Monday, 1 September 2014

Archaeology and the psyche: part eleven ― mythos, logos and media

"Indiana Jones" fedora
photo: Clément Bucco-Lechat
The Indiana Jones movies are still recent enough to serve as a popular media icon for archaeology. This impresses some archaeologists and annoys others. Any adventure movie requires certain ingredients: there has to be bad guys and good guys, and there has to be some sort of romantic involvement (although this is often a minor factor in war movies). As all of the Indiana Jones plots are fictional. pretty well anything goes, so they are the not the best subject for what I want to show today. I just had to get them out of the way first.

Instead, I will contrast two productions based on real things. The first of these is the 1968 Italian TV miniseries about Homer's Odyssey. I saw it, dubbed into English, on Canadian television about ten years later. Unlike Homer's Iliad, the Odyssey was not supposed to represent history, it was a tale of heroism and the ideal character: Odysseus was the perfect hero, husband and father; Penelope the perfect woman, wife and mother, Telemachus, the perfect son and so on. As a literary work of the archaeological past, it was quite real, though.

The second production is 300 a 2007 film based on a comic series (very loosely) based on an actual event: the battle of Thermopylae. It was not only the added monsters that took the experience far from anything historical, it was just about everything in the film, from the character depiction down to unrealistic portrayal of Persian money (which would have been very easy to duplicate).

Great care was taken in The Odyssey to give a realistic impression of the time. Viewing it today, that would be less so because any modern creation gives tell-tale signs of its date. You will have undoubtedly noticed the sixties styles in the first Star Trek TV series, but these would not have been so obvious at the time; a 19th century forgery looks like a nineteenth century work to a great degree, but a contemporary forgery often looks real (at least for the time being).

The producers of The Odyssey went to great lengths to preserve the experience of the original story although a couple of things were omitted. They picked actors who all looked like they had just stepped off ancient Greek coins and sculptures; each episode started with a reading from the original to set the mood and the use of the Greek chorus contributed the experience of ancient theatre; Athena in her various guises were represented by actors who all had similar eyes so she was always recognizable, even before her identification was made clear by the plot and that plan, I thought, was really brilliant.

Both The Odyssey and 300 depicted opposites: the first being a mythical story told with a mind to making it seem real, and the second being a historical story told as a myth. The media business mostly stays with what is expected by the public and its success is measured by how well this is done. It doesn't have much to do with art, though. There are many current "cult movies" which did very badly with their original showing: The Big Lebowski is one of my favorites in that category ― it took a little while before its cleverness became appreciated. I saw a film production on television of the Gallic War which was amazingly bad in just about everything. When the unrealistically portrayed Julius Caesar answered in reply to "Where are you going?": "I am going to Rome, the place to where where all roads lead." I came as close as I have ever come to throwing something through the TV screen. I settled for turning it off.

One of the main functions of the unconscious mind is being compensatory to the conscious mind. The original source of The Odyssey was Mythos, so its compensation was Logos. The original source of 300 was Logos, so its compensation was Mythos.

Moving away from the arts, let's look at oracles. As places, they have a real presence in archaeology, the Oracle at Delphi being the most famous. But oracles can also be pure history (i.e. texts) without a place and might be identified as an oracle (such as the Yi Jing) or as prophesy as in Nostradamus or the Book of Revelation. The latter expressions of an oracle all contain the wording of Mythos, and the more surrealistic these images are, the greater is the chance is that the mind is going to compensate with the other end of the scale, so vast numbers of people are going to think that the prophesies are true. This compensatory effect also extends to works of fiction. I also saw an "electronic western" movie that was really surreal, and had no actual meaning. A friend who saw it thought it profound, but when I asked him to explain what was so profound about it, he became annoyed because he couldn't do that and said "Well, if you can't understand it, I can't explain it to you." I think he felt that it must be have been profound but he couldn't quite grasp it, and did not want to admit this. I got the same feeling reading Hesse's Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi), but I was aware of the fact that I did not understand how to engage in the game described.

An oracle can also rely on the potential randomness of its signs: the flights of birds, the sound of the wind, or in the Yi Jing, the random division of handfuls of yarrow-sticks or the dropping of coins to see their heads and tails.  The idea is similar to the synchronicity effect whereby an event in the unconscious (Mythos) is paralleled with an event in reality (Logos). Random events can often have such a numinous effect and the Yi Jing enhances this effect by having most of its signs representing the very ordinary, for example the hexagram for The Well (48, Ching). The hexagram looks like a well-head so this is the metaphor that was chosen and its various pronouncements are given according to that chosen metaphor. Nothing  happens with the well that would be unusual for a real well, especially for one at the time the Yi Jing was written: real well ropes can break, be not long enough to reach the water, the pot can also break, and the water might be fouled. The compensatory effect for such reality (Logos) is a mystical response (Mythos). This had led to the Yi Jing being a popular fortune-telling device, but it doesn't really work that way. It is essentially a binary system that includes all possible human reactions to events, and the randomness sets up the great possibility for  the synchronicity effect to occur. While you can try to ask "fortune telling" questions like "Will I get rich"? "Does so an so love me? and the like, the results are not going to be that good. An appropriate question would be "How would wealth effect me?" or "If so an so and I enter into a relationship, how will that effect me?" It is always dealing with human reactions to events, not so much the events actually occurring in the first place. Jung stopped using the Yi Jing after he started to know the results before he even dropped the coins. Achieving such an ability requires a mind that can accept such synchronistic effects, and as Jung coined the term, that ability is to be expected.

If we turn everything on its head, the same things happen: those who have strong authority and nationalistic concerns and who think that the past can only be approached scientifically, and also have a hatred for any personal contact with the past that is very different from their own are not only likely to recommend laws against the private ownership of artifacts. The return of such objects to the country where they are mostly found are mostly encouraged by people who are positioned very much at the Logos end of the spectrum. Their opponents, within their own mind, are all expressions of the Mythos as that is the compensatory effect, but the Mythos expressed will be only a projection by such a person, so their demands will never be met as they will fail to convince any person falling closer to the Mythos end than themselves. All resulting discussions about the issues they find important will be sterile as no agreed upon reality is possible between the two opposing forces. It would not be possible, either, to apply transdisciplinarity to the problem with  any good result as the "included middle" disobeys the laws of classical logic, and to accept such a premise requires more of the mind type who becomes a theoretical physicist ― you find such people closer to the middle of the Mythos/Logos spectrum and it is at that place where the greatest advances can be made in any subject.


  1. Hi John

    Those splits the mind creates sure seem to cause a lot of problems don't they? I agree with you that archaeologists who focus only on the data, every find spot, every piece of minutiae, miss the forest for the trees. Did anyone become an archaeologist, a historian, a numismatist, or a collector simply to see reams of tables and data testing some abstract hypothesis? No! Anyone interested in history is there for the awe, the joy, the realization that other's have existed and made something beautiful, skillful, or massively utilitarian. The point of study is the present. How the world is split does;t matter too much, mythos/logos, science/art, rational/emotional, the only caveat I would make is that these aren't two separate things with a boundary, a middle ground but rather two manifestations of a singles source, and that single source is what all study, science, art, history, and collecting is really all about.

  2. Yes, but even study can get corrupted when minds are too far toward Mythos or Logos. In the middle area are people with leanings toward both and real discussion can thus ensue.The best research always seems to include both imagination and precision.

  3. Yes I agree, I was trying to say the same thing :)