“If you want to see what a society really believes in, look at what the biggest buildings on the horizon are dedicated to.”
I can see Austin’s skyline on the horizon from my computer. My home is just south of the Colorado River that splits the city, tucked away on a small hill that allows me a clear view into what Austin really believes in.
But it’s not really what Austin alone believes in, because our cities aren’t quite as different from each other as we’d like to believe.
Austin’s horizon, your city’s horizon, is a holon of Western Society’s horizon.
“If you want to see what a society really believes in, look at what the biggest buildings on the horizon are dedicated to.”
Our horizons are monuments to finance, hotels, condos, and corporations.
Gods are characters embedded in stories that help humans cope with existence.
Our gods that we pretend are not gods are money, consumerism, comfort, and corporations.
These are our collective beliefs.
More important than the kind of gods they confess we believe in is the temporal horizon they confess we live by.
This is important to go through slowly.
A temporal horizon is the expanse of time an individual’s consciousness can imagine (and play within).
The length of temporal horizons seem correlated to an individual’s level of psychological development.
The temporal horizon of an infant is maybe 20 seconds. It takes years of growth for an infant’s brain to get to the point where it’s able to abstract the idea of tomorrow.
The temporal horizon for a teenager may be 2-4 years (coincidentally, this is the same temporal horizon most politicians have).
The temporal horizon of a new parent, hopefully, is at least 10-20 years.
The temporal horizon humanity needs from its leaders is at least 100-200 years.
The temporal horizon of our modern working culture is 3-12 months. Our gods think in quarterly earnings reports.
*Worth noting is ‘bigger is not better.’ Some people living in the science worldview imagine temporal horizons so vast they include the death of our sun or the death of the universe (often to justify not trying at something or to flaunt their intellect). Hello, it me.
Modern skylines are a confession of our temporal horizons (and they beg to be stretched).
And in our age, with the rising tide of existential risks (nuclear fallout, ecological collapse, biological weapons, and AI), a culture without a temporal horizon spanning generations will not span many more generations.
What would we need to do to expand our zeitgeist's temporal horizon from 3-12 months to 3-12 generations?
What would a culture build with a multi-generational temporal horizon?
As a young self-righteous atheist, I would have been happy to tell you why God wasn’t real and why you were an idiot. What I wouldn’t have told you is that I prayed every night and dreamt of Cathedrals.
I’ve been in love with Cathedrals since I was a child. They felt like portals to something that felt like deja vu.
But more important than the architecture, the art, and the stained glass window panes are what cathedrals symbolically ‘stand for.’
Cathedrals are symbols for multi-generational communal projects.
Something began to stir in the zeitgeist in 13th century Europe. The seizure of this seizing was the construction of the first classic Cathedrals.
The temporal horizon of a Cathedral is generations.
The average construction time for a cathedral was 300 years. Imagine for a moment what kind of wild energy would be required for the United States, Russia, or China, to commit to a 300 year construction project.
If you are somehow able to imagine that, now add that the 300 year project is not being done to make money or acquire a geopolitical edge over another country.
Can modern people even fathom how a group of people could dedicate themselves to a multi-generational project, not to earn riches or geopolitical power, but so they would have a place to house their myths, to sing their songs, to play out their rituals and dramas, so people could meet in a sanctified place.
A culture can only create multi-generational works of art if they have strong living myths.
And as a modern culture, we are utterly inept at living mythically.
It's as if our culture has collective PTSD from living in myths (and honestly, rightly so).
The Crusades, Inquisition, mass pedophilia, and the other greatest hits of monotheistic religion over the last few hundred years have left a lot of people…uninterested. Stack this with the historical rise of the scientific method and her children (chemistry, physics, geology, etc.) and we have motive, cause, and weapon for the killing of God.
Friedrich Nietzsche, more than 100 years ago, wrote the following, now world famous, announcement heralding the death of God.
The Parable of the Madman
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: "I am looking for God! I am looking for God!"
As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.
"Where has God gone?" he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us - for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto."
Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling - it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars - and yet they have done it themselves."
It has been further related that on that same day the madman entered divers churches and there sang a requiem. Led out and quietened, he is said to have retorted each time: "what are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?"
– – – – –
This is a fact we need to face, because the death of this God is the reason our horizons look the way they do, which is a reflection of the wasteland of our inner horizons. In order to navigate humanity into the 22nd and 23rd century, we’re gunna need to create some new myths.
“The rise and fall of civilizations in the long, broad course of history can be seen to have been largely a function of the integrity and cogency of their supporting canons of myth; for not authority but aspiration is the motivator, builder, and transformer of civilization.”
Glancing at our city’s horizons is a kind of zeitgeist pulse-check.
You can even imagine the buildings on the horizon as the peaks and valleys of a heart monitor.
The health of a zeitgeist can be seen by savoring its horizons.
