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SAGA: Best New Writings on Mythology

An Introduction by Jonathan Young

Saga is an anthology of new writings on mythology which includes articles by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Thomas Moore, Marion Woodman, Robert Bly, Jean Shinoda Bolen, James Hillman, Ursula Le Guin, John Matthews, Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, and others. Saga is edited by Jonathan Young, Founding Curator of the Joseph Campbell Archives at Pacifica Graduate University

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Slowly, we take our places around the campfire. At first, there is only silence and anticipation. Then, the village elders begin the ritual telling of the tales. We have heard some of the stories before. Others are new to us but are as old as the tallest trees. These are the accounts of people, like us, making their long journeys through this life. We listen closely. There is much to learn.

Whether we hear mythic stories in ceremonial situations or read them in paperbacks during vacations, the lure is eternal. The tales nourish something in us. We reconnect with universal patterns that move the human heart and soul. In some new way, we see the rich beauty of ordinary life. When we enter the mythic imagination, we are participants. As we read the adventure, we go as seekers in quest of the grail and face each test we come across. Along the way we might find ourselves gaining greater understanding of the challenges we face in the search for meaning.

The gifts of stories are many. They can wrap themselves around our imaginations and enchant us with magical events. Sometimes, they show us the way through situations we have not been in before. It is also possible to find a tale with parallels to one's own journey and then locate the present moment in the unfolding account. The remainder of the story offers possible glimpses into the future. The actions of the characters may suggest the outcomes our choices will create. In an example from Greek myth, Demeter's responses to the way her beloved daughter Persephone leaves home may provide insight into one's own difficult moments in parenting.

Stories let us see through the eyes of others and learn that the rich variety of events goes far beyond what any one person can experience. When Rapunzel lets her hair down and the prince climbs to be with her in the tower, we enter a situation that is at once familiar and more unusual than what we have seen ourselves. Perhaps our task has been to escape the enchantments of our favorite perspectives that would keep us emotionally locked away as if in a tower, removed from others. Possibly, like the prince, we have had to scale obstacles to reach an experience of beauty.

Stories can also keep us company through long nights and sometimes even give courage to carry on in the face of difficulties, both obvious and unseen. In mythology, folklore, and legend, an amazing array of precious wisdom is available to us from ancestral voices. Just as the great sorcerer Merlin counseled the knights and ladies of the court, we can receive the assistance of the sages as handed down in great teaching stories.

In times of individual and societal troubles, when there is less certainty about familiar guideposts, we may do well to reach back for the timeless lessons of the ancient stories. Every large event that comes along these days, personal or shared, takes us into unfamiliar territory. Mythology helps us face the best moments and the worst.

One gift of the mythic vision is that it provides us with maps. We do not have to start from scratch. Those who traveled this way before have carefully left bits of guidance for us. The sagas and epic poems of the Nordic and other traditions are not just richly crafted tales. They carry the insights needed to live a worthy life. For example, when an initiatory story describes the deep bond that forms with an animal guide, it is telling how important it is to be one with nature.

By listening closely to the sacred stories of all times, we can become more aware of the symbolism that is present in familiar rituals. The rice and almonds at weddings symbolize fertility. The lights at winter holidays represent the divine spark of the life force. The pageantry of a graduation marks an initiate's return from a quest for knowledge. Once we begin to see events through the mythic imagination, rituals, sacred images, and epic tales seem to fill our lives. The sense of fulfillment is immediate. The sacred dimension is not far away at all. We discover that rich meanings have always already been operating right here in daily events.

SAGA - Best New Writing in Mythology strives to gather the most stimulating recent thinking in the fields of mythology, folklore and legend. A primary focus is the psychological symbolism seen in images, stories, and rituals. In the last decade, there has been a tremendous increase of interest in mythology and symbolism. The rediscovery of timeless wisdom in stories has led to a great wave of new insights. SAGA honors some of the leading writers in the current mythic revival.

These articles remind us of how mythology can put us in touch with unseen beauty. We see legendary characters face issues much like those in our own lives. Examples from around the world illustrate the universal qualities of the great narratives. The ideas are powerful, but the form is accessible. Stories can speak to us in several ways at once. The practical aspects of our personalities appreciate the assistance they provide in prudent decision-making. The playful child-like energies find the stories to be great fun. The quiet, spiritual side is grateful to have some time invested in reflection.

