What do myths and symbols mean?
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 culture. 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 continually interpreting our experience, ascribing meaning as naturally as breathing. If we stare at it for long enough, a cloud will often turn into a face, just as a symbol will often resolve into a complex of meanings.
Clearly, a purely personal interpretation of myth or symbol won’t tell us much about the source culture they grew out of, especially if we are greatly removed from that culture. It’s reasonable to look for comparisons in such cases, similar symbols either from within the source culture itself, or if that’s not available to us then symbols from a close cousin. I believe that this, in reality, is one of the few ways in which we can claim some objectivity in this type of work.
But even so, no matter how carefully we may arrange our comparisons, they are still selective readings that are only minimally objective. In using comparison as a guideline for interpretation, there is still a need to identify our subjective responses before reverse-engineering an ‘objective’ rationale for them. Only after doing so will we be able to see our responses clearly enough to distinguish them from the actual material itself.
But after separating them out, we should neither neglect to consider these instinctive insights. There is nothing wrong with creative responses to myth and symbol; some of the world’s greatest art is a result of such engagement. If we are correct in regarding at least some myths as drawing on the imaginal life of a people, approaching them without any regard for our own imaginal lives would seem to be missing the point.
A useful approach in trying to understand a myth is to look at the situation in which it arose. But making assumptions about a myth by re-creating its social context isn’t as straight forward as it sounds, and generally impossible to do so without leaning somewhat on our own learnt ideas about what a myth can and cannot do. It is a mistake to think that any old story can simply be analysed 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 researcher.
An overly reductive, classificatory investigation is doomed to miss the woods for the trees. Either we approach myths and their symbols as the active, engaging and stimulating complexes of meaning that they were to their respective societies, or we simply classify their perceived forms and move on. Unfortunately, such treatments will inevitably tell us more about how we tend to classify things than reveal the imaginal potential of a myth.
Myths are probably more akin to living animals than a dead constructs, yet there is a danger of assuming that they 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. That is a very difficult position from which to investigate the condensed dreaming of a culture. No myth ever evolved as a result of a storyteller thinking rationally about functions and utilities, so what makes us assume that defining those functions and utilities is the primary way of studying myth?
A myth and its embedded symbols contain multiple dimensions of meaning all at the same time, ranging from the instinctive and personal all the way through to the collective, historical and political; pretending to be able to fully separate any of those dimensions out reduces myth to an explanation that serves no purpose beyond satisfying an arbitrary standard of objectivity. All of the dimensions of myth need to be brought into view if we are ever to succeed in offering honest interpretations.