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The Myths of Reality

from psychoanalysis to cognitive linguistics:

psychology and the study of folklore and mythology

Bob Trubshaw

Scope of this article

The ideas of Sigmund Freud (1865–1939) and Carl Jung (1875–1961) have deeply influenced twentieth century thinking. A number of terms they invented, such as 'the unconscious', 'ego' and 'archetypes', have entered everyday language. Their theories drew heavily on attempts to interpret mythology. No surprise then that their ideas have been applied by folklorists and mythologists to understand lore and myths.

However, despite the widespread influence of Freud, Jung and their many followers, these ideas are deeply problematical. As few folklorists and mythologists have any need to delve deeply into psychology, psychiatry or the current interdisciplinary studies of consciousness, this article attempts to summarise these problems and show how this in turn raises problems about folkloric and mythological interpretations based on Freudian and Jungian models.

Significantly, some of the writers about folklore and mythology best known outside of academe adopted largely Jungian approaches. A vast popular literature has drawn upon these popularisations. The authors of such books often further muddy their subject matter by adopting outmoded comparative approaches to folklore and mythology. The result is that a number of present day 'belief systems', from neo-paganism to the mythopoetic men's movement of Robert Bly, have a world view that is based on badly digested popularisations of deeply dubious ideas.

However some of the recent ideas from cognitive models of consciousness appear to offer more useful approaches to the study of folklore and mythology. This article concludes with some provisional suggestions for further investigation.

Psychiatry as abnormal

There is something inherently abnormal about psychiatry. As an attempt to understand human thinking it is based on studying, indeed defining, abnormality. Only with Abraham Maslow in the 1960s do we see any attempt to build a model of human mental processes by studying supposedly normal people (and even this is stretching the truth somewhat, as Maslow based his ideas on people who were abnormal by being better than normal).

The supposed causes of mental illnesses follow the fashions of Western medicine. First of all it was the fault of the gods or evil spirits. With the Renaissance the 'humours' were blamed. Then the Victorians saw social misfortune as causative. During the twentieth century psychiatry has successively blamed the individual, society, parents, and now our genes. (What next? By the end of this article you'll have reason to think that it might be blaming the metaphors by which our cognitive processes operate. So, you're not crazy, just using inappropriate metaphors for reality... )

Even the whole notion of specific illnesses, mental or otherwise, is a peculiarly Western concept. Much as most modern people take for granted the idea that diagnosis of specific illnesses is inherent to medicine, this is really quite a strange way of trying to work with the continuum of health and symptoms, hence the emphasis of many so-called alternative therapies on holistic health.

The whole concept of illnesses is largely a result of the attempts by medical professionals to, on the one hand, impose a grandiose scheme of apparent order and enhance their collective status and, on the other hand, to gain personal status by identifying a 'new' illness (think how many obscure syndromes are named after their 'inventor'). While we take the high status of the medical profession (sic) for granted, this status was only won after a protracted campaign of self-aggrandisement combined with the denouncement of midwives, 'wise women', 'cunning men' and the like. If this sounds like something that ceased in the eighteenth century then think again. This process still very much active with the pharmaceutical industries' massive efforts to eradicate alternative therapies such as homeopathy by lobbying for legislation to subject them to the same quasi-scientific testing methods that create the required illusion of efficacy for prescription drugs.

This whole process of doctors adopting a Foucaultian 'knowledge is power' approach makes illness one factor in a 'medical system'. In this medical system the 'patient' (a word which now has some very interesting connotations of 'one who patiently puts up with the medical system', although the origin is with the Latin verb pati, 'to suffer') is obliged to surrender their personal preferences and status to the authority of the medical profession. Much as it seems normal to modern Western people, viewed through unprejudiced eyes it is as exotic as the most outlandish practices of, say, African traditional healers.

One of the pioneers of a medical system for mental illnesses was Joseph Moreau (who preferred to enhance his status by referring to himself as 'Moreau de Tours'). He wrote a series of books between 1835 and 1859 describing a variety of 'nervous disorders'. These preliminary ideas about abnormal psychology were greatly influenced by contemporary attempts to understand evolution. However, as Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species was not published until 1859, Moreau's ideas about evolution were derived from the writings of Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (1744–1829) and his followers. Key to Lamarckism is the idea that changes acquired during a person' s lifetime could be inherited.

Moreau, along with other pioneers of psychiatry such as the Italian physician Cesare Lombroso (1836–1909), was preoccupied with the alleged heredity of neurotic traits. The contrary tendencies of 'degeneration' and 'progress' were already well-established in thinking about cultures (pioneer palaeontologists followed this precedent in seeking evidence of evolution in the fossil record; in due course their evidence came to provide conclusive 'proof' for theories of evolution). These ideas about degenerate and progressive 'evolution' took their inspiration in large part from the speculaitons of Charles Montesquieu (1689–1755) about the decadence of the Romans. These speculations became the basis for widespread acceptance of the notion of 'hereditary decadence', whereby aristocratic families accustomed to luxury and vice would become increasingly effete and less sane from generation to generation. Irrational as this may now seem, Moreau and Lombroso were the first to attempt to assess the truth or otherwise of this idea, although their efforts did little to clarify matters.

Also prominent in the melting pot of early nineteenth century proto-psychological ideas were ideas of female 'hysteria' (mental instability caused by the womb wandering, hence the name deriving from the Greek word for the womb, hustera) and 'neurasthenia' (used to describe a physically weak and over-sensitive person, who was also regarded as morally weak, apathetic and spiritually impotent). The mythologists among the readers of this article will readily see that these ideas about mental disorders owe more to deeply-seated myths than to science.

Of all these mythical speculations, the ideas of Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–93) were to have the greatest influence. Following on from the pioneering work of Franz Anton Mesmer (1733–1815) Charcot used hypnotism in an effort to treat the patients at La Salpêtière in Paris. At first he used an entirely physiological rationale for his methods. But in the 1880s he developed a new psychological model, which required inventing 'a complex and entirely hypothetical mental process' (Webster 1995: 96). Charcot can be regarded as the first psychiatrist. His ideas became famous and many doctors of the time sought to study with him. A Viennese neurologist made the pilgrimage and studied with Charcot for less than five months between October 1885 and February 1886. However this relatively brief encounter was to be deeply influential for the Viennese doctor. He stopped using electrotherapy (currently the established 'cure') and began using Charcot's hypnotherapy techniques; he named his eldest son Jean Martin in honour of Charcot; and began a lifelong passion for filling his study with antiquities in the manner of Charcot's study (Gamwell and Wells 1989). The pioneer of psychiatry had inspired the pioneer of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud.

We can also see that Charcot also inspired 'the offering of scientific-sounding metaphors as the accounts of actual phenomena in the brains or minds of persons.' (Szasz 1978: 109). Thomas Szasz continues by noting:

    The fact that Freud succeeded in establishing these metaphors widely as accounts of what really happens in the world is, of course, testimony to his powers as rhetorician, rather than to the 'scientific validity' of his neurological and chemical fantasies.' (Szasz 1978: 109)
Richard Webster puts it more strongly. 'Given Freud's immense idealisation of Charcot… Charcot's exercise in scientific confabulation was almost as crucial to Freud as it was to Charcot himself.' (Webster 1995: 97). Both Webster and Szasz have provided detailed arguments as to how Freud developed his illusionary 'scientific' rationale for his therapy (Szasz 1978: 106–110; Webster 1995: 52–102) and how this can be seen as a smokescreen for his feelings of incompetence as a medical practitioner (see especially Szasz 1978: 110) and that, no matter how much he hid it behind Greek terminology and pseudo-scientific theories, his attempts at therapy were ultimately just a 'talking cure'.