Mythology allows us to reconnect with a dimension beyond ordinary time. In this moment in history, consumer values dominate the media. Ancient stories give us a chance to visit with eternal characters involved in primal adventures. This can provide perspectives that go beyond trendy concerns with possessions or appearance. Also, issues that are too large to grasp in a single lifetime become accessible. Great shifts of history or dramatic changes in the natural environment often occur so gradually that they are hard to recognize or understand. The mythic imagination presents large issues in human form, with recognizable personalities acting out vital dramas. The great dynamics may be played out by goddesses of ancient Greece, or by lost orphans in a fairy tale. In either case, the characters and situations lay bare the quandaries of existence, and, by seeing the choices they make, we can gain some guidance on how to deal with large questions.

The stories reveal the shape of cosmic relationships. The mythic characters need each other, despite all their impressive powers. This human quality reveals the ultimate interdependence of all creation. Mythology reminds us that we must honor this great mutuality if we are to maintain balance on the planet. We also learn that the needs of the gods and goddesses extend to mortals. These are our epic tales. We are not bystanders. We are the seekers and elders. Our particular lives manifest the great patterns of history. Once we see that mythology has to do with how to live, we see that we each participate in the unfolding of creation. We each have many crucial roles to play in the living of the mutual sagas. Seeing this can enlarge one's sense of place and purpose. The recurring themes in the world's key teaching stories reveal that living on a shared globe in human form is a kindred experience for all peoples.

Sacred stories continually show us how to align our energies and attention with the forces of the natural world. Such a connection often requires quieting ourselves in some formal way in order to be more receptive. In myth, we can see that it is from a silent attunement that we can get the crucial energy for the tasks that life sets before us. In the lore, shamanic healers use lengthy meditations and extensive rituals to be open to the magic that comes directly from the vitality of the living environment. As we ponder these wonders, we become aware that the world is animated by invisible threads that are beyond our conscious knowing.

he tales provide an unforgettable sense of place for each adventure. They take us beyond our particular locales and we realize our concerns really involve the larger world community. The creation myths told by indigenous people of the Amazon take us into the animated moist density of that tropical jungle. The Nordic sagas take us into glacial wastelands. The visits to exotic settings can also enrich our sense of the specific mythologies of our home communities.

It is notable that the animals and trees are active members of the ensemble of players. These are constant reminders that we, too, are animal beings and essential components of nature, not mere observers. The birds that befriend Cinderella let us know that the resources to resolve her situation come from the natural world. This sense of union with nature connects us with a deep ecological awareness that permeates the mythic world view.

Many of the articles in SAGA point out how symbolic patterns can reveal hidden wisdom about the journey of the soul. Through metaphoric reading, we become open to the significance all around us. We speak in metaphors when we say "that dancer can fly," or "that politician is a wind-bag," or "the ocean is moody." In strict terms, these statements are not true. On a deeper level, such figures of speech reveal a greater truth than mere factual statements can deliver. Exploring how each image or action in a story can represent truths beyond the obvious yields the treasures. It becomes clear that the apparent world has always had abundant meanings that we had overlooked in lives busy with practical concerns.

In the teaching stories, every feature is necessary to the whole. Also, all of the often bountiful characters are important. A minor figure can hold the secret to the whole tale. The brief appearance of what may seem to be an inconsequential maidservant may end up being the turning event of the story. This helps us to enlarge our perceptions to be aware of the many possibilities in difficult situations. We begin to see the abundance of options in our surroundings. The psychological counterpart is valuing the many aspects of ourselves and others. Symbolic images in stories represent and can evoke previously unclaimed facets of our inner selves. One's least honored attribute may come to the rescue on some fateful day when circumstances require that very quality.

The mythic stories are powerful psychologically partly because they have mysterious qualities. Unexpected developments in the tales remind us that experience is not orderly. The plots propel us past our expectations into something larger, such as when Raven does trickster magic in Native American stories. As we read, we allow supernatural powers to seize our imaginations. Gradually, we can learn to allow the divinities to speak to us, and invite personal revelations, such as may come from dreams and fantasy, to become involved in our decision-making processes.

