Primer on Myth And Religious Parables
Divining wisdom from myth and parable is an art form. Each reader looks at the ink blot and sees therein something different. I use myth archetypes in my writing and have been asked on occasion to expound on the subject. What follows is a short primer on the topic from my point of view ... which might be completely inaccurate.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son
The story of the Prodigal Son is the template for all fables. Jesus' parable of the prodigal son is a shortened version of an ancient Christian parable called The Hymn of the Pearl. The basic narrative is of a young man of royal birth who leaves his home on a quest in search of some sort of treasure. The treasure is merely a symbol for knowledge (wisdom). Once in a foreign land, the young prince forgets his royal heritage and, through ignorance, sinks into the depravity of the foreign land. A heavenly female messenger reminds the prince of his status and mission. Once awakened, the prince finds the treasure and returns home in glory. A later derivation of this theme is the Holy Grail legend wherein the entire story is caught up in the never-ending quest for the treasure (i.e., the Holy Grail). The point of the fable is to spur the reader to embark upon his or her own journey of self-discovery. The 1994 Disney movie "The Lion King" closely followed the above outline. The young prince, Simba, goes into exile in a foreign land where he eats grubs rather than hunting as a lion. There Simba is found by the lioness Nala who reminds him of his royal heritage and brings him back to his father's kingdom where he claims the throne.
The Prodigal Son gives us insight into the three salient questions of life. First, who are we? This is the question form of the injunction that hung over the entrance to the oracle at ancient Delphi: know thyself. My answer: we are each the prince of royal birth from the parable who left his father's home and now reside in a strange land. Let me expand on this point for a moment, as it is key to grasping my view of the myth archetype. Royalty is a metaphor for divinity. We are not gods per se but, rather, contain within our being a spark of the divine-i.e., the soul. The eternal soul never dies. After our bodies are returned to dust of this earth, the soul returns to its heavenly home.
"Jesus said, 'If those who lead you say to you, 'See, the kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. But the kingdom is inside of you." Gospel According to Thomas, Logion 3. The "kingdom" which lies inside each of us is the soul. The soul is the only eternal element of a human being as it does not taste death. The journey each soul makes to be clothed in the flesh and eventually return to the spirit realm is the journey mythologized in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
Second question relative to the Prodigal Son: what is the strange land to which the prince goes? Put another way, where are we? Answer: the material world called earth upon which we temporarily reside. Where are we going? Home to our father's house, an allegorical reference to the spiritual realm from which we all came.
The World As Illusion--Maya
The logical conclusion from the parable of the Prodigal Son is that our true home is in the world of our father's house (i.e., heaven). Hinduism and Buddhism take it one step further. Their view is that so-called life in the material world is an illusion and our only true existence is in the spiritual realm. For Hindus, belief in our individuality as beings separate and apart from the rest of creation is also an illusion called Maya. Hindus and Buddhists believe in the oneness of all that exists. Author Richard Bach wrote an entertaining fictional novella titled Illusions centered on this concept. Bach has written another novella entitled One, which picks up where Illusions left off. The "Matrix" movies did an outstanding job building a script around the concept of our world as illusion. Look deeply and one sees this concept in the classic movie "The Wizard of Oz". Dorothy labors under illusions regarding the Land of Oz until the curtain hiding the wizard is pulled back by Toto the dog revealing the truth.
Albert Einstein is quoted as having said, "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." If we alter this statement to read, "Our perception of reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one"; then one arrives at the essence of the challenge. Our perception of self as a separate being existing apart from all else flowing from God can be called ego. Destruction of the ego, itself a false belief system, leads to life.
Echoes of this concept are to be found in Christianity. The last line of The Prayer of St. Francis reads, "And it is dying that we are born to eternal life." In this sense, death (escape from the material world) is a birth to eternal life found only in the spiritual realm of heaven. "Be thou faithful to death, and I will give thee a crown of life." Revelation 2:10. The Gospel of John espouses that one passes from death to life not at the moment of bodily death but, rather, when one hears the word of Jesus. John 5:24. In the Johnian formulation, those whose consciousness is centered in this world are more than asleep, they are dead. Taking the word of Jesus to heart brings the symbolically dead back to life.
In the summer of 1994, I was living and working in Washington, D.C. Billy Dee Williams was on a local radio talk show promoting a showing of his original artwork in Georgetown that evening. When the interview opened up to calls, I phoned in. I told Mr. Williams I was a big fan of the "Star Wars" movies (two of which he starred in) and asked whether he also felt a spiritual component to these scripts. He informed me that George Lucas was heavily influence by professor Joseph Campbell in writing the Star Wars scripts drawing concepts from Norse mythology. That set me off reading several Joseph Campbell classics. Through years of study, Campbell found commonality in the world's myths. For our purposes, The Hero with a Thousand Faces is of prime importance. Herein, Campbell dissects the journey of the archetypal hero found in world mythologies and religions. Below are three phases of the hero's journey, as articulated by Campbell, with a notation next to each of its use in the Star Wars plot.
