Last Updated on Sunday, 27 October 2013 20:37
Written by Harry Polkinhorn
At the end of the twentieth century, why myths, and why Greek myths at that? (Boston: Shambhala, 1994. Edited by Deborah Wesley. xiv + 210 pp. 0-87773-989-7, $14 paper)
Reviewed by Harry Polkinhorn, English, San Diego State University
At the end of the twentieth century, why myths, and why Greek myths at that? According to Edward F. Edinger (d. July 17, 1998),* myths provide us with a means of achieving a relationship between ego consciousness and the transpersonal realm of the Jungian collective archetypes. If we are careful to bear in mind Eliade's insight that "Not a single Greek myth has come down to us in its cult context,"** Greek myths offer the Westerner access to stories that embody elements analogous to many of our most basic psychological predispositions. If we can "build a personal connection to the myth" (3), then we may come to see the sources of meaning they reflect. Edinger's program, like Jung's, is the improvement of our common lot. "To the extent that we can cultivate awareness of this transpersonal dimension," says Edinger, "life is enlarged and broadened" (3). Calling on sources as diverse as Milton, Bunyan, Clement of Alexandria, Euripides, Hesiod, Jung, Nietzsche, Sophocles, and Virgil, among others, Edinger pursues a systematic, insightful, and wise analysis of some of the main Greek myths and related subjects, always presented in the balanced, accessible, clear, yet probing style he made his own over the course of his scholarly career.
In an introductory chapter Edinger lays out an understanding of mythology in straightforward, comprehensible, yet penetrating terms, always approached from the point of view of Jung's analytical depth psychology. Myths are seen as a special kind of story, "the self-revelation of the archetypal psyche" (2). As such, and especially given the necessary condition of the "personal connection" mentioned above, the author establishes a theoretical framework for his reading of Greek mythology. Analytical psychology, founded as it was on a basis of "amplification" of the symbol through comparatively relating it to myths, fairy tales, religious traditions, art, and fantasy, provides him with such key concepts as individuation, the ego, the Self, the shadow, anima and animus, and the ego-Self axis. In so doing, and much to his credit, Edinger avoids attempting to elucidate one complicated, interlinking, comprehensive, open-ended, and long-lived set of imaginative constructs by rigidly applying what some have seen as an overly arcane psychological theory.
Edinger starts at the beginning with the myth of origins. In this discussion, just as in those that follow of individual gods, goddesses, Titans, heroes, and so on, Edinger gives the reader a quick summary of the central version(s) of the myth, which he then goes on to elucidate from the perspective of contemporary depth psychology. The stories, then, retain their primary attraction as fascinating narratives of how the world came into being, the hero's adventures, breaking away from the family influence, achieving a position in the world, confronting one's fears, finding the balance between self and community, religious transformation, and so on, while at the same time lending themselves to a mode of psychological interpretation that makes sense specifically to the contemporary reader in ways that would probably not have been the case in earlier times.
Each of the gods, goddesses, and heroes, as a relatively pure carrier of a given archetype or predisposition for human transformation, can be seen as concretizing a set of possibilities for relatedness (or its failure), action in the world, or moral growth. Edinger is especially good at suggesting the relevance of narrative sequence and conflict to psychological development. His work enlivens Greek mythology, which has been abandoned in the Western world, and therefore, according to Jung, it has retreated to the unconscious where it appears in dreams, symptoms, and fantasies. Edinger's discussion enriches the original stories through opening up a deeper set of connections to the structures and processes of the psyche. After being exposed to the predominantly intellectualized and somewhat abstract, dry approaches to mythology found in thinkers even as close to Jung as Eliade, Campbell, Kerényi, and (with qualifications) Rank, readers will find Edinger's voice to be warm and engaging. This book is highly recommended for those with an interest in approaching Greek myths from a new perspective, one that promises to keep them alive during a period of increasing cynicism, materialism, and spiritual aridity.
*The Friends of Jung Newsletter, 22:1 (Spring 1999), 3.
**Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality. New York: Harper & Row, 1963, p. 158.