by James Bonnet
Now, if the creative unconscious used these great stories to communicate with us, then it must have participated in their creation. And so it did. These old great stories, which really could change people’s lives, were not authored by individuals the way stories are today but were evolved naturally and instinctively by unconscious processes in oral traditions. And even if they started out as made-up or true stories, revelations or dreams, they still ended up for long periods of time in oral traditions and that became the principal dynamic behind their creation.
The process goes something like this: It begins with a real or imagined incident or event that is worth repeating, something so intriguing that we’re compelled to repeat it. It is passed along by word of mouth, from person to person and from generation to generation until it’s been told and retold millions of times and exists in a hundred different versions around the world.
Each time the story is retold it changes. This is due to certain natural but curious tendencies of the mind — the tendency, for instance, to remember things that make a strong impression and to forget things that don’t impress us very strongly. There is also a tendency to exaggerate or minimize, to glorify or ennoble, to idealize or vilify. Beyond that, there’s a natural, unconscious tendency to analyze things, to take them apart and put them back together in different combinations (recombination), and a natural tendency to simplify or edit. The tendency to conserve energy in nature is very strong in everything we do, including how we organize and store our thoughts and memories. These are all things we’re very aware of.
We’ve all heard about the three foot long fish someone caught that was, in reality, barely twelve inches, or seen someone make a minor problem seem like the end of the world, or recall something that was truly horrendous as being no big deal. Or we become convinced that someone we knew back then was a genius, a world class athlete, the most beautiful girl in the world. I had a distant relative pass away who was, in reality, something of a bastard. But after his death, only the good things were being remembered and everyone began to believe he was one of the nicest guys that ever lived. Shakespeare reminds us that the opposite is also true. In Julius Caesar he tells us: “The evil men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” Hitler would be an obvious example. If he ever did a decent thing in his life, you’re never going to hear about it. He’s been completely and justifiably vilified.
We experience these curious tendencies constantly. They are a significant part of our everyday lives. We all know how hard it is to get a story straight or accurately remember something we’ve been told, or even experienced, if it hasn’t been written down. You tell someone close to you something exciting that happened (an incident worth repeating) and when you hear it repeated later that week or even later that day it’s been severely changed. It’s the cause of many serious misunderstandings. Well, you can imagine what happens to a story that has spent hundreds of years in an oral tradition. It has been thoroughly and completely changed.
There have been numerous experiments documenting this phenomenon. I saw one not long ago on PBS on one of their science programs. In this particular experiment, twenty children were lined up on stage. A story was whispered into the ear of the first child and she was told to repeat it. She whispered it to the boy next to her and he whispered it into the ear of the girl next to him, and so on. Then everyone laughs when they hear the last child’s version because of the way it’s been completely changed.
The important thing to remember here is that these are unconscious, instinctual processes. These old great stories were being created by the creative unconscious mind, with the unwitting cooperation of the conscious mind, of course. The creative unconscious seized the incident worth repeating and slowly over time, using these curious tendencies, helped the storyteller sculpt it into a marvelous story that contained powerful bits of that hidden truth. No one actually had to do anything consciously but repeat the story. And even if there was conscious involvement (i.e. the desire to use the story to instruct or entertain or even to change it) those desires and changes were prompted by feelings, insights, and various other forms of inspiration, which originated in the unconscious, so the end result would be the same.
We can see how this works if we look at certain important historical figures and examine how the real incidents which surrounded their lives and were worth repeating were evolved by oral traditions into marvelous and even miraculous tales that contained important bits of this hidden truth.
The first involves Achilles and the Trojan wars. While there is no historical record of these events, most scholars, and most people for that matter, believe there really was a place called Troy and a war between the Greeks and the Trojans which took place on the western shores of Turkey some time around 1200 B.C. Many important archaeologists, Heinrich Schliemann among them, have devoted their lives to discovering the sites of these ancient events.
