Ritual and Myth
A while back, I went to see a movie after my piano lesson, mostly on a whim. Feeling virtuous for forgoing the nachos (how can something so nasty be so tempting?), I settled into my seat and after silently judging the previews (“yup,” “cool,” “no way,” “Western civilization has officially collapsed.”), I watched my film.
In it, the two heroes fought, first with each other. Eventually, one of the characters, tamed partially by the love of a woman, joined up with the other hero and together they managed to thwart a mighty foe. One hero offers peace to the foe, and the other objects. The foe rejects the peace offer, and is destroyed.
I’ve seen this movie before. In fact, it’s a pretty old movie — it first played in a Sumerian scribe’s head about a thousand years before the common era, and the earliest written version we have is from the 7th century BCE. In that version, the first hero was Gilgamesh, the second was Enkidu, and the monster they defeat is named Humbaba. I’ve seen this movie dozens of times since, or parts of it. This film is the first time, however, that Enkidu was a Vulcan.
Every movie borrows some plot from some ancient story (although, to be fair, some use more modern myths as well). And you don’t need a degree in literature to recognize it. With or without a literature degree, audiences are rarely surprised by plots. After all, who really thinks that the hero will die before achieving his or her goal? Even the surprises of movies famous for them — The Sixth Sense, The Crying Game — has little to do with the plot. The goals and outcome would remain the same whether the surprise were there or not, although the surprise does complicate them. The simplest plot outline — a hero tries to regain faith in himself after failure; an enemy soldier finds himself struggling with his duty — would remain intact with or without the twist. And everyone watching expects the action to play out in these predictable ways.
We expect our stories to have these mythological structures because we know that all stories are built of the same stuff. The building blocks of stories — I’ll call them “mythemes” — are the fundamental particles of character, personality, motivation, setting, and action. They’re not forces of nature; we learn them as we learn to speak. They’re the parts of our first stories, and more importantly, the parts of our culture’s stories. Each mytheme comes prepackaged with expectations, so that if the author invokes the mytheme of “sea,” we know that we will deal with isolation, travel, and exile. If the author invokes the mytheme of “mountain,” we expect revelation and hardship and struggle for attainment. When the author places a trickster in the story, we know that seemingly random actions will lead to life-changing results. When the author paints a character as a knight, we know that the he or she will fight with his or her superior, feel guilty for neglecting family. In other words, we know what’s coming because we know all these stories in their fragmentary parts already.
The magical bit comes in when we realize that what we call our lives is a movie that we play in our own minds. When we do magic, we are not flinging about energy to push stuff around. We’re redefining the universe in which we find ourselves. Magic is a much more radical practice than most magicians realize: every time we do magic, we destroy the entire universe and remake it in our own image. Of course, no one notices — except that our lives change, and we seem perhaps more fortunate than others.
Whether magician or not, we define events in our lives as mythemes in our personal stories. An argument at work is a rebellion against the king. A missed bus is a disaster on par with Ulysses’ lost ships. Sometimes, this tendency to tell stories about the events in our lives can get us in trouble. Your secretary not collating the report properly can become Brutus stabbing you in the back, if you let yourself imagine that it is. On the other hand, even those who do not know magic benefit from arranging their lives into stories. We can make sense of events by seeing how their mythemes fit together. This story-making can save us cognitive effort. Similarly, although sometimes it is useful to resist story-making, it can also be useful to engage in it more consciously — and this is one definition of magic.
Our magical goals are the mythemes of ancient stories. Love, money, happiness, even self-actualization, are all the goals of particular heroes whose archetypes we can wear like a coat. If we wish to go home but cannot, we are Odysseus. If we wish to shift and react to events with cleverness and skill, we are Taliesin. Imagine, for a moment, that you are heading to work in the morning. How different is the experience of stop and go traffic on the Dan Ryan (or whatever other route you take) if it’s a desert you must cross out of duty, a slow stream carrying you into a mysterious forest, or a mountain you must climb to achieve wisdom? You can manage your mood — and, magically, the result of your work day — merely by telling yourself a different story.
One way of seeing magical ritual is as a deliberate rearrangement of mythemes in order to revise the stories of our lives. In this view of ritual, when we pick up the athame to make a circle, we are Gilgamesh and Romulus and every other warrior who ever defended a wall in battle. Similarly, to pick up a wand is to become, for a moment, the mytheme of Ruler — it’s the scepter of the king, the thunderbolt of Zeus, and the magical rod of Enki all at once. We don’t necessarily think consciously that we become these archetypes, but they’re so ingrained in the way we arrange our experiences in story, that we cannot help invoking these archetypes. And, in fact, we live our lives as archetypes. It’s worthwhile (do I really need to put this in an “exercise” box?) to take a few moments to think and maybe write about which archetypes — what characters — you play in your life. You needn’t worry about giving them the “correct” names, of course; you could even rely on names from contemporary fiction. Are you always Spock at work, logical and rational in a society that reacts precipitously, or are you Scotty, fixing the impossible to fix? If you hate Star Trek, you might prefer to ask yourself if you’re Harry or Hermione, Ulysses or Telemachus, Mr. Darcy or Edward Casaubon, Jane or Mr. Rochester?
I’m not arguing that all magic is just psychology, and the only real effect we have on the world is in our own mind. I think we do affect, first and foremost, the mind — but I think matter is a side-effect of mind. By changing the stories we tell ourselves, we change the world we live in not just in our perceptions (although that’s easiest to notice first), but in the world of matter as well.
