Myth as Metaphor

In order to secure its co-operation the religions have long turned to myths for help, or rather, the myths always flung out bridges between the helpless consciousness and the effective idées forces of the unconscious.  But you cannot, artificially and with an effort of will, believe the statements of myth if you have not previously been gripped by them.  If you are honest, you will doubt the truth of the myth because our present-day consciousness has no means of understanding it.  Historical and scientific criteria do not lend themselves to a recognition of mythological truth; it can be grasped only by the intuitions of faith or by psychology, and in the latter case although there may be insight it remains ineffective unless it is backed by experience.  MC 751

I view traditional mythologies as serving four functions.  The first function is that of reconciling consciousness to the preconditions of its own existence – that is, of aligning waking consciousness to the mysterium tremendum of this universe, as it is.  TAT 2

… half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts.  And the other half contends that they are not facts at all.  As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.

The life of a mythology springs from and depends on the metaphoric vigor of its symbols.  TAT 6

What Adolph Bastian described as “elementary ideas,” and Jung referred to as “archetypes of the collective unconscious” are the biologically rooted motivating powers and connoted references for the mythologies that, cast in the metaphors of changing historical and cultural periods, remain themselves constant.  TAT6

A mythology may be understood as an organization of metaphorical figures connotative of states of mind that are not finally of this or that location or historical period, even though the figures themselves seem on their surface to suggest such a concrete localization.  The metaphorical languages of both myshology and metaphysics are noy denotative of actual worlds or gods, but rather connote levels and entities within the person touched by them.  Metaphors only seem to describe the outer world of time and place.  Their real universe is the spiritual realm of the inner life.  The Kingdom of God is within you.  TAT7

Practically every mythology in the world has used this “elementary” or co-natural idea of a virgin birth to refer to a spiritual rather than an historical reality.  TAT 7

The same, as I have suggested, is true of the metaphor of the Promised Land, which in its denotation plots nothing but a piece of earthy geography to be taken by force.  Its connotation – that is, its real meaning – however, is of a spiritual place in the heart that can only be entered by contemplation.  TAT7

There can be no real progress in understanding how myths function until we understand and allow metaphoric symbols to address, in their own unmodified way, the inner levels of our consciousness.  TAT7

… The continuing confusion about the nature and function of metaphor is one of the major obstacles – often placed in our path by organized religions that focus shortsightedly on concrete times and places – to our capacity to experience mystery.  TAT 7


Mythology may, in a real sense, be defined as other people’s religion.  And religion may, in a sense, be understood as a popular misunderstanding of mythology.  TAT8

Mythology is a system of images that endows the mind and the sentiments with a sense of participation in a field of meaning. 

   A system of mythological symbols only works if it operates in the field of a community of people who have essentially analogous experiences, or to put it another way, if they share the same realm of life experience.   

  How, in the contemporary period, can we evoke the imagery that communicates the most profound and most richly developed sense of experiencing life?  These images must point past themselves to that ultimate truth which must be told:  that life does not have any one absolutely fixed meaning.  These images must point past all meanings given, beyond all definitions and relationships, to that really ineffable mystery that is just the existence, the being of ourselves and of our world.  If we give that mystery an exact meaning we diminish the experience of its real depth.  But when a poet carries the mind into a context of meanings and then pitches it past those, one knows that marvelous rapture that comes from going past all categories of definition.  Here we sense the function of metaphor that allows us to make a journey we could not otherwise make, past all categories of definition.   TAT 91


   The fascination and vitality of myths and fairy-tales lie precisely in the fact that they depict basic forms of human experience.  For this very reason the same motifs are found the world over, not only as the result of migration but also because the human psyche which produces them is everywhere the same.    TGL – intro 37

Whenever a motif appears in such numerous repetitions or modifications, it indicates, psychologically, that it is not understood in consciousness, and that it will therefore emerge in ever new forms in an effort to gain attention.  TGL 242