The Personal Myth

“We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it is all about.”

Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”

Note: When I originally wrote this post, I was not aware that personal mythology is an existing area of study, and now I will need to research it. However, it looks like this idea as presented here is fairly new–or at least, this particular name for it is new. It is an idea I will be developing. For example, since I originally wrote it, I have found my way through and beyond the myth cycle of Vader—an example of how much room there is within this model for dramatic shifts in development.

I get so tired of listening to staunch, outspoken atheists when they train their snarky reductionism on the subject of mythology and say stuff like, “We once made up stories to explain things like storms, earthquakes and the seasons because we were ignorant and didn’t know any better, but science rescued us from that sort of folly.” I am sure there’s truth to such statements, don’t get me wrong; that most superficial of assessments is accurate enough as far as it goes, to such an extent that it is repeated often enough even by spiritual people who see a deeper level of meaning in mythology. It’s become one of those statements that people rattle off, often out-of-context, as an adjunct to some other point they want to make. A similar statement would be, “We only use 10% of our brains,” usually repeated without the essential clarifying phrase, “at any one time,” which completely changes the implication. Yeah, it’s rooted in truth, but it’s not the whole truth.

Along with explicit external phenomena, myths also give expression to internal (what we would call psychological) phenomena: More than a surface-level explanation for how things happen, a refined understanding of mythology recognizes that it has much more to do with meaning than it does with nuts-and-bolts answers to concrete questions like, “Where does wind come from?” Myths are transmitters of archetypal wisdom that is applicable on multiple levels, including but transcending the merely practical. In this sense, the intrinsic value of myth is redeemed even if we strip away all suggestion of metaphysics or belief in the literal truth of its contents. Myth does not equal religion even though the two are closely associated.

Most of the time, when studying mythology, I’ve noticed what appears to be a marked emphasis on its power as it operates at the collective level. When religion and myth dwell side-by-side, it’s often through ceremonies involving groups of people to which anthropologists will point as fulfilling not only spiritual, but important social functions. They bind people together in common purpose, common understanding, and common activity. They provide a shared lexicon through which communities become more integrated and unified. They foster cooperation and, by the same token, often enforce a kind of social conformity. Carl Jung wrote a great deal about myth and its relationship with the collective unconscious, and I see his work cited often in that context—but much less so when it comes to the personal unconscious, which Jung also acknowledged. A story is regarded as “mythic” usually once a recognition has dawned that it deals with relatively universal themes to which we can all relate. Myths get a great deal of their power from the resonance that is struck between their contents and our experiences, and when those experiences are common or universal (birth, death, love, loss, power, poverty, war, peace, famine, fecundity), the note struck resounds powerfully. The conscious and coordinated use of such resonance is one key to magick.

When I reflect on my own experiences, I see mythic resonance playing out on a number of levels, with different levels holding primary importance at different stages of my Initiation; with regard to the more recent insights, it might be more accurate to say that those levels of resonance were operative even though I wasn’t fully aware of it, and coming to that awareness is what separates one stage of my Initiation from another. I’d classify the levels of mythic resonance as I have experienced them thusly:

Familiar Myth

I am of Polish, English, and Irish descent and was eventually raised Catholic. My father was in seminary to become a priest before he met my mother, but we didn’t start going to church until I was probably 7 or 8, attending a daycare run out of a church basement, and asked my parents why we didn’t go to church.

Once we started going, I took church pretty seriously. I paid attention in catechism class and had a genuine interest in making sense of it all. I also asked the annoying questions like, “Are we supposed to take an eye for an eye or turn the other cheek?” Because I wanted to understand my family’s religion, I didn’t simply accept everything everyone told me. I was happy taking whatever insights and wisdom I could from Catholicism while discarding aspects that I couldn’t stomach. My first Communion was a solemn occasion for me, and I was sure to note what I felt and experienced during said rite of passage, and what I didn’t. I enjoyed parables the most, because from them, I was able to derive insights that were workable in my own life. I actually liked the homily during mass (it was the only part I enjoyed) insofar as a sermon was reflective, motivating and stimulating.

Because I was surrounded by it, I have a certain level of comfort with Christian iconography and ritual. My upbringing will forever tinge my experience of smelling frankincense, even as I’ve expanded on the range of associations I make with that scent through magickal work. I can make use of Christian symbolism, and to this day I keep a figurine of St. Expedite for magickal purposes. All of that notwithstanding, I can say that despite this familiarity, Christianity never managed to ignite my spiritual and initiatory journey in quite the same way that other things have; there is one exception to this, which I’ll go into sometime, but the aspect of Christianity that resonates the most with me is something that is not exclusive to Christianity, nor even to monotheism. Christianity never felt like “home” to me even though it filled my literal home as a child. It did not resonate. I ultimately rejected it, ceasing to attend mass at the age of 13 or so. I was approaching Confirmation, and, taking that ritual as seriously as I had Communion, felt the need to make my break with the Church complete before making that kind of commitment. I knew it wasn’t in my heart. As I ventured into occultism, there was plenty of material related to Christianity for me to make use of, but I always seemed to favor myths and symbols from other cultures (case in point: I’m way more comfortable speaking about spiritual ideas from a Buddhist standpoint than, say, a Gnostic one).

