Myths: Wells of Wisdom

By Elsa-Brita Titchenell

The old one adjusted the kaross that covered his shoulders and spoke: "Indaba, my children," he began, "listen well, . . ." while the Zulu audience waited breathless to hear the wisdom of the ages, tales of the world's beginning, of their own divine ancestry, and of the meaning of life. In distant Iceland, the skald intoned the ancient sagas, spoke of the prowess of warriors of old and of the ventures of the gods who rule the many regions of the universe. In China and Peru, in hot Sudan and icy Lapland, tales of the gods and heroes of mankind held their listeners entranced: tales that, on the surface, were merely fanciful yet spoke directly to the soul of their hearers, evoking in them a recognition of inner meaning, and awakening the slumbering echoes of understanding.

Myths are natural expressions of reality. They are not contrived or artificial, but reflections of eternal truth that transcends appearances. For illustration they draw on matters of common knowledge, on events which are familiar to their audience and their time. For this reason their message is always accessible to those who are alert and receptive. When you think about it, every material object — even the universe itself — represents a nonmaterial idea. It is a symbol of a truth. And the idea in turn represents an ideal, which again is but a veil or shadow of a consciousness. This is like saying that a visible organism — a human being, for instance — represents an invisible soul which expresses a still more ethereal spirit, which in turn is a spark of the eternal fire of life and consciousness. For this reason the properties of the natural world can be used to illustrate the properties of other worlds built of substances other than those we are familiar with. Because the world exists, there exists a primal wisdom which can in part explain it. It is the natural possession of the human soul and the inspiration of the human mind. And so we find in every continent on earth carvings, monuments, engravings, symbolic pictograms, statuary — every kind of quasi-permanent record that can convey ideas and supply information on the most vital concerns of human life. What is most striking about them — and even more about oral traditions from very remote times — is that the ideas they contain are remarkably similar everywhere. However widely separated in time and place, however much they differ in language and cultural form, they all feature certain key thoughts which can be discerned within the symbology they use. These key ideas deal with the origin of life, the purpose of living, and the goal of evolution, particularly human evolution.

Mythology includes everything, at least in principle. In it we find spiritual truth, logical philosophy, even scientific facts. Many of its stories allude to things that have only lately been discovered in nuclear physics and chemistry at one end of the spectrum; and at the other, myths refer to divine powers that ensoul the stars in space. The greatest obstacle to understanding myths is caused by their gods being anthropomorphized. Let's forget the conventional picture we have been given of some kind of overblown humans with all the weaknesses of men and women and very few of their virtues, and instead see the various characters in myths as natural forces, impersonal intelligences in certain contexts, mindless energies in others, but each one a natural power performing its proper task in the kosmic pattern. If we can decipher the symbolic code of myths and look honestly at the factual content, we may find that science is just now beginning to catch up with what may be the most complete natural science in the world: it is surely the oldest natural science in the world — one which has been available all along in the many forms of mythology, but which has been consistently ignored.

Strange as it may seem, what prevents myths from being taken seriously today is the very fact that they point to truths only recently learned by our most skilled researchers: we have been psychologized into considering modern man as the top of the line of evolution, and so we don't believe that anything worth while could possibly have been known before our kind of technology came into the picture. Mythic science is therefore dismissed out of hand: its allusions to our own recent discoveries must be pure coincidence because primitive races couldn't have known very much without having the kinds of instrumentation we use. For example, if the great maelstrom, the whirlpools, and the cosmic mills that are common to the very oldest traditions, strongly suggest astronomy's still problematic black holes, who is going to believe prehistoric mythmakers knew about those?

It is certainly unlikely that the bards and skalds had telescopes comparable to the computer-driven cameras in use today, or electron microscopes with magnetic fields for "lenses"; on the other hand, we in the space age rely so heavily on technology we forget that knowing is a faculty of mind, something that pertains to the areas of psychology and perhaps pneumatology: spiritual science. If that is so, it is not necessarily dependent on material techniques. There may be more direct ways of approaching truth that have not occurred to us. Who can determine what other means of knowing may have been used by mythographers in the very early stages of the earth's lifetime? or what understanding and immediate insights we could have recourse to even now if we let ourselves trust our intuition? While we spend time and squander resources battering in the physical portals of the temple of learning, the keys may lie unsuspected in the wells of wisdom which surround us on all sides.