The Obligatory How To Bit
First, it’s important to have a conscious, rather than the usual unconscious, vocabulary of mythemes. The best way to achieve this vocabulary is by reading the myths, but of course this raises the questions of what myths. It is important to choose myths whose mythemes resonate in our psyches. For most Americans, no matter their background, these are the myths of Greece, Rome, and Iceland. These are the myths that inform most of our culture. Of course, if you feel like an alien in Western culture and frequently find yourself confused at movies everyone else seems to enjoy, perhaps you have a different vocabulary of mythemes. I find anime confusing, for example, because I don’t know the mythemes. (Why is his nose bleeding? What does that have to do with having a crush on someone?) And I didn’t get Xiu Xiu until one of my Chinese friends explained it to me. You can best start with making your unconscious perceptions of patterns more conscious, but it is also possible to become bilingual in myth. The more fluent we are in myth, the more we can understand not just the stories we tell ourselves, but how those stories fit together.
Mythemes aren’t building blocks that fit together any old way; like words, they have a grammar. They fit together in some ways and not in others. You’re more likely to find a sage on a mountain or in a desert than on the ocean, because the grammar of myth fits some mythemes together than others. The grammar of mythemes already encode the likely conflicts in our desires. For example, if we wish to become wealthy, we need to look at some of the mythemes of wealth. Croesus had great wealth, but his overwhelming pride and failure to attend to wisdom led to the fall of his nation. Midas had great wealth, but nearly died because of it, by turning everything he touched to gold. Clearly, if we wish to be rich, we must be aware that our ambivalence will spring from fear of our own pride and greed. We might be led to think of wealth differently then: rather than an acquisition of items of value — real estate in Croesus’ case and gold in Midas’ — we can begin to see wealth as the wisdom to use resources. Hunting around for a story that we can use, we fall finally on Philemon and Baucis — two poor but pious people who, when visited by Zeus disguised as a stranger, offered him the last of their food and were rewarded for it. Now we have a ritual structure: an offer of generosity as an act of faith.
It helps to study not just the myth, but also theories of myth. Joseph Campbell and Robert Graves aren’t exactly regarded highly by contemporary anthropology, but they go a long way to defining an abstract grammar of myth that is invaluable in the study of magic. Campbell, for example, reduces all myths to one ur-story, which simplifies the process of learning the grammar of myth. Instead of memorizing a lot of Greek names, we can start with a framework and use it to hang the names on later. Similarly, Graves’ work is often an unsung and uncited influence on much contemporary Wiccan theology. A reader needn’t accept their theories in the academic sense to find them useful for magic.
Second, it helps to have a system. A system will take the story and translate it into action. For example, if our myth calls for a journey most of us can’t take off a week and travel on a pilgrimage to Greece. But walking about in a circle — circumambulation — is an accepted symbol in Western magical systems for a journey. Fortunately, several convenient pre-made systems of mythemes already exist. If we must represent a figure of authority, and we use either Wicca or Ceremonial Magic, we can grab our wand, no matter what particular device was used in the original myth. Similarly, perhaps Perseus uses a sword to kill the Gorgon, but we can use our athame as a mythemic equivalent in a ritual to confront our own paralyzing fears.
Incidentally, I’ve had good luck using a system as simple as a tarot deck (and in a pinch, a deck of playing cards). Similarly, some magicians do all their magic using systems like the runes, so that drawing the rune tiwaz invokes the whole of the myth of Tyr, with all the attendant strength, victory, and sacrifice, depending on intent. A magical system needn’t be complex, and in fact, one could take one’s favorite myths and reduce them to symbols to create a own magical alphabet of mythemes.
Third, a ritual requires a structure — one that is not, incidentally, noticeably different from Aristotle’s structure of a story. A ritual has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the beginning, the magician separates himself or herself from the world. Most western magicians do this by drawing a circle around oneself, but even actions such as fasting, changing into robes or special clothing (or going nude), and ritual baths serve to separate the magician from the world. Once separate, the magician is free to refine the story. The ritual’s middle consists of ritual actions, symbolic reproductions of the story the magician wishes to tell. Inspiration, especially verbal, can be taken from the myths themselves, and symbolic action can be quite abstract. No one needs to slay a serpent to reenact the myth of Apollo’s winning of Delphi. Finally, a ritual ends by reintegrating the magician back into the story of the world, usually by reversing the actions that led to the opening, and often by a quotidian act like the eating of food or drink.
Even outside of rituals, having labels for the habitual patterns in which we find ourselves can help us break out of those patterns, which is of course one of the aims of magic. If you find yourself a lonely, antisocial writer, realize that the “lonely” part of writer is part of the writer mytheme, and not necessarily part of the reality you can live. Similarly, if you are a “struggling artist,” an awareness of the stories of our culture helps you to see that “struggling” need not go with “artist,” but usually does because that’s the story we tell.
The stories we tell as a culture, or myths, may therefore master us or be mastered by us. The magician masters myth, chooses the mythemes of his or her life consciously, and lives deliberately. Many other people simply follow the script written for them, for good or ill. Magic can teach us to revise that script, and have a more meaningful life — and perhaps become contemporary Taliesins and Apolloniuses ourselves, founders and characters in a unique life story.
©2009 by Patrick Dunn.
Minor edits by Sheta Kaey.
Patrick Dunn, author of Postmodern Magic: The Art of Magic in the Information Age and Magic, Power, Language, Symbol: A Magician’s Exploration of Linguistics is a poet, linguist, and writer living near Chicago. He maintains a blog at http://pomomagic.wordpress.com/.