“Mythography & the Universal Human” : Interview with Allison Stieger, Principal at Mythic Stories (Seattle) by Willi Paul, NewMythologist.com
“Just before his death Joseph Campbell was interviewed by Bill Moyers and that interview was later turned into the documentary, “The Power of Myth.” In this interview he postulated the idea that humanity was in need of new mythologies. Ones that were not rooted in the ancient world as all our current ones are. But myth’s that would help us navigate this new and strange world we are creating.”
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Interview with Allison by Willi
W: Can a community be a Hero?
A: I don’t think the word hero is one I would use to describe a community. When I read heroic myths, particularly from the classical world, I see an individual who leaves the community behind (separation), is changed by a descent (initiation), and returns to the community with the boon (return), which can be an actual object or an idea or mental construct. It is an individual’s pursuit to go on “the hero’s journey”. I would say that a community can exhibit traditionally “heroic” qualities, but the hero’s journey requires that stage of initiation or descent.
W: Can you provide evidence that classic myths are energizing the permaculture, occupy or Transition movements in Seattle?
A: I don’t know if those movements are being energized by myths, because I’m not a member of those communities, but I would argue that they are being archetypally energized. The hero is one archetype, and the heroic qualities of that archetype may be in play with these movements, but other archetypes should be considered. Such as:
These are only a few examples, but you see what I’m getting at. The hero is only one archetype among many.
W: Who or what are some of the current alternatives to Campbell’s constructs and visions? Is he still as important as ever?
A: I think Campbell’s work is definitely still resonating with people. In the years I’ve spent working with the Joseph Campbell Foundation (9) I’ve met many people who find a great deal of meaning in Campbell’s work, as I do myself. However, Campbell passed more than 25 years ago now, and there is exciting work being done in the field of myth. The JCF is starting to profile the work of up and coming mythologists, which is exciting. The Myth program at Pacifica Graduate Institute is training new mythologists every year. Not all of them go on to have an impact on culture, but over the next 10 years or so I predict that some of them will become well known for bringing myth work to a wider audience.
W: What is a mythologist? Are there common goals and trainings (or just individuals and multiple agendas?)
A: A mythologist (or mythographer, as some prefer) is simply an expert on ancient myth. The study of myth can be approached from different perspectives. For example, one can approach the study of myth from a religious perspective, a depth psychological perspective, an anthropological perspective, or a literary perspective. The graduate program in myth at Pacifica has classes from all of those perspectives. It is also possible to educate oneself in myth without a degree program, much as Campbell did. He had an MA in Medieval Literature from Columbia, but he also spent several years after his formal education was completed reading world myths (he spent five years in solitary study during the Great Depression).
W: Many champion the Hollywood Hero these days: Iron Man, Bat Man. There seems to be a lot of testosterone flowing there! Please read and react to my critique of Popmythology.com – a blog by written by Daniel Jun Kim:
A: The Hollywood Hero as described here is entertaining, without a doubt, but I don’t believe that this character in film can be considered mythic. There are other mythologists who would disagree with me, I’m sure. I know many screenwriters are familiar with the hero’s journey, and try to touch the points of the monomyth in their screenplays, but in my opinion it takes more than a “connect the dots” approach to heroic myth to resonate with filmgoers. Both “Ironman” and “The Matrix” outwardly conform to the pattern of the hero’s journey, but (again, in my opinion) only “The Matrix” can qualify as mythic filmmaking.
W: Please share a few of your favorite modern day Nature-based symbols.
A: I’m particularly interested in the symbolism of different animals. If a certain animal or insect appears to me, I’ll take a moment to reflect on the symbolism of the particular animal, and treat the appearance as a spirit animal, in a sense. For example, on Saturday I was attending the wedding of a dear friend. She went through a difficult divorce about two years ago, and I was so thrilled that she has found a new happiness with her new husband. During the reception, a garter snake appeared where I was sitting, and it got me thinking about the symbolism of snakes.
Snakes are an ancient symbolic force, going back to pre-Christian goddess traditions. They are seen as symbols of renewal, which seemed so appropriate at the wedding of someone “renewing” her life with a new partner.
W: How do you use alchemy?
A: Myth is, at its core, about transformation. Alchemy is about the pursuit of transformation, and Carl Jung uses the symbolism of alchemy to describe the transformation of the individuation process. I’ve studied the use of alchemical symbolism as part of my education, in reading the work of Jung and Marie Louise von Franz, so I would say that alchemy has influenced my work, but it isn’t a significant aspect of it, at least at the moment. This could change in the future, but for now, I’m focusing on other things.
W: Please select a new myth from my work and offer a critique?
A: I’ve read through about a dozen of your new myths, and I now have a better sense of what you’re attempting by writing new myths. A couple of questions: What is Cascadia? Is it an imagined new country/new state in Northern California? Are your new myths an attempt to introduce a new vision for being in the world?
Reading them, it makes me think about the difference between stories and myths. From my perspective, what you’ve written are stories, and if they resonate deeply with the culture and community, they will become myths. Myths are the stories that survived, right? We don’t know about the stories from the ancient world that didn’t get told and retold. Myths speak to something deep within us.
Campbell, in his writing, mentions two different German words: “Elementargedanken”, and “Völkergedanken”. The first means, essentially, elementary ideas, and the second, ethnic ideas. (Here’s a link to a page describing both terms).
I teach the difference between these two ideas to my Comparative Mythology students. When we look at a culture’s myths, which exist to explain an elemental function of that particular culture (e.g. stories about snow for the Inuit), and which myths speak to something that is universally human?
So, my question for you is, what can your stories teach us about what it means to be universally human? Those are the myths that have meaning. “What is Cascadia? Is it an imagined new country/new state in Northern California? Are your new myths an attempt to introduce a new vision for being in the world?”
W: Yes, exactly! Please see my vision for Cascadia; my new myths are visions driven by the present global crisis.
A: So, my question for you is, what can your stories teach us about what it means to be universally human? Those are the myths that have meaning.
W: First, here are 8 elements of my new myths:
1. Localization – back to sustainability and community; self-sufficiency
2. Nature- Centric
5. Universal themes(s) and message
6. Para-Normal in conflict or characters
7. Initiation, Journey and Hero
8. Permaculture & Transition: values and principles
Myth Lab is how I combine science and myth in a tool kit to create new (stories) myths. My use of the Artifact is indeed my attempt to deliver universal messages:
A. Overcoming environmental damage from war and Capitalist greed
B. Creating a new non-toxic agricultural system
C. Promoting a sharing economy
D. Clean water for all
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Allison’s Bio –
Allison Stieger is a mythologist, writer and teacher who is passionate about myth and what it has to teach us about living a more fulfilled life. She holds a bachelors in English and Writing, and a masters in Mythological Studies in Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. In 2004 she founded Mythic Stories, and since then she has been teaching workshops on myth, creativity and writing for adults. She founded the Seattle Roundtable group of the Joseph Campbell Foundation in 2004, and led the group until 2012. Allison also teaches yoga teacher trainees how to incorporate myth-inspired narrative structure into their yoga sequences, and will be leading a trip to Greece in 2014 with Sattva Yoga.
She blogs on topics related to mythology at mythicstories.com, and is a contributing columnist for The Creativity Post, writing on the intersection between myth, creativity and innovation.
Allison Stieger, Principal
Allisonstieger at yahoo.com