Can we learn from indigenous mythic traditions to live beyond the literal? With all our unconscious cultural baggage there is always the danger of fantasy projection – some myths can kill.
For the most part, the majority of us live in a literal ego world – the world of one – where we dwell on the individual (I) and individual (my) stuff. Psychology introduces us to the world of two – relationships between binary oppositions – life and death, male and female, good and evil, ego and self, etc. Engaging in the mythic world releases the third – the charm, that which keeps the world alive through imagination. Psychology can mediate between the mythic and the literal – deepening the literal but reducing the mythic through analytical explanation – but then we come to Jung who is, one might say, soaked in myth…*
Reading his works can be an infuriatingly obscure process to a mind accustomed to lucid definitive concepts because Jung seems reluctant to provide closure of meaning (although many Jungians have tried to attach fixed meanings to his concepts from which are derived those literalistic tests and labels which are so nice and easy for the ego to grasp!). Perhaps the psychology he was working towards engaged at a deeper mythic level where imagination displaces meaning – and indeed, growing out of Jung’s work we have the new field of archetypal psychology which sees myth as the language of the psyche.
Some indigenous traditions around the world are still in touch with a living mythology. So they provide much for us to learn, but more often than not, in the literal fixation of our culture, we project that which we have repressed within the culture outward upon others – and through such mythic projection we can literally kill.
In the 1980s I spent a couple of years living in the Kalahari with people who call themselves Ju/’hoansi (truthful or upright people) – but who are known to outsiders as Bushmen. This was a wonderful fulfilment of a boyhood dream. I had been fascinated by the Bushman culture through extensive reading of the late Jungian writer Sir Laurens Van der Post who had conjured up images of a magical Bushman world in non-fiction works such as The Lost World of the Kalahari and Heart of the Hunter. Through getting to know and love Ju/’hoansi as persons rather than as archetypes, I came to understand the dangers of mythic projection and how the works of Van der Post, and films such as The Gods Must be Crazy.
And yet I also began to learn something of the mythic or spiritual ways of the Ju/wasi. My adopted ‘kin’ father, /Gunda was an “owner of medicine” who would enter into what Ju’hoansi called the “half-death” to engage in battle with spirits for purposes of healing. In November last year, I returned to the Kalahari to meet up with old friends and make a film about what had happened to them since I had lived with them 20 years ago. I asked /Gunda about the role of dreams and about N/um – the healing energy which is at the focus of the medicine dance – and about his role as a N/um Kxao – an owner of N/um.
Living Mythically or Death by Myth?
In my talk I will show some extracts of films involving trance dance healing of the Ju/’hoansi and if there is time, some trance dance activities from other cultures to explore the importance of the mythic world in indigenous cultures and see how we might engage more mythically in our own lives. I will also be discussing the archaic hunter archetype and suggesting how its long suppression has led to external projection with dire consequences for the receivers of our romantic fantasies about a lost paradise where archaic hunters seem to float across a Pleistocene dreamscape of yellow grass and acacia trees. Yet awakening from such fantasies can lead us to turn inward and re-imagine our own bottomless well of the past which reflects archetypal beginnings – and that part of us which also resides in extremis – on the creative margins of our inner world.
With regard to a more local focus, I will also be drawing on some of my current field work which involves filming oral histories with Elders in an indigenous community in Arnhem Land where I have been learning about myths and rituals of the Guinwinggu people.
The image of being “soaked in myth” came to me in a vivid dream I had just after I had read the email from Anne asking me to write something about my talk. I was running through an ancient forest in the pouring rain in a smock type garment which was somehow keeping me remarkably dry and in which I was not at all uncomfortable. There was a group of people following in a car, and we took a sharp left turn. I came to a deserted temple inside which was a large swimming pool – yet the waters were not clear and I had a hunch that there were crocs hiding in the depths. I also knew that the waters were sacred to the indigenous people of the area. I was reluctant to plunge in, but waded in a short way – feeling the waters of life on my limbs.
Adrian Strong is currently undertaking doctoral research at Griffith University in the field of ethnographic film, with particular reference to the representation of indigenous people. Adrian grew up in the UK, where he studied Science and Philosophy before moving to Africa in 1984. There he had many work incarnations ranging from farming to development work to business. It was in the late 1980s that Adrian lived and worked in the Kalahari with the Ju/’hoansi and also developed an interest in film-making. In 1997 Adrian moved from Namibia to California for additional post-graduate studies, gaining a Masters in Mythological Studies and Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. He has been living in Australia since 2000, where he has also worn many hats, but is at his happiest teaching, researching and film-making.