The real Trojan war, then, was the incident worth repeating, and Achilles, the greatest warrior fighting on the Greek side, was the Audey Murphy of his day (Audey Murphy being the most decorated soldier in World War II). It is controversial whether someone named Homer, the accredited author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, the famous legendary accounts of these wars, actually existed, but assuming he did, the true story of the Trojan war had already spent four hundred years in the oral tradition before he put his poetic stamp on it, and another three or four hundred years in the oral tradition after his contribution before it was actually written down. In that time it had evolved from the real incidents worth repeating into a truly miraculous tale in which the swift-footed Achilles has become the nearly immortal and invincible son of Thetis, a sea goddess — all of the other gods, including Zeus, have taken sides and are playing active roles in the war, and all manner of miraculous things are occurring. These immortal characters and miraculous occurrences have a psychological significance which goes far beyond anything a factual account of the real incidents could ever have conveyed. They do, in fact, reveal an excellent picture of the human psyche in transformation. And, more specifically, the consequences of anger on that transformation. All things we would have difficulty finding in a real account of that war.
Alexander The Great is another good subject to study in this regard because there is both a good historical record in the West as well as a rich tradition of legends in the East. In the West there are no real legends because there was always the real historical record standing as a reference to contradict them. But in the fabulous East, in places like India and Persia, where there was no historical record, he entered the oral tradition and all manner of fanciful and legendary stories evolved — “Alexander Searches for the Fountain of Youth,” “Alexander Explores the Bottom of the Sea,” and so on. These legendary stories, shaped and molded by these unconscious processes, contain the hidden wisdom we spoke of which the history does not. The historical record reveals reality, the legends that evolved in, and were sculpted by, the oral traditions contain the hidden, inner truth. The Fountain of Youth, for instance, like the goose that lays golden eggs, is another “manifestation in image form” ( metaphor) of the lost potential. And Alexander’s legendary adventures, like Jack’s, are treasure maps that can, if followed, lead to it’s recovery.
King Arthur is another interesting case. Many scholars believe that this legendary English king was evolved from a real general named Arturis. General Arturis lived in the 5th century A.D. and won ten consecutive battles against the Saxons before he was finally killed. If these scholars are correct, then after only five or six hundred years in the oral tradition this real general Arturis had been transformed into the legendary King Arthur who wielded a magic sword named Excalibur, consorted with a sorcerer named Merlin, founded Camelot, established the Round Table, and sent his chivalrous knights on a quest for the Holy Grail. And, here again, like The Iliad and Jack and the Beanstalk, the legends surrounding King Arthur have a great deal to tell us about our inner selves, our vast potential, and our true destinies, while the brief historical record of General Arturis has probably had very little effect on any of our lives.
The curious tendencies of the mind that drive this natural storymaking process, and which we tend to regard as shortcomings, turn out to be the artistic tools of the imagination. And the creative unconscious used these tools to create these great stories. This vital information was being programmed into them bit by bit with each of these changes. The tellers of stories were only having fun, but, in fact, they were helping to create and then pass this information along. And this is where these old great stories get their power. These little bits of hidden truth have real power and charisma.
Myths are stories that have evolved to such an extent that the truth they contain has become so charismatic and obvious that religions are formed around them. All of the great religions have mythological stories as their justification and the source of their truth.
There is no better example of this than Moses and Jesus. Again, no historical record, but most people believe, or are willing to concede, that a real historical Moses and Jesus did in fact exist. After six hundred years in the oral tradition Moses was turning staffs into serpents and performed any number of other miracles for the edification of the Pharaoh including the parting of the Red Sea. And after only forty to eighty years in the oral tradition, Jesus had become the result of a virgin birth, performed countless miracles, and rose from the dead. There’s no way to calculate what effect a factual record of the real events surrounding these important figures might be having on our lives, but it’s safe to say there have been very few things in life that have had a greater effect on the world than the miraculous stories that evolved from those real events.
It is, in fact, the function of religion to utilize the truth revealed in these great stories to help guide their charges back to their original nature. Religion, when it is not corrupt, is a conscious, organized effort to get people to go back up this path and they get their marching orders from stories. Instead of calling it individuation (Jung’s term for the full realization of the self) or reaching your full potential, they call it recovering your lost innocence or reunion with God.
It may also be worth noting here that when the real incidents that were worth repeating entered the oral tradition and evolved into myths and legends, they became not less true, but more true, because now they contained some powerful bits of the hidden truth. The real incidents as they evolve become less reflective of the outer circumstances and more reflective of the hidden, inner reality. I leave it to the individual to decide which they think is more important.