Reflections on Myth Memory
Paintings and text by kevin Convery
7 Part 1 - The Forest
20 Part 2 - The Hellenes
52 Part 3 - The North
70 Part 4 - Celtic Strains
86 Part 5 - Transitions
“With a sigh he stepped out through the high portal, and saw the silent statues, angels and saints, stand haggard and tall in their stiffly folded gowns, immobile, inaccessible, superhuman and yet created by the hand and mind of man. Strict and deaf they stood in their narrow niches, inaccessible to any request or question. And yet they were an infinite consolation, a triumphant victory over death and despair as they stood in their dignity and beauty, surviving one dying generation of men after another…
These figures that meant love and torture to him today, fear and passion, would stand before later generations, nameless, without history, silent symbols of human life.”Hermann Hesse “Narcissus and Goldmund”
Once, many years ago, on a cool autumn night in Pennsylvania, I happened to wake up at a very late hour to see a gentle luminosity filling up the window squares above my bed. A curious twelve year old, I got up and looked outside to see that our back yard and driveway were covered with a thin powdering of new snow, an unusual occurrence for October in that part of the world. Everything was silent and emanated a soft radiance, as if not yet quite separated from the dream world from which I had just emerged. I was about to shake the sleeping form of my older brother for a look when the scene suddenly shifted before my eyes. The snow was gone. Though nothing had actually changed, I then knew that what I had been looking at was really only the bleaching effect of moonlight. After that, even with squinted eyes, I couldn't see the ‘snow’ again.
As the years passed I would think of that brief vision from time to time. It came to symbolize to me one of those elusive truths, only grasped through experience. It is that the ‘real’ world has many faces, which change as we move through life. Each one seems complete in its time and extends to infinite horizons. But each one, once outgrown, is never experienced again exactly as it appeared and existed for us then. It is what the Russians refer to as, nepovterimnie lyed, ‘the unrepeatable years.‘ Still, the memory of that appearance, like an afterimage, colors all the stages that follow. Others inhabit the life-niches that were once ours, and the ones we will occupy in the future. Through the transitions and re-shapings of time there is a thread of identification that connects us. This quality, transcendent of any social duty, enables us to shelter the ‘unreal’ world of small children, as well as to feel a connection to generations long departed. It is the life pulse of youth, impatient to unfold, interfaced with the bittersweet quality of later adulthood which can turn its losses to empathy. The English poet, William Wordsworth spoke eloquently of it in his "Ode on the Intimations of Immortality."
"Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind."
So it has been for me that the myths created by my cultural ancestors, and first encountered in childhood, have left their own enduring afterimage. Initially experienced as vivid, entertaining stories, their more internal, symbolic dimension has only unfolded with long exposure. Their characters have often emerged out of the archives of memory during difficult moments, bringing life enhancing wisdom. They have carried gifts of beauty and a sense of coalescence with the greater story of which my own is a subtext. Early impressions of these dramas, so full of exotic imagery, became the seedbed for later creations. A good many quiet summer afternoons in childhood rang with the clatter of Achaean spears or the eerie, moaning voices of the Valkyrie riding down to earth through turbulent curtains of ice mist. Days in the library offered transport to enchanted, dangerous and subtly erotic islands that held death or fortune for wandering heroes. There were blissful hours passed in the sun dappled glades and forests of a world still infused with divinity-- as I thought my own world still to be.
I felt, as so many children do, a mystical identification with these men and women who, though they inhabited a reality so different from my own, still seemed to carry its themes. Foreign as their landscape and thought world might be, their responses to the timeless features it held, of love, desire, death and change were touchingly familiar. However strange the setting, the inner content struck a chord of recognition. I came to realize later that, although they might be fictional, these characters represented the collective, poetic emanations of generations of actual people. Their hopes and trials had been given substance by their counterparts in historical time. These mythic beings, in turn, had also lived in our ancestors as archetypes that gave shape and meaning to an often short, hazardous existence. They helped provide a sense of familiarity with a natural world that could be terrifying and capricious.
Against the background of the upheavals and uncertainty of our own century there seems to be occurring a re-examination of this imaginative heritage with an emphasis on its inner, psychological dimensions. Carl Jung's ideas on the collective unconscious and archetypes have been a wellspring of developments in many fields. Much of modern psychology, in fact, has its roots in ancient mythology. What we express today in more clinical terms was intuitively grasped by our predecessors in poetic form.
