The Initiation of Our Age

Descent into Mytho-Historic Consciousness

Seeing through the looking glass of my life, with all its challenges and bliss, I cannot escape a basic truth of my existence: my individual life is thoroughly enmeshed in the life of the collective; myself and the world are as one. Not only are we linked with our immediate cohabitants, whether family or friends, but also with the larger institutions and systems that shape and give meaning to our lives. My own personal life, for all its sense of individuality, feels like a niche carved out of the collective psyche.

Attempting to trace my own “path to bliss” I do not engage in a self-centered affair. Every individual decision and risk I take reverberates in the life of the collective. An authentic approach to spirituality, therefore, could never be a question of isolated “personal responsibility.” The very concept of responsibility implies a relation to a larger social body and points to the vital connection that the personal bears to the collective dimension of life. After all, I can be responsible for myself only to the extent that I respond for the impact of my actions upon others. 

Even when the hero—a la Han Solo— believes he is acting purely out of self-interest, the cunning of myth involves him into the larger adventure of the collective psyche, where the destiny and hope of human kind is literally at stake. As Joseph Campbell famously said, the power of myth works like a “secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation” (The Hero of Thousand Faces3). Consequently, the trans-individual nature of the hero’s journey is taken for granted; it is not all about me. 

This “cosmic” relation to the whole gives an individual a sense of belonging to something “larger than myself.” Rather than a narcissistic reflection of myself in others, however, it is a movement of releasing the self, a kind of de-individuation as we might call it, or a progressive divestment of self into the world. Opening the individual to the life of the universal is what mythology is all about as a manifestation of the collective unconscious—which is really collective! Carl Jung himself cannot describe the power of archetypes without bringing to bear their collective force and essence: 

The impact of the archetype, whether it takes the form of immediate experience or is expressed through the spoken word, stirs us because it summons a voice that is stronger than our own. Whoever speaks in primordial images speaks with a thousand voices; he enthralls and overpowers, while at the same time he lifts the idea he is seeking to express out of the occasional and transitory into the realm of the ever-enduring, he transmutes our personal destiny into the destiny of mankind, and evokes in us all those beneficent forces that ever and anon have enabled humanity to find a refuge from every peril and outlive the longest night. (CW15: 82¶129)

Despite their emphasis upon the individual, both Campbell and Jung cannot help but to stress the collectivity and universality of the archetypal dimension as such. The power of the mythic is that “influencer instinct” that speaks through every individual, albeit for the most part unconsciously. Rather than a private show, mythology is an instrument of vision that turns the unconscious dream of one into the conscious reality of many.

Ayn Rand is to be credited for formulating the spiritual foundation of capitalism in the “virtue of selfishness.”

When Campbell came across psychologist Abraham Maslow’s list of secular values (“survival, security, personal relationships, prestige, and self-development”), he was struck at once by the fact that these are “the values for which people live when they have nothing to live for”(Pathways to Bliss 86). But these are precisely the values that operate in a “realist” capitalistic system. Despite their glittering show of success, they can only pave the way for a soulless path for humanity. Rather than upholding crass materialism, however, we have to recognize in these values a truly religious commitment to the status quo and its sublime object of desire. Looking for “the Supreme Meaning” in the cult of self, titanic individualism inscribes its disdain for the larger social body into our very souls, where it serves its basic depoliticizing function in self-alienation. For politics begins the minute one has to reckon with another in the life of the collective.

Let us not forget that the “greatness” of any individual is always drawn from the universal dimension of the collective spirit. That is why individualism, set as the spiritual core of the status quo, far from being a road to “higher consciousness” is a regressive path into the selfishness of nature, forgetting that the work of civilization has always been—as the alchemists described the Great Work—contra naturam. By going “along with nature,” on the other hand, individualism sets a dangerous course of psychic disintegration, which leads to the alienation of the self from the collective substance of true myth. 

In the fragmentation of the social body, the mythic power of ideology is deployed against the mythological dimension proper. For ideology uses the collective power of archetypes for its own privatized ends and purposes; it replaces an authentic sense of transcendence with the bleak idols of the marketplace. 