Freud the archaeologist and Gothic architect

Freud's interest in antiquities to give his study the impression of culture extended to an interest in the pioneer archaeologists. And, just as archaeologists start with the most recent deposits and peel them away to reveal ever-earlier evidence, so Freud started his 'talking cures' with the most recent memories associated by the patient with the symptoms, and then progressed back to earlier stages of their life. The metaphor went deeper as Freud's reading of the psyche was, as might be expected given the preoccupations of the time, essentially evolutionary, with the conscious mind equating to 'civilised' societies and the unconscious with 'primitive' cultures.

The archaeological metaphor manifests in other ways too, enabling Freud to regard the 'evanescent objects of psychoanalytic enquiry' as 'self-evident material objects' (Gere 2002: 203). The 'talking cure' could then be thought of in the same was as archaeologists were beginning to make the material culture of the past 'talk'. Freud saw himself as the discoverer of the Rosetta Stone of the mind. Cathy Gere explores in detail how this psychic archaeology:

    … was literalised in Freud's writing through the inherited memory concept, turning the psyche into a layered site whose artefacts were more solid and indestructible than the objects of archaeology.
    (Gere 2002: 203–7)
Others regard the Freudian topography of the psyche as akin to Gothic architecture:
    The Gothic castle, with its pinnacles and dungeons, crenellations, moats, drawbridges, spiralling staircases, and concealed doors, realizes an architectural approximation of the Freudian model of the mind, particularly the traps laid for the conscious by the unconscious and the repressed.
    (Brooks 1976: 19)
Freud's model of consciousness based on the id, ego, superego and the various pathologies are all attempts to find scientific-seeming metaphors for the complexity of human consciousness. As these metaphors have passed into popular culture they have become part of the mythology of modern society.

Freud, Freudianism and mythology

As an attempt to understand the neuroses of his Viennese clients – who were living in a tightly-constrained world where emotions were seriously repressed – Freud's ideas are no worse than those of his contemporaries. However two factors combined to give his ideas far greater awareness and persistence than they deserve. Firstly, as Richard Webster has repeatedly demonstrated (Webster 1995), Freud was brought up from childhood to believe in his own self-importance. His 'case studies' over-state the evidence of cures (with some patients Webster found independent evidence which shows that there was no evidence of even short-term improvements).

Even worse, Freud was convinced that not only had he successfully described the mental states of his wealthy middle-European Jewish clients but that this model was universal. Perhaps because of the rather risqué (for the time) way that sexual instincts formed a key part of this theories, Freud's ideas acquired a much wider readership than typical for his contemporaries in the world of psychiatry and psychology. Crucial to this wider awareness were the efforts of Sigmund's cousin, Edward Bernays (the inventor of public relations and mass marketing) in promoting English translations of Freud's books in America.

While Webster and others have accused Freud of self-aggrandisement, his successors redoubled his efforts. For example, Freud did not invent the terms 'id', ego' and 'superego'. In the original German editions he used ordinary language, (ich, 'I'; ueber ich, 'over I'; and das es, 'the it') but, following a long standing medical tradition, these terms were Latinized by Americans trying to make psychoanalysis look more respectable.

Freud's writing ranks as myth-making, a smoke screen for self-aggrandisement. He used Classical myths to create metaphors and myths. Those metaphors and myths have now become so deeply rooted in present day Western culture that we find it difficult to recognise how much they are 'children of their time', essentially late nineteenth century ways of thinking.

Freud beyond the grave

By the time of his death at the start of the Second World War Freud's ideas had reached their sell-by date and were due to be consigned, along with most of the early twentieth century's speculations about consciousness, to the scrap bin. But Freud's youngest daughter Anna (1895–1982) would have none of that. A strong-minded woman who revered her father's ideas, she would prove to be a formidable opponent to any critics of psychoanalysis. She was especially aggressive towards Wilhelm Reich. His ideas about sexual freedom were especially at odds with Anna, who is believed to have been a virgin (she lived with a female friend, Dorothy Burlingham) and was considered to be a very 'hard', unemotional person. Reich had his career ruined as a result of Anna Freud's influence; the police took an unnecessary interest in his activities and he died in 1957 while in prison.

The death of Marilyn Monroe in 1962 while being looked after intensively by a Freudian psychoanalysist and his family, provided high profile evidence that psychoanalysis was not flawless. Late in the 60s psychoanalysis failed two of Anna's own clients. She had psychoanalysed two of Dorothy Burlingham's children since their parent's divorce while they were minors. One of these children suffered repeated periods of 'mental instability' and died of alcoholism. Another committed suicide while staying with her mother and Anna in London – who were still living in the house where Sigmund had come in 1938.

Nevertheless, instead of Sigmund Freud's ideas being replaced in the 1950s by more tenable models of consciousness, criticism of his theories led to persistent ad hominem attacks led by Anna, and the whole Freudian edifice survived almost intact until well into the 1970s. Indeed, the cult of Freudian psychoanalysis is only slowly waning. So, the sitcom Frasier can now gently make self-conscious fun of father:son relationships, but falls well short of full frontal anti-Freudian stances.

In all but name Freudian psychoanalysis is a religious myth (with its cultic figure, origin myths, 'sacred' texts, creed, initiation rituals, even procedures for excommunication) to set alongside Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, neo-paganism and the rest (see Doty 2000:159). Referring to it as 'Freudianity' would be highly appropriate, although is unlikely to catch on, if only because most people hearing the word for the first time would think he speaker had said 'fraud-ianity' (an interesting 'Freudian slip'!).

The fraud at the heart of Freudian psychoanalysis is that terms such as id, ego and superego are used in the same way that astrologers and Tarot card readers use a 'mumbo jumbo' of correspondences. Where psychoanalysts differ is by charging much more and making claims to alleviate mental problems, which no self-respecting astrologer or Tarot reader would consider doing. Or we can take the approach of Alan Watts who wrote:

    … [psycho]analysis is not really a system. It is an intimate personal relationship, and when, as usual, it is paid for, it is actually – like marriage – a most delicate and refined form of prostitution.
    (Watts 1972: 341)
Despite the efforts by Freud to establish scientific confirmation of his theories, he can also be looked upon as the unwitting founding father of many of the wackier New Age counsellors who reject scientific rationales for poetic ones.

Freud's critics

Melanie Klein (1882–1960) was a prominent member of the 'English school' of psychoanalysis in the 1920s and 30s. She modified Freudian theory in significant ways and was Anna Freud's only significant opponent in the 1950s. Norman O. Brown (1913–2002) also sought to rethink Freudian ideas in such books as Life Against Death (1959) and its sequel, Love's Body (1966). But he does little to challenge Freud's underlying assumptions – he simply designed a different Gothic castle, to borrow Peter Brook's metaphor.

Wider awareness of critiques of Freudianism started in 1956 with the publication of Herbert Marcuse's book Eros and Civilisation. Marcuse stated that it was society that made people repressed and distorted not, as Freud believed, that repression was an innate aspect of human thinking. 'The sickness of society lay in the society not the people' argued Marcuse and his ideas went on to become especially influential on the up-coming 'hippies', who revived Reich's ideas (he too had considered that people were inherently good and repression by society caused the problems).

In the 1960s Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders (1957) also included an assault on the Freudian's beliefs. However everything settled down for the next twenty years and Freud's fallacies became a part of the furniture of popular Western culture. Only with the publication of the English translation of Sebastiano Timpanaro's detailed critique of Freud, The Freudian Slip, in 1976 was there again a popular awareness that his ideas were seriously amiss.

