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.

The Welsh Bard: Playing the Part (article)

Throughout the second half of the twelfth century, Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr served the most powerful Welsh princes as a court bard. He was paid generously by these aristocrats in the hope that his skillful praise poetry would portray them as legendary heroes, and not only to their contemporaries. Even though its likely that political matters, including the ever-present threat of attack, was the priority for these warlords, its likely they kept one eye on the good name of their lineage. In this respect, Cynddelw’s patrons relied upon him to commemorate them in such an elegant and majestic way so as to ensure their names would survive the oblivion of the centuries. Many of these awdlau,1 praises and laments, have survived to the present day, which is testimony in itself that Cynddelw succeeded in safeguarding the names of his patrons throughout the centuries.

But this simple fact hides a complex reality. Without mentioning the effort, the devotion and the unique talent that was responsible for such sublime verse, there were many factors beyond the control of the court bards that were equally responsible for the longevity of their poems. Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr did not work in a vacuum: he was part of a tradition, and when employing him as a court bard his patron was also calling upon the power of that tradition. In this sense, Cynddelw was far more than an individual bard, he was a vessel and a vehicle for the traditional idealism, mythology and ritual of his nation, as well as being a master of the ancient art and craft of the bardic declamation. By seeing him in this light, we can begin to reveal the wider context of the period he lived in, eight hundred and fifty years ago.

Cynddelw succeeded in drawing together the myriad threads of his tradition and weaving them together into one wondrous tapestry – a kind of ritual gown for his own use. He mastered the complex network of mythological figures and their respective tales, alongside the authoritative voices of the Hengerdd.2 Within him were located centuries of cultural development, and he gave voice to all these wondrous and ancient cultural artifacts through his public persona – the regal figure of the court bard. When he declaimed his odes before the court, in his voice the voices of Aneirin, Taliesin and Myrddin could be heard. Through him his audience touched their strange and heroic past, reliving the great histories of their forefathers. What’s more, he presented these mythical heroes as ideals by which to live, as mediums for the ancient principles of the Welsh aristocracy. Regardless of how much of this actually rubbed off on the military elite, in the ritual life of the court he was the old druid giving council to the king, and implied in that was the claim that just like Taliesin before him, he could save his patron from any missfortune through his learning, his wisdom and his mystical abilities. In this respect, it is easy to see how the court bard was the respectable descendant of the old tribal bard. As the court poets of Cynddelw’s period, that is the period of the Gogynfeirdd,3 portrayed themselves as descendants of the Cynfeirdd,4 it is natural to see the tribal bard in the form of Taliesin or Aneirin as an integral part of the court bard’s public persona.

As a result, this persona, that shines so brightly in the odes of Cynddelw, Prydydd y Moch and many other bards of the tradition, can be considred a dramatic expression of the old wise man archetype. There are many historic examples of this figure – in Geofrey of Monmouth’s ‘Merlin’ or in the stories of the old hermits of the early Church. Jung’s name for this particular archetype is the senex,5 and the concept was adopted by later scholars, for example Joseph Campbell:

. . . the Wise Old Man of the myths and fairy tales whose words assist the hero through the trials and terrors of the weird adventure. He is the one who appears and points to the magic shining sword that will kill the dragon-terror, tells of the waiting bride and the castle of many treasures, applies healing balm to the almost fatal wounds, and finally dismisses the conqueror, back into the world of normal life, following the great adventure into the enchanted night.6

Considering Cynddelw’s self-portrayal as the mythical wise old druid, it is easy to locate his dramatic persona in the same archetypal lineage. It would be fair to say that his effectiveness as a court bard would have depended to some extent on his ability to portray himself as such. It is not suprising that the same awareness of the power of myth is seen in the works of the Gogynfeirdd as it is in the works of modern psychologists. Its likely that both appreciated the ability of myth and ideal to serve various moral objectives, including the attempted transformation of the individual and the community.7

