). I’m sure the circle, or mandala, indeed symbolizes the self in some situations, but I’m also sure that myth is full of imagery in which shapes have no significance. Even Freud himself once commented that in dreams, “Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar.”

Many of the Jungian archetypes, however, are unquestionably valid in the sense that they appear over and over again in the myths of various cultures, always with similar meaning. These are generally cases in which the characters in the myth represent aspects of the psyche. Such generic characters as the Hero, the Wise Old Man, etc. are not mere stereotypes, but archetypes, and as such evoke deep emotional response from audiences. They should never be dismissed as mere “cardboard characters,” since their function is quite different from that of characters in serious fiction. The characters in Greek myth are now often seen in this light, as in the recent popular psychology books Goddesses in Everywoman and Gods in Everyman by Jean Shinoda Bolen.

The most notable example of the use of archetypes in space fiction is in the Star Wars trilogy, which was inspired by the ideas of Campbell as expressed in The Hero with a Thousand Faces although George Lucas also acknowledged Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment. It contains a blend of Jungian and Freudian symbolism (the latter being reflected primarily in the relationship between Luke and his father Darth Vader) as interpreted by Campbell, who, though often called a Jungian, did not adhere exclusively to any one theory of depth psychology. If you are interested in this aspect of myth, it’s essential for you to read Chapter 12 of Segal’s book for information about how his views differed from those of Jung.

13. The Structuralist Theory of Myth

The third major psychological theory of myth is that of French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who was interested not in psychotherapy but in the fundamental properties of the human mind. His theory, which is known as structuralism, has been very influencial not only in anthropology but in the field of literary criticism. It’s much too complex to go into here, and I personally don’t consider it applicable to Space Age mythology (in fact, Levi-Strauss has been criticized for deriving it exclusively from the mythologies of primitive cultures). A good book on the subject is Claude Levi-Strauss by Edmund Leach; though it may not be in print, it’s available in libraries.

The key principle in structuralism, as far as myth is concerned, is that Levi-Strauss believed that myths deal not with concepts, but structures, and that such structures correspond to the structure of the brain. Further, he saw dichotomy as the fundamental structure of everything, and asserted that myths are attempts to mediate between binary oppositions (raw/cooked, wild/tame, high/low, etc.) This, in my mind, is an extreme form of reductionism, however valid it may be in special cases. I’m tempted to say that by no stretch of the imagination can Space Age myths be forced into such a mold—however, some writers have attempted to do just that.

For instance, in the Spring 1977 issue of Journal of Popular Culture, William Tyrrell analyzes the Star Trek episode “This Side of Paradise” in terms of structuralist theory, which means diagramming its structure. He believes the myth is a mediation between the binary opposition “paradise” and “paradise lost”. Here’s his diagram:

Paradise as an idea:
SporesSpores then emotionsViolent emotions
Painless acceptancePainful acceptanceViolent emotions
Abdication of dutyReturn to dutyUnquestioned duty
Loss of selfSacrifice of selfSelf as all
Paradise as a Place:
Omnicron Ceti IIIEnterprise with crewEnterprise empty except for Kirk
DownTransporter RoomUp

Frankly, I cannot see that this tells us anything about the significance of myth that’s not clear in the plot synopsis he gives. Obviously, this particular story does concern a conflict between “the longing for paradise and the knowledge of its passing,” as he puts it. We don’t need a diagram to see that. Furthermore, all stories involve conflict—that’s what plotting is, and the reason writers plot is that stories with plots are more interesting and more memorable than mere series of incidents. For the same reason myths containing conflict have lasted, whereas many with none may well have been forgotten. But is there special significance in the binary nature of the conflict? Can all myths be diagrammed in such a way? Structuralists would say yes. Perhaps I am cynical, but it seems to me more likely that diagrams are valued in academia because they suggest “scientific” analysis and are thus an asset to the publishability of papers.

A stronger objection to structuralism is that it often obscures aspects of myth that don’t fit into its scheme. Tyrrell makes some excellent general statements about the functions of myth and Star Trek’s role in fulfilling these functions, yet he contends that the series “takes our roots and disguises them as branches for some of us to cling to.” He sees it as nothing more than “American myths clothed in the garb of science fiction,” and although this was certainly true of the plots of many episodes, it was not the aspect of the myth to which fans responded at the deepest level. This is shown by the conclusion of his paper, where he says, “...the series itself mediates between the past and the present by establishing a third time, that of first beginnings. It is a time with the anticipation and wonder of the future without the anxieties of the present, with the glory and security of the past without its remoteness...” But surely Star Trek mediates as much between present and future as between past and present, and no doubt the reason Tyrrell fails to perceive this is that his structuralist interpretation limits him to a dichotomy, rather than a trichotomy, demanding mediation. What’s more, he misses the underlying significance of Star Trek’s popularity, as distinguished from earlier “myths” such as Westerns, because its structure is indeed similar and in structuralist theory, structure is all that matters.

Another structuralist interpretation of Space Age mythology is that of Michael Carroll in a paper titled “Of Atlantis and Ancient Astronauts.” (Journal of Popular Culture, Winter 1977.) He says that both these myths provide a mediation of the NATURE/CULTURE opposition, and that the ancient astronaut myth “also resolves a second opposition, that of HIGH/LOW. Instead of simply stating that culture was given to the population of earth by the astronauts, all versions of this myth inevitably include the statement that the aliens (always assumed to be male) mated with human females, and that this union produced a new race of men. Such a scenario thus provides a psychological structure for mediating the opposition between HIGH and LOW by introducing a concept equivalent to HIGH (‘spacemen’), a concept equivalent to LOW (‘earth females’), as well as a concept (‘the new race of men’) that mediates between these two poles by being simultaneously associated with each.”

However, Carroll recognizes a significant flaw in this hypothesis: “But if these two myths really do resolve such universal dilemmas, an obvious question presents itself, namely, since these oppositions are universal, why doesn’t everyone in our culture accept those myths? Structuralist theory provides no help in answering such a question, as its practitioners never consider the possibility that the myths they are analyzing might not be accepted by all members of the society from which the myth was drawn.”

This strikes me as a rather serious problem with structuralist theory. Carroll’s way out is to argue that since individuals vary in the degree to which they can tolerate cognitive dissonance, “though oppositions like NATURE/CULTURE, LIFE/DEATH and HIGH/LOW might be universally perceived, only those individuals whose tolerance for dissonance is relatively low would need the dissonance-reducing structures provided by myth.” This is an interesting hypothesis with respect to the UFO myth, which I’ll go into in a later lecture. Howver, it doesn’t save structuralist theory, since there is another problem in Carroll’s interpretation. As he admits, any myth involving gods from the sky provides a cognitive structure for mediating the HIGH/LOW opposition, and it is a structuralist premise that this opposition in universal. Universal it may be under a pre-Space Age worldview—but to people who think in terms of the new worldview, Earth is not “lower” than space. The opposition becomes OTHER WORLDS/THIS WORLD, not HIGH/LOW; furthermore, contrary to Carroll’s statement, not all versions of the ancient astronaut myth include interbreeding. I think there are other, simpler ways to explain the psychological appeal of the ancient astronaut myth, which I’ll discuss when I deal with that myth specifically.

I should say that there are structuralists who interpret all science fiction as a mediation of the opposition KNOWN/UNKNOWN. This is valid description of SF’s general thrust and a partial reason for its popularity, but again, it obscures all other aspects of mythic significance. It still doesn’t say anything about why some cultures, and some individuals within those cultures, prefer one body of mythology over another.

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

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

Space Subsite Home
Lots more that I have written, or collected, about space!
Next Page