Thursday, 13 August 2015

Viewpoints 12: the new mythology

This elaborate tapestry-woven mandala, or cosmic diagram, illustrates Indian imagery introduced into China in conjunction with the advent of Esoteric Buddhism. At the center is the mythological Mount Meru, represented as an inverted pyramid topped by a lotus, a Buddhist symbol of purity. Traditional Chinese symbols for the sun (three-legged bird) and moon (rabbit) appear at the mountain’s base. The landscape vignettes at the cardinal directions represent the four continents of Indian mythology but follow the conventions of Chinese-style “blue-and-green” landscapes. The dense floral border derives from imagery of central Tibet, particularly from monasteries with ties to the court of the Yuan dynasty.

Photo and caption: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Fletcher Fund and Joseph E. Hotung and Michael and Danielle Rosenberg Gifts, 1989, Accession 1989.140

Critics of Carl Jung put the cart before the horse when they questioned Jung's reporting of mandala imagery in the sessions of his patients. How on earth could imagery from the Indian sub-continent be an integral part of the human mind? Since about the seventeenth century, many people have understood mythology as a primitive system with which to understand the workings of nature. While there is an element of truth in this interpretation, and the mandala is intended to have cosmological meaning, it is not intended as a universal symbol. As the image moved to China, it gained Chinese imagery while maintaining the same general meaning.

Jung explains that many eastern religions, especially the more mainstream ones, are inward-looking and thus make contact with some of the contents of the unconscious mind. Therefore, within the iconography of such religions are core symbols of the psyche. Mythologists also understood the transmission of foreign religious motifs to be through syncretism which associates foreign cultural content with the same from the new geographical area. Syncretism can be brought about deliberately or as a sort of evolutionary development of such ideas. In either case it seems obvious to me that the individual is a very important part of the mythology and as such gets represented through the changing cultural content. As the imagery can include the archetypal, the individual cannot be removed from the whole. By making the claim that mythology is just an interpretation of the external world, the individual becomes irrelevant.

That Jung's patients gave imagery from eastern religions, and from European alchemy Jung thought that alchemy, too, must be inward-looking and that there must be much more to it than the popular idea of changing lead into gold. Accordingly, he spent many years studying the imagery and philosophy of alchemy and this formed the basis of his new psychology. Transmutation, in proper alchemy was really the transmutation of the alchemist, himself, into a transcendent state.

Why Jung's patients did not bring up western symbolic imagery from later than the seventeenth century is that the west had no such imagery: the fascination with science had filtered so many things through its outlook that mental self-examination had ceased to become a tool with which to understand the world and ourselves as an integral part of it. Ironically, the pre eighteenth century view of nature was actually closer to modern quantum physics than the later Newtonian physics because the former included something of the observer as an essential part of the whole. I attribute the revival of the individual in science to greater international communication in modern times. When a theoretical physicist talks about eastern religious imagery, it is because they have consciously seen a parallel. Thus it is axiomatic that (unlike some of Jung's patients) the eastern imagery is already familiar to the physicist before he or she makes such a pronouncement. More importantly, the noticed imagery and its cultural correlates gives the physicist cause to include the individual and some of them have created a model of a psychophysically neutral reality.

The inheritance of archetypal imagery that can be placed in a cultural, historic place presents us with a big problem. The biological inheritance of anything learned is Lamarckism which has been disproven. The given solution to this problem which has become widely accepted is that it is not the actual symbols that are inherited, but an ability to create mental structures which will allow for such imagery to naturally emerge. We are still pondering the actual mechanics of all of this. Wolfgang Pauli had a problem with natural selection as he could not make the mathematics work, and modern epigenetics has apparently resolved the inheritance problem.

Here is a model of a of a mythology:
See Dick run, see Jane jump.

This is a model of a non-mythology:
Run see, Dick jump see Jane.

Fairly obvious, no? The second example has all of the contents but nothing of the meaning. The only time that mythological content is devoid of meaning is when it has been forgotten and used as a "familiar pattern". This sort of decoration shows up frequently in pottery and textile design. In any culture, it might be possible to track back such patterns to a time when the meaning was known by everyone. Jung experienced such a tradition in Africa where a certain tribe had a tradition of raising their palms to the sky, When asked of the significance, he was told that they had always done this. It was a tradition, but any original meaning had been lost.