Of course, as has already been noted by Jung, only in the last two centuries did Western intelectuals begin approaching myth as an area of scholarly research. As far as we know, it is only comparatively recently that there has been a structured approach to the study of myths and the psychological meanings expressed within them. Certainly there is no obvious evidence to suggest that the Gogynfeirdd treated myth in such an analytical way. But we can see that many modern psychologists and anthropologists follow Jung in his fundamental view that there is a very practical relationship between myth, ritual and the psychological evolution of humanity. For example, Joseph Campbell again:

It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those other constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back.8

Some decades later we see the anthropologist Victor Turner taking on the same concept. For him, public rituals, particularly rituals which mark periods of transition, such as the public declamation of a praise poem in honour of a brave young man, may suggest the fundamental values of communal life as expressed in symbolic terms:

. . . I wish to show that where transition in space-time is ritualized, how it is ritualized, . . . gives us clues not only to the cherished values of the society that performs the rituals, but also to the nature of human sociality itself transcending particular cultural forms.9

Like Campbell,10 Turner believed that public ritual can provide a kind of psychological orientation for the benefit of those taking part by attempting to foster social equilibrium where there is potential or actual conflict.11 In the context of a brave young man returning from a horific battle, this may be to avoid dangerous arrogance, and foster healthy pride. We can suppose, therefore, that the role of the court bard was far more involved than simply composing poetry. Its likely that he was also at times a master of ceremonies, responsible for bringing the community (the old tribe) together on special occasions, like victory in battle or the death of a chief. It would be easy to identify him as a public figure, and in light of that it would have been natural for him to adopt dramatic techniques that supported his public performances. It is the acknowledgement of this dramatic element in this medieval poetry which is the first step in trying to better understand the ruitual context of a Gogynfardd declaiming his song.

References by Jung, Campbell and Turner to the medieval culture of Wales are rare. But the global reach of their research has ensured their relevance to anyone wishing to explore the basic tendencies of native cultures. There is a basic similarity in the way most cultures make use of public performance as a way of getting to grips with collective mental and spiritual health. In this sense, it could be argued that one of the oldest archetypes is maybe that of the public performer itself: the entertainer, the storeyteller, the musician or the bard, those who provide a focus, who attempt to provide communal equilibrium through the medium of their performance. It is clear at least that it is through the figure of the performer all the other archetypes are mediated as dramatic characters or spiritual embodiments. The Welsh bard, in this case, can be considered as a member of a very wide family of performers that developed independently in cultures large and small all over the world.

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1. ‘odes’. Long strict meter verses with chiming alliterations and rhymes; usually with
long passages, if not whole poems, on the same rhyme.
2. ‘ancient poetry’. The traditional term of the earliest Welsh poetry.
3. Otherwise known as the Poets of the Priness. Their period roughly spanning from the first half of the 11th century to the fall of the Llywelyn the Last Ruler in 1282.
4. The name given to the poets who preceded the Gogynfeirdd. Their period roughly spanning from the 6th century to the middle of the 11th.
5. C.G. Jung, The Collected Works vol. XIII (Llundain, 1967), p. 220.
6. Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Fontana, 1993), p. 9-10.
7. Ibid. p. 10: “When we turn . . . to consider the numerous strange rituals that have been reported from the primitive tribes and great civilizations of the past, it becomes apparent that the purpose and actual effect of these was to conduct people across those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change in the patterns not only of conscious but also of unconscious life.”
8. Ibid. p. 11.
9. Victor Turner, ‘Variations on a Theme of Liminality’, Secular Ritual, ed. S.F. Moore and B.G. Myerhoff, (Netherlands, 1977), p. 38.
10. Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, p. 29: “It is the business of mythology . . . to reveal the specific dangers and techniques of the dark interior way from tragedy to comedy. Hence the incidents are fantastic and “unreal”: they represent psychological, not physical, triumphs. Even when the legend is of an actual historical personage, the deeds are rendered, not in lifelike, but in dreamlike figurations; for the point is not that such-and such was done on earth; the point is that, before such-and-such could be done on earth, this other, more important, primary thing had to be brought to pass within the labyrinth that we all know and visit in our dreams. The passage of the mythological hero may be overground, incidentally; fundamentally it is inward – into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world.”
11. Victor Turner, ‘Are there universals of performance in myth, ritual and drama?’, By Means of Performance, ed. R. Schechner, (New York, 1990), p.10.

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