The 1970s also saw R.D. Laing's radical rethink of schizophrenia (which he saw as a result of contradictory demands within families) and the publication of Thomas Szasz's deeply critical look at psychoanalysis, The Myth of Psychotherapy (1978). Well-researched critiques of Freud became almost a flood in the early 1990s. Malcom Macmillan's Freud Evaluated (1991) was followed in 1995 by The Memory Wars: Freud's legacy in dispute (written by no less than 19 authors headed up by Frederick Crews) and Richard Webster's thorough demolition of the Freudian edifice in his substantial book, Why Freud was Wrong (Webster 1995).

As Crews states, this was

    … the long-postponed exposure of Freudian ideas to the same standards of noncontradiction, clarity, testability, cogency, and parsimonious explanatory power that prevail in empirical discourse at large. Step by step, we are learning that Freud has been the most overrated figure in the entire history of science and medicine – one who wrought immense harm through the propagation of false etiologies, mistaken diagnoses, and fruitless lines of inquiry. (Crews et al 1995: 298)

Freud and folklorists

Because such evaluation of Freud had been 'long-postponed' until the 1990s it is hardly surprising that his ideas were take up by specialists in disciplines well removed from psychiatry. Such specialists include folklorists and mythologists. Indeed, given Freud's own interest in Classical myths as 'evidence' for universal traits of human thinking and the prevailing enthusiasm for Freudian ideas it is quite understandable that folklorists and mythologists applied Freud's ideas in an attempt to understand the symbolism of lore and myths.

Indeed, the complex interplay of 'symbolic' protagonists and artefacts, often in 'symbolic' contexts and settings, have made fairy tales and similar genres of folk narratives highly attractive for those attempting to explore the inner workings of the mind. A number of American folklorists have felt compelled to consider the psychological context of folklore, leading Barre Toelken to report 'Drawing especially upon the work of Freud and Jung, folklorists have sought to relate basic mental processes to the kinds of idea sets that foster traditional behaviour and expression from culture to culture.' (Toelken 1996: 5) The main instigator of this approach seems to have been Bruno Bettelheim's influential book The Uses of Enchantment (1976) where tales are 'deciphered' as symbols of sexual desire and conflicts. Although not necessarily following Freudian perspectives, Bettelheim notes that the plots of fairy tale often concern the dynamics of family life. Equilibrium is lost through the death of a parent or from expulsion from the family, leading the protagonist on a quest for restoring equilibrium by reuniting the original family or by starting a new one e.g. the stereotypical marriage at the end of so many tales.

Bettelheim's book was criticised by numerous subsequent writers (e.g. Zipes 1979 Ch.6) but his approach has continued to be influential for both folklorists and psychotherapists. Alan Dundes (1965: 107–9) also initially criticised Freudian approaches to folklore, although he went on to publish a number of Freudian interpretations of folk tales (e.g. Dundes 1980), albeit with a more sophisticated treatment. In his later writings (Dundes 1987) he has emphasised that folklore is best interpreted by combining several different approaches and Freudian interpretations should not be used in isolation. More recently Eliott Oring has adopted Freudian-inspired approaches to aspects of folklore (e.g. Oring 1992).

Freud and mythologists

Freud used myths to an attempt to develop a model of human thinking that appeared universal. His attempts to understand sexual anxiety and conflict notably include a take on the Oedipus myth that is nothing if not imaginative.

Freud was using myth in an attempt to understand human thinking. As already noted, we can think of Freud's model of human mentla processes as an act of twentieth century myth making. Thankfully mythologists seem to have been more discerning than folklorists and have been reluctant to use Freud's myth based on myths to understand myths. Among recent overviews of mythology, only Laurence Coupe devotes an extended discussion to Freud (Coupe 1997: 125–33). Coupe's interest is entirely justified as he is approaching mythology through the eyes of literary criticism, and Freud influenced a number of twentieth century authors.

Freud was brought up in the age of the novel, where characters had 'psychological depth'. However such depth was not present in literature before the sixteenth century and only really comes to the fore with such novelists as Austen, Thackeray and Flaubert in the nineteenth century. Greek myths, especially as depicted in Greek drama, simply do not have such depth. The characters 'act out' internal tensions but their actions are not related to deeply interiorised 'psychology'. Characters have distinct and usually enduring dispositions, such as fierce, cunning, or affectionate.

The significant transformations between essentially oral cultures and printed literature has been fully explored in Walter Ong's exemplary study, Orality and Literacy (1982). He discusses the 'flatness' of Greek characters compared to the 'rounded' ones of the novel and goes on to observe:

    The development of the round character registers changes in consciousness that range far beyond the world of literature. Since Freud, the psychological and especially the psychoanalytical understanding of all personality structure has taken as its model something like the 'round' character of fiction. Freud understands real human beings as psychologically structured like the dramatic character of Oedipus, not like Achilles, and indeed like an Oedipus interpreted out of the world of nineteenth-century novels, more 'round' than anything in ancient Greek literature. It would appear that the development of modern depth psychology parallels the development of the character in drama and the novel, both depending on the inward turning of the psyche produced by writing and intensified by print. … The insights of 'depth' psychology were impossible earlier for the same reasons that the fully 'round' characters of the nineteenth-century novel was not possible before its time. In both cases, the textual organisation of consciousness was required, though of course other forces were also in play…
    [Ong 1982 (2002: 151)]
René Girard undermined Freud's attempts at interpreting myths. For instance in Violence and the Sacred (Girard 1977) he provides a coherent interpretation of Oedipus as a scapegoat for a society hiding from itself the causes of an internal crisis. However Girard's wide ranging ideas have often proven to be controversial (see Golsan 2002 for a detailed discussion).

Jacques Lacan also used Freud's ideas as a starting point to develop a more linguistic form of psychoanalysis which is concerned with 'unlocking' patterns of culture such as myths and fantasies. However Ian Parker considers that Lacanian psychoanalysis

    … does not really 'decode' cultural artifacts at all, even when it helps us to see something quite different in the images that surround us and draw us in as readers and consumers. … When we engage in a psychoanalytic 'decoding' of a cultural phenomenon we are always already 'recoding' it. Even when we are discovering something of the shape of psychoanalytic discourse and its impact on our own experience, we are still having to write ourselves into it as we analyse it, and that practice of writing also reproduces psychoanalytic theory as the key that has unlocked our language.
    (Parker 2002; based on Parker 2000.)
Julia Kristeva combined Lacanian psychoanalytical approaches with semiotic theories. She can be regarded as simultaneously a psychoanalyst, linguist, semiotician, novelist and rhetorician. Her writing fractures language and conventions; she interacts with multiple texts and dense allusions. The result is a daunting, frequently unrewarding experience (see Smith 1996 for an attempt to survey Kristeva's ideas). Post-Freudians such as Lacan and Kristeva seemingly end up in as nearly much murky water as Freud's own ideas.

Freud's theories may have been very much 'children of their time' but, as William Doty has recognised (Doty: 2000: 160; 174), Freud did open several new ways of thinking. Firstly, he showed the possibility of hermeneutical interpretation of dreams and myths.

One of the pioneers to use hermeneutics and semiotics to look at issues related to the ultimate origins of myth and religion was E.R. Dodds. His book The Greeks and the Irrational (1951) applied a post-Freudian psychology to the study of the Classical world and has had a major influence on the comprehension of Classical thought and mythology. Dodds discusses Greek culture with the insight of Freudian-inspired concepts of shame and guilt.

Dodds followed Nietzsche's precedent and showed that Classical and Hellenistic Greeks had no understanding of the power of the irrational. Their ignorance led to Western thought ignoring, even denying, the power of the irrational aspects of human thinking. The second possibility Freud takes the credit for is identifying this blind spot in Western culture towards the irrational (although this does not mean Freud's analysis or attempts to understand the irrational have stood the test of time particularly well.

