Myth in Modern Practice

by Ann Shearer

Ann ShearerWhat use is mythology to a practising analyst? Jung’s own answer was clear: myths provide contact with the archetypal world of the collective unconscious which is the deep bedrock of all human experience: ‘first and foremost’ they are ‘psychic phenomena that reveal that nature of the soul’ (Jung, 1959, para. 7). But even 25 years after his death, this central tenet seemed to be getting less relevant to Jungian practice on both sides of the Atlantic (Samuels, 1985; Singer, 1985). Nowadays, the old stories can seem at best a fascinating glimpse of the way humankind used to be, at worst a consciousness-numbing spiritual drug (Giegerich, 2004).

Living with the unknowable

Yet I wouldn’t be without Jung’s understanding of the mythic realm. These tales of the relationship between gods and humans – between the archetypal world and that of ego consciousness - continue to enrich my work and understanding. This doesn’t mean that I keep a diagnostic list of mythologems (‘Ah, Oedipus!’) against which to shape the individual stories that come my way. Aspects of an individual life may indeed uncannily recall a mythic narrative, and to explore this further may add new dimensions of understanding to the story. But I’m too mindful the horrific fates of those mortals who hubristically approach a god too near to think that I can ‘use’ the myths as one more therapeutic tool. Their value for me is more oblique. Their very obscurity and often strangeness is an education in a core therapeutic task: living with the unknowable which is psyche.

The etymology of ‘myth’ points to this. Mythos is utterance, ‘the true word … speech about that which is’ (Otto, 1962, pp.279 and 285). By contrast, logos, which came to be associated with writing, brings a causal and sequential ordering. The difference is perhaps like that between a dream remembered, with all its jostling simultaneity of imagery and event, and a dream written down, now ordered by the conscious mind into a linear sequence that ‘makes sense’. A second etymology associates ‘myth’ with ‘musteion’, thus ‘mystery’ and ‘to close the eyes or mouth’. So myth is to do with ‘that which cannot be seen or spoken.’ (Armstrong, 1999, p.244). Put these two ideas together, and myth becomes an utterance about that which cannot be spoken, and a true speech about that which cannot be seen or understood. I know of no better description of the conscious ego’s attempts to articulate the unconscious - or indeed of psychotherapy itself.

Six interconnected ways

How does this work in practice? Here are six interconnected ways in which making this particular connection between the conscious mind and the deep unconscious may be enlivening and healing.

Associative thinking

First, spending time with myth sets the imagination to work. All psychotherapists know the value of this. But what is actually happening when we (therapist or patient, separately or together) begin to imagine? At the start of Symbols of Transformation - that sprawling mythological miasma which marked his separation from Freud - Jung wrote an essay which serves as a primer on how to approach the main text, and indeed any mythological work. ‘Two Kinds of Thinking’ is about the mind’s movement between logos and mythos, between ‘directed’ and ‘associative’ thinking. The first – linear, causal, rational - is extraordinarily hard work. The second, on the other hand, is what Jung calls ‘ordinary’, as our minds move easily from one subject to another, one image to the next, in the flow of the daydream. We need both kinds of thinking. But while the first is valued, the second is often simply seen as a waste of time. So spending time with myth re-honours that thinking which is not only our ‘ordinary’ way of being, but the conduit of connection between the conscious mind and the unconscious (Jung, 1970).

Jung took his ideas here from the American psychologist William James, who gives his marvellous own example of ‘associative ‘or ‘ordinary’ thinking. ‘A sunset’, he says, ‘may call up the vessel’s deck from which I saw one summer the companions of my voyage, my arrival into port. Or it may make me think of solar myths, of Hercules’ and Hector’s funeral pyres, of Homer and whether he could write, of the Greek alphabet….’ (James, 1918, 2, p.325).

When I first read these far from ‘ordinary’ associations, I thought immediately of Charlie Brown, once more at the mercy of the horrible Lucy. They are looking at a lowering, cloud-filled sky. ‘Look’, she says, ‘The martyrdom of St Sebastian, and over there - the Trojan Horse and Achilles in his tent, and there – King Arthur’s Round Table and all the knights. What do you see, Charlie Brown?’ ‘Well’, says Charlie, ‘I was going to say a ducky and a horsy. But now I’m not so sure.’

