How can applied mythology help you navigate life, answer difficult questions, explore the darker corners of your psyche, and overcome emotional and psychological challenges? In this blog post, we’re going to explain the concept of applied mythology and expand on the ways myths and legends can provide practical lessons, relevant to the 21st century.
Many discussions around mythology are about mundane, unimaginative interpretations of myths, often reducing them to silly stories. Fiction, tales we tell kids, with fake characters.
But you and I know better, right?
We understand the real power and meaning behind mythological archetypes, primordial narratives, and how they provide useful insights.
This is what makes D&M different from most other websites. We talk about applied mythology!
And we see little difference between modern theological narratives and thousand-year-old myths.
In any case, what I want to do with this blog post is to expand on and explain the concept of applied mythology in hopes of providing some context about this new methodology.
What is Applied Mythology?
Applied mythology is the study and application of practical lessons and insights derived from mythological stories.
In plain words, the same way you can read a self-help book and apply the knowledge to improve your life, you can distil ancient wisdom from these ancient texts and do the same thing.
Myths are an infinite pool of wisdom. They remain a source of knowledge regarding the human condition.
But they are so much more powerful because they’re atemporal. No matter where you are, no matter who you are, these stories can give you guidance and a sense of direction. Whether it’s 2022 or 200 BC.
We lean on archetypes and plotlines that were penned down thousands of years ago to tell compelling stories today. While the content changes according to the shifts and bends of the culture, the form — the framework– remains the same.
After all, there isn’t a modern author that hasn’t, one way or another, found inspiration in Homer’s Odyssey or the Voluspa.
To this day, we try to recapture the sacred traditions of our civilization by creating modern mythopoeic sagas.
Applied mythology encompasses all of the above to find the practical lessons, the very essence of mythology, and utilize them to improve your life.
What’s the difference between Mythology and Applied Mythology?
From Wikipedia: “Myth is a folklore genre consisting of narratives that play a fundamental role in a society, such as foundational tales or origin myths.”
Mythology is about telling stories that express the customs, traditions, and beliefs of each culture. But at the same time, a myth, like all stories, is an expression of the human psyche. And real life tends to self-organize within its structure.
That’s where applied mythology comes in. It takes this intangible framework and applies it to business, relationships, health, psychology, etc.
Instead of dealing with the literary breakdown or the study of tradition and religious beliefs, applied mythology will find ways to systemize and organize myths into a praxeology.
Applied mythology is a method of viewing the world through narrative, story arcs, the Hero’s Journey, etc. And I argue that it has predictive power as well!
What do you think will happen if someone behaves like Icarus? You already know the answer. In fact, you knew the answer BEFORE learning about the story of Daedalus and Icarus. But the story helped you express it with words, creating powerful, persuasive imagery.
Morality and Purposeful Behavior
It might seem that applied mythology is passive; a helpful heuristic to understand the world. And while that’s definitely true, there’s an active component to the method:
The idea of embodying ideals and spotting certain behavioral patterns or cautionary tales in real life.
Obviously, this is nothing new. For centuries, people have been trying to emulate the courage of Achilles or adopt the sharp mind of Odysseus. Today, we have the tools to improve all areas of our lives in tangible ways.
With a little bit of work, you can identify all parts of your psyche and how each one relates to heroes, antagonists, even whole stories.
Indeed, you might have the courage of Achilles, and you should nurture that. At the same time, that also means you have Achille’s heel, a fatal blindspot that you might want to investigate.
Another aspect of your character might be the anger of Kratos, a deity adjacent to Zeus. He’s vindictive and ruthless. But Kratos has three other siblings; Nike, Zelus, and Bia. If you study them, you’ll find a cluster of characteristics that go hand in hand. And the solution to your anger lies in balancing these four siblings!
Isn’t applied Mythology just… fiction?
Yes and no. It’s fiction in the sense that myths are allegorical tales, filled with mythological creatures, gods, and other supernatural beings. But who said that fiction has to be fake? The ethical dilemmas, the relationships, the struggles of heroes, human nature are all very real… and realistic.
I’ve already talked about this in the beginning but mythology is the expression of our psyche. Think about it…
Did we magically create Zeus, the Allfather, the Old Wise Man? No. The God of Thunder is the result of keen observation of real life. The collective effort of humanity to encapsulate intangible feelings and judgements about our relationships with each other.
Many psychologists have systemized different mythological characters. They call them “Archetypes”.
“An archetype is something like an old watercourse along which the water of life flowed for a time, digging a deep channel for itself. The longer it flowed the deeper the channel, and the more likely it is that sooner or later the water will return.”
