To personify my states of mind, I needed a template. In many cultures and religions around the world, animals have been used to represent ideas, deities and demons, human traits—a wide range of inanimate phenomenon. Animals have represented characters in elaborate myths, their qualities brought to life in order to illustrate, inform, and relate to us in ways impossible by other means. Mythology is less understood now than it was by our predecessors. The contemporary theologian and Catholic priest, Richard Rohr, explains myth beautifully:
“…myths proceed from the deep and collective unconscious of humanity. Our myths are stories or images that are not always true in particular, but entirely true in general. They are usually not historical fact, but invariably they are spiritual genius. They hold life and death, the explainable and the unexplainable together as one; they hold together the paradoxes that the rational mind cannot process by itself. As good poetry does, myths make unclear and confused emotions brilliantly clear and life changing.
Myths are true basically because they work! A sacred myth keeps a people healthy, happy, and whole—even inside their pain. They give deep meaning, and pull us into “deep time” (which encompasses all time, past and future, geological and cosmological, and not just our little time or culture).
…Somehow deep time orients the psyche, gives ultimate perspective, realigns us, grounds us, and thus heals us. We belong to a far grander Mystery than our little selves and our little time.”
I didn’t much understand the idea of myth when I started this series. I tried to recall the readings of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung from college days, but I felt like I was starting with almost no grasp on my task. I decided this might be the very best place to start, as I had no previous structures to limit my imagination. Taking cues from the traditions of cultures such as Native Americans and Hinduism, I began imagining how a mind-state might be represented by an animal. With a playful, watchful sense of openness, I watched for real animals in my daily life, read fairy tales and nursery rhymes, watched in amazement as serendipitous encounters unfolded, and didn’t take any idea for granted.
I tried to think as primitive man might have—by cultivating an enormous respect for the intuitive mind. Long ago mythological creatures weren’t just tales. Ancient people really believed they existed. They knew they existed! Existence didn’t only refer to the physical plane then, and the invisible world and the solid one were intertwined in a way we can’t wrap our tidy Western brains around. Since dabbling in the world of the unseen doesn’t come naturally for me either, I found myself rolling my eyes and second-guessing my ideas quite easily. But on I trudged, doggedly refusing to let the fun and magic be taken out of my investigations. After a few paintings, I knew that I could trust my intuitive instincts.
I even allowed my newly created characters to jump off the canvas and participate in my life. They had been with me all along, stuck in my unconscious, poking their heads out to make trouble or fun. Now I had a face for them, and I could imagine them tormenting me, inspiring me, or whatever I knew very well they were masters of. I could dislike them or be grateful for them. It all helped to deepen my acceptance that they were indeed mine. Friend or foe, they were mine. And for the ones I was really sick of, I recalled Abraham Lincoln’s quote, “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?” I allowed the idea of myth to take shape in my life, to work for me.
Ancient cultures sometimes portrayed their mythological figures as animals with human traits and clothed them in symbolic garb, with various props and environments to narrate the character’s story. I have enjoyed the wide array of options for “dressing up” my critters to convey the essence of the mind-state it represents. I sometimes refer to stories, clothes, or scenes from my past, and other pieces indicate dreams or wishes I’ve had recently or long ago. Although they can be very specific to my personal vision, I find they still do what myth is supposed to. They translate universally.
The painting above, “Herein Lies Wisdom,” gives a nod to the Hindu God, Ganesh. More on that later…