When we look across the various myths of the world, certain commonalities emerge. Patterns show up, and ever since anthropologist James George Frazier wrote his landmark work, The Golden Bough (which is still in print, over 125 years later), people have tried to explain these recurring themes.
One school of thought follows the work of psychologist C.G. Jung. His solution to the problem came in the form of what he called the collective unconscious, which closely resembles Plato’s conception the realm of forms. To grossly simplify his theory (it is definitely more nuanced than a blog post could describe), all of us have a connection to a world of archetypes, archetypes that live in the shadow realms of dreams, and the transcendent experiences of mystical states. While these archetypes are universal, their expression from individual to individual, and culture to culture, are unique, accounting for the apparent differences in myths. These unique expressions are called archetypal images.
So, for example, one of the archetypes is the loving mother/devouring mother, sometimes called the mother as both womb and tomb. Some cultures may split this archetype up; so, the womb may express itself as Mary, Mother of Christ (or more recently via Dan Brown as Mary Magdaline, bride of Christ), or in devouring images as seen in depictions of females as vampires, succubi or witches (not to be confused with Wiccans).
Other cultures may unite the womb/tomb into one image. The Hindu goddess Kali is one example; the Kali who devours is also Mother Kali, who nurtures. Likewise, in Norse mythology, the goddess Freyja is as much a goddess of love and sex, as she is war and death.
This, in a nutshell is an archetypal approach to the commonalities present in world myth. It is the approach used by Joseph Campbell in his first important work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a work that has influenced a generation of screen writers to this day, including one George Lucas. (for more on screen writing and Joseph Campbell, see Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers).
But is there a simpler way to explain these commonalities? Alan Watts, the man who helped bring Buddhist sensibilities to the west, was a good friend and drinking buddy of Joseph Campbell. While he did praise The Hero with a Thousand Faces, it was too Jungian, too archetypal, for his tastes. Whether it was his friendship with Campbell that started shifting Campbell’s approach, or Campbell’s own development, remains unclear: either way, his next great work, the four volume Masks of God, showed a movement away from Jung and towards a different explanation, cultural dispersion (for more on Campbell’s life, including his friendship with Watts, see his biography, A Fire in the Mind).
So, what is dispersion?
It’s simply this: people move. We’ve moved for resources, we’ve moved for trade, we’ve moved for conquest, we’ve moved for sex, we’ve moved for love. The very fact that I could talk about Kali and Frejya in the same breath shows how I’m a product of dispersion. And what do we take with us? We take our stories, and we take our storytellers, whether we call them Shamans, Elders or Priests.
Why do these stories change? Because we’re playing the classic telephone game here. A proven example of dispersion can be seen between the Greeks and the Romans (the Etruscans play a vital part in this process, but once again, time for that in another post).
The Romans openly took their religions from the Greeks. But does Jupiter really sound anything like Zeus? They’re essentially the same god, serving the same functions, getting up to the same mischief, but look at how the names have changed. The same is true of his wife Hera, who becomes Juno among the Romans. The names will change, but the song remains the same.
Another example – the African trickster god Rabbit made his way to the Americas via the slave trade. In his new world form, he became Br-er Rabbit; still very much a trickster, though robbed of his former divinity. In time, Br-er rabbit would move his way westward, where he got to California and become a bona fide movie star. You know him: his name is Bugs Bunny.
So, which is it? Do these stories emerge from archetypes bound together in the collective unconscious, or do they arise from the movement of people over space and time? In other word, do myths come from with, and move their ways into our psyches, or are they strictly products of our experiences?
I take a hybrid approach: in so much as there some universals for all human beings, there should be some universality to our stories. We are born, we eat, we drink, we are raised by a family or tribe, we die. Some experiences are not universal, but common none the less: some of us marry, some of have or raise children. Some of us will have conflicts with our parents, or our tribes, some of us experience violence, some of us receive love. And of course, some of us move. So given these truisms, I can accept the idea of archetypes as grounded in our common human experiences.
But that’s not enough to account for the wide range of myths. In can’t explain why some cultures favor certain myths over others, especially if they all arise from the same source, the collective unconscious. That’s where a model based on dispersion makes sense. Somewhere between these who approaches lies my personal paradigm as a comparative mythologist.
So, to end by quoting my favorite trickster rabbit…
That’s All, Folks!