Mythic Consciousness

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Jennifer Gidley:

"Gebser has foregrounded the term mythical to denote this structure of consciousness, while Wilber has foregrounded the term membership and added myth to it to honor Gebser’s terminology. In Wilber’s myth-membership stage—that he often calls simply membership — he focuses quite strongly on sociological and psychoanalytic features. Gebser’s focus is more phenomenological, based on extensive research of artistic and literary artifacts. Steiner referred to the period in which the mythic picture consciousness developed as the Egypto-Chaldean period, in reference to the significant developments in culture and consciousness that occurred in those regions. A major divergence occurs regarding the different usages of the term “soul,” as discussed below.

Key Features of Mythic Consciousness

Most of these key features are identified in all three narratives.

• The emergent awareness of the inward-turned world of the soul;

• The development of complex mythology, requiring imagination and a new degree ofcognitive coherence;

• The development of astronomy, calendars and other complex mathematical systems;

• A new relationship to death and burial;

• The development of language systems including the first pictographic and logographicwriting systems (See Appendix C for more details);

• The strengthening of a sense of cyclical temporality (See Appendix A);

• Membership of large organized social groupings, resembling cities.

• Temple structures, especially pyramids. Although Egypt is most renowned for pyramids, this was also the primary form of temple architecture of Meso-American and South American Inkan civilization;

• The culmination of primarily matriarchal societies prior to the beginnings of patriarchy with the Greco-Roman civilization (Eisler, 2001).

I will now focus in a little more depth on the first four of the above features. The fifth and sixth are discussed in appendices and the remaining features must remain unexamined until subsequent research can be undertaken.

The Inward-Turned World of Soul

Both Gebser and Steiner connected the emergence of mythical consciousness with the first awakening of the individual human soul from its magical enmeshment with nature and cosmos. Gebser—who pays particular attention to artistic detail—notices the gradual extrication of the human form from its natural surroundings. In an exemplary painting of a human figure in nature from Knossos (Crete) dating from the second millennium BCE, Gebser (1949/1985) notes the “placing [of] the upper torso against the “sky” [and that] the sky is simultaneous with the soul”(pp. 61-62). He supports this with Plato’s statement “the soul . . . [came into being] simultaneously with the sky” (p. 45). Steiner’s conception of soul is based on a Platonic tripartite understanding of the human as having body, soul and spirit—the soul as mediator between body and spirit . He also regarded the period from 3,000 BCE as being significant for the development of the earliest emergence of the human soul—that he called the sentient or feeling soul . By contrast, Wilber’s notion of soul is somewhat differently placed. He does not use the term soul until after all the structures of consciousness up to ego-mental are established, regarding soul and spirit as part of what he calls the “superconsciousness” in Up from Eden (Wilber,1996c, p. 11). This conception also appears in his later works, where he does not use the term soul until the post-rational stages beyond vision-logic (Wilber, 2000b, p. 258, n. 22). However, Wilber’s use of the term mind , when he is referring to body, life, mind, soul, and spirit would appear to be similar to Steiner’s and Gebser’s use of soul in the present context. Gebser’s(1949/1985) position is that mythic consciousness paradoxically involves both an “inward-directed contemplation,” involving a new awareness of one’s own soul; and an outward-directed verbalization, through creating a myth about what has been inwardly visualized. This describes a circular motion of the “internal world of the soul; its symbol is the circle, the age-old symbol of the soul.” (p. 66) This internalization of soul enables an “internalization of memory,” as recollection, “in parallel with an externalization of utterance,” particularly through poetry as inspired by the Muses (p. 192). Perhaps the composite term mind-soul could be an appropriate improvement in the taxonomy.