Our culture is sick.
So…what do we do?
The Four Functions of Myth
Joseph Campbell, the eminent Mythologist, outlined four functions myth must fulfill in the human psyche to become a living creative mythology.
*These are the core functions the previous generation’s Gods fulfilled. If you wanna think about it mythically, it’s kind of like the French Revolution. Western culture got real excited at the prospect of overthrowing the King (God), we all kind of did it in a frenzy, and now we’re at the steering wheel of a civilization that needs myth to function and we don’t know how to supply it.
Campbell can give us a hint. In his words, the four functions of myth:
Myth’s psychological function is to center the individual, carry them through the stages of development, and harmonize them with their world.
Myth’s metaphysical function is to awaken in the individual a sense of awe and gratitude for the ultimate mystery, reconciling them to reality as it is.
Myth’s cosmological function is to present a total image of the universe through which the ultimate mystery manifests.
Myth’s sociological function is to validate and maintain a certain moral order of laws for living with others in society.
We can call these four functions:
- The Personal Myth (I choose to create meaning)
- The Personal Living Mythology (I am not my myth, I am that which myths)
- The New Myth (A Genesis Myth with our current Zeitgeist)*
- The Mythic Artist (My Religion is giving my Dharma to the world)
*The New Myth has a personal and a collective aspect. Fulfilling the personal facet will be much easier than the collective. Personally, you can decide you’re a reincarnated bodhisattva here to help people wake up; or you can decide you’re an engineer dedicated to creating technology that helps humanity become an interplanet species. Somehow, you can feel that myth reconciles you with the world in a profound, fundamental way. Awesome. Valid. However, the collective facet of The New Myth will likely take generations. Whatever The New Myth is, it will have to contend with every aspect of modern science, the remnants of every living religion, and the ‘horizon of gods’ that currently steer our culture. None of us will fulfill this facet in our lifetime, and it is not required for you to start improving your life by living more mythically (but I think it’s worth knowing what the bigger project is).
Level 1: The Personal Myth
It can be hard to see if you don’t train your eyes to notice, but if you looked at the last two hundred years, marked the time Neitzsche announced God had died, and then tracked what unfolded, something surprising to modern minds becomes clear:
In the wake of God’s death, we turned to pseudo-Gods, and they were worse.
Our pseudo-Gods are ideologies.
To the drum-beat of 20th century political and economic ideologies, humanity murdered and starved hundreds of millions of their own brothers and sisters (WWI, WWII, Stalin, Mao, etc.).
The last 100 years marks the largest self-genocide in recorded history. (Rough estimates from just the four events listed above is between 80-120 million deaths, and that's not including ‘diseases of prosperity' which is a much larger conversation.)
In the same way the human body needs water, oxygen, a way to remove carbon dioxide, Campbell asserts the soul needs a living myth.
The psychological function helped people navigate childhood, puberty, adolescence, tragedy, death, childbirth, parenthood, suffering, and ultimately death. These are examples of ‘myth helping to center the individual, to carry them through the stages of development.’
The second part of the psychological function of myth is to ‘harmonize them with their world.’
Hopefully you’ve realized it by now, but we live in a constant tension between two worlds.
There is the world ‘out there,’ the world governed by the laws of physics, where the ruling myth is science (and we trust that myth so deeply we step on planes every year).
Then there is the world ‘in here.’ Oh my, this ‘in here’ world is much stranger than the ‘out there’ world. There are dreams, fantasies, unconscious drives, triggers, flashbacks, altered states... every god and demon that has ever existed lives, in some sense, in this inner world.
A living myth, in order to fulfill the psychological function, brings a harmony between the two worlds we each navigate.
This stage is called “The Personal Myth” because there are no living myths in our era that will fulfill this function for you. You will have to do it yourself.
Generations ago, we could have turned to collective myths to fulfill this function.
Today, this is a personal task.
Next week I’ll talk more about how to begin building a personal myth, but for the sake of space, I’m just going to introduce the four functions of myth in this article.
Level 2: The Personal Living Mythology
The next function is the metaphysical function. In order to reach this level, an individual has to experience a myth die and be reborn (often twice).
Let's paint the picture here.
Most of us are born inside a crippled myth.
My first Myth was a Frankenstein combination of “The American Dream” as brought to us by a post-World War II corporatocracy, and “The Athlete’s Dream.”
My version of The American Dream was that if I did well in school, went to college, and worked for 40 years, in some vague way, I’d win.
The Athlete’s Dream was the story that if I worked hard enough, trained hard enough, I’d be a professional athlete and that too, like the American Dream, would bring fulfillment.
My first myth to die was The Athlete’s Dream. My Junior year of highschool, a teammate in practice chopped down on my arm from behind and my shoulder sheared from its socket.
I became depressed, stumbled into an opiate addiction, and gained 40 pounds of fat after surgery. At 18, I was at the lowest point in my life.
