Interview with EcoAlchemist Willi Paul at PlanetShifter
Reverse Engineering the Holy Grail with Inadequate Mythologies? Interview with Mythologist Catherine Svehla, Joshua Tree, CA
What stories make up your mythical tool kit and why? What are the common themes?
I like to use myths and fairy or folk tales from a range of traditions. I’m most familiar with Greek mythology but my range is constantly expanding, which is one exciting aspect of working with myths. New stories present themselves all the time and I have a shelf full of story collections that I’ve barely dipped into that promises me decades of exploration.
Theoretically, any myth or fairy/folk tale that is part of the cultural canon (not someone’s personal story) is good material, but what I really use, that is, brood over, tell, and write about, are the ones that resonant with me personally and allow me to ponder or process something kicking around in my psyche. I have a physical reaction to these stories and find them remarkably easy to learn. They seem to fall into three general categories: stories of descent (like the Sumerian myth of the goddess Inanna and her sister Erishkrigal), stories about the power of the unconscious in life and our need to relate to it (The King and Corpse and Abu Kassem’s Slippers, for example), and stories that seem simple but have the power to unsettle. I put the Grimm’s fairytale “The Frog Prince” in this last category, or the Greek myth of Narcissus. My experience in telling these kinds of stories is that people initially think that they’ve got it, they know what the story means and sometimes have strong reactions to one of the characters and the whole thing appears cut and dried until you start probing.
Wittgenstein said that you can’t think decently if you’re not willing to hurt yourself. I like to think and to provoke thought. I like to find and engage the denied or repressed aspects in my own psychology and facilitate a similar process for other people. All of these stories are posted on my blog, “Cultural Mythology,” at www.catherinesvehla.com by the way.
What is the Holy Grail?
You tell me. Seriously, there can’t be one answer to that question and my answer(s) aren’t necessarily yours. Trying to definitively define the image is not mythological thinking—but more on that later. Generally speaking, the Holy Grail is something of great psycho-spiritual value, a transpersonal source of abundance and/or healing. We get this sense from the legends of King Arthur and the adventure of Percival and the Fisher King, in which the Grail appears. But there are many different kinds of sickness, and many different kinds of cure.
The longevity and flexibility of this image suggests that it is archetypal. The Holy Grail dates back to medieval times and we are still fascinated by it. Jung would call this symbol “numinous,” an archetype which points at something sacred. Archetypes are manifestations of psychic patterns. They articulate some aspect of the mysterious, awe-full transpersonal dimension of the psyche. Potency is important. So is flexibility or open-endedness. James Hillman defines the “archetypal” as “productive.” In his view, which I share, profundity is linked to fecundity. An archetypal image gives birth to multiple meanings and interpretations. This is how I experience the Holy Grail, as a multifaceted image of wholeness, healing, and abundance.
Give us practical incidents when knowledge of myth assisted you and solved a predicament?
Interesting use of the word “practical.” That word is often employed to distinguish the “real” world of real value and results from the realm of ideas and imagination. The distinction is bogus when we realize that they can’t be separated. But I think I know what you mean. The most dramatic and long lasting effect of a myth on my life has to do with the dawn of my own awakening to the point that I just made about the interface between mythology and consciousness, and the outer world of action and results.
In 1996, I was living in the Sandia Mountains outside of Albuquerque in a very rustic little place with no kitchen and no heat, but it was inexpensive and a good place to paint and I was totally involved in my art at the time. I made some money working as a baker at a café just down the road. I walked to work at 2 or 3 in the morning, I don’t recall exactly, and the night sky was so clear and beautiful. I fell in love with the moon and that’s one reason that I now live in the Mojave Desert.
Nights were quite cold and I got into my sleeping bag every evening with my two cats and read before work. During this time, I started reading mythology. I was especially interested in Native American myths and symbols and spent many of my free days visiting the pueblos and looking at pottery. One night I opened up Frank Water’s Book of the Hopi. I read about the Hopi’s place of emergence and the four worlds. I read about their long habitation of the village of Oraibi, and their dedication to their ceremonial life, despite the many people who don’t understand it, don’t care, and even think the Hopi are primitive. Suddenly, I was seized (this is the only word for it) by the magnitude of their dedication and by the indefensibility of any claims that I might make about what is true or false. How the hell could I know? What if the Hopi are making the sun rise every morning for all of us? What if?