The World of Myth Through Imagination

For Gebser the movement from magic to mythical consciousness involves a shift from a more vital centre to a soul centre that bears the stamp of the imagination. This aligns with Steiner’s position on the major developmental shift from the vital and emotional bodily systems being developed during the first and second cultural periods, and the third cultural period where the inner life of what he called the sentient soul was arising. He associated the latter with a sense-oriented, participatory, pictorial type of thinking that developed during the two thousand years prior to the emergence of abstract intellectual thought. Wilber (1996c) is somewhat more pragmatic about these developments. In this period he refers to the significance of language, through which “the verbal mind could differentiate itself out of the previous body-self” (p. 99).He also pointed to the role of symbolic thinking in myth-making “through a network of intersubjective membership and communication” (p. 101).While, from Gebser’s (1949/1985) perspective, the magic mode is dominated by impulse, instinct and affective reactions such as sympathy and antipathy, the mythical structure has amore mental orientation. Latent predisposition to perspectivity, has an imaginatory consciousness, related in the imagistic nature of myth and responsive to the soul and sky of the ancient cosmos. . . . The great cosmogonical images in the early myths are the soul’s recollection of the world’s origination. (p. 67) In a similar vein, Steiner (1986a) noted the link between the awakening human soul and the world soul—or anima mundi —through the imagination, whereby the cosmos is still experienced as being ensouled. The ancient Chaldean priests . . . were the custodians of profound wisdom, but for them these laws of nature were not merely abstract, nor were the stars merely physical globes. They looked on each planet as ensouled by a Being . . . a divine Being who gave it life. Thus the Egyptians and Chaldeans discerned that they were spirits living among spirits in a world of spirits. (p.101)It is interesting that there is a renewed interest today in notions of anima mundi —or ensouled cosmos—among transpersonal psychologists and integral philosophers (Sardello, 1995; Tarnas,2006). Perhaps it is an indicator of a shift beyond the marginalizing of the inner life that has occurred through the scientific privileging of the measurable world of externalities."


The Development of Astronomy and Calendars

Jennifer Gidley:

"The ancient Sumerians were renowned for their mathematics and early calendars. Steiner suggested that the Sumerians and Babylonians had deep mathematical insights into the relationships between human and cosmic proportions (Steiner, 1982c, p. 73). Gebser and Steiner both noted the awareness of the soul’s polarity in the earlier Persian/Sumerian cultures and its parallel—the awareness of the sky, as a counterpole to the earth. Gebser also noted the centrality of polarity in the Chinese T’ai-Ki symbol—generally known as the Yin/Yang symbol (Gebser,1949/1985, p. 220). Steiner (1986a) indicated that the Persians’ awareness of the earth/sky polarity laid the ground for the deeper understanding of the Egyptians and Chaldeans who began to uncover the laws that were operating between the earth and sky.[Humans] looked up to the stars and observed their movements and their influence on human life, and accordingly worked out a science which enabled them to understand these movements and influences. They brought the Heavens into connection with the Earth. (pp.100-101)

It has been claimed that the Egyptian sciences were based on the legendary wisdom teachings of Hermes Trismegistus who is reputed to have written The Emerald Tablet , a document on which the Hermetic sciences were based for thousands of years. Sir Isaac Newton has actually translated, with commentary, The Emerald Tablet—often encapsulated in the phrase— as above, so below."

A New Relationship to Death and Burial

One of the intriguing aspects of the Egyptian civilization was its relationship to death. Recent research in Sudan suggests that elaborate burial rituals were already operating in the earlier Nubian kingdom from at least 3,800 BCE (Gatto, 2004). However, the Egyptians certainly took these customs to new heights. Wilber, drawing on Joseph Campbell’s research, refers to these customs—the mortuary cults, the mummies, the golden death masks — as being “heightened searches for symbolic or token or pretend immortalities” in response to the new “death-fear,” arising from their gradually dawning sense of individuality (Wilber, 1996c, p. 121). Steiner, on the other hand, makes quite a different interpretation for the death interest of the Egyptians. Referring to the Osiris-Isis myth, Steiner claimed: The Egyptians desired in this way to turn their gaze to that element in the human soul which lives not only between birth and death . . . in their preservation of mummies, in their peculiar death-ceremonies—[they] turned the eye of the soul to that . . . eternal imperishable element . . . united in the Egyptian consciousness with the name of Osiris. (Steiner, 1971a, pp. 2-3) Gebser (1949/1985) took this point further referring to the life and death poles of the soul. He observed that “the great Egyptian literature on death is an endeavor to master the death region of the soul” (p. 223). The increased focus on death and burial rituals and symbols has been much studied by cultural anthropologists (Barnard & Spencer, 1998). Although the elaborate Egyptian tombs are of great contemporary interest, it is worth noting that one of the most significant of the Egyptian myths—the Osiris myth—is not just about death, but also about resurrection(Campbell, 1993; Neumann, 1954/1995; Steiner, 1971b).