Not without justification, therefore, did Sigmund Freud observe that—as egos give in to their natural greed and selfish nature, “every individual is virtually an enemy of civilization” (The Future of an Illusion 6). Furthermore, Freud marvels at the difficulty we have in accepting such basic facts of life:

It is remarkable that, little as men are able to exist in isolation, they should nevertheless feel as a heavy burden the sacrifices which civilization expects of them in order to make a communal life possible. Thus civilization has to be defended against the individual, and its regulations, institutions and commands are directed to that task.

(The Future of an Illusion 6)

In things like survivalism, personalism, and selfish self-development, Campbell immediately discerns precisely the type of values “that a mythically inspired person doesn’t live for, because these are exactly the values that mythology transcends” (Pathways to Bliss 87). And mythology transcends these values simply by being a product of the collective psyche, which works its way through every individual in a subterranean way. 

The mythically inspired person, therefore, cannot be an individualist; she participates in the collective substance of myth and has her being therein. In the dimension of true myth, our connection with each other is self-evident; the development of an individual becomes the development of the universal self—speaking as it does in mytho-historic acts of cultural creation.

The power of myth is just this alchemy of existence, the self-becoming of being itself, which transmutes our private sense of experience into the experience of historic events that bear collective significance. In the last analysis, the historic movement of such a mytho-historicdepths expresses the life of the creative spirit, a movement of the universal self, as it constitutes a people, a nation—or even a species.

As an individual opens up the private self to the transperancy of the collective, it must submit to the rites and symbols of initiation which point the way; they are designed to tear the individual away from its identification with the narrow familial circle. It is only through a jolt out of the familiar that a new depth of vision begins to give way. As Mircea Eliade explains it, the fundamental significance of rites and symbols of initiation has little to do with ego-centric beliefs and self-development:

“This “sacred history”-mythology-is exemplary, paradigmatic: not only does it relate how things came to be; it also lays the foundations for all human behavior and all social and cultural institutions.” (x-xi) 

Initiation introduces the candidate into the human community and into the world of spiritual and cultural values. He learns not only the behavior patterns, the techniques, and the institutions of adults but also the sacred myths and traditions of the tribe, the names of the gods and the history of their works; above all, he learns the mystical relations between the tribe and the supernatural beings as those relations were established at the beginning of time.

(Rites and Symbols of Initiation X)

As individuals are “decentered” from their ego, they are initiated into a larger context of cultural creation which affects the human community at large. Initiation means a passionate engagement with our collective destiny, accepting the gifts and responsibilities that come from being a grown-up member of society. This is also why initiation means leaving the state of apolitical innocence that characterizes the child; it introduces a young consciousness to the universal dimensions of cultural life, where the superhuman powers of collective spirits must fight it out in the arena of the polis (the “city” in terms of its citizenry). 

At this stage of the journey, we may become aware that thepolitical—which is not the same as the world of party “politics”—is not external or alien to true myth; nor is it removed from a truly integrated sense of spirituality. If the political seems alien to spirituality, on the other hand, something that threatens my “inner peace,” it means I am already caught in a self-alienating loop or ideological fantasy. For the true “life of Spirit,” as Hegel writes, “is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it,” realizing that “[i]t wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself” (Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit 19¶32). This points the shamanic character of authentic spirituality, for which the barrier of the I and the not-I has dissolved in the transcendent realm of the collective.

Accordingly, it is characteristic of this stage of the journey that it should take the form of a descent ad inferos,where we must confront figures of death-drive as we approach the dark roots of our collective [in]humanity. Both in puberty and in shamanic rites of initiation, a dismemberment of the initiant takes place with universal regularity. As consciousness is submerged into the chaotic substance of the collective psyche, the “wholeness” of our ego is torn to pieces or “deconstructed” in order to give way to the archetypal dimension proper, a dimension that transcends ideology and its worldly intent. 

The Hero of a Thousand Faces implies its relation to the collective in its very title.

