The Canon of Humanity: Mythology and Symbols in Art and Literature

Myths are enduring facets of human nature because they allow cultures to bring order to chaos and to understand human behavior and the mysterious workings of the universe. Despite the presence of scientific and psychological explorations that define the Modern world, myths continue to shape our culture and literary art. In order to be more effective in conveying abstract ideas and meanings, historical myths, archetypes, and symbols that are universally or at least culturally understood offer artists, poets and writers, a way to explore the often chaotic world in which we live.

Throughout human history, mythology shaped much of how cultures viewed their place in the universe and responded to their desire to understand, if not control, its contradictory nature. The creation myths of pre-historic cultures, biblical myths, epic heroism, and so on played this role astonishingly. Greek antiquities, for instance, would not haved existed were it not for mythology. Oral culture, with its emphasis on epic poetry and the heroics of its subjects, are also great influences.

Contemporary art and culture would not have the solid foundation on which it perches today were it not for the antiquities and ancient cultures. Indeed, much of cultural art depends on the symbolic representations these myths generate. During the Age of Humanism, symbolic images derived from classical myths formed much of the poetry, art, and drama. Romantic poets also used mythological imagery in their work. As modernism, with its emphasis on empiricism, rationalism, and intuitive ideas, began to influence political, philosophical, and scientific thought, “romantic poets and novelists tilted the other way,” choosing “to surrender to the experience of deep emotions” (Toulman 148).

Therefore, the reliance on mythological and symbolic imagery owe much to their ability to explicate the familiarity of human nature – emotions, ambiguity, contradictions. John Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” is one such example, enabling the poet to accept the contradictions of human life – the inevitability of mortality, but the immortalization of human life through its artistic endeavors.

Carl Jung’s studies on archetypal myths and the psychological role they have played in examining the psyche have greatly influenced how these myths are later interpreted through art. If, as Walter Shelburne points out, “the personification that the archetypal images manifest are typical of autonomous contents which exist in the unconscious without being integrated with the conscious personality,” then the archetypes, often derived out of mythology, become the means in which the unconscious can be explored. It is also possible “for the unconscious or an archetype to take complete possession of a man and to determine his fate down to the smallest detail” (62).

Given the role archetypes and mythology play in unconscious desires, their use in art therefore is significant in how their applications explore truths in human nature. Jung’s work, as well as Sigmund Freud’s, would find its way in many critical interpretations of classical art-the Oedipal myth, for instance-as well as influence poets and writers since the Modern era. Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse), Henry James (Turn of the Screw), William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury), James Joyce (Ulysses, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man), among others, explored in their novels the psychological underpinnings of human desires. Imagist poet, H.D., whose poem “Leda” prefigured William Butler Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan”, reimagined the Greek myth through a psychological lens.

Yet a psychological interpretation of mythological archetypes or symbolic representations can lend a limited worldview in how mythology allowed Neo-lithic and pre-historic cultures to understand the universe around them, and, in effect, inhibit the way in which poets used the language in order to explain the ambiguous and uncertain nature of human emotions. In his 1949 book The Creative Experiment, C.W. Bowra notes the difficulty modern poets had in this exploration when he states:
[h]e is particularly at a disadvantage because the modern means which scientists have invented for psychology, the language which they use and their experimental approach to the subject, are unfitted for poetry. The poet does not analyse himself in this way, nor can he use an abstract language of this kind. His task is not to explain or to analyse, but to portray something just as he sees it, to catch its fleeting hues and its shifting shapes, to make us feel about what he feels himself, even if neither he nor we are able fully to understand. (7)

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This reading is similar to what Blake believed was the poet’s responsibility to explore the Infinite possibilities within the Imagination, to see the world in a grain of sand, so to speak, and to eschew rationality and logic as a singular worldview. Scientific explorations, with their emphasis on empiricism and skepticism, limit the possibilities mythology could have on art. Science seeks certainty in the universe, or at least attempt to explore some of the natural phenomenons that define the universe. Its pursuit is to find the truth through empirical facts, but facts are irrelevant to the poet because she embraces ambiguity. A thing in itself does not contain one immutable fact, but many possible avenues of exploration.

