Approaching Myths and Symbols (article)

When trying to interpret myths and their symbols we usually find ourselves doing so at some distance from the culture that gave birth to them. Surviving texts have very often been long separated from their original social contexts, orphans of a long dead mother tongue. With such a lack of contextual information, often our only guide is our own intuition.

When we do come across motifs and symbols we don’t understand, they don’t necessarily stay meaningless for very long. Our minds are naturally stimulated into interpreting what we see, and ascribing meaning is an instinctive human response. If we stare at it for long enough, a particular symbol will always inevitably slip into one meaningful context or another, be it a simple day dream or a full blown giant leap of understanding. That’s because each one of us carries around inside ourselves a deep pool of reflection from within which we will invariably draw a Rorschach meaning.

Clearly, a purely personal interpretation of a mythological symbol won’t always tell us much about the source culture that gave birth to it, especially if we are greatly removed from that culture. Its reasonable to look for comparators in such cases, similar symbols either from within the source culture itself, or if that’s not available to us then symbols from other similar cultures.

But even these comparisons tend to be selective readings, where we find ourselves inevitably making quite subjective assumptions that we can mistake for objective comparisons. Although great care needs to be taken when interpreting such elusive things as myths and their symbols, it is far better if we can admit to our more subjective responses before we assume them to be common facts. Only after doing so will we be able to see our subjective responses clearly enough to separate them from the actual material itself.

But after separating them out, we should neither neglect to consider these shadowy, internal responses. Interpretation of mythological and symbolic material is sometimes automatic and instinctive; that has some value if handled the right way. If we are correct in regarding at least some myths as collective works of great art, dense and stratified texts with layers of accumulated and condensed meanings, attempting to grasp them without using our own creative intellect would seem to be missing the point.

A useful approach in trying to understand a myth and its symbols is to look at the situation in which they arose. But making assumptions about a myth by re-creating its social context isn’t as straight forward as it sounds, and generally its impossible to do so without leaning somewhat on our own innate common sense regarding what a symbol can and cannot do, what it is and what it isn’t. It is a mistake to think that any old legend can simply be analyzed like an antique box, prodded and tinkered with until it finally pops open to reveal its hidden curiosities, all without any creative engagement by the researchers themselves.

If this is the best that can be done, it will be very difficult to really get to grips with the material: an overly objective, classificatory investigation is usually doomed to be quite boring. To get to grips with the material we need to let it sink in and stir up our own subjective responses. Either we approach myths and their symbols as active, engaging, stimulating cultural artifacts or we simply classify their perceived forms and leave it at that.

A mythological symbol is probably more akin to a living animal than a dead construct, yet there is a danger of assuming that symbols and myths have almost machine-like workings. That is an unfortunate and pervasive influence of some of the natural sciences: depicting the human body as a mechanical thing does not mean that everything it creates, even its ideas, are necessarily mechanical constructs. That is a very difficult position to unknowingly start from if you wish to investigate what is essentially the subjective, generationally condensed and often instinctively created myths of a whole culture of sophisticated, conscious animals.

As well as holding on to the rational, more objective techniques of study that we have refined over the millennia, its important to remember that the interpretation of myth and symbol can require more art than science: a myth, like any work of art, can only ever truly be grasped by the creative imagination. The tendency to narrow the concepts of myth and symbol to simple mechanics of meaning needs to be avoided. Just because a word has a set dictionary definition, does not imply that all vessels of meaning, including symbols, allegories and metaphors have similarly two-dimensional definitions.

Its far too simplistic to see symbol and defined meaning as two sides of the same straight-forward equation. The Saussurean concept is a useful spring-board for developing ideas about language, but symbols tend to be more complex than simple signs pointing to clearly defined signified counterparts. Language – just like myth and symbol – is not a binary code. A complex, long lived symbol will give birth to multiple meanings, and will sometimes evolve beyond its more superficial cultural boundaries. As a result, very often comparative mythology can only ever be a guideline; it may even only serve as a creative primer for a more direct, intuitive interpretation.

Taking an in-depth look at what any mythological symbol means is far more complex than the closed sign / signified duality. A myth and its embedded symbols are quite often multifaceted, containing many dimensions of meaning at the same instant, with significances from the personal to the collective and encompassing much of what lies in between. All of these dimensions need to be brought into view if we are ever to succeed in interpreting a symbol honestly, and come close to discerning some of its history and development.

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