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Mythic Language
By Lynne Milum
Copyright © 2006. All rights reserved.

Some time ago, a Bahai friend of mine was explaining why their prophet used such flowery and extensive language to communicate with his followers. She explained that the language of God was beyond our comprehension and that as a divine intermediary, it was necessary to speak in a more nuanced language – one that often escaped our direct understanding. In essence, spiritual language cannot be equated with common speech. I held onto this point, not because I was satisfied with her explanation, but that there was a greater depth to be explored with regard to spiritual language.

More recently, I listened to the portfolio of recorded lectures of Joseph Campbell. Buried in the many concepts presented is a discussion of the language of myth. Campbell contrasts prose with poetic language. Prose is essentially our Western manner taking the form ‘who, what, when, and where’ – prevalent even in our fictional works. In contrast, the language of poetry invokes symbolic terms, not limited to poems and songs, but in other writings as well. A principle device of poetic language is the metaphor. Poetic language conveys meaning through sound, rhythm, substitution, and emotion. To get the full impact of poetry, the words must be spoken. Campbell asserted that the language of myth invokes the language of poetry.

Mythic language is a step beyond poetry – the meaning is not expressed purely by metaphor – but by becoming the object being studied.

Poets intend to achieve the ‘I’ and the ‘eye’ for the reader simultaneously. First, the reader is absorbed as the first-hand witness (subject) in the poem, but always through the filter or ‘eye’ of the poet. The reader’s observations are limited by what the poet frames. We make our own inferences, but are still tethered by the words of the author.

In contrast, mythic language projects the nuances of our own psyche rather than limiting us to what the poet, or ourselves, can verbalize. A picture paints a thousand words, but writing down a dream or vivid projection loses meaning unless an effective symbol can be invoked.

So isn’t mythic language difficult to communicate, and as a corollary, cannot the same be said of the communication of spiritual concepts? Yes and no. Culturally, we are trained to deal in the written word and encouraged to be precise in our language. But our brains work so well because of their ability to process images, symbols and patterns incredibly fast. Our preference for multi-media presentations over typewritten manuscripts is the fuel which powers multi-billion dollar industries. First, the motion picture industry has made a science of mythic language – so much so that the products are often perceived as formulaic or manipulative. But, nonetheless, the gems of this industry are held with a passion at least commensurate with those of the great books, and are more widely recognized. Similarly, the companies driving this Internet are moving toward higher capacities to share images, audio and video tracks between ever widening participants. Talk about a collective psyche! We now share ideas and symbols across traditional cultural, religious and language barriers. And we are now conveying these streams of consciousness in methods that were inconceivable a few months ago – just wiki it, then podcast it please.

So the building blocks of mythic language are in active use, not just by authors and filmmakers, but by increasing numbers of ordinary folk. The next issue is transforming our use of that language toward shared understanding and acceptance of those other beings out there. While virtually none of these beings agree with me, we all share in this odd symbolic framework called humanity.

 



 

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