Another significant figure in this field that immediately comes to mind is Joseph Campbell, whose large body of writings illuminates much about the interconnection of myth and cultural evolution. I have borrowed a good bit from him as well as other writers such as Marion Zimmer Bradley whose work brings such emotional substance to these familiar characters.
One point that has had particular significance for me is the idea, explored extensively by both Jung and Campbell, of the way in which these stories function as guides through the unsettling transformations that growth inevitably entails. These fictional mentors appear at the threshold crossings of life to help us find perspective in a changed state, or even to die if need be. They have shown many before us, and through an empathic identification with them our isolation is lessened. In a sense, we become them at these times. We move through the same 'soul ground' as they. Our losses or pains and fears, if not removed (and that is hardly ever the object of myth) are at least better faced because of the wisdom or courage with which they overshadow us. A new identity is more serenely embraced because of their presence in our psyche.
Unlike the fairy tales that insure an unbroken ‘happily ever after’ when their troubles are concluded, myth seems more akin to life as it really is known. For the most part they tend to deal with the 'grave and constant' side of the human condition. We live in a world where things break, get lost and die. As gifted as the heroes and heroines of these epics might be, and as fantastic their environment, they are not exempt from these primal conditions. They, like ourselves, are faced with pain and uncertainty. The sleeping beauty may find final contentment with her prince, but for such as Brynhild and Deirdre there is only the promise that their tragic, even seemingly senseless fortune hides a beauty that transcends the destruction.
And so it is also with the Cassandras and Tristans everywhere whose encounters with the forces of destiny contain echoes and reflections of our own. Through their stories we are given hints of reconciliation to the outrageously imperfect yet wonderful mystery into which we are born. We may find also what the wisdom traditions of the world's great religions point toward, a golden thread of deepened compassion for those who walk the labyrinth of life with us.
The images and text that make up this book are my own reflections on mythic themes. Painted over a twenty-five year period, they represent the entwining of these timeless themes with personal experience. Like a river fed by tributaries they owe their existence to many different sources. Though most of them draw references from specific, well-known stories, they are not intended to be 'illustrations' of those stories. Some of the figures, in fact, appear in modern dress and setting. My desire was to create a visual poetry that borrows from the collective lore of history, as we all do in more ways than we are conscious of. The focus is more on undercurrents of meaning related to contemporary life, rather than storytelling.
Many of the paintings took shape in unexpected ways. Serendipity is always a fascinating force in the creative process. Impressions, made years ago on my childhood imagination, would suddenly be recalled by chance occurrences. Light striking a friend's face in a certain way would provide just the character study I needed. The last rays of sunset, filtering through a woodland, would transform it for a moment into the sacred groves of Arcadia or druidic Ireland. A woman brooding alone at a picnic table would call up the sorrowful figure of Echo. Like overlays of some fine transparent substance, these little moments of vision seemed to fuse myth, memory and physical sight to reveal something of the ‘fabric of dream’ which lies behind everyday human existence.
Finally, these visual reflections have been an integral part of my own coming to terms with loss and change. They have been part of the process of learning to grieve more honestly and celebrate more freely in the face of life's fragility.
As mentioned before, though they have a certain timeless appeal, myths seem to speak most potently in times of transition. Since we live in a very transitional age, there seems to be a resurgent interest in these ancient themes. As our way of viewing the world undergoes a shift, there also seems to be a growing recognition of the inevitability of the mythic dimension. As many modern writers, therapists, scientists and artists have demonstrated, we live in a symbolic as well as material universe. Where, and if, the two divide is very hard to say. From the most intimate to the most public levels we move-- unconsciously for the most part-- through a web of symbols. This all pervading element greatly influences how we relate to ourselves, each other and the environment. It determines where the energy of life is spent and what 'has reality' for us at any time.
As we move out of the confines of an awareness defined by classical physics and exclusive rationalism we find this symbolic dimension, as Carl Jung has pointed out, central to even our most practical concerns and ultimate survival. As our culture goes through a confusing, often painful, collective rite of passage, we are driven by inner and outer conditions to search for new bearings.
