Personal Mythology


THE ancient myths are not dead; they live on in the stories people tell about their own lives.

While the old gods do not show up by name, they are there in spirit, in the struggles and triumphs that people depict as the key episodes in their lives.

New work by psychological researchers shows that in telling their life stories, people invent a personal myth, a tale that, like the myths of old, explains the meaning and goals of their lives. In doing so, they match – quite unwittingly – the characters and themes that are found in the old myths.

For example, one research subject, Tom H., depicted his life story as a saga in which he was a warrior like the Greek god Ares. Tom found himself in constant battle -with other children, relatives and people in authority. The main struggle of his life was between periods as a ”noble warrior,” dutiful and austere, and as a ”traitor,” drunken and irresponsible.

Understanding personal myths is important, psychologists say, because they do more than reveal how a person sees his past: they also act as a sort of script that determines how that person is likely to act in the future. And for those who are living out destructive myths, some therapists are using insights into the myths at the heart of their patients’ problems as a key to treatment.

”Every myth has a creative side and a dark side,” said Philip Zabriskie, chairman of the Jung Institute of New York. ”If you can find the core myth that illuminates a person’s life, you have a powerful tool for psychotherapy.”

Dr. Zabriskie’s wife, Beverly, who is also a Jungian analyst, uses the example of Isis, the Egyptian goddess, to show how the transformation of a character in a myth can be used therapeutically. In the course of the myth, Isis, changes from the helper of a powerful male to an authority in her own right. Dr. Beverly Zabriskie finds that many women who identify with this myth can be helped to become less dependent on the men in their lives.

The psychological interest in myth has spread beyond the Jungian approach to therapy, in which the therapist often uses images and motifs from a patient’s dreams as clues to a myth that has special meaning for the patient’s problems. In the new studies, researchers are examining how the identity a person chooses shapes the course of life.

The new data, gathered by non-Jungian researchers, lend credibility to the methods long used by Jungian analysts, and to the view expressed by the mythologist Joseph Campbell in his classic ”The Hero With 1,000 Faces,” who wrote, ”The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stands this afternoon on the corner of 42d Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.”

Jerome Bruner, a psychologist at New York University who is writing a book on autobiography, said there are clear ”mythic patterns” in the stories people tell about their lives. ”People model their account of their life on a myth, and so begin living it in those terms,” he said. From Greeks to Sioux

Much of the new research on the role of myth in psychological life builds on the work of Mr. Campbell, an expert on world mythology who died last November, and whose theories are the subject of a six-part series that began on the Public Broadcasting System last night.

In his exhaustive studies of the mythologies of cultures around the world, Mr. Campbell showed how the same basic characters could be found in different versions in cultures as distant as the ancient Greeks and the Sioux Indians. Today, people encounter these characters most often not in classic myths but rather in their modern incarnations – as characters in novels, movies and television. In this sense, as Mr. Campbell observed, the young King Arthur lives today as Luke Skywalker of the ”Star Wars” epic, Aphrodite as the mermaid in ”Splash,” and Hercules as Rambo.

Focusing on these same universal characters and themes in the stories people tell about their own lives, psychologists are finding, offers clues to the way people will behave in certain situations, given the ”script” they see for themselves.

”What we take from the myths is not the entire story, but key aspects that resonate with and make sense of our own lives,” said Dan McAdams, a psychologist at Loyola University in Chicago, who has done some of the most current research. Themes From a Two-Hour Tale

In Dr. McAdams’s research, people are asked to tell their life stories in a two-hour session, focusing on what they see as the main chapters, key episodes and significant characters. Dr. McAdams and his associates then analyze the stories to find their underlying themes and mythic characters. The role these characters play in a life story is subtle; the person who tells the story is almost never aware of their role in shaping his tale.

From the analysis, Dr. McAdams determines what he calls the ”imago” (pronounced ih-MAY-go) and Jung called the ”archetype,” the mythic character at the heart of a person’s life story. Among the common archetypes that emerged in Dr. McAdams’s research were those of Demeter, the care giver; Ares, the warrior; Apollo, the healer; Hestia, the homemaker; Aphrodite, the lover, and Athena, the counselor.

Dr. McAdams recognizes that his choice of Greek gods and goddesses to typify these traits is arbitrary. ”I follow Joseph Campbell’s notion that there are universal mythic forms that show up in most, if not all, cultures,” Dr. McAdams said. ”They are the timeless and universal roles that people tend to play in life.”

These archetypes, he finds, shape the stories people tell him about their lives. For instance, Rebecca K., one of the research subjects, described a life of constant adventure and exploration, in the style of Hermes, a god typified as being constantly on the move. Although her day-to-day work was that of a social worker, she told a picaresque life story, a romantic adventure in which the heroine was incessantly searching for new places, experiences and people.

In the spirit of Hermes, an explorer and adventurer, the majority of key episodes in Rebecca K.’s life story were set in foreign countries. Most of the key events of her life involved illicit love affairs, experiments with drugs and encounters with strange foods and customs.

People who interpret their lives in terms of being lovers, on the other hand, views life through the intensity of relationships, whether platonic or erotic. One of those subjects with the strongest imago as a lover in Dr. McAdams’s study was a former nun; the major theme in her life story was repeated episodes of extremely passionate, though nonsexual, relationships. Her goal in life was to establish a community where ”loving, likeminded people could live together.”