This is Jung’s quote. He succinctly underlines how these fictional characters become egregores; they gain substance and existence through our experience of their manifestation in our day to day life.
Simply put, Zeus is my father. Your father. An older relative. And how you relate to these people can often resemble your relationship with this deity.
Maybe you spot Zeus’ stubbornness in your boss. What would you do? Do you trick him and reject his authority? We learn, through his mythology that Zeus’ Wrath is relentless and unjust. But he’s impressed by feats of courage and strength.
How can you apply this to your situation? In my case, for example, instead of trying to sound intelligent or try to outsmart him, I’d try to be bold and take initiative.
Is Applied Mythology Relevant in the 21st Century?
Is human nature relevant in the 21st Century? I’d say it’s more relevant than ever.
Applied mythology deals with human nature and how we express it in different situations. And human nature doesn’t change in the span of a few thousand years. But how we express it does.
So, even though you read a text that was written in prehistoric times, you’ll still find lessons and insights you can apply today.
At the same time, we never really stopped writing mythology. We simply adapted it to new mediums, novels, and epics.
Tolkien’s massive mythopoeic saga was able to influence modern culture decades after its inception. Insights about World War I, the effect of modernity and industrialization on nature, the corruption that comes from too much power are a few examples of his predictions that, unfortunately, came true.
Practical Lessons from Mythology
Enough with the theory! After all, we’re talking about applied mythology. Let’s see a few examples.
Icarus and Daedalus
I chose this myth because most people are already familiar with the “parable”. But there’s something we often miss.
Daedalus and Icarus, after King Minos imprisoned them for helping Ariadne save Theseus, attempted to flee by fashioning wings out of wax.
Daedalus warned his son to not fly close to the sun because it’d melt his wings. Icarus, being young and ignorant, disobeyed him and found himself in the ocean. That’s the origin of the adage “don’t fly too close to the sun”.
But the master craftsman gave one more warning; don’t fly too close to the sea.
We often disregard this part.
Icarus should fly not too low, not too high. Between the concepts of complacency and hubris:
While you should be cognizant of your limits, you shouldn’t let fear overtake your decisions. Taking no risks is the biggest risk of all.
The overarching principle is balance.
This is the most straightforward example of applied mythology I can think of. But we’re only scratching the surface…
If you don’t know the myth of Prometheus, you should read this first.
The gist here is that the Titan stole the fire from the Olympians and gave it to humans.
Fire, in this context, means creativity, human ingenuity, cooking food, arts, music, etc. Everything that makes us, well, humans!
Of course, Prometheus was punished severely for his betrayal. But what can we learn from the perspective of applied mythology?
There’s this concept called “The Promethean Ritual”. The writer uses the example of smoking; we sacrifice a few minutes of our lives with each inhale and in return, we gain relaxation or a surge of energy.
Everything we do requires some sort of sacrifice. The Promethean Ritual requires one to work. We MUST be aware of this reality and examine whether we can pay the price or not.
It’s foolish to think that we can do everything without giving up something.
Examine different aspects of your life. Maybe your social life is suffering because you’re sacrificing it for work.
On the other hand, you might want to consider what’s missing. What you need to give for something to work. Hours? Money? Sacrificing your comfort?
These are a few examples. In the future, I’m going to expand on these lessons, go in-depth, and systemize applied mythology. You’re welcome to come along for the ride!
Aesop’s Fables and Applied Mythology
Perhaps the origins of applied mythology are Aesop’s Fables. A set of allegorical stories containing lessons that have been used and expanded throughout the centuries.
Even though they aren’t always mythology-related, they’ve created a pedagogical framework similar to the aetiological nature of myths.
But in any case, the custom of using stories as a means to communicate wisdom wasn’t limited to prehistoric times.
The Christian parables, A Thousand and One Nights, Ignacy Krasicki’s Fables and Parables, etc are good examples.
Children’s tales, like the Grimm’s Fairy tales, are a continuation of this tradition. The issue is that we make the mistake of reducing stories and myths to superstition and bedside fiction.
Instead, we should seriously consider how they can improve our lives. From Greek, Norse, Indian Mythology to folklore traditions and modern mythmaking, there are timeless lessons we can apply to improve and transform ourselves.
In the coming months, we’re going to create a process of analyzing and distilling the important parts of myths, creating a system of applied mythology we can use in practical ways.
George K has been immersed into the world of myths and dreams for a very long time now, attempting to find the numerous symbolisms and meanings attached to them. He is a prolific writer along with being an independent researcher. Contributing his knowledge and learnings to several magazines and blogs, he has the unique ability to simplify and explain even the most intricate subjects.