There is surely good reason why H. P. Blavatsky used so many mythological sources that had relevance to the subjects she treated in her writings. Her Secret Doctrine bristles with allusions to mythic tales which illustrate the teachings she presented. So much so that her ability to draw on such a prodigious variety of material astounds the most learned scholars, especially in view of the exceedingly scant research facilities at her disposal when she was doing her writing.

It would be hard to imagine a more effective way of guiding human growth and maturation than by the ageless anonymous sagas that go straight to the perceiving consciousness in us. We need no dictionary, no translation, to intuit the "voice of silence," "darkness on the face of the deep," "spirit moving over the waters (of space)." What magnificent music there is in the opening slokas of the Stanzas of Dzyan which introduce The Secret Doctrine:

The eternal parent wrapped in her ever invisible robes had slumbered once again for seven eternities. Time was not, for it lay asleep in the infinite bosom of duration.

Such matchless poetry is instinctively received by that in us which recognizes that we too are rooted in THAT — the infinite and eternal.

We find ample references to theosophy in myths. Though often garbled by faulty remembrance and nearly always disguised in symbolic language, they are quite recognizable if we have an idea of what to look for. The three fundamental propositions of the secret doctrine are treated in every mythology, as when the Norse Odin (consciousness) consults the records of the past and learns of nine Trees of Life which have preceded our present world. He remembers "hanging in the windtorn tree nine whole nights" — a sacrifice to his own higher self — and "raising the runes" of wisdom with song.

Theosophy postulates Space to be the one enduring infinite principle; the myths name that one abiding principle in various ways. The Greeks called it Poseidonis; the Norse called it Aegir. Other systems used other names. It is the ever present Reality wherein universes come and go, propelled by Necessity or Urd (karma by whatever name).

The creative gods are quite distinct from that ineffable principle. They are deities of many grades who embody in living worlds using the titans or giants (inert matter), also of many grades. Higher gods aid lesser gods and these aid humans in their evolutionary growth. Some gods are said to be descended from titans: meaning that formerly material beings have become inspirited and raised one or more rungs on the endless ladder of lives. Our physical matter, as we know, is a narrow slice of what appears to be an infinite continuum of spirit-matter gradations: spirit being the conscious side of matter, matter being the inertial form clothing spirit.

Theosophy enumerates kingdoms of lives both above and below the human stage of development. Those ahead of us in evolution are named dhyani-chohans of several degrees; those less evolved than we are, are called elemental entities. In myths the former are gods, greater and lesser (biblically angels, archangels, thrones, powers, etc.), while the elementals are named dwarfs, trolls, pixies, fairies of all kinds. These are the various nature forces — life forms ranging from beneath the mineral kingdom up to the animal nature in the human constitution. The lowest elementals we know little about, and the kingdoms above the human we know even less about. We also know very little about the interior of the earth, traditionally supposed to be the realm of gnomes and trolls, or about the ranges of the magnetosphere whose swirling currents flow far beyond the Van Allen belts. Perhaps the myths have something to teach us about them too.

We may imagine the many changes and mutations which have come about since the planet's earliest dawn, when huge misty bubbles floated through and in the earthly nebula; many adjustments were to follow before increasingly solid animate forms moved over a gradually condensing globe until, still in the far past, the planet's physical middle age was reached. By then the rocky global crust supported vegetation and bodies of men and beasts even more grossly material than they are at present.

But before that lowest, most material point was reached, an important event took place which is of intimate concern to us. That was the awakening of mind in the protohuman race — the third humanity of our planet's current life cycle (to use the theosophic reckoning). Like all things living, the earliest races of men had instinct, but there came a time when further evolution must be deliberate, directed by individual intelligence, which would then supersede the automatic guidance of nature. In its own way every mythology describes the compassionate act of the gods who kindled our ability to think, to choose, and to pursue our human destiny with full awareness. The first human thinkers had not only to learn who they were and what their function was to be in the world they helped compose, they were taught the sciences of physical survival as self-conscious, thinking organisms, possessed of creativity and artistry. They were even imbued with something of the gods' own wisdom and direct cognition of divine law. Indeed, what the gods taught the first human beings still remains with us as innate recognition of truth.

