The Role of Myths and Symbols

Theseus killing the
Inspired by the book The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell as well as Progressive Witchcraft by Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone, I decided to dedicate a post to the role of myths and symbols in Wicca and religion in general.

Myths practically make up the religious aspect of Wicca. Just so there is no misunderstanding, the word "myth" doesn't have to refer to a made-up story. Etymologically, it can be traced back to the Greek word mythos and the Latin word mythus. Both of them refer to stories, thoughts speeches or basically any sort of story which comes from either a written or oral source. Of course, symbols are an integral part of any ritual and much can be achieved by learning how to manipulate them.

Then again, myths aren't always true stories either, but it is important to differentiate the true ones from the untrue ones (although both types are equally as important in a  moral and religious sense). Myths exist for a reason - to teach. A good example of this are fairy tales which are full of symbols and are basically myths themselves. I honestly doubt that every fairy tale written down by the brothers Grimm is true (although you now the saying: there's a grain of truth in every "lie"), but in the time when most people didn't know how to read or write, the only way to convey a moral lesson was by telling stories or through pictures.

Just as every myth has its meaning, so does every symbol. Symbols exist to summarize a certain though (or sometimes even a whole story) into a picture which everyone can understand, and that includes the illiterate. It goes without saying that symbols' meanings vary from nation to nation, from individual to individual and from religion to religion. The only thing I feel bad about is that we have come to the point when we feel the need to call certain symbols ours and nobody else's. For example, the Latin cross is the holy symbol of the Christian faith while most Christians will look on a pentagram a symbol of everything evil. Or better said, if a symbol isn't "yours", then it must be evil and perverse. People often forget that symbols are a very private thing too and, according to this, it's logical to conclude that what is a bad symbol to one person can be a good symbol to another. This individuality of every symbol makes it impossible for them to be generally good or bad.

I read in a certain book that mythology is basically dramatized psychology. I agree with this statement because every myth originates from the human psyche. Myths centered around heroes, beautiful damsels, dragons, goblins and other amazing creatures...all of them decorate our psyche with a nice big red bow and wrap it into a nice little compact package which future generations can inherit. So instead of the Savior, you'll have a hero, the dragon will embody an actual physical danger of psychological problem and so on. Jesters will always be jesters, and kings will always be kings, but all of them will be based on reality.

Myths, fairy tales and other stories are special because they penetrate our subconscious. What we will consciously hear will be a nice story which is told for fun, but our subconscious will hear an intense moral lesson or perhaps a warning.

Carl Gustav Jung
At the moment, I'm reading the book Let Me Tell You a Story by Jorge Bucay. I sincerely recommend it to all fairy-tale, anecdote and myth lovers because the book is conceived so that every chapter is a story of its own with its own message. It really is a lot of fun to read, but I am aware that all of those stories will remain engraved into my brain precisely because of the messages that they convey, while a romance novel, popular novel or random short story will probably fade out of my memory much faster because it's only purpose is to entertain and kill time. Classical books and classical writers are big (as in basic and classical) because of their ability to control these messages, hide them inside the text and the ability to dramatize in addition to, of course, the amusement aspect of that piece of literature. The canon of literature is somehow made up of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the infamous Faust, the Bible with its many morals and poets such as Dante or Petrarch who, each in their own time, conveyed certain messages through their works, keeping in mind that they had to be appropriate for that period and situation. Oh, and it's worth nothing that these messages were often politically and/or religiously conditioned.

Let me turn to Carl Gustav Jung's psychology for a moment who has, of late, become an important figure in the world of Paganism and Witchcraft. He analyzed both the conscious and unconscious human psyche in great detail and divided it the following way:
  • The Ego (the conscious aspect)
  • The Shadow (an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not recognize)
  • The Anima (the hidden female aspect in every man)
  • The Animus (the hidden male aspect in every woman)
  • The Personal Unconscious (where the desires, urges, frustrations etc. or an individual are hidden) 
  • The Collective Unconscious (a collection of the unconscious things on a global scale which developed in time. This term is often connected with phenomenons such as telepathy, divination and magical works in general)
  • The Persona (the mask which the Ego wears)
  • The Self (our basis as well as the basis of our psychological personality)
With this, I return back to the aforementioned conscious and unconscious parts of the mind which perceive myths and symbols in different ways. The Ego will look at myths as mere stories, while the Unconscious will recognize everything hidden in them. People have gotten a bit too used to communicating only through the Ego, talking in a rational way and in the process have forgotten to satisfy their unconscious needs. The Unconscious hides all our wants, fears, doubts and our hopes. By separating ourselves from all this, we have become less spiritual, less in tune with ourselves because every person needs both the conscious and unconscious to be complete.

It is necessary to attune these two aspects for us to understand ourselves. For example, if the Ego tells us that we consciously have to lose weight (I chose this simply because it is a  common problem in modern society) and if we constantly repeat this then we will develop a complex in the Unconscious, especially if we unconsciously believe that we can't do this, or if we simply repeat it too much. Complexes don't appear willfully, but unconsciously. I hope I managed to explain the roles of consciousness and unconsciousness more clearly with this example.