Familiar myth has its uses, but I’ve found in my case that it has functioned mostly as a set of constraints for me to break out of. It is also often handy when I need to relate to other people who share a grounding in that mythic soil or are perhaps more rooted in it than I ever was. Importantly, familiarity and resonance are not the same thing. They can occupy the same space—some people might be fortunate enough that their Familiar Myth is also one that resonates deeply within them, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Clearly, it didn’t for me.

Foreign Myth

Whatever one’s upbringing, we’re all likely to be exposed at one point or another to mythic content from cultures and times other than our own. We name most celestial bodies and even many space missions after deities from various cultures in continuation of humanity’s longstanding tradition of projecting our minds onto the cosmos. What happens most often is that we tend to assign different levels of truth or relevance to Foreign Myth than we do to Familiar Myth—we’re more likely to regard Familiar Myth as “true” and Foreign Myth as less true. This is especially so if we accept a monotheistic myth and compare it to a polytheistic one, or vice versa. This isn’t a hard, fast rule and will depend on upbringing, of course. Different people respond differently to novelty.

Nonetheless, I think it’s likely that we can learn more about ourselves from our relationship with Foreign Myth than we can from our relationship with Familiar Myth, for the simple fact that in order for a Foreign Myth to resonate with us, it has to overcome cultural biases and boundaries first. Such barriers will be insignificant or even nonexistent when the meaning of a Foreign Myth finds a common note within the Self that makes it stand out. This process will likely unfold in a pendulous manner as we study mythology—we’ll zero in on a figure’s special meaning to us, then maybe study the culture in question with greater depth, thereby gaining deeper insight into how that myth that speaks so much to us fits in with the other culture, at which point we might find even more personal insights, in a dance that can go on for a lifetime. Then, we may expand into other cultures still, identifying myths from various times and places that follow similar archetypes. This rabbit hole goes about as deep as you care to follow it.

The alien nature of Foreign Myth offers as many potential strengths as it does obstacles. Coming to properly understand a foreign culture or idea is a process that takes time and patience, and until our understanding reaches a certain point, we are likely to spend some time grasping in the dark, stumbling around and piecing things together as we learn to navigate the new territory. While this cultural opacity presents some obstacles to understanding, it also serves as a well of power (mystery is power). While we should be careful that we aren’t totally overriding the native meaning of Foreign Mythic content and incorrectly projecting our own understanding onto something (which can easily reach the level of delusion), it’s also worth remembering that we do have a right to weave our own personal meanings from mythic content of all kinds—if this were not so, myth would indeed be baseless. To some extent, however consciously or unconsciously we do so, we will always project our own minds onto mythic content. Myths themselves can be viewed as the sum total of human projections that have managed to accrue around various ideas and establish traditions through time. The more consciously we engage in this process and steer it in the direction of our goals and aspirations, the more our relationship with it can be described as “magickal.” The ability to encounter a brand new myth from a foreign culture and recognize and make use of its significance is an Initiatory milestone.

Popular Myth

I wanted to acknowledge, and even dignify, Popular Myth as its own category. This is due to its prevalence at this point in human history, and I think some of the stuff going on in this realm right now is even more exciting than mythic manifestations of days gone by. “Occulture” has recognized the significance of Popular Myth for many years, but even so, I think its impact is often undeservedly downplayed, and I honestly think a lot of that stems from how we’ve been conditioned to view pop culture. Even though I’m writing this, I engage in this prejudice myself, and some of my magickal work at present has to do with undoing the programming that keeps me from fully tapping the magickal power inherent in Popular Myth. To accept Popular Myth into one’s magickal repertoire is to expand one’s toolbox, not just symbolically, but even physically.

The point has been made over and over that figures from popular culture are magickally viable, especially with the growth in popularity of chaos magick. I’m not the first and won’t be the last to express the notion that functionally, pop culture figures have a great deal in common with mythological figures. I opened this post with a Joseph Campbell quote because he’s commented extensively on this. The influence of Joseph Campbell’s thinking on George Lucas’ creative process vis a vis Star Wars is well known even outside of philosophical/spiritual circles. Lovecraft has left his mark all over the esoteric world.

