How Myth Got Personal: Part One

The divine was obvious to the ancients, somewhat questionable and hidden by the time of the Greeks, believed rather than known by the medievals, and is generally regarded as dead in our own time. Robert A. McDermott (1989)


Treating myth-making as the vehicle through which consciousness is given form, this paper traces historical evidence indicating that mythology, consciousness, and culture have evolved in concert. No longer are myths conveyed by a single storyteller around a campfire. Each person in ancient times was wedded to the mythology of the tribe, but modern cultures do not have a single unifying mythology. Today, numerous competing myths and fragments of myths vie for people's attention and allegiance. Our senses are bombarded by diverse mythic images that are simultaneously flashed around the world. These developments allow and, in fact, force people to think for themselves in ways that were unimaginable in the past. Mythmaking, and the spiritual concerns that have always been the province of mythology, have increasingly become the responsibility of the individual. Developments leading to this "personalizing" of mythology, and their implications, are discussed.


Piaget identified three types of knowledge: 1) innate knowledge, such as drives and instincts, 2) knowledge of the physical world, based on sensory perception and 3) cognitive structures that are a product of reflective abstraction on the other two. The view that human behavior and experiences are mediated by cognitive structures- that people's responses are reactions not to stimuli but to their interpretation of stimuli - has become a pivotal concept in contemporary psychological thought. In a series of works, my colleagues and I have suggested that understanding consciousness in terms of the individual's evolving personal mythology augments and refines this cognitive approach by conceptually embracing the intuitive realm and the spiritual impulse in conceiving the individual's assumptive world.


The anthropologist Eugene d'Aquili coined the term "cognitive imperative" to describe the human compulsion to order reality in a meaningful manner. According to d'Aquili, this universal, biologically-rooted human drive to organize unexplained external stimuli into a meaningful form is a critical element of humanity's evolutionary advantage over other creatures, and it was "the last development required for the emergence of culture". By drawing upon mythology to understand the fulfilment of the cognitive imperative, we break out of the conceptually linear shackles of the cognitive structure and enter the conceptually expansive world that has always been the domain of mythology.

Myths have been described as large controlling images that organize experience and direct action (Schorer 1960). In the sense we are using the terms, myths are not falsehoods. Nor are they legends, stories, attitudes, or beliefs, but each of these may reflect deeper mythic processes. Nor are myths only the product of archaic thought of primitive peoples. As Joseph Campbell put it, "The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change". According to Marian, it "is not that modern man has become any less mythic, but that he has unconsciously lived the myths of logic and science. These myths unduly restrict the deepening of human consciousness and help to foster the feelings of alienation and 'exile' so common in modern times".

Myth-making, at both the individual and the collective level, is the primary though often unperceived psychological mechanism by which human beings order reality and navigate their way through life. As the human species evolved, mythological thinking - the ability to symbolically address large questions- replaced genetic mutation as the primary vehicle by which individual consciousness and societal innovations were carried forward. Unlike terms such as scripts, beliefs, or cognitive structures, myth is able to embrace the intuitive and spiritual dimensions of human consciousness that elude many of the constructs psychologists have used to describe the core components of experience.

Cognitive structures assume mythic proportions as they begin to address the issues identified by Joseph Campbell as the primary domains in which mythic thought functions: 1) the need to comprehend one's world in a meaningful way, 2) the search for a marked pathway through the succeeding epochs of human life, 3) the urgency to establish secure and fulfilling relationships within a community, and 4) the longing to know one's part in the vast wonder and mystery of the cosmos. Personal myths explain the world, guide individual development, provide social direction, and address spiritual longings in a manner analogous to the way cultural myths carry out these functions for entire societies. Personal myths do for an individual what cultural myths do for a community.

Personal myths are the product of four interacting sources. The most obvious are biology (the capacities for symbolism and narrative are rooted in the structure of the brain, information and attitudes are neurochemically coded, temperament and hormones influence belief systems, etc.), culture (the individual's mythology is, to an extent, the culture's mythology in microcosm), and personal history (every emotionally significant event leaves a mark on one's developing mythology). A fourth source is rooted in transcendent experiences - those episodes, insights, dreams and visions that have a numinous quality, expand a person's perspective, and inspire behavior. Transcendent experiences vary in their strength and significance. Their most profound form is in the full-blown mystical or religious experience. William James reported that "mystical states of a well-pronounced and emphatic sort are usually authoritative over those who have them... Mystical experiences are as direct perceptions of fact for those who have them as any sensations ever were for us". For Philip Wheelwright, "the very essence of myth" is "that haunting awareness of transcendental forces peering through the cracks of the visible universe".

Personal and cultural myths evolve according to lawful principles. A theory of cognitive evolution proposed by D. Campbell holds that historical changes in cognitive products (such as language, art and science) is determined by an evolutionary process that meets three criteria. First there must be variation. In the case of biological evolution, variation is supplied by such factors as mutation. In the case of cognitive evolution, variation is insured by group and individual differences in memory, learning, and the combination of elements into new syntheses. The second necessary factor is selection; some consistent process must operate to favor one trait over another. In biology, a more adaptive trait increases the probability that its possessors will survive and reproduce. In cognitive evolution, the ideas that are reinforced (because they are interesting, useful, or pleasurable) tend to survive. Finally, there must be retention for evolution to occur. In biology, sexual reproduction insures that the traits selected are retained and passed on to others. In cognitive evolution, language and ideas are learned from other people. These principles are applicable as we explore the historical processes by which mythology, consciousness, and culture have evolved in concert.


In previous works, my colleagues and I reviewed literature showing that over the course of human evolution, the epicenter of consciousness and, thus, the locus of myth-making has expanded from the life of the body to include the consensual reality of the group and, in recent history, the vested concerns of the individual ego. Thus, a distinguishing feature of the modern era in technologically advanced Western cultures is that people have achieved greater autonomy than ever before in formulating the myths that guide their lives. The main points of those arguments are presented here in greater detail, along with a discussion of the advantages and the challenges this development poses to the culture's evolving mythology.

Biologist Lewis Thomas noted that "our most powerful story, equivalent in its way to a universal myth, is evolution". One of the most provocative facts about human evolution is that while the structure of the brain has remained essentially unchanged for at least 40,000 years, consciousness has evolved dramatically for the human species; language and myth-making replaced genetic mutation as the primary mechanisms by which individual awareness and societal innovations were carried forward. Times of transformation in the nature of the myths people hold are milestones in the evolution of human consciousness and are at the hub of historical change.

Jean Gebser has described the historical unfolding of four major "structures of consciousness" which he termed the Archaic, the Magical, the Mythic, and the Rational - the latter being the current era where consciousness is dominated by the rational, self-reflecting, individual ego. We will follow Ken Wilber's astute synthesis of Gebser with Freud, Jung, Piaget, Joseph Campbell, Erich Neumann, Ernst Cassirer, L.L.Whyte, and Julian Jaynes in surveying these four major "epochs" in the growth of consciousness and examining how the creating of guiding myths had become an increasingly personal matter... in the next issue.


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This article by Dr. Feinstein is adapted from an earlier paper published in the Humanistic Psychologist, 18 (2), 1990, and is reprinted with his permission.