Mythology consists of narrative and when you see a new motif appearing in a culture you cannot make the claim that it was inherited sans meaning, as the entire picture is a narrative. Taking just one of its motifs, it is up to the mythologist to show how that motif is related to the rest of the picture and it always will be so related. In the case of the imagery on Armorican Celtic coins, the narrative shows two different cultural themes that are given equal importance: one of them is Celtic, the other indigenous and understood by descendants of the earlier megalithic culture. The two cultures, according to Giot, who wrote a book about the archaeology of Brittany, each represented about half of the population in the first century BC.

In order to interpret a myth to any degree, all of its contents must be demonstrated to form a meaningful narrative, so when we see:
See Dick run, see Jane emission.

Knowing the original, we have obviously misinterpreted the symbol for "jump". Not only does the narrative make no sense, but the grammar is also wrong.

More easily confusing is:
See Dick run, see Jane walk.

In this example, a narrative exists as does good grammar, we have only misinterpreted one element. With this example there is no way that the correct interpretation can be given because we need some external confirmation to be sure. Because Armorican coins are actually "tri-lingual" incorporating into their design elements of Greek, Celtic and indigenous cultures, we are presented with a "Rosetta Stone" that will become even more useful as we compare the three cultures' imagery as expressed on the same sort of object.

Through this method, we cannot reconstitute the myth as it was understood at the time the object was made, all we can do is give it some sort of category like "creation myth" or "the start of the new year". Many of its eccentric details which would have been passed on by storytellers and priests are the result of a wide syncretism with each phase picking up more cultural baggage which is absorbed into the narrative. At no point in the process, however, is all narrative lost. If it were, the myth would cease to exist as it would not carry enough unconscious material to create epigenetic persistence. This, in itself, gives some validation to a psychophysical reality.

You can see how cultural baggage accumulates when you read Ovid's Metamorphosis account of Meleager, and then what Homer had to say about Meleagros. The latter is like a short theatrical sketch and the former is more like a Cecil B. DeMille production with a huge cast. It had absorbed myths far and wide by the time Ovid got his hands on it. The Homer version was more "localised".

Providing that we stick with narrative, we can thus not only track the evolution of the myth as it passed through different cultures, but we can use the various better known versions to give us an idea of the sort of myth we have, even when there are few surviving details.

Context is poorly understood by modern archaeology as it has become a meme because of its importance to archaeologists as one of their methods that has been raised to primary importance. As such, applications of it are rarely questioned and it becomes a self contained unit of understanding with a specific application whose importance drowns out all other uses of the word. Such archaeologists will often condemn a collector or art historian as being only interested in the object instead of the archaeological site it came from. The meme has occluded the knowledge in such an archaeologist that an object is anything that can be named. An archaeological site is an object just as certainly as a coin: both consist of discrete parts that are brought together and define the object: we could talk about the alloying metals of the coin; the parts of the archaeological site; the tools and techniques used to manufacture the coin; the meaning of the objects depicted on it. In fact, the coin is even more informative than the archaeological site because most of its contents are intentional and interconnected in different ways.

It is unusual to see a Celtic gold coin where one of its main devices is a boar. Only the scyphate gold coins of the Corieltauvi have the boar as a main device, yet it is very common as such on silver and copper alloy coins. It takes an understanding of the boar mythology to realize why it is so rarely used on gold. The boar on the Corieltauvi coins is a localized syncretism that apparently did not persist. An archaeological site is rarely so informative as it most often contains things that are not intentional: objects can be placed without thought, or with thought; objects might be missing having rotted away or taken when the site was abandoned. Archaeologists can have a strong interest in such things as buildings and graves because continuity and repetition are inherent qualities of building and grave types and provide comparisons among the similar to understand any intention. Any multiple items provide ways to differentiate the accidental from the intentional. The only problem in their fascination with structures and graves is that the human being spends very little time thinking about such things unless that human is an architect or an undertaker. What to study is partially what is available to study easily. If the subject is something that undergoes rapid evolution we can be sure that it had considerable interest placed on it. If it rarely changes it is more like an unthinking meme: a tradition that carries little understanding of its makeup, and little current cultural content. The choice of on what to conduct any archaeology, contains a fair measure of Maslow's hammer, and it can only maintain its primacy if other methods are condemned.
While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he’s in. 
Bob Dylan
This is the last episode in this series: something completely different tomorrow.

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