What is it to live “as if,” I wondered? What are my articles of faith? In retrospect, this is the moment that I became a mythologist and started really opening my life and consciousness up to the mysteries that enfold us. There is no end to this process but it has been the “solution to my predicament,” which was to find a way to relate, as a subjective individual, to the totality of existence.
Do you agree that there is a withering of the old myth chiefs (Freud and Jung) and a rising up from new poets, singers and novelists?
Another good (complicated) question. Our dominant mythologies are fueling the destruction of the world and the human race. We need new cultural narratives and that means creative, heartfelt participation from a wide range of people alive in this cultural moment. We can’t get stuck idolizing. But I see a relationship between our collective restlessness, dissatisfaction, consumerism, and search for novelty, and the desire for a new mythos, that bears examination. Most of us chew through things quickly without digesting them. I count myself in this group. Our first task then, is to fully grasp the implications of the past, a past that is alive and well in the present.
Freud and Jung, and I would add Joseph Campbell to this mix, talked about the primacy of myth to human consciousness and the problem of living with an inadequate mythology. The problem they point to has only deepened in the last century. Literalism, or what Jung called “nothing but” thinking, is such a deeply entrenched cultural habit that many people don’t even understand an alternative; they don’t know what you’re talking about when you suggest that a shift in perspective is possible. Isn’t THE truth the TRUTH and all of that—it’s the root of fundamentalism and it’s as bad (if not worse) than it’s ever been.
Here’s my concern: meet the new boss who is just like the old boss. I don’t want to be tyrannized by anyone, not even the folks with whom I share a political, social, and artistic vision. We won’t have anything that is genuinely new without first developing a new way of thinking. We can’t even tell what should or could be replaced in our collective mythological traditions without first approaching it metaphorically. Move number one is accepting the primary role of imagination and investigating your own story/myth consciousness. What are your unquestioned beliefs? Can you accept them as arbitrary and still find meaning in them? Which is a nice segue to your next question.
What characterizes mythic behavior?
Mythic behavior flows from mythic thinking, from adopting a mythic perspective on the contents of your consciousness and your life. A mythic perspective is poetic, metaphorical. Interpretations are fluid, flexible, multiple. You have to be able to hold the tension of opposites, court paradox, and live with ambiguity. As David L. Miller says, “myths don’t ground, they open.” It’s a huge challenge and thus far, in my experience, generates more questions. But if you are burdened by assumptions about yourself and the world, this opening can be very liberating. I think it’s essential to crafting an authentic life.
Working with mythology, meditating with stories, is a way to practice mythic thinking. Notice what grabs you. Locating yourself in a story simultaneously relativizes and elevates your problems and goals. A story can be a great conversation partner, mirror, and teacher.
How do you understand the role of sustainability and permaculture in the new alchemy and myths?
In my mind, the defining characteristic of an ecological paradigm (which includes the ideas of sustainability and permaculture) is the understanding that every element, every member, has inherent, enduring value. Abundance is a function of the reuse of these valuable resources—how many times and in how many different ways can everything be recycled, recombined, and reborn? Contrast this notion with our current cultural habit of consuming, exhausting, using up, and throwing away and you see the benefits and the challenges. Sustainability requires a level of creativity and attention to which we’re unaccustomed, and to put it bluntly, you have to deal with your own shit. There’s no waste, no trash, and no dump. I get especially peeved about this last point because people seem to think that the desert is a barren, empty, non-place that can be covered over in solar panels and garbage. Not true. But that’s another conversation.
