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Cover to SAGA, Best New Writings on Mythology, Volume 1

SAGA: Best New Writings on Mythology

Edited by Jonathan Young

The wisdom of ancient storytellers has been handed down to us by a long succession of inspired men and women in the form of great mythic narratives full of guidance and encouragement. Some of today's finest writers and scholars have turned their attention to unraveling the secrets of these timeless tales to explain their value in contemporary life. SAGA is an annual volume collecting the most innovative articles published each year in the area of myth and ritual studies by the most outstanding thinkers in the field. Contributors to this first volume include Thomas Moore, Clarissa Pinkola Estès, Toni Morrison, Robert Bly, James Hillman, Rita Dove, Christine Dowining, David Miller, Jean Shinoda Bolen, Marion Woodman, and Murray Stein among others.

In recent years, interest in mythology has grown enormously among a wide range of scholars and the informed public. SAGA will provide an annual sourcebook of cutting-edge writing on myth and ritual representing the most advanced thinking in this rapidly-changing field.

ABOUT THE EDITOR: Jonathan Young, PhD, is a psychologist who assisted mythologist Joseph Campbell and supervised research on Campbells's scholarly papers. Dr. Young has lectured at Oxford and other leading universities as well as storytelling festivals and conferences. As Founding Curator of the Joseph Campbell Archives and Library, he organized the Mythological Studies doctoral program at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara--where he was also professor of psychology. Dr. Young also established the archives of James Hillman, author of The Soul's Code, and Marija Gimbutas, author of The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe. When not traveling to give seminars on the Symbolism of Stories, he lives with his cat in an old house filled with books and mythic artifacts in Santa Barbara, California.

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Review from Parabola

IN WHAT IS slated to become an annual enterprise, Jonathan Young, psychologist, lecturer, and curator of the Joseph Campbell Archives, has assembled recent writings by luminaries from various fields and named it SAGA: Best New Writings on Mythology. It is arguably not a book at all, but rather a journal, a magazine, in the long tradition of the large semi-annual poetry journal, Anteus: the exquisitely produced Tibetan Buddhist journal, Cho Yang: or the Graphis annual for graphic artists. It is the word "new" that shifts its identity. What Young presents is his snap-shot of the state of mythology in American culture now: a view of stopped time. Among artists and scholars of diverse disciplines, interest in mythology has grown exponentially in recent years. In his introduction, Young calls this a "mythic revival." Because it is a young and rapidly changing field, in which myth and mythology are rediscovered, probed, often dis- and re-assembled, and often put to some use, it is likely that next year's SAGA will barely resemble this one. That alone is, perhaps, one compelling reason to afford this volume attention.

SAGA consists of twenty pieces by twenty authors: essays culled from other journals and magazines, interviews, old myths retold, as well as several new pieces written expressly for this collection. The community Jonathan Young has gathered is diverse and far-ranging. Here in one volume, nearly side by side, the reader will find interviews with both Allen Ginsberg (on his travels and epiphanies in India) and Ursula Le Guin, who speaks at length on the power of language to distance or include, the inherent power of a name to convey a thing's sacredness. Elsewhere, an interview with Clarissa Pinkola Estès reveals her life as a Latina writer, analyst, and activist. In a piece entitled "On Pilgrimage," interviewer Mary Nolan talks at length with analyst and professor of psychiatry Jean Shinoda Bolen on the stages and tasks of adulthood. David Miller's piece "The Fire is in the Mind," an essay defending and "in praise of Joseph Campbell," is gracious well reasoned, and refreshing to read. It is, however, the current psychological use of myth and mythology that forms both the frame and the heart of SAGA. Young clearly states this in his introduction. While his entre into the book speaks enthusiastically of the manifold transformational power of stories, of myths, legends, and tales, a "primary focus is the psychological symbolism seen in images, stories, and rituals." Thus, in Christine Downing's revisitation of the Demeter and Persephone myth, in Allan Chinen's "Adult Liberation and the Mature Trickster," and in Murray Stein's curious and twisty "Hermes and the Creation of Space," the reader learns how myth has been shaped into service in the area of mental health, in psychological healing and growth.

It is the use of mythology in this area that seems to generate the most intense interest and activity. In our culture, the serious consideration of ancient myths is a new thing. The extraordinary and sustained flare of interest in the work and public presentations of Joseph Campbell is only one example of our attraction and long-suppressed need for this. The depth and breadth of the power of myth is as clear as it is intoxicating.

It is a laudable thing to attempt to shape and use such power in a field dedicated to healing. However, we must be ever aware of both the advantages and profound limitations of the concept of "utility." It is a deeply-rooted American proclivity to value something in proportion to its direct utility. "To be of use" is a thoroughly good thing in this culture. It is an aspect of the work ethic, of Calvinism, of "Yankee ingenuity." (It is, perhaps, one reason we as a people have had such difficulty with the idea of value in art.) Psychology has succeeded in putting myth to work--has made it "of use." However, this could be likened to someone discovering a strange and potent-looking implement, a Tantric Buddhist phurba, for example, and using it as a can opener. It could serve that function well enough, and one must eat, after all: but is that its highest and best use? Is "use" even the proper word?

Fortunately, this prickly issue of utility is addressed in SAGA as well. John Matthews, an Englishman and a noted authority on the Arthurian and Grail legends, side-steps the entire issue of the individual and personal use of the symbol of the Grail in mental health. The Grail is not an object to be gained but rather a transformational process. Its mystery, its secret "is indissolubly linked with the idea of service." It is possible, in this service, linked to love and hope, that we will "transform the land on which we live and walk . . . . Each has a chance to redeem the time in which we live . . . the true object of the quest lies in making ourselves vessels for the light that will bring about these things." Yes, here again is the idea of "usefulness," but it rings of living spirituality and moves far beyond psychology and its necessary--though at times too self-reflective — personal utility.

This ambiguous place of myth in today's psychology is mentioned as well in Robert Bly's engaging discussion of "The Bear King," a Northern European version of "Amor and Psyche." It is the "lifting of the lamp" that is most necessary, he says: the act that causes severe distress. The soul's intention to increase its knowledge by lighting some heretofore "darkened" aspect of a relationship can damage or break the connection. It is a painful process. But, he says, "the candle must be lighted. . . . What the soul needs on this planet is suffering, not the success or harmonious relationships New Age seminar leaders try to bludgeon us into . . . [it] needs descent." A strange and oddly refreshing statement from a man some consider to be wholly in the center of "New Age" ideology, Finally, it is Thomas Moore, in a short and shapely piece entitled "Developing a Mythic Sensibility," who addresses this issue most directly:

Myth cannot survive within the confines of modern psychology, however imagistic and spiritual. Myths urge us toward restoration of art and religion, toward the end of psychology that has been a temporary stand-in for these while we experimented with secularism. . . . When we translate myth into personal, human qualities we are making one of the most grievous reductions possible. The mystery of incarnation does not mean reducing the nature of divinity to human definitions. . . . We need art that speaks to and from the depths where myth spawns, as well as art that knows its purpose to be in the service of religious sensibility. We need less an appreciation for mythology and more a daring spirit willing to live in the mythic, animated (imagination-filled) world where everything is sacred . . . .

Young's SAGA is indeed a snapshot of myth and mythology in our culture, here, today. It is, then, necessarily somewhat unwieldy, heterogeneous, even self-contradictory at times. But that is its nature rather than its failing. Next year's "photograph" will be interesting to see. ~ Sharon M. Van Sluijs, Parabola Magazine