The tales have their own lives, each with unique eccentric qualities. Part of the richness is that the same story will have different lessons for each person who listens. Stories can be like the Holy Grail, which, when it passed from person to person, let them drink what they alone desired. Also, when we come back to the same story after a time, it will tell us new things. This unpredictable element keeps the encounter lively. It may also show us something about the way our lives are caught up in currents that are larger than ourselves. Even such obvious powers as the flow of history, family dynamics, and natural disasters take us to places we do not choose. The more we can know about the dynamics of these and other forces, the better chance we have of taking the best actions.

Finding the story that reflects most closely on one's individual life is a great accomplishment. Carl Jung made it his task of tasks to find the myth that was living his life. Once the general pattern of the tale becomes evident, the challenge is to participate in the rewriting of one's own story. We may not be able to create the rivers that carry us along, but we can certainly navigate the little boats of our lives. There are many variations on each theme to choose from. We each have the opportunity to shape a novel of great complexity that stays fascinating to the last scene.

In mythic stories, we see that the characters do not resolve contradictions so much as they learn to tolerate them with grace and humor. It becomes clear that there are multiple answers within each story. One would have a hard time distilling a list of right answers from these tales. In the Grimm fairy tale, the princess must keep the promise she made to the frog. Later, it is the act of refusing to keep her word that is crucial to the lesson. Differing situations at various points call for different responses. Rather than giving us clear solutions, pondering stories helps us find our own answers. Learning from stories is an interactive process.

Between the covers of this book, you will find many key ideas in the appreciation of myth and ritual. The articles repeatedly underscore the central importance of initiation. The pilgrim in the story may have to survive desert ordeals and perform feats of physical courage. In our lives, the tests may be mustering enough self-discipline to reach a worthy goal, or completing a backpacking vacation without moaning and groaning excessively. The principles are the same. One enters the realm of initiation to make allies, develop strengths, learn lessons, and return a wiser person.

The writers who have contributed to SAGA are masters of the tales who artfully evoke the vitality of the immortal characters. The reader feels the presence of the deities. In these presentations we can see the enchantment of the age-old stories. Such wisdom can open perceptions so that we begin to sense a vast web of interconnected being. In this collection, we have insights on how to live with each other and how to live wisely on this earth. The soul of the planet speaks to us through the mythic imagination.

To conclude on a personal note, it has been a rich delight to arrange this collection. The discussions with many of the authors have provided opportunities to reconnect with friends and colleagues. Many of the contributors I met while organizing the Joseph Campbell Archives. Some of these marvelous people, such as Christine Downing, James Hillman, and Marion Woodman have also given lectures in my courses at the Pacifica Graduate Institute. Others, such as Robert Bly, Jean Shinoda Bolen, Allen Ginsberg, Ursula LeGuin, Thomas Moore, and Murray Stein have presented seminars for Pacifica. David Miller gave many hours of his exceptional expertise when I was developing a graduate program in mythological studies. Patricia Reis is a former graduate student in Pacifica's program in depth psychology who has gone on to write books of great insight into mythology. This is an exceptional community of thinkers. These friends and colleagues have given me many gifts of grace and kindness in recent years. Once again, they have been most generous, this time in allowing me to present their work in SAGA.

This task has reminded me of the importance of community. There is a lively network of lovers of mythology. Lately, when I travel to speak on rediscovering stories, the experience is one of visiting friends and kindred spirits all over. We all rely on so many others. My work draws on the years of research done by the scholars included in this volume. Getting to spend time pondering the insights of their explorations in the mythic imagination is endlessly fascinating and enriching. I heartily recommend following up the discoveries you make in these pages by seeking out books by these writers. You might also take a look at the unique publications from which I chose these articles for further reading along these lines.

The people featured in this book are vital source of inspiration in these times. They are the leading teachers of mythology and symbolism. They devote their energies helping others on the quest. These scholars are the keepers of the lore. It is an honor to have gathered some of their wise writing.

Saga is published by White Cloud Press P. O. Box 3499 Ashland, OR 800 380-8286

You can order SAGA directly from the Center for Story and Symbol: Bookstore