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Myths are stories that convey the basic elements of the human condition. In each of these stories, insight can be gained as to expectations for universal, social or individual insight. Universal insights are those that apply to the general human condition, and remain debatable as to whether or not these can actually exist. Cultures around the globe can be generally grouped under basic religious approaches, but remain sufficiently different in details to make it nearly impossible for people of all cultures to interpret the stories in a similar way every time. Social insights are much more prevalent as each culture is able to pull out those elements of a story that has specific meaning within that culture. In relaying important cultural and societal ideologies, myths are also useful learning tools for the young people of society as they begin to learn what is expected of them and the consequences if they fail to behave according to plan.
In Oedipus the King, the action opens as Oedipus is approached by plague-stricken masses asking help from him as king. When he sees his people gathered around him as if he were a god, his response to them is godlike. His pride in his role is evident in the words he speaks in which he seems to be almost condescending to them for appealing to other forces than himself in their burning of incense to cloud the air. Throughout the remainder of the action, Oedipus’ personality clearly reflects a continued pride and a determination to force things to go his way. When Oedipus learned of his own prediction that he was doomed to kill his father and marry his mother, he was determined to avoid this fate by taking his future in his own hands. He left his homeland in Corinth for the further realm of Thebes. He experiences the typical dangers while on his travels, meeting with strangers and being involved in a fatal battle in which only the other side lost, and encountering a seemingly unanswerable riddle delivered by the Sphinx. When he is able to solve the riddle of the Sphinx, a task that had not been accomplishable by anyone else, his natural pride in his own abilities rose to a new level. This is reinforced by the fact that he then became the king of Thebes and married Jocasta, the widowed queen of Thebes. Unfortunately, as it is discovered toward the end of the play, this widowed queen was the wife of the man Oedipus killed on the road, who turned out to be his own father. This made his wife his mother and himself the vile criminal he was seeking.
The universal truth inherent in this story can be summed up in an ancient saying that has also evolved somewhat over the years – pride goes before a fall. Although Oedipus thought he could avoid his destiny, deny his god or direct his own fate, all going against many of the world’s major religious concepts, all his actions in the end only brought him closer to meeting his fate. For many years, Oedipus lived with his mother as his wife, having four children with her that were then old enough to make their own decisions. In all that time, he was living in the shadow of his destiny without knowing it and pridefully believing he had managed to avoid it. Because of its fundamental elements and concentration on a general human behavior characteristic, the myth has the ability to transcend superficial cultural elements and reach to a broader audience.
The Brothers Grimm, Jakob and Wilhelm, were the first to put the age-old story of a poor little princess turned pauper turned princess to paper as a means of preserving the rich oral history of their German homeland in the early 1800s. Because their original intention was not to write children’s stories, but to preserve folktales, there remain traces within Cinderella that hint of a darker past. Also, because the story was written during a time of strong Christian morality, the stories contain a blatant religious overtone – including the beginning when Cinderella is told by her dying mother that her responsibility in life is to “be good and pious.” The step-sisters in this version are beautiful to look upon, but the brothers describe them as “vile and black of heart.”
In portraying Cinderella, the Grimm brothers go into great detail regarding Cinderella’s grief over the loss of her mother and include a magical hazel tree in which a white bird perches and delivers to Cinderella any of the wishes she expresses. It was with the help of the little bird in the hazel tree that Cinderella was able to be outfitted properly for the first of a three day festival and dance. In this case, she was forced to leave the dance three times, once by jumping through a pigeon house, once by climbing a tree and the third time, she finally left behind a golden, rather than a glass, slipper. The prince twice picked up the wrong sister to be his bride after they each had mutilated their own foot in order to fit into the slipper, but the bird at the grave continued to warn him. On her wedding day, the two false sisters were punished by the birds by having their eyes plucked out one at a time, suffering blindness forever afterward.
This ancient myth brought into story form has been recreated numerous times, including the famous Walt Disney version that lightens things up and changes the story slightly. However, in each version until very recently (meaning in the past 10 years), the story has functioned to provide individual instruction to millions of young girls throughout the Western world regarding what is expected of them within the world. Messages conveyed in the story include the idea that the girl is always supposed to be meek and obedient, regardless of how unfairly she is treated or how deprived she is of the basic needs in life such as adequate clothing and food. The girl who remains appropriately meek and mild will then receive some sort of divine intervention that will ensure she is well provided for once she hits adulthood.
The story of Beowulf provided social instruction at a time of significant social change as religious beliefs were shifting from the pagan beliefs of the Old Code to the Christian beliefs of the new world order. Beowulf serves to provide the transition between both worlds by linking the ideals of the Old Code to the ideals of the Christian belief system. Of the characters in Beowulf, both Beowulf and King Hrothgar are seen as examples of what are today considered honorable Christians. Beowulf himself can be thought of as someone transitioning from the barbaric behaviors of the previous age into the honorable and moral man of the future as he learns the subtle actions and niceties that create an enlightened man of his age.
Hrothgar has already made this transition from a ruler by force to a leader by example and civility thanks to his experience and care. Although Hrothgar is a very static character within the epic and he is not as physically strong as Beowulf in a society that greatly prizes strength and physical power above all else, Hrothgar is nevertheless seen as a model figure for the medieval man and the heroes they revered. At its most basic level, Hrothgar, through his example, illustrates that the model figure is one who does not rely on brute strength alone to convince his people to follow him but employs diplomacy, decency and compassion to those within his reach. Through this portrayal, the story helps to lead the way for social change, illustrating how the new changes are actually just refinements on the old ways.
In Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Arthur is the son of Igraine of Tintagel and King Uther Pendragon, but is separated from his parents at his birth by the magician Merlin. He lives a relatively normal childhood in the home of his uncle and Aunt, King Lot and Queen Margawse, who is the sister of Igraine, while his half-sister, Morgan Le Fay remains to grow up with her mother in the court of King Uther. When he becomes a youth, Arthur pulls the magic sword, Excaliber, from where it is embedded in a stone, thereby signifying his destiny as the king of Britain. Counseled by Merlin, Arthur rules wisely, marries Guinevere and establishes the Round Table – a brotherhood of knights who consistently fight for good causes as defined by their Christian values, but whose personal lives are often fraught with personal crisis in which their romantic indiscretions figure prominently.
Morgan Le Fay emerges as Arthur’s greatest rival and is representative of the Druidic tradition prevalent in the area prior to the coming of Christianity. Eventually, Arthur has an illicit child, Mordred, with his Aunt Margawse. This child grows up to expose the love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot, steal the English throne and finally deal Arthur a fatal blow in battle even while dying himself. Within this context, there are numerous related legends, the most important of which is the final adventure of the knights of the round table as they each take off in their own direction in search of the Holy Grail and the return, upon Arthur’s death, of Excaliber to the Lady of the Lake from which it had originally come.
On a universal level, the last act of Arthur, getting the sword of power back to the Lady of the Lake, reunites the male and female essences, completing the reason for life on earth. The sword is a weapon that can be used to designate power and control as well as to maim and kill. However, in the right setting and place, in combination with the Grail and the presence of the feminine, it can also be used to heal and to make new. “The philosopher’s stone is produced by the unity of divine opposites, the sphere of divine unwillingness, non-being, death and the sphere of divine will, being and life. The sun and shadow rotate casting their opposites; the God, Dionysius, sun’s shadow, killing and dismembering the alchemist (I kill and make alive), and the sun God, Apollo, raising the alchemist to eternal life (I wound and heal), which is exactly what psychoanalysis does” (Hull, 2001). This statement makes it clear that this concept of a combination of male and female is inherent in many of the world’s belief systems. As the female experiences the male through the myths of the magic sword and the male experiences the female through the legend of the Holy Grail, pre-determined definitions begin to break down and new abilities are discovered. Each gains new understanding of the other as well as the self and is thus able to progress through their individual process.
As this continuing fascination with the story suggests, the meaning of the Arthurian legend reaches deep within our psyches to help us identify and define ourselves within our culture, particularly in how we relate to two key symbols – the Holy Grail and the sword of power. It can be argued, of course, that the meaning of the text does not necessarily apply to all people as only those raised within the Western tradition are exposed to the stories of King Arthur and his knights. Within this myth, as in so many others, the proper role of each member of society is shown. The nobility are the only individuals eligible for consideration for high honor as they are the only ones to receive any attention in the myth. Heroes are always men, who spend their lives engaging in quests intended to bring glory and honor to the castle. At the same time, women are expected to remain at home and engage themselves in meaningless activities while remaining completely faithful to their husbands, regardless of how they might have felt about them. The consequences of infidelity are far-reaching, destroying not just the home, but the kingdom as well. These lessons for the nobility then become the ideals for everyone somehow lesser than nobility, thus instructing everyone as to how society should work.
In addition, the stories have been around for so long and told in so many different ways that each person raised within this tradition seems to have their own conception of just what is meant by these magical objects and the role that they play in helping us determine our own inner quest. However, specificity of the legends as they are understood by various individuals is not necessarily as important as one might imagine. as the emphasis of Jungian analysis does not rest on the intentions or thoughts of the authors, but rather on the symbols that fall onto the page as a result of the author’s interaction with the collective unconscious. “The Grail motif is interiorized by the individuals who are caught by its spell. It is singular, celibate; finally sterile” (Jones, 2007) thanks to the general understanding of the quest regardless of differing renditions.
This conclusion is indicated by the failure of most of the knights who have embarked on the quest for the Grail to return. Although some, such as Galahad, did manage to find the Grail, he, too, also failed to find his way back to the others, thus failing to bring the wisdom of the Grail home and again emphasizing the individuality of the process inherent in the tale. Finding the Grail was only beneficial to the one and not helpful to any of the others. “The Grail focuses our attention internally. It’s the symbol of our ultimate spiritual destiny, our individuation after trials” (Adcox, 2004). In addition, because the Grail quest is primarily one of the masculine searching for the inner feminine, there remains little room within the tale for the realization of the female individuation process, which must also occur if the two genders are to find common ground. Thus, the necessary combination of opposites is never fully achieved, again suggesting failure and celibacy in the quest regardless of the specifics in the tale told or the understandings given.
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Adcox, John. (2004). “The Sword and the Grail: Restoring the Forgotten Archetype in Arthurian Myth.” The Widening Gyre. Web.
Baines, Keith. (1962). Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. New York: Penguin Books.
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Hull, Gary. (2001). “Carl Jung.” Criticism of Objectionism. Web.
Jones, Gwyneth. (2007). “The Holy Grail.” Web.
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