If there’s a point I want to emphasize surrounding Popular Myth, it’s that of Popular Myth’s profundity, not merely its validity. Because of its association with consumerism and the fact that we tend to regard entertainment as a “time-killer,” the status of Popular Myth always seems to be assigned a significance beneath that of the previous forms of myth mentioned; sure, you can use the Great Old Ones in ritual, and there are people who have relationships with them that are personally just as significant as some people’s relationships with, say, Hekate or Kali or Lord Ganesha. Still, as far as I’ve seen (and I could be looking in the wrong places), even people who work with such figures seem to frame the endeavor with a tongue-in-cheek attitude of relative flippance. Perhaps this has to do with context: Traditionally, myth has been intentionally imbued with a sense of the Sacred, always regarded as serious and “real” on one or more levels, while pop culture figures have been acknowledged from the outset as fictional and imaginary. This differentiation certainly carries water, even I have to admit it. I am reluctant to come right out and say, “Having a working magickal relationship with Darth Vader is equivalent to having one with Baron Samedi (in Vodou traditions, the two are often syncretized).” However, I also think the jury is still out on this point. I don’t think pop culture has been around long enough for us to have fully fleshed out its role in our culture. That role is constantly deepening and I think the process is only likely to continue as time goes on. Aside from a mutually-agreed framing of popular culture as distinctly fictional, the only other functional difference between traditional myth and popular myth is antiquity; assuming we still remember Darth Vader 1,000 years from now, what will our relationship with that figure be when the time comes? No matter what, if the “Myth of Vader” manages to persist that long, I highly doubt we’d recognize its distant future manifestations from today’s vantage point. By then, Vader will be as hoary to the collective unconscious as is Anubis to ours. Say what you want about postmodern culture, but it’s the truth that right now, plenty of people care way more about fictional universes than they ever did about traditional myths. For better or for worse, the role popular myth plays in our lives is on the increase. The process of mythmaking/storytelling is largely the same even as the context shifts, and it’s been with us since we learned to speak. I don’t think it’s going anywhere and if anything, as our capacity for storytelling evolves (we’ve seen these myths move from novels to radio to comic books to TV and movies to video games to immersive virtual reality in the space of a single human lifetime), so will our relationship with it. I see a future in which all forms of myth gradually come to be regarded as co-equal, both explicitly and implicitly. I hope to help it happen.

A book that profoundly influenced my thoughts on this matter is Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal by Jeffrey Kripal, which exposes a great deal of paranormal and even occult “High Weirdness” that infuses the history of science fiction and comic books. I was already on that wavelength via the work of Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, but the connections fleshed out in the book really blew my mind.

Personal Myth

Finally, we arrive at the field of Personal Myth. Depending on our life circumstances, we may encounter Foreign Myth and Popular Myth to varying degrees, but we are virtually guaranteed to reckon with both Familiar Myth and Personal Myth in our lifetimes. Even if you’re born into a modern atheist household, you’ll inherit the Familiar Myth of secularism, which is so powerful right now precisely because of how many people have forgotten that it is, indeed, a myth. Likewise, no matter what, as part of being human, we automatically develop our own Personal Myth(s). We all have our favorite stories, TV shows, fictional characters, or overtly mythological figures. Certain themes, images, and personalities impress us more than others. Whether or not we realize it, the myths we’re drawn to will find reflection in our attitudes, ideas, opinions, and experiences. Some will show up in our dreams. Why? Ask yourself that question in all seriousness, and you might be surprised (and empowered) by what you discover. Stay open to further insights, too, because if you pay attention, you may find that your understanding of your Personal Myth deepens and evolves over time. It may not be possible to consciously apprehend why a certain theme or figure speaks so directly to our hearts on cursory inquiry. By making a process or practice out of the development of the Personal Myth, we might continue to see new connections between its various elements and ourselves years down the road.

Due to its intimate nature, the Personal Myth is diametrically opposed in certain ways to the other forms of myth, but we should remember that it also draws all its contents from them. The Personal Myth is what comes out when Familiar Myth, Foreign Myth, and Popular Myth are combined and refined in the crucible of the Self. It can be made into a conscious synthesis and becomes a veritable Well of Mímir if you can pull it off.

The sounding of a resonant note from within the Personal Myth is typically a joyous experience that many people indulge in without any further reflection, and there’s nothing wrong with that. This is the relationship, it seems, that the vast majority of people have with their Personal Myths, which often manifest these days as various fandoms or cliques. It’s even possible to make use of the Personal Myth without undergoing this investigation—we know when to go watch our “Breakup Movie” to kick off the grieving process when a relationship goes sour, or draw strength from the nostalgia of reading a certain book from a formative time in our lives, or put a bobblehead of our favorite superhero on our desk at work to fire us up.

The more we probe the reasons for our love, revulsion, or curiosity about the contents of our Personal Myth, the less power the Personal Myth has to quietly govern our lives for us, and the more power we have to leverage the energy inherent in the Personal Myth for magickal purposes. We may find that what at first seemed like mere enjoyment or appreciation of a given figure has important lessons for us.