Carl Jung

The full potential for an hermeneutical interpretation of dreams and myths approach required the more flexible approach to dream images and symbols adopted by Carl Jung. Jung also took far more interest in myths. However we should recognise that, like Freud, he was less interested in understanding myths than using myths in an attempt to understand human thinking, especially the impulse for sacred meaning.

Whereas Freud's schooling, typical of his day, was in Classical mythology and gave an exclusively eurocentric bias to his use of myths, Jung developed a much more inclusive awareness of mythology. As a result Jung's approaches to analysing myths are also broader. What especially distinguishes Jung's approach is his emphasis on images rather than, as with Freud and Lacan, on words.

For many people, especially writers and artists (including myself until recent years), Jung's models of human mental processes are both seductive and inspiring. However having looked more closely at the study of myths and of consciousness, I find myself increasingly sharing the views of Jung's critics who argue that his achievement is to replace the complex metaphors which 'common sense' uses when thinking-about-thinking with a system of vastly more complex metaphors.

For example, Jung treats spirits generically as archetypes of the collective unconscious – that is, they are expressions of particular symbolic models that together constitute the contents of the unconscious mind. What Jung does not explain to any satisfactory degree is how they got there in the first place. (Stone 1998, drawing on Jung 1968.)

Jung's universal 'collective unconscious' is reminiscent of the idea of 'psychic unity', popular in the nineteenth century, but now effectively forgotten. The collective unconscious is essentially instinctive and pre-cultural, according to Jung. It manifests as archetypes, which appear in dreams and myths and, in a decidedly mystical manner, operate independently of the conscious mind. Archetypes exist a priori – people do not create them but merely 'receive' them.

Most of Jung's archetypes (such as the mother, the child, the wise old man) are so general that it is difficult to imagine a culture without such concepts. There is no need to hypothesis about mystical archetypes to explain them – such concepts and images can readily be transmitted as part of the wider culture of a society. For all Jung asserted the frequent and universal occurrence of key symbolism associated with his archetypes, no convincing evidence has ever been presented. Archetypes have to be accepted as an act of faith.

Jung's ideas often seem mystical and anti-intellectual. For instance, he held that archetypes are so universal they have persisted for ever without changing, and will continue to do so. While this enhances the mystical nature of archetypes it does little to encourage their plausibility. However, regarding archetypes as one way of labelling culturally-transmitted (and hence fully open to adaptation and mutation) concepts removes the mystical and greatly enhances the plausibility. But this renders archetypes as just another aspect of a culture's mythology, transmitted in the same manner as other myths and cosmogonic structures (see cosmologies as 'deep structures).

Academic approaches to Jung (such as those of Segal 1998, Doty 2000 and Walker 2001) make little reference to the deeply mystical origins of Jung's ideas. The pertinent biographical information which is 'overlooked' by these academics is that an ex-patient, Toni Wolff, was Jung's muse and lover for forty years. Wolff was deeply involved in astrology, alchemy, theosophy and other 'occult' ideas becoming fashionable in the first decades of the twentieth century. She started sharing these ideas with Jung while he was suffering from a bout of madness, and this led to his life-long journey into such mystical aspects of human thinking (see Lachman 2001: 133–4 for a popularly-written overview).

Jung's ideas have been picked over and subjected to re-invention by a prolific array of Jungians. However Alan Watts notes that when he met Jung in 1958 he

    … was careful to explain that he himself was not a Jungian and that he had had no intention of promulgating a particular system of psychotherapy. He had simply followed his intuition and written down his findings as they came along, never intending that his concepts should be more than heuristic devices…
    (Watts 1972: 391)
Jung certainly changed his mind about many topics during the course of his volumous writing. My hunch is that, if Jung had lived to an impossibly old age, he would have substantially revised his ideas in line with post-structuralist thinking and the entirely different models of consciouss which have developed in the last decade or so.

Jung is of interest as an imposing figure of the past, and one of the most influential myth-makers of the twentieth century. But his approach to mythology now seems lacking in focus and too dependent on his own mythic concepts, such as archetypes and the collective unconscious.

Jung's influence on the study of folklore and mythology

Jungian-inspired studies of folklore and mythology have been much more prevalent than Freudian-inspired ones. Starting with folklore, in the 1970s Jung's one-time assistant Marie Louise von Franz published a series of three books (1970, 1972a, 1977) taking a Jungian approach to exploring fairy tales. In 1969 Carlos Drake published a paper titled 'Jungian psychology and its uses in folklore'. One of the first British folklorists to explore symbolism with a somewhat Jungian approach was Katherine Briggs in her essay 'Symbols in fairy tales' (1977) where she looked at magical artefacts made from metal, mirrors, the sun and moon. Two Jungians, Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, took a largely Jungian approach in their 1991 book The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an image.

The greatest commercial success for Jungian-derived approaches to folk tales has been a whole genre of self-help books. Robert Bly's Iron John (1990), aimed to heal the 'wounded masculine' and his success was followed by Clarissa Pinkola Estés' Women Who Run with the Wolves (1992) and Gertrud Mueller Nelson's Here All Dwell Free (1999) who sought to soothe the wounded feminine.

The folklorist Alan Dundes has assessed Jung's approach to myths (Dundes 1984: 244–5). He draws attention to a number of pioneering Jungian approaches to myths, including Hudson 1966; Neumann 1972 and von Franz 1972b.

The most prolific of the academic mythologists inspired by Jung was Carl Kerényi (1897–1973). His interests were restricted to Greek mythology; the titles of some of his books reveal how Jungian interpretations were key: Athene: Virgin and mother in Greek religion; Dionysos: Archetypal image of indestructible life; Eleusis: Archetypal image of mother and daughter; Asklepios: Archetypal image of the physician's existence; Zeus and Hera: Archetypal image of father, husband, and wife. Despite the number of books written by Kerényi he is rarely cited by later mythologists and has had little influence on popular perceptions of myths.

In recent years Robert Segal has edited a number of collections of papers about Jungian approaches to mythology, including a 'reader' of Jung on Mythology, augmented by key essays from three post-Jungians, Erich Neumann, Marie-Louise von Franz and James Hillman, plus his own introduction (Segal 1998). Hillman is the most prolific writers among the post-Jungian psychiatrists, although he has work rarely addresses mythology. According to Segal:

    … for Hillman myths are more than colorful ways of describing psychological states. Myths describe what it is like to be in those states. One grasps myth by fantasizing, or imagining, what it would be like to do what a god in a myth does.
    (Segal 1998: 256)
One assumes from this that Hillman is only interested in that small minority of myths that feature deities. Be that as it may, Hillman's ideas, like Jung's, deliberately 'elude reductionistic definition'. Instead he aims to 'expresses the mystery of human life' and provide a 'poetic basis for a psychology of psyche as "soul."' (Robbins, no date) All well and good for those seeking a poetic basis for psychology but of limited interest (except as the subject of relevant analysis) for those seeking an hermeneutic and semiotic approach to myths.

Taking a broad view, Jung's seductive elaborations about myths have had little impact on psychiatry and generally have failed to convince academic mythologists. Lawrence Coupe has attempted a balanced assessment of Jung's contribution to the understanding of myth, and he struggles to provide any substantive strengths (Coupe 1997: 144–6). He concludes 'that Jung is above all an allegorist. He wants all myths to point towards his own model of harmony. … Jung's ultimate aim is the "stasis" of symbolism rather than the "dynamism" of narrative.' (Coupe 1997: 146).

William Doty has adopted a different approach to Jung's ideas. After listing people who have rejected Jung (Doty 2000: 104 fn62) he goes on to say that 'To be fair to Jung, we must note that he wrote before the development of modern structuralism or semiotics.' (Doty 2000: 203) Rather than rejecting Jung's original ideas about, for example hero figures, Doty seeks to 'redefine' them in a way that fits more comfortably with modern scholarship. Some of his ideas are incorporated in Mythography (Doty 2000) but the full results of his approach have yet to be published (Doty, pers. comm. Jan 2003).