1. Call to action. Obi-Wan Kenobi calls young Luke Skywalker to aid him in his quest to save princess Leia from the empire.
2. Crossing the threshold into a mysterious land of danger. Star Wars parades through a never-ending cascade of mysterious lands each with its own dangerous, bizarre creatures.
3. In the belly of the beast. In "The Empire Strikes Back", the Millenium Falcon and crew fly into what they believe is a cave but turns out to be the belly of a space monster. This symbol is the same symbolism as Jonah in the belly of the whale.
The works of Joseph Campbell definitely influenced my writing so I wish to acknowledge the debt.
Slaying the Dragon
A common theme in action-adventure myths is the slaying of a dragon or similar monster. For dragon / monster slaying examples, we have the old English epic poem of Beowulf (slays the monster Grendel), Greek myth of Hercules (kills the multi-headed monster Hydra), Greek myth of Perseus (kills the gorgon Medusa), Sumerian myth of Ninurta (kills the dragon Zu to rescue the Tablets of Law), and Norse myth of Sigurd (kills the dragon Fafnir to reclaim an ill-gotten treasure). The list of the world's dragon myths is endless. The above is a mere sample. But what does slaying the dragon symbolize?
As a child grows into a man, the soul is gripped ever tighter in the mistaken belief of separateness from all other humans and from God. This belief in individuality manifests itself in dominance of the ego. Our earthly ego is the dragon blocking the gateway from the material world back to the spirit world. Only by slaying the dragon does one gain entrance to the spritual realm. In the words of Jesus, one must become as a child (lacking a dominant ego) to enter the kingdom of God. Matthew, 18:3-4.
The Alchemist, A Fable about Following Your Dreams
Paulo Coelho's masterpiece is the best book I ever read, hands down. For quite some time after reading it, I was discouraged from writing myself as anything produced by my pen would pale in comparison. After reading several of Coelho's later works, the realization struck me that even the other writings of Coelho pale in comparison to The Alchemist. Besides I enjoy writing regardless of the result. Back to the topic of myth.
Another way to express what Campbell calls the hero's journey and what Jesus termed the journey of the prodigal son is the symbolism of alchemy. On its face, alchemy is the medieval science of turning base metals such as lead into gold. The key to this process is said to be the philosopher's stone. The quest to find the philosopher's stone is much like the quest for the Holy Grail. To my eyes, alchemy is but a metaphor for the journey of the soul from the spirit world down into the material world and its longed-for return home. The base metals with which the alchemist works to find the gold are a metaphor for the material world into which our soul has plunged and is imprisoned. The sought-after gold is the soul trapped in the base metal of the material world.
Joseph Campbell said it best: "Alchemical imagery is one way of telling this same story [i.e., the journey of the mythic hero] in terms of getting the gold out of the base matter. The gold is captured in base matter: prima materia. And though the alchemical cooking and whatever else they're doing, pouring things in and so forth, the gold is brought out. And the gold is your own spiritual life that is clouded in the pure matter of your physical interests. The operation of the mythic meditation is to bring out, elicit, the gold of your spiritual character. You have to move into this slowly, and that's what ordeals are. The ordeal is a gradual clarification and purification of your life." Joseph Campbell, The Hero's Journey (1990).
The hero of The Alchemist is a shepherd boy who follows his dreams to find a treasure. The real treasure at the end of the quest does not consist of earthly riches. The real treasure is knowledge of one's true nature. This is the spiritual meaning of symbolically turning lead into gold.
Go into just about any weight room in the country and you'll see tacked to the wall the saying "no pain, no gain". Similarly is the quote from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche used to open the movie "Conan the Barbarian": "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." James the brother of Jesus is recorded as saying, "Count it as pure joy my brothers all the trials and tribulations you encounter for they build character." James 1:2-3. Why is suffering a necessary component to growth?
I believe it is simply human nature. We fear the unknown and seek the easy path at all turns. Further, our belief in separateness (the ego) is a strong force for maintenance of the status quo. Ergo, we'll never change unless external forces are brought to bear shaking us to consciousness of the kingdom of god, which lies within. Drawing on imagery from alchemy, fire is always applied by the alchemist in the process of changing lead into gold. Like the old saying goes, you can't cook an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Thus, the hero always suffers on his journey home.