Anyway, when we become aware that we have to balance these two aspects out, we need to actually do it. It is necessary to let the Ego listen to the Unconscious, which communicates through symbols, every now and then. It is the understanding of these symbols that will help us on our spiritual/religious paths. I believe (and I emphasize that this is my opinion) that religious people are much more in tune with their Unconscious self that non-religious people. For example, religious people will often take notice of the meanings of their dreams (which are one way the Unconscious communicates), while the non-religious people will more likely laugh at this and cast dreams aside as something completely unimportant.

In the same manner, religious people will, in my opinion, understand myths and symbols on a more personal and deeper level. And since rituals are made up of both (as I explained at the beginning of this post), they will also be attracted to rituals. In this sense, rituals are a way of connecting with the Unconscious. Tom Chetwynd defined rituals as "the dramatic enactment of myth, designed to make a sufficiently deep impression on the individual to reach his subconscious". 

For the example of a ritual, I'll take the Christian mass and the role the Eucharist plays in it. Some people find it hard to understand that mass and rituals are the same thing. The word "ritual" or "rite" come from the latin word ritus (early 14th century) which refers to any sort of religious tradition or ceremony. Remember that people often use the word ritual in contexts such as "my morning ritual includes taking a shower and brushing my teeth". Therefore, this word can also be used to refer to mundane situations, but it is always closely related to some sort of tradition (something that you usually do!). We can say that a tradition/ritual or holding mass exists in Christianity. The word "mass", on the other hand, has a slightly different meaning. This word probably came to be used because of the sentence "Ite, missa est" (which is usually translated as "Go, the Mass has ended"). This was spoken at the end of every ceremony sending the message that the people may now go once the prayere has been "sent". It is clear from this that the Latin word missa can be the root of the English word mass, but its worth noting that its direct translation would be dismissal.

To go back to the role of the Eucharist (Gr. εὐχαριστία i.e. eucharistia or thanks); it actually serves as a symbolical "thank you" to Jesus Christ for his sacrifice and through drama (the playing out of a certain part of the Last Supper, the eating of the bread and wine) reaches our subconscious. The Last Supper itself is a myth (by this I don't want to say that it's true nor that is not true but merely that it has become a story through time - look at the definition of the word "myth" above) in which Jesus used the symbols of bread and wine to convey his message. These symbols are used to this day in masses to convey that same message. It is clear that myth and symbolism play a big role in rituals of other faiths, and not only in Wicca.

In conformity with this, myths as extended symbols/sets of symbols play the same role as rituals. The only difference is that the individual can directly take part in rituals but cannot do so with myths. While listening to the story of the Last Supper, people stand aside as observers, but during mass, they actually take on the role of the Apostles and physically take part in the Eucharist thus becoming part of the myth. THIS is ritual. This is precisely the whole point of mass; becoming a part of the myth, enter through it your own subconscious and become connected to it.

For what reason would and Pagan ritual be less worthy or any different from a Christian one? It's like comparing two fairy tales, or two myths. They may be differently written, but their goal is the same - convey a certain message and reach the Unconscious.

You're familiar with the saying "a picture is worth a thousand words", but pictures don't speak with words; the communicate through symbols. It is because of this that you will find churches full of statues, pictures and other pieces of artwork. This is why visual depictions are kept on altars, both Pagan and those belonging to other faiths. According symbols, tools and robes are also used for this purpose. Everything around us is full of symbolism which we unconsciously pick up. You don't need iconological knowledge to unconsciously understand the point of the whole story. It's enough to feel something inside you, to hear that quiet voice in the back of your mind.

Symbols are ambivalent! That's why they tell us so much more than words.

We may come across many apparently different things that have the same symbolic meaning and vice versa - one thing that may have many different meanings. All of this depends on one's culture, tradition, gender, religion, social background, bringing up etc.

I will take as an example the color green and its many meanings and the symbol of the lion, which also has many meanings.

Voltaire once said "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.". God is just another archetype (lat. archetypum, the first idea/model/type, another Jungian idea) without which the human consciousness would be completely altered. Some go so far as to say that our consciousness would simply collapse if we didn't perceive a higher power, the primeval.

I'll leave it to you to think about this quote a bit more. This is, after all, a very broad topic which is very hard to cover in such a short post as this so I'll take this as an excuse for jumping from subject to subject like this (all with the intention of covering as much ground as possible).

If you are interested in going a bit deeper into all of this, I recommend you read something by Carl Jung, the books which I mentioned at the beginning of the post and perhaps the book entitled A Witches' Bible by Janet and Stewart Farrar (this is actually a longer version of their book Eight Sabbats for Witches) which also served as a great basis for this post.

Until next time. Yours,
Witch's Cat

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