But whether the associations come from William James or Charlie Brown, we can see that both are freeing their minds, making associations, and setting their imaginations to work. And they share too the tendency of the human mind to move from the personal to the impersonal. James goes from his own memories to mythic tales, Charlie goes not to this particular ducky or that specific horsy, but to the one that can stand for all others of its kind. In Jung’s terms, this is the mind’s movement from the personal towards the archetypal, towards the unconscious realm from which all images are finally generated.

Telling us about ourselves

In this process – and this is the second point – spending time with myth tells us something about ourselves. Myths are like a series of richly elaborate Rorschach tests. ‘What is the myth that I am living?’ asked Jung when he finished Symbols of Transformation. And he took the question on as ‘the task of tasks’, for how, he asked, could he work effectively with others if he could not answer it (Jung 1970, p.xxv)? So, in any story, who draws my sympathy, who irritates, who repels – and why? As the questions and associations multiply, we may imagine ourselves into each and every character, for all are part of psyche.

A conscious relationship of parts

As we do so - the third and related point - we may also learn more about the relationships between our own psychological parts. There is a tendency to think of archetypes – ‘The Maiden’, ‘The Hero’, ‘The Wise Old Woman’ and so on – as isolated figures. But in psyche, the energies these figures personify stand not alone but in relationship. Where there is a Gallant Hero, for instance, and as the mythic cycles tell us, somewhere there is an Imprisoned Maiden. What are such pairings about? Why this alliance, that enmity? As we spend time with the stories, we begin to bring these seemingly disparate psychic elements into more conscious relationship, and so further the work of individuation - of becoming not more perfect, but more whole

Escaping dogma

Working in this way – the fourth point – is democratic. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ understandings of myth! Everyone will have their own version of what is going on, according to how the stories resonate within their own psyche. Honouring this seems particularly important for psychotherapists, who must always be struggling to escape the grip of their own dogmas and power shadow (Guggenbuhl-Craig, 1989).

Living with paradox

Spending time with myth is not just democratic; it’s an education in living with paradox, a step towards that crucial therapeutic acceptance of the ‘both-and’ of one’s own and the world’s contradictions. Psychotherapists know the stubbornness of the ‘either-or’ thinking which projects the unwelcome shadow of conscious attitudes onto ‘the alien other’, and the damage this does to personal, social and even international relationships. Myth’s inconsistencies, impervious to logic, demand a recognition that sometimes paradox is just the way it is.

An education in not knowing

Finally, spending time with myth is an education in not knowing. The reasons for the deities’ sudden shifts of favour and displeasure may always remain hidden. The rational mind continues to seek for explanation, as it must. But can we ever ‘explain’ the unconscious? Sometimes the therapeutic task may simply be to hush the restlessness of logos and witness the mystery of mythos.

So mythology draws us into the symbolic world. It helps us live on the border between consciousness and the unconscious, which is where psychological healing lies. And besides, I don’t know many psychological texts that are half as much pleasure to read.


Armstrong, K. (1999). A History of God. London: Vintage

Giegerich, W. (2004). ‘The End of Meaning and the Birth of Man’. Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice, 6: 1. New York: C.G. Jung Institute

Guggenbuhl-Craig. A. (1989). Power and the Helping Professions. Dallas: Spring Publications

James. H. (1918). The Principles of Psychology. Vol. 2. London: Macmillan. Quoted in Shamdasani, S. (2003) Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.299

Jung, C.G. (1959). ‘Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious’. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (CW 9i). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Jung, C.G. (1970). Symbols of Transformation (CW5). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Otto, W. (1962). Mythos und Welt. Stuttgart: Klett. Quoted in Hillman, J. (1978) The Myth of Analysis. New York: Harper and Row, pp.207-208.

Samuels, A. (1985). Jung and the Post-Jungians. London: Routledge

Singer, J. (1985). ‘ The education of the analyst’. (Armstrong, 1999, p.244).

Stein, M. (ed). Jungian Analysis. Boston: Shambala

Ann Shearer is a Jungian analyst in London. Her books include Athene: Image and Energy and (with Pamela Donleavy) From Ancient Myth to Modern Healing: Themis: Goddess of Heart-soul, Justice and Reconciliation.