Let me return to Darth Vader. I’ve been fascinated by Darth Vader since I was a little kid, and that fascination has only grown over time. There are certain obvious reasons for this—he’s powerful, mysterious, dark, he wears a cool fucking mask, lightsabers are just badass and a red one is ominous, black capes add a certain mystique, etc. Typical little boy stuff, yeah? Yeah, that too.

I first saw Darth Vader on cable TV, in Return of the Jedi, which I saw for the first time at the age of 3-ish as I lay my head on my dad’s bare belly one Saturday afternoon. This association will forever be cemented in my mind.

I looked up to my dad, like most kids do. In so many ways, I wanted to be just like him. Without getting too personal, however, let me just say that my relationship with my father has been strained throughout the years, and a great deal of the personal work I have to do stems from those difficult but powerful relationship dynamics. This theme is involved, in one way or another, with the motives for many of the goals I have, as well as with those obstacles that consistently hold me back in life.

In Star Wars, Sith Lords receive the title of Darth, followed by a moniker that reflects something essential about them. Darth Maul is named so because of his brutal combat efficacy, which was one of his only outstanding attributes as a Sith Lord. Likewise, George Lucas derived “Vader” from the Dutch for “father,” and as we all know, Vader’s parentage of Luke Skywalker is one of the central themes of the Original Trilogy. Notably, Luke, who admired what little he knew of his father in his youth, ultimately took a divergent path that put him at odds with his father. I have lived that myth in more ways than one.

I suppose most people would name Luke himself as the protagonist of the original trilogy, but it’s been a long time since I saw it that way; to me, it’s really more of a redemption arc with Vader at the center. This became even more true with the release of the prequel trilogy, which basically illustrated Vader’s fall. The redemption of Darth Vader is probably the strongest point of resonance that I have with Star Wars. I have a dark, tumultuous past. Comparing the person I am now to the person I once was is mind-blowing at times. A lot was done to me in the past and I am learning to acknowledge that—largely through the perspective I’ve established by consciously recognizing Darth Vader as an element of my Personal Myth—but I’ve also made a lot of bad and senselessly destructive decisions in my life that are hard to live down. People make fun of how Hayden Christensen over-acted Anakin’s emo temper tantrums in the prequels, but that was me once upon a time. Over the years, I inadvertently came to villainize myself. The central focus of my Initiation at this time is transforming that outlook, changing habitual negative self-talk, building a more positive self-image and doing the positive things that go along with being that person.

I’ll get into more specifics along these lines in future posts—in fact, as I write this one, I am realizing that most of what I envision for Hermekate boils down to laying out parts of my Personal Mythology and relating that to the general themes of occultism and Initiation. My main point here is that behind our preferences or attraction to certain figures are often deep personal themes that touch every part of our lives, and that there is so much to be gained simply by paying sufficient attention to that. It’s also interesting how the attraction to a given theme sometimes occurs before that theme manifests fully as an active force in our lives—I was a Darth Vader fan before the prequel trilogy, but the story that unfolded within it wound up having compelling similarities to the trajectory of my life even as it continued to unfold. The same held true with the recently wrapped-up sequel trilogy (I had weird synchronicities surrounding every episode). Likewise, I felt an inexplicable attraction to and kinship with the deity Hekate before I knew a single thing about her, and the more I learned, the more the attraction made sense even though the attraction preceded the knowledge. Uncannily, the more I learned about Hekate, the more I learned about myself. Again, as I began to practice ritual magick using a phurba, a study that has carried on for a decade continues to unearth details related to phurba symbolism and practices that seem to apply not only currently, but retroactively as I look back on my life. This kind of thing has happened so consistently in my life that I can’t write it off as coincidence, and I have to believe that at some non-rational, non-conscious, atemporal and non-spatial level, we find our resonance with symbols from without.

A science fiction figure, a Hellenistic goddess and a ritual dagger most commonly associated with Buddhism fit together in my psyche as tightly as the members of a single pantheon do within the context of a cultural mythos. In our society, the imaginary (and especially the personal imaginary) is often relegated to a place of insignificance when compared to the concrete—perhaps because using the imagination is something a child can do with ease and that we expect them to grow out of even if we tell them otherwise. This is unfortunate; maybe millions of people throughout the world believe in Jesus, but if asking myself “What would Vader do?” leads to taking action while asking myself “What would Jesus do?” leads nowhere, which one is a more potent force in the world? Within my scope of action, it’s Vader. I’d be crazy to deny that. Better to lean into it, if anything. Anything that calls out to us and captivates us in this way should be recognized as important without regard for its origin and without undue second-guessing. Learn to trust that feeling and follow it to the empowering and confounding places it will take you.

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