When we’re talking about a “personal myth,” what are we talking about, exactly, besides subtly hinting at our unrecognized narcissistic tendencies? Isn’t the whole point of a bona fide myth that it isn’t personal, but universal? And isn’t it one of the tasks of archetypal psychology to dehumanize the experience of the collective unconscious, unburdening it from the weight of the often hysterical personal dimension? When we say personal, aren’t we really saying ego?
I think this is an accurate portrayal of the dynamic but, of course, it does not cover the entire picture. Because the conglomeration of certain specific archetypal energies (over the others) within the individual psyche combines to form a particular energetic proclivity in the personal dimension, a proclivity that, being archetypal, asserts itself in a life with autonomous force. Therefore, we each experience life as a series of events that contain certain moods and emotional flavors with which we are acquainted since these images have been at work in us since birth. So it is that Plato can speak of an intimately personalized daimon that carries an image of our soul in this world, a soul which is comprised of amorphous creative/generative — what shall we call them — creatures of soul? — known as archetypes. For each of us then, this archetypal combination crystallizes within experience into what we can dimly perceive as a “personal” myth.
Philosophers of old, together with Jung and Hillman, have rightly conceived of archetypes as gods and goddesses. What do we mean when we say “god,” or “goddess?” For the sake of this discussion, I believe we mean something that is more powerful than we are, something that is not human, not limited by the same structures that limit human power. Something to which we are bound in some form of subservience, a power to which we must submit, or else. We are mortals, and they are gods and goddesses. They exert influence and power over us and we can do nothing but endure this force which is sometimes benign and sometimes not. Behind every image of god from every culture throughout human history stands an archetypal power that was personified in that form by that culture. People all throughout history have recognized that we are not alone on this planet and that there are immaterial and mysterious forces at work, forces whose powers far exceed our own.
It may occur to us to wonder what on earth these archetypes want from us. Why won’t god leave me alone to live in peace and bliss? Why does she torment me so often with unruly emotions, ambiguous fears, nebulous desires, fantasies, and dreams that haunt me for days and weeks until I am finally forced to act? And why can I not understand them clearly, why are they enshrouded in so many bizarre and hard to fathom images and ideas and feelings? “God works in mysterious ways,” is an oft-heard response to divine machinations beyond our ken. Regardless of what we say or think about them, these forces are real and they are affecting us in powerful ways every second of every day.
As we can sense, the gods as archetypes will not leave us alone to live in bliss. They fly around our heads like insistent ghosts, dance around in our kitchens like crazed maenads, they squirrel around our thresholds like singing mice from another world, and they pursue and dog us in our dreams and fantasies. What do they want? They want to be expressed and translated into material reality through us, through the molecules and atoms of our bodies. If we do not express them, they will react with vengeance and start jumping out of us in unexpected ways (sudden rage can take over, sudden depression can descend and drag you down to hell). It’s almost like being in a life contract with a ruler who will be kind, benevolent, and even helpful if you toe the line so you can have a relatively decent, even exalted life. But this same ruler will throw you in the dungeons and let the rats have you if you fail to toe the line. What line is that? It is the image of your life (or my life) contained in the soul, the one to which a commitment was made before birth, a commitment, furthermore, that was divinely ordained by the goddesses of Fate who ratified this unique and specific image of the soul containing parameters, pathways, and schema that must be lived out and expressed, or else. This is our dilemma, for we cannot divorce ourselves from this cosmic contract.
What C. G. Jung contributed to this dilemma was to encourage us to give voice and body to these forces through our work, but especially through art. Archetypes are amorphous beings, and they communicate through a symbolic imaginal language. Images are not just pictures or paintings, they are also moods, feelings, apprehensions, fears, emotions, sudden insights and inspirations, daydreams, visions, ideas, flights of fancy, fantasies, dreams, stories, and myths. When we speak of a personal myth, we are therefore speaking of the archetypal forces that seek a particular kind of expression that is unique to us, although rooted in universal forms. The astrological birth chart can be a good way to know which archetypal energies are seeking expression in an individual life, for it is important to understand who they are, what they represent, and what they want. It is crucial to then align our life’s work with these underlying but insistent soul desires. This is as personal as it gets.
For example, in my case, one of the dominant archetypal forces in my soul is the critic and judge. For the longest time, I gave voice to this energy without much consciousness. It was (and remains) much stronger than me, and so it was that critical expressions could pour through me like a noxious wine. I used to believe that I had inherited this dimension of my personality (a dimension I used to generally fear and despise) from my savagely critical father. But then I saw the position of Saturn in my birth chart and continued studies in the symbolism of planetary archetypes alerted me to the truth that this critic is mine, he’s part of the image of my soul and there’s nothing I can do about it. I had to accept it and start learning how to live with it more fruitfully.
As it happens, I’m not entirely devoid of other gifts. It so happens that a combination of Uranus, Saturn, and Mars can become a force for good in the realm of social and cultural criticism. Some seek to accede to higher spiritual domains where nothing as ugly as criticism or judgment exists. But in my opinion, these attitudes fail to consider the usefulness of these archetypal forces. How could we ever know what works and what doesn’t if we don’t aim a critical eye at things? How could we tell right from wrong if we don’t use judgment and discernment? The energy of the critic, when finely tuned and mature, is what cuts through the self-deceptive fog of illusory dreams and fantasies. It’s what insists on the realization of actual truth in the material dimension. This is precisely Saturn’s job.
In the gospel of Thomas, we are taught:
If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
I found this to be the case with my heavy Saturnian energy. If I do not express this voice, it turns on me and becomes a savage inner critic. It’s because this voice has a divinely ordained appointment with fate, an irrevocable directive contained in the image of my soul. My job, my myth, therefore, means submitting to duty, discipline, sometimes grouchy focus, toil, and the hard work (all Saturnian qualities) of perfecting my writing skills to such an extent that I can give this mighty voice the devotion it deserves and demands. If I do this, he will be kind and benevolent and help me to materialize some of my other dreams, as well, the ones that are decorated with the sparkling expansive starlight of Jupiter, Neptune, and Venus.
We live in a culture that is profoundly narcissistic and immature. We are constantly invited to behave like indulgent children. But delving deeper into the inner dimensions of the soul and discovering there the blueprint for our life’s purpose is the least narcissistic thing anyone can do. Because when we engage deeply in this way, we release the untapped magic of archetypes into the world in a positive expression of divine love. We transcend the childish dimensions of personal experience and accede to the deeper more profound dimensions of human experience. What we bring forth saves not just us, but all creatures everywhere.