Then a year later, my second myth died. I couldn’t keep up in school. I had never had to really try in high school to get decent grades. So, 3 months into my first year of college, I just kinda decided to stop going to class. By the end of the year I was failing every class.
By the time I was 19, both of the myths I had lived in had died.
They both were incredibly flimsy myths, not fulfilling any of the mythic functions deeply, but they were the two I had.
Most of us in Western Culture have some version of this story. We’ll call it the “Glass Frankenstein Myth.” This is most modern people’s default myth - a haphazard combination of fragile myths.
The other half of most modern people is that they grew up in one of the major religions, but in the 21st century, these religions have lost almost all of their mythic mana they held hundreds of years ago.
In a world powered by phones, computers, planes, and satellites; the gravity of gods have shifted from Yaweh, Allah, Jesus, and Krishna to Google, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter.
We can call this type of a myth ‘The Hollowed Old God Myth.”
So, most people in Western culture have a combination of some version of either the Glass Frankenstein Myth or the Hollowed Old God Myth.
What happens to both of these myths when they encounter the Ultimate Mystery is that they break. When our myths break, our inner world loses its center. The manifestation of this phenomena, Western culture calls mental illness. Yeat’s yeeted this in The Second Coming:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The fulfillment of the metaphysical function of myth is when we alchemize the death of our myths when they encounter the Ultimate Mystery.
The Ultimate Mystery is like the sun. Everything we see is the result of it. We know it’s there, but if we look directly at it, it burns our eyes.
There is an Ultimate Mystery at the center of our lives that is so brilliant, if we looked directly at it, we’d start to fall apart.
The Greek’s believed that if the Gods revealed their true form, humans would burst into flames.
When Krishna reveals his true form to Arjuna, the human prince falls to his knees, crying and begging for Krishna to put his mask back on.
The Ultimate Mystery is the room the brave (or stupid) psychonaut flirts with when they begin to climb into ‘heroic dose’ range.
Some limbs of the Ultimate Mystery are:
The requirement that needs to be fulfilled by myth to meet the metaphysical function is that it must be able to integrate the Ultimate Mystery into its story.
I’ll talk about it more in another post, but the essence of this stage is to realize:
“I am not my myth, I am that which myths.”
Once you get to that level of development, you move from Personal Myth to Personal Living Mythology (which is to not identify with your personal myth, but to recognize you art that which generates myth. As long as you choose to make meaning, you can rebuild.)
Level 3: The New Myth (A Genesis Myth)
The cosmological function of myth is a doozy. I’m not going to go deep into it here because I don’t think it’ll be applicable to almost anyone, but I’ll explain it briefly.
Our zeitgeist needs a new Genesis Myth. We need a cultural story that does two thangs:
- Fulfills all four mythological functions
- Integrates the Science Myth into it
The dominant myth in our time is the Science Myth. It has earned its place at the top of stories because of how powerful it is; but it does not nurture the human soul, it does not inspire and spiritually feed humanity. We need a new cultural myth that includes and transcends our current scientifically-dominated Myth.
The essence of Level 3 for the individual is that they acquire the ability to mythically play.
Mythic play is the ability to move into mythic thinking as play, and to be able to move back into the world of logic, physics, and the scientific method with humility.
This skill can be learned at Level 2, but it is required to pass Level 3.
Any myth that cannot integrate SpaceTime and engineering will not be The New Myth.
Play will be essential.
Level 4: Becoming a Mythic Artist
My goal this year is to write at least 49 articles. I’ve set myself the limit of 3000 words per article, so I’m going to need to wrap this up (the comments you leave will inform the coming articles so if you have questions, ask away).
The fourth function of myth is sociological; it is when myth changes the behavior of the collective.
It is only the fourth function that can build Cathedrals.
And we live in a time where fire, threat, bomb, and war will not work. The only thing that can heal the zeitgeist is the mythic artist.
The mythic artist is someone who is intimately connected to their personal living mythology. Their living mythology has connected them to their sacred work (their dharma), and to the wellbeing of all their brothers and sisters. Their beating, living mythology demands expression. They express through art. Because they are connected to their myth, they will at times give birth to art that is for the culture. A book, a song, a play, an invention; something from the other world will pour through them and they will give birth to it.
The solutions to our culture’s woes will flow from mythic artists.
Level 3 and 4 are not for everyone. They require a level of luck to attain, and they demand a heavy sacrifice to fulfill.
But Levels 1 and 2 are available to all of us. Creating a personal myth and eventually growing it into a personal living mythology will literally change your world.
Next week I’ll dive deeper into Level 1 and 2, and give practical examples of how to begin.
My goal with these articles is to help any who are called to learn how to play and create with myth.
“A pile of rocks ceases to be a pile of rocks when somebody contemplates it with the idea of a cathedral in mind.”