A mythological system, in short, according to this view, is a natural, I spontaneous production of the individual psyche, but a socially controlled reorganization of the imprints of childhood, so contrived that the sign stimuli that move the individual will conduce to the well-being of the local culture, and of that local culture alone. What is effective, as well as distinctive, in every mythology, therefore, is its locally ordered architecture, not the bricks (the infantile imprints and their affects) of which this structure is composed: and this architecture, this organization, differs significantly, according to place, time, and culture stage.
However, there is one more great aspect and function of mythology to be noted–and here we find ourselves moving away again from local, back to general terms; for man has not only to be led by myth from the infantile attitude of dependency to an adult assumption of responsibility in terms of the system of sentiments of his tribe, but also, in adulthood, to be prepared to face the mystery of death: to absorb the mysterium tremendum of being: for man, like no other animal, not only knows that he is killing when he kills but also knows that he too will die; and the length of his old age, furthermore, is-like his infancy-a lifetime in itself, as long as the entire life span of many a beast. Furthermore, even in the period of childhood, and certainly throughout one’s adult years, the wonder of death–the awesome, dreadful transformations that immediately follow death–strike the mind with an impact not to be dismissed. The reconciliation of consciousness with the monstrous thing that is life–which lives on death, terminates in death, and begins with the curiously dreamlike event of a birth–is a function served by all primitive and most high-culture mythologies that is of no less weight and consequence than the function of imprinting a sociology. Indeed, the local sociology itself rides upon the mystery of life, which, like the mythological sea beneath the earth, is always there. And so, even when serving their social function, mythologies are dealing not only with sentiments not innate to man, “developed in the individual by the action of the society upon him,” but also with what James Joyce termed, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the “grave and constant in human sufferings.”*
“You have noticed,” said the old Sioux medicine man, Black Elk, to the poet John G. Neihardt, “that the truth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad with suffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughing or weeping.” 49
The Greeks subsumed a like insight in the image of their two contrasting masks, of tragedy and of comedy.
“In the heyoka ceremony,” Black Elk said, “everything is backwards, and it is planned that the people shall be made to feel jolly and happy first, so that it may be easier for the power to come to them …. When people are already in despair, maybe the laughing face is better for them; and when they feel too good and are too sure of being safe, maybe the weeping face is better for them to see. And so I think that is what the heyoka ceremony [the Comic Mask] is for.”50
Mythology and the rites through which its imagery is rendered open the mind, that is to say, not only to the local social order but also to the mystery dimension of being-of nature-which is within as well as without, and thereby finally at one with itself. Moreover, the sentiments of this nature within are indeed innate: of love, for example, hate, fear, and disdain, wonder, terror, and joy. They are not “developed in the individual,” as the anthropologist states, “by the action of the society upon him,” but evoked by these means and directed to sociological ends. Nature is prime: it is there at birth; Society is next: it is only a shaper of Nature, and a function, moreover, of what it shapes; whereas Nature is as deep and, finally, inscrutable as Being itself. Or, as Thomas Mann once phrased this truth:
Man is not only a social, but also a metaphysical being. In other words, he is not merely a social individual, but also a personality. Consequently, it is wrong to confuse what is above the individual in us with society, to translate it completely into sociology. Doing that, one leaves the metaphysical aspect of the person, what is truly above the individual, out of account; for it is in the personality, not the mass, that the actual superordinated principal is to be found.
THE PERSONAL FACTOR
And so we find that even in the most emphatically group-oriented traditions the preservation of the mythological lore is entrusted not to the merely practical men, alert to the needs of the day, but to individuals believed to be uncommonly endowed, whose visionary consciousness transcends the claims of the light world. “It is hard,” said the old Sioux Black Elk to his friend, the poet John G. Neihardt, “to follow one great vision in this world of darkness and of many changing shadows. Among these shadows men get lost.” 52 And indeed, even among the very primitive pigmies of the Andaman Islands-to the study of whose extremely simple stone-age culture the anthropologist Dr. Radcliffe-Brown devoted the very volume from which his above-quoted pronouncement concerning social sentiments was taken-it was not the social leaders but the “dreamers” (oko-jumu), the medicine men, who were honored as the authorities on all legendary lore. Moreover, this legendary lore was the base on which the social order itself was founded: all the rites, private and public, all the aim and all the means of life. 53 And these medicine men, who spoke from I dreams, had gained their group-supporting wisdom through experiences or their own, outside the social compound, through personal contact, one way or another, with the spirits; as classified by Radcliffe-Brown: (a) through dying and coming back to life again; (b) through meeting spirits in the jungle; or (c) through extraordinary dreams.54 Likewise Black Elk, the Oglala Keeper of the Sacred Pipe, had had a vision of his own–already at the age of nine: and it was to this that he owed those spiritual powers that had qualified him for the priestly office he held. (FWG 85-87)