Personalizing Myth

by Suzanne Montz Adams.

I used to think that myths were simply old stories that had little relevance for twenty-first century dilemmas. Yes, I admired their wildly imaginative content, the occasional unexpected twist, and the characters’ fantastical feats; but important to me personally? Not a chance.

There was a slight glimmer of contemporary relevance, however, when I read Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth two years ago. Campbell makes a persuasive argument for the myriad ways in which myths can illuminate the complex matters of life and spirit. He also brings into context the vast culture of myths around the world. Every society has its myths, and before written language, these stories were the threads woven between earthly existence and the life of the soul. Keeping these myths alive was one of the earliest purposes of storytelling. I understood philosophically what Campbell was saying, that myths served an important function in society, but I still didn’t sense, or even imagine, a personal connection.

Several months later, I began to read Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run with the Wolves and felt as though someone thousands of years ago had time-traveled into my life and written my stories. The myth of La Loba, the Wolf Woman, initiates a question in the reader’s or listener’s mind: What has happened to my soul-voice? How do I make life come alive again? This story spoke to me of my search to reclaim my identity and literally my name that had been discarded and lost through so many years of self-sacrifice and service to others. I had rarely heard my name spoken in my house since my husband had adopted the habit of calling me “Mom,” and with many others, my name was mispronounced. La Loba reminded me that hearing my name spoken correctly and regularly was a reflection of my identity or lack of one. How am I defined in my relationships? Do others know me? Without a name,who am I? There is an aspect of invisibility implied with namelessness.

On another level, like me, La Loba began to understand that until we have knowledge of our own souls, we cannot even name ourselves. As therapist Dan Allender notes, “At the moment of being unnamed, we are thrown into our story” (Allender p. 43). This moment usually coincides with a shattering – our identities are taken away and we lose our security. Then we embark on a search for our true name and an identity that reflects what is in our souls. With the reclamation of our soul and our soul-voice, life does come alive again. Without this myth, I might still be searching for my lost identity, my lost name, bereft of the power that naming infers.

I felt as if Vaselisa’s mother had sprung out of the pages and smacked me in the forehead.

What is most beautiful about this myth (and almost all myths) is its openness, the ability to encompass the rich array of losses that we can experience in our souls and our soul-voices. The story meets all of us in a unique place, wherever we are in our journeys.

Another myth from Estes,book, this one about a young girl named Vaselisa, sparked a long- suppressed note of anger in me. I had never before experienced that particular emotion from a story and the intensity of the anger surprised me. In the story, Vaselisa’s dying mother gives her a doll to put in her pocket which represents her intuition. Though the little girl will lose her mother, she can always rely on the doll to guide her. Vaselisa is given tasks to perform that will test her ability to use her intuition. While reading the story, I felt as if Vaselisa’s mother had sprung out of the pages and smacked me in the forehead. “Hello? I gave you a doll too. Why haven’t you been using it?” I had been ignoring it for so long, letting others convince me that my gut feelings were unreliable, that I no longer had much faith in intuition’s power. Upon reflection, it didn’t take long to realize that when I had ignored my intuition in the past, I had inevitably suffered.

During a workshop I facilitated with adolescent girls, I gathered the girls into a circle, dimmed the lights, lit a candle—very effective for getting everyone’s attention, and shared the story of Vaselisa. Afterward, we discussed the symbolism and meaning of all the characters and tasks in the myth and the importance of listening to our intuition as the wise voice of our psyche. The value of telling this story was not only in the discussion of the symbolism, but also in the introduction of the concept of intuition itself. These eighth-grade girls, experiencing the constant struggle between self and others, and who are, according to many studies, in the most danger of losing their identity and self-worth, had never heard of intuition. That alone is reason enough to keep this myth alive.

During the time period when I had discovered Women Who Run with the Wolves, I was also introduced to Carol Gilligan’s The Birth of Pleasure. Initially, I avoided reading the book simply because the title inferred that it was a sexual how-to and as interesting as that topic can be, at the time I was looking for something more cerebral. When I did finally read it, the treasure I unlocked was both cerebral and emotional, and I couldn’t believe I’d almost rejected this story. Gilligan uses the myth of Psyche and Eros to address the psychological aspects of love as the story unveils a new pattern of love between a woman and a man and charts an escape route out of the Oedipus tragedy and the patriarchal cycle. The story is also an archetypal myth about love (Eros) and the soul (Psyche.). Wouldn’t you know that I was recently emerging from a marital crisis that  eerily mirrored the myth? I don’t think I ate, drank, or slept until I had read the last sentence, then I immediately sat down at my computer and wrote my own story, interweaving the mythical story between the lines. These stories were so similar that the characters’ qualities, the tasks assigned, and the number of years that transpired from beginning to end were near   perfect matches with my marital journey.

