Tracking the Gods: The Place of Myth in Modern Life (1995)

By definition we cannot know the mysteries, but we are driven by our nature to stand in meaningful relationship to them. (The first sentence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics is “All men, by nature, desire to know.”) The images of myth, when drawn from the depths, stir and touch us even when we do not know why, because they intimate, even activate, the mysterious depths we embody as well. Myth then resonates because it intimates what we already carry in our nature but can only dimly perceive by cognition.

Many of us were inured to the voice of myth by early exposure to Greek or Judeo-Christian myth. We were badly served by teachers or clerics, who construted them as interesting but faded narratives of a remote past, or insisted that we accept as literal what offended common sense. Perhaps such purveyors of myth had themselves never tumbled to the resonant depths of mythic materials; whatever, they damaged myth for us. Both trivialization and literalism are egregious affronts to the soul. Both miss the point.

The soul… expresses itself through images but is not that image. As Sören Kierkegaard reminded us, “The god which can be named is not God.” The dynamic incarnation of soul through the image manifests this mysterious energy. When we resonate to this incarnated energy, we know we are in the presence of soul. When, for whatever reason, the energy no longer enlivens that image for us, then that structure dies for us as a source of the divine. There remains but a dead myth or ritual that touches us not. This is how a god or an entire religious institution can die. The energy has departed, leaving a dry husk.

So it is with us – life energy enters us at conception, mysteriously, and departs, mysteriously, leaving only a husk. What is living in a symbol, a myth or a person is the divine energy, not the vessel. Thus we see how our teachers and religious leaders misunderstood. To see myth simply as interesting old stories is to say that the energy that once entered those images and rendered them luminous has now departed, seeking incarnation elsewhere. To literalize a myth or symbol and require its worship, on the other hand, is the oldest of religious sins: idolatry. The mystery the image once contained is now lost and one worships an empty shell no longer worthy of adoration. When the image (that is, the symbol) no longer points beyond itself to the precincts of mystery, then it is dead. But the mystery lives on, elsewhere.


These twin tasks – to live one’s own life and to serve the mystery – are, paradoxically, aspects of the same thing, for the former obliges not only a willingness to accept responsibility for the course of one’s life and for the meaning it embodies, but also the right to experience the absolutely different path it may take from those who have gone before. To reach the end of one’s life and to know that one has not truly taken the journey is more terrible than any terrors one would have had to face on the way.

To feel that linkage to the larger order of things, a linkage by way of relationship, by way of meaningful social engagement, by way of wonder and terror at the forces of nature, by way of dream work and dialogue with the splintered psyche, is to experience the paradox that by the humble task of simply being ourselves we are thus more than ourselves. Then, in a time when the gods seem to have gone away, we may nonetheless glimpse the divine.

The Middle Passage | Swamplands of the Soul | Tracking the Gods | Under Saturn's Shadow | The Eden Project | The Archetypal Imagination | Creating a Life | On This Journey We Call Our Life | Mythologems | Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life | Why Good People Do Bad Things | What Matters Most | Hauntings