Everything that I said above can be considered in the realm of action and practicalities and as a source for metaphor and the imaginings of a new consciousness. There is a parallel between a farm, for example, where there is no such thing as garbage and a life in which all work is worthy and worth doing. This is a central tenet of Zen Buddhism as I understand it. And there is a parallel between the farm and the life and psyche. One of the most valuable insights of depth psychology is the realization that the healthy psyche is like a well-run permaculture farm. Each aspect has a place and every energy has value and can contribute to the vitality of the operation if it’s properly treated.
What is the source of myth?
That’s a big question and I don’t trust anyone who is in sure possession of an answer. Myths could be gifts from the gods, big dreams, or the whisper of the earth. They could be in birdsongs or the melody you wake up with one morning. They could be eruptions from the unconscious or whatever you want to call the mysterious source of epiphanies, insights, and embodied understanding. They could come from the liver. However they come into being— and I imagine multiple sources—myth mediates the boundaries between inner and outer, between the imagination and outer reality.
“Myth” is a verb, not a noun. It’s an activity. I think myth is hard to pin down but the way that we read our collective history today, the way we understand human culture, myth is at the center. You don’t have human beings and human consciousness without myth-making.
I have to laugh a little at myself at this point in the conversation. Earlier, you introduced the idea of the “practical” and I have to push against the imaginative-practical dichotomy, but I am a very practical person. I like what works and I use what’s at hand. The west side of our cabin, for example, is covered in stone that I picked up from the hills behind and beneath the place. I didn’t haul anything in and I didn’t find out what kind of rock it was or how it came to be on the hill. Some people do ask those questions and we have geology. But I don’t. My approach to myth is similar. The written version of the myth of Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth is 4000 years old. No one knows how it originated or who first wrote it down. Diane Wolkenstein’s beautiful translation speaks to me so I use it to reflect on my life and share it with other people.
In general, is technology destroying myths?
Over attachment to literalism, unconscious literalism, destroys myths. The destructive impacts of our technologies, on the earth, our communities, and our own being reflect the destructiveness of our modes of thought. Technology is a tool. The collective habit of mindless literalism has created a crisis of imagination and this crisis precedes all others. Imagination is the path to possibility and most importantly, to empathy and compassion. We can begin to practice something different today, right now.
Catherine Svehla is a writer, scholar, activist, and storyteller with a Ph.D. In Mythological Studies and Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. Her work explores the relationships between mythology, consciousness, and culture, and the potential for a more beautiful, just, and sustainable way of life. Her most recent accomplishment is the completion of “Blisters on the Way to Bliss,” the fruit of her research in the Joseph Campbell collection at OPUS Archives. This story-based exploration of Joseph Campbell’s notion of “bliss” and the hero’s journey was funded by a New Mythos grant.
Catherine got interested in the subject of mythology fifteen years ago, when she was read Frank Water’s The Book of the Hopi. For reasons that she can’t explain, this account of Hopi creation myths and the rituals performed to this day opened a new understanding that our myths give essential shape and meaning to a mysterious world.
Catherine has a deep interest in the ideas and beliefs that shape the world. Shortly before her college graduation in 1983, she had a chance meeting with Ralph Nader and went to work as a community organizer and fundraiser for the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MASSPIRG). She spent twelve years working with the Fund For Public Interest Research and the state Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) and played an instrumental role in the development of a national public interest movement. She also observed, firsthand, the intimate relationship between unconscious mythologies, ideologies, and public policy.
Dr. Svehla’s writing on cultural mythology have appeared in Mythopoetry Scholar, The Sun Runner, Kali’s Kites: Essays from the Mythological Imagination, and Immanent Mythology edited by James Curcio (soon to be released by Weaponized and FoolishPeople). She has presented papers and stories in conjunction with The Foundation for Mythological Studies, The Water Woman Project, and Gaia fest 2010, and leads the High Desert Mythological RoundTable in Joshua Tree, CA. The roundtable meets the last Tuesday of every month so if you’re in the Mojave, come join the fun.
A native of the Midwest, she now lives in a one-room cabin in Joshua Tree, California with her husband Phillip Rosenberg, a poet and singer/songwriter, and two fifteen pound cats.