Even eerier, I had been bewitched by a statue of Psyche and Eros that I had seen in the Louvre several years before, during the most turbulent time in my marriage. I could not take my eyes off those  gorgeous mythical creations who were breathing into each other it seemed, and by proxy, into me. They were completely oblivious that they had attracted my attention as I stood transfixed in front of them, a voyeur who could not turn away from the pure love that was as palpable as the shallow breathing inside my chest. There was something hypnotic with Psyche and Eros and their white marble gazes of intimacy that startled me with longing and loss. I was afraid to turn away, afraid of what else I would lose if I did. Since I couldn’t take them with me, I settled for buying a bookmark of the statue in the gift shop.

During the next few years, as my marriage continued to crumble, I would occasionally take out the bookmark and search for that ethereal magic I had seen in the faces of Psyche and Eros. There was only the faintest glimmer.

When I finally read the tale of this mythical couple many years later, I understood my fascination with the statue as a subconscious connection with their story. Maybe my enchantment was just a simple reaction to a beautiful work of art, but I really don’t believe that. I don’t believe in coincidences at all.I choose to have faith in the mysteries of the spirit. And this particular spiritual connection resonated with me on every level.

I choose to have faith in the mysteries of the spirit.

Like the storytelling I performed with the girls in my workshop, I needed to not only hear the myth, but comprehend the symbolic meaning as well. Though some myths may need embellished detail, such as weather, clothing, or characterization, they are never deficient in symbolism. As I began to untangle the meaning behind each line of the story of Psyche and Eros, I battled alternating feelings of anger (Why wasn’t I aware of this myth and could it have saved me when I was floundering for so long in lonely confusion?), shock (Holy cow! This is my story!), and elation (Now, I get it!) And like all storytellers, I couldn’t wait to share this with someone else. Here was a myth, like so many, that needed to be told again and again.

The repetition of stories ensures that we will eventually capture the message. Sometimes we are not in a position to hear or absorb or apply. Other times, we hear the story prematurely and the details are quickly and easily forgotten, thereby rendered useless later in the hour of true need. There are also times when we are too broken for self-reparation so the story must be told again when we have mended enough; only then can we reach out and claim what we need to regain wholeness. Like story repetition, my marriage continued to replay the same scenes until I could grasp the deeper meaning, always bristling under the surface.

There is another layer to our stories that we are just beginning to understand – that intense emotional or traumatic experiences will, if not resolved, result in physical manifestations. I was no exception. My habitual silence and swallowing of emotions throughout my life, and most evident during my marital crisis, led to the removal of a cyst in my throat and a benign polyp in my stomach. As brain research scientist Dr. Candace Pert points out, it is “unhealed feeling, the accumulation of bruised and broken emotions that most people stagger under without ever saying a word, that the mainstream medical model is least effective in dealing with.” (Pert p. 265) Keeping myths alive through storytelling is a form of both ancient and alternative medicine. By connecting with myths, personalizing them with our own stories, and discerning awareness and meaning from that process, we are healing ourselves, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

The myth of Psyche and Eros also opened a door for me to sail through, a portal I had thought was locked and barred. My marriage had endured many years of struggle, and though I knew I had learned valuable lessons along the way, I could not muster any gratitude for the experience. How could I be thankful when I was still reeling from all the turmoil and anger my marital issues had unleashed? Yet in reading and fully integrating the Psyche and Eros myth into my own life, I could finally make the vital connections between my emotions and my health, my silence and my marital problems, my story and my transformation. And I finally felt blessed in viewing the past as a sacred healing journey, a road I had chosen that would lead me into a more desirable future. No one was more shocked than I that the source of all this wisdom had evolved from a North African myth, written or recorded in the second century and presented as “an old wives’ tale.” The myth of Psyche and Eros was written (or recorded) by Apuleius and is included in his novel, Metamorphoses, commonly known today as The Golden Ass. A Roman born in North Africa during the second century C.E., Apuleius lived in a time when various cultures were mixing and some were questioning the leadership/domination of the male gods.

From one who used to think that myths were only valuable for entertainment or as an occasional escape into the ancient past, I am now a radical proponent of the myth as a vital source of soul wisdom. Really, how else could these stories have survived for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years? Though the myth may not contain literal fact, the truth is woven like gold into every line, gold that neither frays with use nor fades over time. All we have to do is claim the myth’s wisdom and watch as it reflects light into our own lives.

References

Allender, Dan B. (2005) To Be Told: Know Your Story, Shape Your Life, 1st ed. Colorado Springs, Colo: Waterbrook Press.

Campbell, Joseph, and Bill D. Moyers. (1988) The Power of Myth, 1st ed. New York: Doubleday.

Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. (1992) Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, 1st ed. New York: Ballantine Books.

Gilligan,Carol. (2003) The Birth of Pleasure: A New Map of Love, 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books.

Pert, Candace B. (2003) Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel 1st Scribner trade pbk. ed. New York, NY: Scribner.


This article appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 5, Summer 2008.

Suzanne Montz Adam’s essays have appeared in Trivia: Voices of Feminism, BrainChild, and Family Life. She is a former CPA and has an MA with a concentration in Transformative Language Arts.

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