Recently Steven Walker has written an introduction called Jung and the Jungians on Myth (Walker 2001). While attempting to unravel the problems associated with Jung's ideas about archetypes, he leaves many key issues wide open. In later parts of the book there are some interesting studies of aspects of modern culture inspired by aspects of Jung's ideas. However I am left feeling that the strength of Walker's studies of modern culture lie with semiotic approaches that, beyond their initial inspiration, owe little to Jung. Indeed, they might be stronger without the references to Jungian precedents and publication in a 'Jungian context'. If the reader is comfortable with the notion that archetypes have a mystical ontology then Walker's remarks stand on their own. If however archetypes are more usefully considered as manifestations of images and symbols shared by many societies' cultures, then the focus of the discussion should be situated not with Jung, or even psychology in general, but amidst cultural studies. (I intend to pursue this polemical statement in more depth in a future article for Foamy custard.)

For example, Walker writes

    … one can posit drug offenders as blameless victims (as in Girard's theory [of scapegoating]) of an irrational punitive collective frenzy. But for what are they being 'punished'? A Jungian shadow theory would search for what the victims have in common with their persecutors, in order to ascertain what unconscious shadow projections have come into play.
    (Walker 2001: 167; emphasis in original)
On the basis of the Walker's previous critique of the War on Drugs (a version of 1920s Prohibition for the last third of the twentieth century) I have no problem in agreeing with his question about the apparent purposelessness of the punishment. His subsequent discussion of the mythic image of the 'crazed addict' and the notion of drug dealers as the 'dark side' of American business (i.e. people prepared to take huge risks for huge profits without concern for the welfare of the community) are both sound enough. But do we need Jungian notions of the Shadow (and Walker's coinage for the drug dealers, the 'Entrepreneurial Shadow') to reach these insights? And, more especially, does the Jungian 'baggage' help or hinder the development of these insights? Frankly hermeneutics and semiotics, notably as wielded in the hands of the cultural studies 'communities' for the last thirty years, are more than capable of similar (but Jungian-free) analyses.

Joseph Campbell

The main reason why Freud and Jung are still of paramount interest lies not with the strength of their ideas within their own disciplines and academe generally, but the extent to which they have become a part of Western popular culture during the last 50 or so years. Their ideas, and a wide rage of derivatives, have become an integral part of the myths by which we structure our culture.

Popular interest in myths owes a great deal to Jung's writings, especially those inspired by him. Of the writers inspired by Jung, Joseph Campbell (1904–87) has become the best known, especially in America. In Britain Campbell's influence has been mostly second-hand, through various popular writers influenced by him. Campbell has also hugely influenced Hollywood screen writers over the last thirty or more years, and his ideas about heroes form a key part of how to write screenplays (Volger 1998; Voytilla 1999; Stroud 2001).

However Campbell's popularity outside academe is matched only by terse dismissal from within. His mythology is steeped in mysticism and obfuscation – although he borrows terminology from Jung he does not use these ideas with Jung's (comparative) precision. He made his mark with The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949 and, like James Frazer, attempted to mask the lack of quality in his thinking with the sheer quantity of words in the multi-volume The Masks of God (1959–1968).

Campbell's ideas have been deeply criticised by folklorists and mythologists (e.g. Dundes 1984: 256; Doty 2000: 240–3). Campbell's notions of what makes a hero are based on bits and pieces selected from many different myths and legends. This process of selection distorts the evidence greatly because, in contrast to Campbell's thoroughly anthropomorphic concept of the hero, the main characters of traditional myths are not usually human beings. Rather, they are often animals or deities with human attributes. There are huge numbers of such human-like heroes and heroines to be found in traditional myths. However in Greek myths, too often given undue prominence by mythologists, human heroes predominate (partly as a result of these myths being staged by actors rather than recited).

The regurgitation of Campbell's badly-argued and distorted ideas by popular writers (who, understandably, have rarely encountered the more arcane publications in which academe critiques of Campbell have appeared) has led to the wider range of hero-like figures in mythology too often being 'shoehorned' into the rather narrow range of ideas that form the core of Campbell's concepts.

One idea of Campbell's that has stood up tolerably well to academic critiques is his account of the separation-initiation-return pattern of the career of the 'classic' hero.

    A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces at there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
    (Doty 2000: 241)
Campbell's simple, easily graphed 'hero cycle' has been an analytical tool for literally hundreds of secondary studies. William Doty has drawn attention to the way American heroes can be seen as a secularisation of the Judaeo-Christian redemption dramas; the hero replaces Christ:
    This hero (or feminine transforms such as Heidi and Mary Poppins, in their American manifestations) was motivated by selflessness, not by the quest for self of the classical pattern. He operates outside the traditional context of the established social community, and is the frontiersman-defender of a hypothetical Eden that surfaces most directly in the stereotype of this typical Midwestern small town [...]
    The sexuality of this American monolithic hero is 'segmented', which means basically that he never engages in sexually fulfilling activities, or at best he simply gratifies needy and clamorous women (à la Playboy's sexual ethic …). … Suffice to say, there is in fact a great deal of pathology in this model...
    (Doty 2000: 242–3; drawing on Jewett and Lawrence 1989)
In all fairness, Campbell cannot be accused of inventing such sexless, thinly-disguised Christ-like heroes – J.R.R. Tolkien had given the world the immaculate Frodo in 1937, and C.S. Lewis's conception of Aslan followed in 1950. Even more influential were the pulp fiction writers of the 1920s onwards responsible for the Cowboys and Indians genre. They set the precedent for the hordes of big screen 'redeemers', although the bigotry of cowboys was racist rather than religious.

The prevalence of such cinematic heroes has gone on to provide role models for recent American Presidents, not least George W. Bush who was seemingly reliving countless cowboys movies when announcing in September 2001 he wanted Osama bin Laden 'dead or alive', and Independence Day (1996) when he arrived on the deck of an aircraft carrier in a fighter jet towards the conclusion of the 'liberation' of Iraq in May 2003. John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett have brought together over 25 years of research into how American politics is inspired by the Campbell-inspired hero myths of Hollywood in their remarkable book The Myth of the American Superhero. They accurately anticipate the 'spin' put on the post-September 2001 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, confirming that the antics of the Lone Ranger seem to be the main inspiration for the 'scriptwriters' of the world's gung-ho superpower, with the President as the embodiment of the mythical Campbellian super hero. Politics and warfare is now inspired by fictions and invented rationales which have become deeply embedded into the mythology underpinning modern day culture.

Freud, Jung and Campbell have been hugely influential on Hollywood and cinema generally. Rather than cinema in some way reflecting reality, cinema increasingly provides us with the deep mythic structures that enable us to create our notions of reality. How we think we think is, for most Western people, based on a diluted Freudian model perpetrated by screenwriters during the last fifty years. The next section outlines how has this come about.

Mythology, psychology and cinema

Freud, Jung and Campbell may have been hugely influential in raising awareness of mythology outside academe. But, in the final analysis, their works are less about the study of myths than the creation of mythical systems of their own. Rather than explain the complexities of their subject matter (the workings of the human mind; mythical systems) they create a complex 'descriptions' which, by almost any definition of the term 'myth', are elaborate myths.

While academic mythologists have generally given Campbell a wide berth, or been largely critical of his works, Campbell-inspired 'Jungian' psychobabble is still proliferating, some fifteen years after his death, in popular books about mythology, New Age and neo-pagan religions, feminism, the men's movement and the like. Indeed, thanks to Bill Moyers' posthumously-screened interview with Campbell, and the media tie-in publication (Campbell and Moyers 1988), Campbell became better known after his death than before.