One of the more common mythic identities that people to hold to, Dr. McAdams has found, is that of the escapist, embodied in the god Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry. Such people continually seek to avoid responsibility and live to lose themselves in diversions. Close to 30 percent of those he studied fit this pattern. Imagoes of Power

Another set of common imagoes represent needs for power, according to Dr. McAdams, while others embody needs for intimacy. In his research he used psychological tests to compare the predominant needs of people with the imagoes that dominate their life stories. He found that those people with a greater need for intimacy more often held to imagoes reflecting that need, such as that of the care giver or the loyal friend. Those with higher power needs, however, more often told their stories in terms of powerful imagoes, such as that of the warrior and the ruler.

For most people, Dr. McAdams said, an archetype first takes shape in early adulthood, the phase of life when a clear sense of one’s identity tends to emerge. At any one time, a person’s identity may be shaped by just one or by some combination of these characters; they often change over the course of a lifetime as a person matures. Early in life, a person is more likely to identify, say, with the adventurer or lover archetype; later in life, perhaps, with the care giver or homemaker.

The predominant myths of people’s lives are likely to shift when major changes require that they find a new organizing principle, said Bertram Cohler, a psychologist at the University of Chicago. ”People keep a sense of an ongoing identity by rewriting their life story from time to time to make their past and present hold together,” Dr. Cohler said. ”These myths give a sense of meaning to the shifting events of one’s life.” Dark Side of Myths

Not all the myths people use to explain the events of their lives are positive. ”You can see therapy as a process of understanding a person’s story, and, if he or she is living a self-destructive myth, to try to revise it,” Dr. McAdams said. ”Some of the imagoes are vicious: seeing your life as one of victimization or exploitation, for instance. The people I studied were well-adjusted, so these imagoes did not emerge often. But even some of the common ones have a dark side, such as the care giver who gives so much he can never take care of himself, or the adventurer who is driven to reckless risk or lives an empty life.”

The use of myth and archetype in therapy comes most naturally to Jungian analysts, for whom it is a standard approach. ”People act on mythic archetypes without knowing what they are doing,” said Dr. Zabriskie, the chairman of the Jung Institute. ”When you find the myth or myths that shape a person’s identity, you can try to tap the creative side of the myth and separate the person from the destructive side. ”For instance, if a man identifies with a warrior hero who is bent on sacrificing himself, then the man may be in danger of putting himself in actual physical risk.”

A person’s archetypes will often shed light on the general patterns and specific problems in his life, according to Dr. Zabriskie. ”Take a woman who is 35 and still living at home with her mother, and whose psyche is taken with the figure Persephone, whose mother Demeter would not let things grow until her daughter returned from the Underworld,” he said. ”She needs to become conscious of the destructive meaning of that archetype, and how it victimizes her.” If she begins to see that, then she may be able to do something about it.’

Myths are a sort of public dream, and dreams a kind of private myth, as Mr. Campbell observed. Jungians put much stock in dreams as a source of insights into the myths that matter most to a person, and the psychological truths those myths conceal. Fragment of a Myth

”Sometimes a fragment of a myth will appear in a patient’s dream,” said Dr. Zabriskie. ”When it does, it’s an important clue. One of my patients saw part of a chariot wheel in a dream. His associations connected it to the old story of Hippolytus, who was destroyed in a war between Aphrodite, whom he adored, and Artemis, who was jealous. For him, the myth signified an internal conflict between two ways of being, one passive, the other active.”

Most world myths are tales of psychological transformations, in Mr. Campbell’s view. Reading myths psychologically, he showed, reveals them to be parables of growth and development, in which the travails of the hero signify an inner struggle; the most universal experience of such a ”hero’s journey” is the transition from childhood dependency to the independence of the adult. Self-image and myth can coincide in people’s stories of their lives, researchers say. An ex-nun reflected Aphrodite, goddess of love, though her relationships were nonsexual. Another woman told of adventures like those of Hermes, the messenger god. Others reflected powerful Zeus, Hera, his wife, or Dionysus, god of revelry. Self-Images and Ancient Myths Some of the most common Greek mythic figures whose characteristics are reflected in stories people tell about their lives have been identified by Dan McAdams, a psychologist at Loyola University in Chicago. His findings are based on two-hour biographical interviews. Apollo, the healer: Prophet, artist, protector, organizer, legislator. Athena, the counselor: Arbiter, therapist, teacher, guide, peacemaker. Prometheus, the humanist: Defender of the weak, revolutionary, evangelist. Zeus, the ruler: Judge, conqueror, seducer, creator, sage, celebrity. Hermes, the swift traveler: Explorer, adventurer, trickster, rabble-rouser, persuader, gambler, entrepreneuer. Ares, the warrior: Fighter, soldier, policeman. Demeter, the caregiver: Altruist, martyr. Hera, the loyal friend: Spouse, helpmate, chum, confidante, sibling, assistant. Aphrodite, the lover: Charmer, seducer. Hestia, the homemaker: Domestic, ritualist. Hephaestus, the wage-earner: Craftsman, laborer. Dionysus, the escapist: Pleasure-seeker, hedonist, player, epicure, child.

from The New York Times, Daniel Goleman, 5/24/1988

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