The language of mythology is a metaphorical language steeped in ambiguity, and while Jung’s explorations of the archetypal images within the unconscious have metaphorical implications as well, they are limited only in their significance to the subconscious and its potential to “oppose the ego” (Shelburne 61). This is not to suggest that Jung’s work does not serve as a means to explore those contradictions. The purpose of Jungian or Freudian explorations is to use collectively understood archetypes (which Jung believed “compensate[d] the conscious attitude by supplying contents from the unconscious” [59])as tools to examine individual psyches.

Psychology is a determinedly specific and literal exploration, whereas the cultural and poetic uses of mythological symbolism and archetypes are opportunistically open-ended. For instance, one of the more common and enduring symbols found in literature is that of the snake. Present in Babylonian, Fijian, Greek, Christian, and other cultural mythologies, the snake serves as a unique metaphor for their “primordial energy” in the universe (Hathaway 2). Their ability to regenerate their own skin, their mysterious nature and beauty were familiar to pre-historic cultures, lending a mythological interpretation of the often contradictory, chaotic and ambivalent nature of the environment itself. The snake can represent anything – sexuality, a force of evil, the source of creation – depending on the context of its application. This interpretation serves a breadth of possibility in art, for the poet is not limited to psychological readings, but can rely on mythological, cultural, historical, and political interpretations as well.

Non-western cultural values best exemplify the breadth of possibilities in mythology. Wole Soyinka points this out in his book Myth, Literature and the African World: “[t]o describe a collective inner world as fantasy is not intelligible, for the nature of an inner world in a cohesive society is the essentialisation of a rational worldview, one which is elicited from the reality of social and natural experience and from the integrated reality of racial myths into a living morality” (34). In other words, what is regarded as fantasy, a product of submerged, repressed desires that is unintegrated with the natural world, is in actuality collective conscious desires rendered purposefully in reality, particularly in how these archetypes respond to and interact within the environment in which they are given their mythological or metaphorical interpretations.

For Non-Western artists, this is not necessarily an opposition to the “ego” or a submergence into a fantasy world, but a validation of cultural values and world-view. A good example of this is how Toni Morrison uses the Ibo mythic legends of slaves flying back home to Africa in her novel Song of Solomon or Leslie Marmon Silko’s use of Pueblo Indian folk legends, tales, ceremonies, and language in her novel Ceremony or the use of magic realism by many Central and South American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez to express the surrealistic effects slavery, oppression and political tyranny have had on a whole people and also to express their survival, integration, and/or evolution in an otherwise hostile environment. Archetypes are not merely repressed but emerge collectively and familiarly in mythologic rituals and culturally-held beliefs.
This definition of mythology, while running parallel with the psychological interpretations of Jung’s and Freud’s, continues to influence literature.

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The emergence of Post-modernist literature, which, as critic Douwe Fokkema debates, “‘abandoned the [modernists] attempt towards a representation of the world that is justified by the convictions and sensibility of an individual” (qtd. Kershner 75), offered a literary worldview that broadened the definition of archetypal and symbolic representations in their work. As with the aforementioned Morrison and Silko, symbols and archetypes are chosen, either from classical or cultural influences, for their ability to convey greater signification of a communal experience.

In Morrison’s novel Sula, the symbolic ritual of fire is repeated twice, once when Eva immolates her son, Plum, a World War I veteran whose destruction from a heroin addiction leads Eva to her fatal choice; and again when Eva’s daughter Hannah burns to death while canning vegetables. Fire is a motif that is repeated often throughout various cultural mythologies, and has a powerful effect on the reader for its familiarity. Like the snake, fire has an antithetical nature-it is both a giver and destroyer of life; it can be controlled and yet is also dangerous and wild. This recognition lends a familiarity to Eva’s actions. When she tells Hannah that Plum “want[ed] to crawl back in my womb and well…I ain’t got the room no more…” (71), we see that Plum’s immolation premediates a far hopeless destruction that his desire to be “unborn” creates. Fire both destroys and ironically gives back to life, as witnessed in Eva’s paralleling fire with the “womb.”

Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49 is itself a metaphorical examination on the ambiguity found in mythology and its symbolic representations. The novel, which is like a Post-modern detective story, leads its heroine, Oedipa (a unique play on symbolic representation if there ever was one), on a wild goose chase to determine the origins of a symbol she discovers in a restroom. The symbol, which bears some resemblance to a muted horn, becomes anything and everything in the readers’ imagination. Symbols do not have to be wedded down to any one archetypal signification in order for it to still have a ritualistic representation within a culture. Its definition, Pynchon seems to suggest, can take on many forms depending on the social order in whose creation it revolves.