Campbell's popularity had been enhanced when he assisted George Lucas in the characterisation of Star Wars (1977). Campbell's hero-cycle can be recognised clearly in Star Wars where, despite the galactic dimensions of the action, the emphasis is on individual heroism. Combat in one-man fighters is reminiscent of gunfights outside Western saloons, or of Second World War dogfighting. Luke Skywalker embarks on his solitary quest. Individualism is pitted against tyranny. (See Ellwood 1999: 128 for further discussion of Campbell and Star Wars.)

While perhaps epitomising the yearnings of the Reagan, Bush and Clinton eras, the metaphors of Star Wars seem less relevant now that Islamic 'individualism' has pitted itself against the tyranny of naïve imperialism. Men in Black (1997) anticipates this terror-from-within as both the sinister human secret agents and their extra-terrestrial counterparts share the eponymous dress sense – 'they' have become, superficially at least, indistinguishable from 'us'. Indeed, as with Alien (1979), the alien in Men in Black is born from a human womb. Even with ET (1982), this less-threatening homesick alien takes up residence in an archetypal American home. As Richard Kearney notes, paranoia and phobia thrive in such fuzzy frontier zones of identity (Kearney 2002: 112).

As Felix Guattari observed back in the mid-1970s

    Film has become a gigantic machine for modelling the social libido while psychoanalysis will forever remain a small cottage industry reserved for selected elites.
    (Guattari 1975 (1996:155–6))
Guattari goes on to argue that cinema has created a 'model' of human consciousness based, predictably enough, on Freudian and Jungian insights (although not necessarily very accurately understood). This cinematically-created 'psychology myth' about thinking extends into our model of reality. For example, Western minds can accept that there are spiritual entities, or a heaven and hell, only if their reality is 'psychological'. (Here neither Jung or Freud can be blamed – neither regarded myths from such reductionist 'nothing but psychology' stances; on the contrary they were assuming the independent viability of myths in an attempt to understand human thinking.) Adopting this modern 'nothing but psychology' approach creates a huge discontinuity with non-western thinking. Traditional myths were told and heard by people who accepted that what was being described was in some way 'real', albeit in some way 'other' to everyday reality.

Cinema's myth about how humans think, with its implicit 'causalities' of characters' actions, derives from the work of mythologists, such as Campbell, who were themselves as much creating modern-day myths as accurately analysing their sources and underlying ideas about consciousness. These underlying ideas are essentially those of Freud and Jung, who themselves were creating a myth about consciousness, inspired in large part by their interpretations of traditional myths. Again, Freud and Jung's analysis of their mythic 'sources' fall well short of modern standards of scholarship, and their assumptions about the nature of human thinking, as previously noted, build on the ideas of nineteenth century novelists. Like the layers of an onion, a series of myth-making processes has created the idea of consciousness that the West takes as a 'given'.

Outer layers of 'onion'

the modern 'real world' understanding of consciousness and heroes (i.e. underlying cosmological myths based on cinema's version of Freud, Campbell, etc)
cinema's myths of consciousness and heroes (based on Freud and Campbell; indirectly on Jung)
Cambell's myth of heroes (based on Jung and comparative mythology)
Jung's myth of consciousness (based on Freud and comparative mythology)
Freud's myth of consciousness (based on C19 novelists and Greek mythology)
C19 novelists' 'psychological' characters
Shakespearean characters
Inner layers of 'onion' Classical Greek characters

Popular awareness of consciousness is effectively shaped by cinema; by extension it has influenced television drama, computer games and literary fiction. The collective efforts of cinema scriptwriters and directors have created this model of consciousness from Campbell and others who have 'interpreted' Jungian and Freudian precedents. Cinema has created, and perpetrates, what is to all intents and purposes a myth about consciousness, a myth that is now deeply situated in Western culture.

So, whereas in the nineteenth century it was novelists who created a model of consciousness (i.e. the model which underlies Freud's ideas), in the second half of the twentieth century it was scriptwriters and film directors who effectively created the 'deep structures' (what mythologists call 'cosmologies') that define how the West thinks about how it thinks. In the last few years this includes films such as The Matrix and Minority Report which challenge the accepted ways we think about consciousness, 'reality' and causality. Those who want a lucid yet wide-ranging overview of the ways science fiction writers and post-modern literature have explored new models of consciousness should see Dani Cavallaro's inspiring insights into the work of the seminal sci-fi author William Gibson, Cyberpunk and Cyberculture (Cavallaro 2000). Indeed Gibson sits alongside Joseph Campbell as the key inspiration for these latest cinematic myths that shape not only the fictional plots but provide the cosmological myths which structure reality for the 'wired generation' who have grown up with the Internet.


One of the key aspects of mythology is that the 'individual ideas' are linked together as narratives, so the mythic motifs manifest as stories. Narrative conveys ideas in subtle yet highly effective ways. Whereas our cognitive processes interrogate incoming arguments and raw data, somehow narratives (especially ones using the nested metaphors typical of myths) come in 'under the radar' of these cognitive challenges. Narrative provides especially complex and subtle structures. It can contain many different arguments, and even multiple ideological attitudes.

Religious leaders and politicians are past masters at imparting their ideologies in narrative form that allow their 'truths' to be conveyed without engaging with conscious critiques. Christopher Flood has defined political myth as ideology plus narrative (Flood 1996) and I find this definition equally applicable to religious myth. Indeed the same approach to ideology plus narrative can also be applied to science and commerce, although modern society is less accustomed to seeing their underlying rationales as cosmological systems.

Science has a prior assumption that specific 'ways of knowing' are appropriate, and that other epistemologies are not scientific. Science can, and does, offer 'facts' and explanations that stand as all-but independent entities. But more often science explains physical or social functions in more narrative ways. And here scientists come, often unwittingly, close to myth making. The philosopher Karl Popper puts these notions into clearer perspective when he wrote that 'scientific discovery is akin to explanatory story-telling, to myth-making, and to the poetic imagination' (Popper 1981: 87). Science, especially when it attempts to do more than present 'positivist' facts, is best seen as a specific form of mythic discourse. Indeed, modern science originates in Greek culture where objective 'scientific' description was one among several narrative approaches. The Age of Reason argued that science could reveal truths that transcended mere myths. This delusion has simply added one more myth to the complex layers of myth through which we try to understand the modern world.

Narrative is an essential aspect of everyone's existence. As Paul Ricoeur recognised (Ricoeur 1984, 1985, 1988) our own identities as individuals require us to construct a personal narrative which attempts to make sense of the otherwise chaotic nature of existence. Our sense of belonging arises from sharing these personal narratives with friends and colleagues; this is a key function of the lore which bonds so-called 'folk groups' together. At some point the more significant of these personal and shared narratives begin to take on the nature of cosmological myths.

In a similar way we create narratives for significant places which create our sense of identity with particular localities, our sense of belonging, from the sense of a particular place being 'home' up to and including our sense of nationality. National identity is almost entirely about shared mythical narratives, although these narratives may have widely varying meaning for different people, and rapidly mutate and change in emphasis or significance. As I have explored in my article on the politics of culture, the study of folklore and mythology originate in eighteenth and nineteenth century quests for national identity.

As already noted above, Freud and Jung approached myths as essentially static symbolism. They were not so interested in the narratives which linked the symbolic motifs, still less the dynamic manner in which narrative continual changes and adapts. Freud and Jung were looking to myths to provide a 'snap shot' of reality that held true for all time. The reality of myth is that without the ever-evolving narratives it is little more than ideology, and the symbols are little more than a set of building bricks that need to be perpetually reconstructed.

