Traditionally myths are considered stories about the gods. But more accurately, myths are stories from the gods. Perhaps it is more comfortable to consider them, according to the less beautiful terminology of our times, stories from the unconscious. In Jungian terms, myths are archetypal manifestations that take the form of narratives.
Ritual is the enactment of a myth (this is Joseph Campbell’s definition). Ritual performance brings myths into our reality, and according to Black Elk, spread their sacred power among the tribe, thus making the world “greener and happier.”
An angel can turn into a devil before our eyes: Lucifer becomes Satan. The reverse can also be true: Joan of Arc, burned as a witch, becomes saint. A myth can be perceived as containing a hero (George Armstrong Custer) engaged in mortal struggle with an antagonist (Sitting Bull), and a moral that legitimizes Custer as representing the forces of good and Sitting Bull as an evil avatar. But then times change, our hopes and fears transform, and reason—ever a servant to our formulations—re-casts Sitting Bull as a patriot warrior and Custer as a fool.
Imperialism draws strength from the myth of empire. The shining city on the hill is not only Zion, but also Rome, bringing civilization—later Christianity—to a savage world in need of salvation. The justifying myth of empire is our aspiration for progress; the justification for war is our conviction (grafted onto the myth by our weakness, our selfishness and our stupidity) that the savage must be sacrificed, and that nature must be bent in our quest for civilization.
We claim that empire is necessary in order to maintain democracy, but we ignore that Rome was a democracy before Julius Caesar, that the French Republic preceded Napoleon’s imperial rule, and that our own imperial arrogance was made evident with the Spanish American War. We are in the position of Lord Byron in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, who having lost the sound of the “single instrument of his heart” among palazzos and gondolas, is compelled to set forth on a journey into the unknown desert in the hopes of finding it again.
Where else to find a revitalization of our democracy except in our foundational myths, if they were ever good and blessed in their origin?
Myths are never Manichean—only our interpretations of them are. Abraham did not stop before sacrificing his son because his Lord was testing him; Abraham changed his god for a more just and humane one. Quetzalcoatl was not defeated by evil magicians; he departed on his journey to the sea to save his people from his own corruption. Abraham Lincoln reinterpreted, with the help of the better angels of our nature, the shining words of Jefferson which have been the Star of Bethlehem of US history: all men are created equal. And the Lord Jesus was not vanquished on the cross; he merely left behind the shape of mortal being, to resurrect a god.