This access of intelligence in primordial humanity was brought about by the gods merging their superior, more experienced consciousness with the potential mind of the rudimentary humans. The effect it was to have on the awakening of volition and understanding in the young human race is told in every mythic history, though the manner of it varies. The Greek Prometheus has many parallels: for instance, the American Indian Coyote also brought the divine fire to man; the biblical myth is well known: that of the humans taking fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and their consequent ejection from the paradise of ignorance and innocence. One of the clearest accounts is perhaps the Norse tale of the coming of Rig: Rig means a "descent" or "involvement." He is a divine energy which comes to earth three times to mingle with early humanity. He visits first the great-grandparents of the human race, second, the grandparents and, the third time, the parents. With each couple he leaves a semidivine offspring. These three descents of divine mind give rise to three races of human beings, each more capable than its predecessor.

With independence the human race acquired responsibility for its actions, mental as well as physical, while there remained implicit in the soul a sense of the fitness of things, an inborn wisdom which can never be forfeited so long as we retain contact with the source of our existence. Most times we are unaware of it, but when we need that inner guidance it is there and can be depended on.

An essential part of this idea is contained in the myths which describe the dual uses of mind and memory. In the Norse these are Odin's ravens which daily fly over the "battlefield" or "field of consecration" in order to bring tidings to the god-consciousness. In the Greek tales it is Memory, Mnemosyne, who is the mother of the Muses: of all the arts and branches of learning. This is something to think about: it is patently impossible for any growth of consciousness to take place unless it can build on previously acquired faculties, on arts and skills accumulated by experience — our own personal Mnemosyne. Memory unites with mind to form the basis for all further development, growth in understanding, and potential enlightenment.

It is important to remember that it is increasing understanding that defines human evolution. Animals and plants may alter their physical shapes and faculties to conform to their needs in their environment, but in human beings evolution is a matter of mental enlightenment and spiritual growth. No physical refinement, no change of social values can take precedence over that, though these things follow when human beings, grown wise in understanding, enlarge their sympathies to include more of the world beyond the self. That growth of the soul day by day, life by life, to embrace a larger, more brotherly humaneness is what it takes for the human life-wave to crest in a fitting manner.

Where theosophy speaks of the training of human beings who ally themselves with the gods and seek to aid the progress of the race, myths tell about heroes who overcome the dragon, or minotaur, or other monster in their pursuit of the grail, golden fleece, or sleeping beauty. These are tales that have a bearing on our present predicament, showing how the main character is enchanted into forgetting his quest and becomes sidetracked by illusions, until he throws off the enchantment of the material world and faces a series of trials which bring him ultimate success — or failure. We find these directives for the progress of the soul in all parts of the world, whether the hero is named Pwyll or Gilgamesh, Tristan, Sigurd, Shen I, Hunahpu, Herakles, or Beowulf.

These and others return time and again as inspired teachers to reinforce the primeval inspiration left with us by the great ones who first roused mind in humanity. Yet how little was this aim understood in H. P. Blavatsky's day! We have the advantage of her contemporaries, whose vision was inhibited by nineteenth-century attitudes, with all the prejudices and dogmatism of that time. She knew that you cannot legislate brotherhood or organize compassion: that altruism is an attribute of the maturing soul and that it follows naturally on broadening understanding. To this end she resuscitated the eternal myths once again and gave some keys for us to understand them, so that generations to come might find the pathway leading toward truth and be impelled to use their lives more propitiously than those of the present or the recent past.

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, June/July 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Theosophical University Press. Paper read at the Mythology Conference: Inter-Theosophical Students' Networking Symposium held on 14-15 February 1987 at Santa Monica, California.)


Sunrise Back Issues Menu