Recent psychological approaches relevant to folklore and mythology

If psychiatry can be thought of as having been set back by the survival of Freudian ideas long past their sell-by date, then psychologists' study of consciousness was set back even more severely by the doctrine of behaviourism. 'Consciousness' did not exist, it was an 'illusion' of the brain ('consciousness' was not listed in any neurophysiological textbook published before 1960). Only since about 1990 has there been a serious attempt to study consciousness in the West (in contrast, Eastern philosophy has considered the nature of consciousness seriously for millennia).

Notably the Journal of Consciousness Studies (JCS), founded in 1994, together with its active email discussion list (postings since Sept 2000 archived online at, has brought an inter-disciplinary approach to the subject that spans philosophy, Eastern 'introspective' approaches to psychology, the most arcane aspects of neurophysiology and all that lies in between.

These debates have not even got as far as agreeing what consciousness 'is'. Think that through – we have the intellectual skills and technology to put people into space or put immense processing power into affordable computers, but we don't have even a working approximation of how we think we think, or of what it means to be 'me' and 'we'. We hardly begin to understand the processes by which the simplest act of reasoning is possible, still less of 'creative' and imaginative mental activities. All logical and scientific thought is effected by mental processes about which we have only the most vestigial understanding.

Daniel Dennett (1993) and David Chalmers (1996) have provided two contrasting theories of consciousness. In the subsequent years there has been much debate about the details of the approaches but no consensus about how we should 'think about thinking'. There is not even agreement on whether consciousness is something produced 'by' the brain or whether the brain is better regarded as the processor of consciousness. Given that much of the brain's 'processing activities' seems to be happening not at the level of neural synapses but at a quantum level within the vast number of so-called 'microtubules' in each nerve cell, it is reasonable to suppose that the brain is best thought of as a quantum computer. This in turn opens up all the 'uncertainty' aspects of quantum physics, not least uncertainty over location and boundaries in space and time. Thinking – consciousness – may turn out to be much weirder than we ever thought possible. Quite whether the weirdness of a quantum model of consciousness supports Jung's ideas of externally-existing archetypes is another matter; my hunch is that the 'weirdness' of quantum models of consciousness works at cognitive levels well below the formation of the kind of images, ideas and concepts that make up Jungian archetypes.

Having 'lurked' on the JCS email list continually since 1996 it is clear that the ideas being discussed have little in common with Freudian or Jungian models of the 'unconscious', 'ego', 'id' and the like. My analysis of all 556 postings to the JCS email list between 22 September 2001 and 9 May 2002, reveals that Freud is cited 13 times and Jung 12 times and, with the exception of one highly qualified comment about Freud recognising the 'preconscious' activities of the brain, none of these 25 comments suggest that Freud and Jung are helpful to the approaches to consciousness being considered by the 600-plus list members.

Although Freud's stratigraphy of superego, ego and unconscious does not 'map' onto how modern consciousness researchers think about thinking, some aspects of Freud's work still have validity. His speculations about the neurophysiology of the brain were surprisingly accurate, in that he anticipated what we now term synapses. And credit also goes to Freud for being the first to recognise that most the brain activity that 'produces' consciousness is effectively hidden from consciousness.

The extensive work of cognitive psychologists confirms that much of the brain's activity is indeed 'preconscious' (one of the remaining enigmas is what benefits humans initially gained from acquiring consciousness; the provisional answer is that it is one of a number of changes that enabled early hominids to live in larger social groups than other primates). To avoid confusion with earlier concepts of the unconscious it is helpful to refer to these preconscious cognitive processes as our 'cognitive unconscious'. Using an approximate analogy from computing, this cognitive unconscious appears to be distributed among at least ten parallel processing centres. In other words, if Freud's concept of the unconscious had any validity, we have at least ten unconsciouses, with the sense of self helping them to act together (perhaps through memory enabling sophisticated personal narratives, which, as previously outlined, might be thought of as 'personal myth making').

Consciousness studies goes beyond rejecting previous models of 'thinking about thinking'. It also throws into question all previous Western assumptions about the nature of individuality and self. To avoid the more deeply philosophical elucidations of these ideas, a quotation from Timothy Leary gets close enough:

    We see the human in the world as existing in three parts:
    1. one's interior personal world,
    2. the external world of artifacts and others and
    3. the interface - the sensory and affective channels through which one perceives and manipulates the external world
    The experience of self/consciousness resides at the interface, able to look within or without, toward 'imagination' or 'reality'. Self is a semipermeable boundary.
    (Leary 1997: 28)
Some consciousness researchers propose that we should see ourselves as 'multiple selves', with our roles and personae changing from situation to situation. The 'illusion' of a unified self is merely a result of mental habits by which we narrate a cohesive self-identity. On the basis of remarks earlier in this article, this puts the sense of self effectively on the same level as other cosmological myths.

From a mythological perspective it seems that how we create concepts self and self-awareness (i.e. consciousness) all depend on a culture's cosmogonic myths. Which in turn begs further questions. Does the belief in a single self stems from monotheistic religions with their single god? Or have monotheistic religions been created in imitation of our self-identities? Which cosmology comes first in a society – the dominant myths of self-identity, or the dominant religious myths? This article is not the place to even attempt to answer such questions. What I am attempting to emphasise is that our models of consciousness are part of our myths; myths that create and sustain the consensus Western view of consciousness, self-awareness, 'self' and individuality.

Much as we take this consensus as 'normal' and essentially inevitable, the sense of individuality which dominates Western self-awareness is a phenomenon which has developed in the last fifty years. From the broad perspective of culture, the concept of self is a metaphor, an affectation, that arises only with modern societies in the sixteenth century onwards. Some other major cultures, notably Japan, remain essentially 'group' societies rather than individualistic ones. Even southern Europe is more family orientated than northern Europe.

The complexities of recent consciousness studies have yet to enter popular awareness – to the best of my knowledge they have yet to feature in cinema scripts or novels (with the exception of David Lodge's novel Thinks… (2001) which, in a very shallow way, fictionalises broader issues of cognitive science, and does so only by considering them as 'other' to established ideas and in no way makes cognitive approaches 'indigenous' to the cosmogony of the fictional world). Still less have consciousness studies started on the process by which they become the cosmogonic myths through which a society creates it views of 'reality' (although considering the community of consciousness researchers as a 'folk group' opens up the possibility for research into how this sub-culture creates and transmits its own cosmogonic myths… ).

Cognitive linguistics

One field of research about thinking, cognitive psychology, has as spin off known as cognitive linguistics which has, rather like a cuckoo's egg, turned out to be much bigger and significant than expected. Cognitive linguistics appears to be especially promising for folklorists and mythologists.

The initial studies in the field, such as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's Metaphors We Live By (1980) and Lakoff's Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What categories reveal about the mind (1987) can only be described as intense and rather indigestible. However, in recent years the ideas have been developed in detail and, simultaneously, become more applied and less rarefied. The next few paragraphs attempt to summarise some of the developments more relevant to the theme of this article.

The essential character of cognitive linguistics (CL) is that we think about the world entirely through 'categories of thought' that are termed 'image schemas'. Image schemas are somewhere between metaphors and the 'literal truth'. As many of the schemas relate to concepts where there is no 'literal truth', it could be said that they are categories where the metaphor has, to all intents and purposes, become 'the literal truth' (although those within CL would dispute this over-simplification). More specifically, the metaphors we use to describe 'reality' are rooted in the way we experience the world through our bodies – this has created a sophisticated concept of the 'embodied mind', i.e. our more abstract thinking is ultimately based on the way our bodies experience 'reality'.

These 'frozen metaphors' become embedded in the lowest levels of our thought, such that more sophisticated thinking is best considered as more complex interplay between the underlying metaphors. For instance, we have no direct way of experiencing time. We think and speak of time as something we are 'in' or as a 'flow'. These are metaphors used throughout the world by different cultures (and indeed are seemingly the only two metaphors used to describe time) so have become deeply ingrained into our sense of 'reality'.