There is a Native American proverb that, "When the legends die, the dreams end. When the dreams end, there is no more greatness." It seems true sometimes that, stripped of the traditions that once gave a sense of dignified belonging to warriors and mothers alike, we are left with alienated impotence. Our power supports, but it also intimidates us. As our 'legends' die in this disorienting age, as once unquestionable world-views shake the heavens like the death throes of perishing gods, we are compelled to re-examine the truth forms that have shaped our civilization. We are deeply challenged to discover visions meaningful to our own lived world.
I hope these pictures and reflections then, which really emerge out of this same condition, will evoke for those who share them what the poetry they spring from has been for me, a deep pool from which the self looks back from ages of human experience.
“And so we may turn to him, as did Ariadne. The flax for the linen of his thread he has gathered from the fields of the human imagination… Furthermore we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”
Joseph Campbell “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”
The Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, once made the observation that one of the most difficult things a person had to do in life was to confront and integrate the ’shadow’, or dark, negative side of the personality, those aspects of ourselves that have been banished from our daylight existence. The ancient Greek story of Theseus and the Minotaur speaks metaphorically of this process. At the zenith of its power and influence, so the story goes, there was at the center of the old Minoan empire in Crete, a proud king named Minos. He was, in fact, the offspring of Zeus himself who had abducted his mother, Europa, in the form of a great bull.
Minos’ authority is signified, appropriately enough, by a magnificent white bull sent by Poseidon from the sea-- the same sea which has provided the mercantile kingdom with its great wealth, giving it access to places as distant as the isle of Eiru at the edge the western ocean. He is asked, after a time, to return the animal to the source of his power in sacrifice. This Minos cannot or will not do. He offers a substitute instead, and his undoing is set in motion.
In a strange parody of his own origins, his queen, Pasiphae, is possessed by a bizarre desire to mate with the supernatural beast. There is perhaps a dimension of symbolism here more obvious to the ancients than to us. For millennia the bull had been the mythic embodiment of an ever dying, ever regenerated god. Bull imagery in this context has been unearthed as far back as the early city-states of Sumer. This concept of an immortal fertility and strength is expressed in the frequent sacrifice of these animals in ancient times, most probably the ancestor of the modern day ritual of the Spanish Torida. The desire for sexual union with such a creature, pathological and perverse in ordinary literal terms, may have carried the idea of a longing for oneness with the immortal realm. Minos himself was, after all, the result of just such a union. But in this instance the outcome is a monster, half bull, half man, a curse and embarrassment to his kingdom. Being of divine origin however, the creature can’t simply be killed. He is in this way oddly like the seemingly indestructible by-products of abuse and denial that dwell in the unconscious.
Permitted to exist, but unwanted, he is shut away to rage and starve in the intricate passageways of a cleverly constructed maze. Every nine years the subject state of Athens is forced to send fourteen youths, male and female, to be sent into the intricate passageways to be devoured by the cannibal Minotaur (Minos’ Bull). One year the son of King Aegeus of Athens offers to go with them. Although the venture is considered completely suicidal, as often happens in these tales, assistance has already been prepared by the gods. The young warrior, Theseus, is aided by the Cretan king’s daughter, Ariadne, who is stricken with love the moment he steps from the black sailed vessel. She arranges to give him a ball of golden thread with which to find his way back once the monster has been met and overcome. Into the dark mouth of the cavern he ventures, closed around by the dank, sullen atmosphere of inhuman death, clutching the thread, and perhaps the mental image of the beautiful, olive-eyed Ariadne.
There in the depths he must confront the ‘dark twin,’ the brutal, alien other that waits to devour him. In metaphorical language he makes the night journey that so many literal men and women have undertaken, into their own soul’s fearful, unmapped places to grapple with hidden terrors. Ariadne, it must be remembered, is something far more than an infatuated girl. She is the granddaughter of Zeus, and therefore carries a strain of divinity. On a deeper level she represents the goddess-helper that appears at a crucial moment to aid the hero on his quest. She can be understood to embody, in symbolic form, that aspect of the feminine that contains seemingly contradictory natures, encompassing the passivity of the deer and the fierceness of the wolf. She becomes a mediator between pairs of opposites, the ‘guide into the labyrinth’ that enables the seeker to face the dark secret and return to daylight.