For this reason, Campbell describes the Second Act of the Hero’s journey as “The most difficult stages of the adventure […] when the depths of the underworld with their remarkable manifestations open before him. . .” (The Hero of Thousand Faces91). The opening of the Underworld pulls an individual’s consciousness down into the dark roots of our collective history and its mythic depths. Harvesting our spiritual darkness in a critical way, a deep sense of belonging emerges as a consequence of the fateful descent into the underworld. An initiation into these realms of memory and oblivion takes us to the graveyard of historic ideas that lie buried with our ancestral shades—hence the necessity of blood sacrifice to make the dead speak again! 

This is certainly not a journey for the faint of heart; for rather than patronizing encouragement or “positive vibes,” we are met with the signs of absolute negativity—the specter of our psychic inexistence—which express the collective psyche in its “underworld” aspect.  

Just as Dante must read over the gates of Hell a message designed to ward off the wishful thinking or idealistic aim of the initiant: “ABANDON EVERY HOPE, WHO ENTER HERE.” As a fearsome threshold guardian, we meet with the stiff negation of our positivistic outlook—so dear to ego and its sense of identity—as we prepare to descend into the collective unconscious of our times. Thus the initiation of our age, of our particular historical embedness, requires that we develop instead a “negative capability”—which is not just the ability to stand uncertainty and mystery, but also the capacity to endure the becoming of existence without metaphysical palliatives. 

At this point we meet a great resistance to go further. The fear of losing a cherished belief system, that which had hitherto given Meaning to your life, is not a small sacrifice; the fear of the Void, the “dark matter” of our souls which remains unknown, is not to be underestimated either. For who would trade their metaphysical richness for the poverty of spirit which Jesus Christ taught? Who is willing to strip down in the eye of the Void without resorting to wishful thinking? Only the mythically inspired person who sees in the void the transcendent as the ground of mytho-historic creation.

Acknowledging this fear of losing hope in desires and wishes, the stuff that belief systems are made on, Virgil explains to Dante the real meaning of the cryptic sign over the gates of Hell:

Dante and Virgil at the gates of Hell.

“Here one must leave behind all hesitation;
here every cowardice must meet its death.

For we have reached the place of which I spoke,
where you will see the miserable people,
those who have lost the good of the intellect.”

Finally, in the mouth of Virgil, Dante underscores the importance of the mirror of the intellect as an indispensable instrument of navigation along the pathless ocean of the hero’s journey. Over against irrationalism or blind faith, the descendental move of initiation requires the good of the intellect to take its profound effect. Without it, we are condemned to the “timeless” misery of an underworld shade: a neurotic stagnation of the self in the bliss of ignorance. Going against the anti-intellectual trend of our times, initiation means a break with such repression of the intellect, even of its common sense. 

The descendental journey of initiation requires a full intellectual engagement with being-in-the-underworld, because here we move through the shadowy realm of archetypal notions and images, of the pure psycho-logic of the soul; it means participating in the fearless deployment of the “crazy” logos of the psyche—its negative self-contradictory psycho-logic—the invisible force and architecture which makes manifest the collective soul of our times. 

Norland Téllez is an artist and teacher with over two decades of experience in the entertainment industry. As a scholar of myth and history, he remains committed to critical thinking through the power of the mythic image.

The Initiation of Our Age

WORKS CITED

Campbell, Joseph. Pathways to Bliss. Novato: New World Library, 2004.

——. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973.

Dante, Alighieri. The Divine Comedy: Inferno. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam, 1984.

Eliade, Mircea. Rites and Symbols of Initiation. Connecticut: Spring Publications, 1994.

Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1961.

Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Jung, Carl Gustav. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. 19 Vols. New York: Princeton UP, 1953.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. Pathways to Bliss. Novato: New World Library, 2004.

——. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973.

Dante, Alighieri. The Divine Comedy: Inferno. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam, 1984.

Eliade, Mircea. Rites and Symbols of Initiation. Connecticut: Spring Publications, 1994.

Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1961.

Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Jung, Carl Gustav. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. 19 Vols. New York: Princeton UP, 1953.