Deficient Manifestations of Mythic Consciousness

As mentioned earlier, Wilber (1996c) has a keen interest in debunking the romantic myths about the glories of the past. He reminds us that all was not romance and glory in this early period of civilization building. He describes some of the horrendous rituals that were part of the mythic cultures, including human sacrifice (p. 125). He also pointed to the darker side of the politics of “divine kingship” during the myth-membership period, during which new horrors arose, such as “slavery . . . exploitation . . . elitist class distinctions . . . And massive oppression of the many by the few (p. 178).Gebser refers to the efficient form of the mythic consciousness when it was at its peak of development and full creative force was engaged to envision a primal image. He notes that as this primordial myth gets passed on it begins to lose its power and to fragment into a multitude of spoken myths. These myths — which passed on over time—are mere echoes of the original primordial visions. He sees this as the deficient phase of mythic consciousness. This seems analogous to what often happens between the original inspiration of a new philosophy, great leader or spiritual teacher and what becomes of the later product of his or her inspiration. Invariably the original message—whether it is Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Steiner education, or integral theory—has the purity and power of an inspired vision or mission. Overtime, the students or practitioners reduce the original message and develop a mythic version of it. This then becomes ossified into a new dogma as deficient mythic consciousness tightens its stranglehold.

Summary and Relevance for Today

The power of myths is well known to the creators of mass media, and corporate marketing and advertising (Jenson, 1996; Klein, 2000). The suppression of healthy imagination that has come in the wake of centuries of dominance by increasingly narrow forms of rationality has created an imbalance—particularly observable in the images of the future of young people(Eckersley, 2002; Gidley, 1998c, 2002a; Giroux, 2003; Hicks, 2002; Hutchinson, 2002;Inayatullah, 2002; Novaky, 2000). Young people also feel that there is a spiritual vacuum in our society (Gidley, 2005a; Tacey, 2003) which many critical educational theorists and educational futurists argue is too often filled by negative and exploitative media images (Clouder, Jenkinson,& Large, 2000; Gidley, 2001d; Giroux, 2003; Healy, 1998; Hutchinson, 1994; Livingstone,1998; Milojevic, 2005b; Pearce, 1992; Steinberg & Kincheloe, 2004). When imaginative mythic consciousness is not given scope for healthy expression, it is likely to break through in unhealthy ways, as Gebser has demonstrated. Whenever we encounter an immoderate emphasis on the imagistic, the ambivalent, the psychic—an unbridled phantasy, imagination or power of fancy—we may conclude the presence of a deficient mythical attitude that threatens the whole or integrality. (Gebser,1949/1985, p. 154)This is exemplified in our mass media today, where extreme levels of violent imagery exemplify deficient mythic consciousness, representing an extremely troublesome form of enculturation of our youth worldwide (Gidley, 2004c; Grossman, 2000; Grossman, Degaetano, &Grossman, 1999; Healy, 1998). Another predatory phenomenon relevant to the enculturation of youth via the appeal of the mythic imagination is cults. By contrast the power of the imagination can be used to enact positive enculturation, if the creative imagination is harnessed to the virtues of the Good, the Beautiful and the True. Educators, futurists, integral theorists, and some philosophers have begun to highlight the importance of rescuing healthy, positive, grounded imaginative-thinking from the limitations of a rationality too narrowly-defined, as will be discussed in the next section. The significant role of the healthy development of the imagination in educating for postformal, integral consciousness has been discussed elsewhere (Gidley,2007a)."


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