Mythology and symbolism are often at the center of the creation of social orders, cultures, or subcultures. As Shelburne notes, “…there are always new symbols and new myths as the archetypal images undergo a gradual transformation under the influence of changing culture..” (68). The shifting cultural backgrounds in the United States, due to its formation, Manifest Destiny, slavery and the emancipation of slaves, immigration, and technological advances have all in one way or another shaped the social and thus mythological cultural backdrop in America. One such example is the American West and the role it has played in defining the archetype of the rugged individualist in our culture. This archetype not only has its representations in art, but in history and politics as well.

One such prominent representation of this archetype is John Wayne. His image, both in Hollywood Westerns and in the way in which Wayne chose to present himself in life, is an enduring one, expressing American might, dominance, and patriarchy. The Marlboro Man in 1960s cigarette ads continues this archetype, influencing many consumers to replicate that image through the consumption of cigarettes. Likewise, President G.W. Bush’s image in a flight suit on an aircraft carrier beneath the words Mission Accomplished is a contemporary archetypal image of the rugged individualist, one that has left an imprint, both pro and con, in the imagination of a beleaguered nation. However one views the propriety of such images, they unify collective cultural beliefs of American exceptionalism.

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Archetypes also have their place within popular culture and endure precisely because they are deeply embedded in our collective consciousness. The dragon motif, present in so many classical works, such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene or the Gilgamesh mythology, are reworked cinematically in such films as Jaws or the Aliens sequels. Another motif, The Divine Child, can be found in everything from film – Superman, Star Man – to music – David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust creation. The Star Wars films or the Matrix trilogy have their origins in ancient mythical, religious and philosophical clashes between good and evil (ibid). Such motifs play on our collective fears and our desires to vanquish them.

Symbolic representations also play an enormous part in popular culture and their political, cultural, and social place within it. The smiley face, a preponderant image during the 1960s and 1970s, expressed the political restlessness during that era and the collective desire to connect emotionally in less antagonistic, humane forms. In this sense, the image is both ironic and sincere. The smiley has been given new symbolic significance through its presence in technology, particularly through its use to convey the emotional state of e-mail and posters on message boards.

The most common smilies-:), :(, ;)-create a new form of communication that is as literal as it symbolic. The Internet, with its reliance on text (in its early infancy) and later images and streaming video, redefine our definition of experience, removing it from the communal intimacy of unmediated expression and placing it within a spatial time frame that has no concrete location or definition – is it any wonder why it is called Cyber space?

Mythology, at once seen as representing the contents of our subconscious desires, would seem to have its ultimate home in Cyber space. In the future, will Cyber space form the collective consciousness that Jung and Freud discussed, a repository for our our subconscious desires, thus providing a space in which those desires, defined in mythological, symbolic and archetypal images, can manifest? Sci Fi novelists such as William Gibson have already explored such possibilities, but only history will say exactly what influence the Internet will have in creating new cultural myths and symbolic representations and how they will shape our literary art.

However one examines the role mythology plays in contemporary art and science, one cannot dispute its signficance in shaping and defining the universe. Until every last mystery has been solved, mythology will remain firmly entrenched in the canon of humanity.


  • Sources Bell, Michael. Literature, modernism, and myth. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 1997. Bowra, C.M. The Creative Experiment. Macmillan & Co. LTD: London. 1949 Hathaway, Nancy. The Friendly Guide to Mythology. Penguin Books: New York. 2002. Kershner, R.B. The Twentieth-Century Novel: An Introduction. Bedford Books: Boston. 1997. Morrison, Toni. Sula. Plume Books: New York. 1973. Song of Solomon. Plume Books: New York. 1977. Okpewho, Isidore. The Epic of Africa. The Columbia University Press: New York. 1979. Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. Perennial Classics: New York. 1965. Shelburne, Walter A. Mythos and Logos in the Thought of Carl Jung. State University of New York Press: Albany. 1988. Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. Penguin Books: New York. 1977. Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature, and the African World. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 1976. Toulman, Stephen. Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago. 1990.