The two leading proponents of CL, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, have recently developed an ambitiously wide-ranging 'philosophy of thought' based on the concepts of the embodied mind with their 1999 book Philosophy in the Flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought. While this is unduly heavyweight to be directly relevant to the practical study of folklore and mythology, it does indicate that CL is well-rooted in philosophical principles.

Philosophy in the Flesh is especially critical of the implicit fundamental dualism in Western culture that considers the human intellect is independent of the human organism (and this is relevant to old-school mythology too, as Lévi-Strauss's structuralism is based on this fundamental dualism). Lakoff and Johnson argue that the mind cannot be independent from the input of the body's senses. This is revealed by the way human language approaches more abstract ideas through metaphors that derive directly from the experience of the physical world. For instance we express understanding through such figures of speech as 'I see what you mean', 'I hear what you're saying', 'I've got a feel for that now', 'I've got a grasp on it all', 'That's put things in their place'.

Reality is all in the metaphor – or the myth

Lakoff and Johnson have also shown that we do not have a direct experience of time. Instead, all human languages describe time metaphorically, usually through images that suggest movement through time, or time as a container. Modern societies also make increasing use of metaphors where time is a resource.

    'That's all behind us now.'
    'He has a great future in front of him.'
    'We're looking ahead to the future.'
    'The time will come when there are no more typewriters.'
    'The time has long gone when you could post a letter for one penny.'
    'The time for action has arrived.'
    'The deadline is approaching.'
    'Summer has flown by.'

    'I have to budget my time.'
    'I spent too much time on that.'
    'That mistake caused a big loss of time.'
    (Lakoff and Johnsonn 1999: 141–69)

Without one variation or another of these metaphors we cannot think about time (Lakoff and Johnson 1999: 166–8). Or, as mythologists might put it, such expressions arise from a culture's cosmogonic myths.

Likewise the cause of illness is not directly experienced, yet a wide range of societies share a small number of metaphors to attribute causality to illness (few regard illness as merely 'accidental'). These involve injury by other people or by supernatural agencies, so witchcraft, bad blood, violation of social taboos and envy by others could all be causative. The modern Western model, with its emphasis on infectious agents and the acceptance of the more arbitrary nature of infection, is surprisingly close to these metaphors. Indeed, is it also more a metaphor than a causal explanation?

Despite the frequent claims of scientists, scientific thinking is itself a metaphor (or a cosmogonic myth). For instance, Einstein's theory of space-time curvature and general relativity means that there is no such thing as gravity. Rather, when I drop a book it moves along the geodesic through a curved region of space-time. But the Newtonian 'force of gravity' remains a perfectly good 'metaphor' for objects moving at much less than the speed of light. And even Einstein's theory, although apparently proven by the way light from stars is refracted by the sun, does not have to be taken literally. 'One could have said: Einstein has created a beautiful metaphorical system for doing calculations of the motion of light in a gravitational field.' (Lakoff and Johnson 1999: 228)

Indeed, for modern physicists the whole notion of 'force' has been superseded by superstring theory, whereby all forces are instead conceived of as curvatures of ten-dimensional space. But, as Lakoff and Johnson affirm:

    From the perspective of the everyday human conceptual system, superstring theory is metaphorical, as is general relativity, as is Newtonian mechanics. To take any of these theories literally is to say that force, and therefore causation, is nonexistent. But to take these scientific theories metaphorically is to allow for the 'existence' of causes from our everyday perspective.
    (Lakoff and Johnson 1999: 228)
Lakoff and Johnson attempt to resolve this dilemma by allowing that human experience can allow for more than one perspective. They do not explore the extent to which these competing metaphors of the most fundamental aspects of reality – and, by extension, a vast number of less fundamental aspects that are also conceptualised through metaphors – can also be regarded to part of a 'mythic' narrative about the nature of reality. However Robert Nisbet has noted:
    Metaphor is, at its simplest, a way of proceeding from the known to the unknown. It is a way of recognition in which the identifying qualities of one thing are transferred in an instantaneous, almost unconscious, flash of insight to some other thing that is, by remoteness or complexity, unknown to us.
    (Nisbet 1969: 4)
Interestingly, Nisbet recognises that this corresponds closely to the Ndembu definition of a symbol in ritual, as reported by Victor Turner (Turner 1974: 25). Myth and ritual have long been regarded by mythologists as intimate bed-fellows. In essence, myths – and rituals – are the result of bringing the more basic metaphors of reality together into narratives or ritual dramas.

To both philosophers and modern physicists, what we think of as reality is essentially the construction of human thinking. Our so-called common sense frequently blinds us to the metaphorical 'cognitive templates' that shape reality. These cognitive templates can also be thought of as societies' deeply-rooted myths, metaphors and ideologies.

Such cognitive templates are not adopted by any conscious learning process. Rather they are 'internalised' by cumulative exposure. This exposure is mostly to fragments of the overall myth. Handy labels, metonymic allusions (whereby a part stands for the whole), quotations, slogans and even non-verbal iconic or ritual echoes substitute for the complexities of the overall idea or ideology. Such truncated references to complex beliefs and assumptions are rarely challenged. This may be one reason why people hold on to prior assumptions when presented with contrary evidence or arguments.

Any attempt to summarise CL as part of a broader discussion can only result in severe oversimplification. Thankfully Mark Turner has written a lucid and easily-digested introduction: The Literary Mind: The origins of thought and language (Turner 1996). He illustrates the ideas behind CL with examples from literature and folklore – the opening chapter is a discussion of one of the tales from A Thousand and One Nights. More importantly, his detailed exposition of the ideas behind CL offer an excellent approach to folk narratives (not least the 'otherness' of other cultures) and, by easy extension, to folk customs and other aspects of folk lore.

The 'image schemas' of CL add potency to the folklorists' approach of form, function/context, and transformation, being particularly helpful in establishing 'context' and adding additional nuances to old-school notions of function. The CL analysis of how the human mind constructs abstract ideas from deeply-nested systems of metaphors has an entirely different basis to traditional psychological models and, intriguingly, meshes closely with mythologists' concerns with the 'deep structures' of societies contained in cosmogonic myths.


Apologies to all readers to have made it this far! This article attempts to cover a vast ground, usually from unfamiliar viewpoints. Topics are rarely developed in any detail; the jumps between sections are often rather unsettling; the overall sequence somewhat arbitrary. The intention is to test the waters with this tentative outline and get feedback (please use the feedback form at the end of this page) before developing my thoughts as a more substantial book-length work.


I am deeply indebted to William Doty for enthusiastic feedback on my previous and more tentative ideas, for encouraging me to look further at the way folklore and mythology has engaged with psychology, and for extensive comments on an earlier draft of this article. Thanks also to Alby Stone and Terri Eynam for inspiring some of these thoughts. However, none of these people necessarily agree with any of the ideas I have expressed here!

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Since this article was written Todd Dufresne's book Killing Freud: Twentieth century culture and the death of psychoanalysis (Continuum 2003) has summarised the ever-growing literature that he terms 'Critical Freud Studies'.

The unjustly overlooked work of David Smail (such as Illusion and Reality: The meaning of anxiety (Constable 1997) and How to Survive Without Psychotherapy (Constable 1996)) is firmly within the scope of this aspect of foamy custard. Smail's approach to how anxiety is a natural response to the pressures caused by modern society – indeed any society – turns conventional psychiatry on its head; instead of the 'patient' being 'ill', it is society – especially marketing and the media – which creates the desires we all feel anxious about not fulfilling.

copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003, 2004

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