Mythopoeic Imagination

“Two great remnants of Egyptian antiquity have come down to us. One of them is that the Egyptians reduced all preceding world time to three ages; namely, the age of gods, the age of heroes, and the age of men. The other is that during these three ages three languages had been spoken, corresponding in order to the three aforesaid ages; namely, the hieroglyphic or sacred language, the symbolic or figurative (which is the heroic) language, and the epistolary or vulgar language of men employing conventional signs for communicating the common needs of their life.
— Giambattista Vico
An epoch begins with a divine consciousness of cosmic myth in the age of the gods. By the time of the following age of heroes half the cosmic myth is gone, and, with it, half the divine consciousness. By the time of the age of men the myth and the consciousness halve again, leaving only a quarter of the original. Finally, in the ultimate age of barbarism and chaos, little of the original myth of divine consciousness remains at all. But as entropy reaches its limit in chaos, there is a reversal in the cycle, a cosmic form is generated out of the only ground large enough for it, namely, chaos. Chaos creates the fertile decay in which the seeds leftover from the previous age of gods spring to life to create a new cosmic myth and a new age of gods. We spiral back to the past in a future on a higher plane.

As an illustration of this historical process, consider the Sumerian civilization. The first age was definitely the age of the gods; men insisted that they did not build the great cities, that gods from the sky built them and brought to man all the arts of civilization. As the colony began to grow and prosper, the gods departed, leaving only a steward, an ensi, to look after things in their absence. The gods said they would return, but given the relativistic time-shift, what may be only a short journey for them could take thousands of years of our historical time. But the memory of man is short; soon the ensis began to exercise power on their own terms, and stewardship evolved into kingship. For awhile the kings ruled with respect for the old cosmic mythology, but with faction replacing faction, it was only a matter of a few centuries before the skepticism of the rulers was shared by the whole populace.

As secularism and the philosophy of naked power grew, the cosmic myths that held the civilization together and rooted it in the universe were torn apart. Men no longer believed in anything. Since the society no longer held together on its own, it was compressed by force and militaristic terror. The military state, whether of Sargon of Agade or Moctezuma of Mexico, is the last desperate collectivization of a disintegrating society. But states organized for conquest inevitably organize their enemies to conquer them…The three ages of Sumerian civilization can be summarized in the following beliefs of the rulers: (1) “The gods rule through me”; (2) “I rule for the gods”; and (3) “I rule!”

It is easy to see the structure of Sumerian civilization because it is over and we are far enough away to observe its general form. But it is harder to perceive the form of our own immediate historical condition. Cultural transformations are so large that they are invisible to normal individuals. If you went around in England in the 1790s asking how it felt to be living in an age of industrial revolution, most people would not know what you were talking about. But if you went to see “the lunatic” William Blake, he would tell you about the meaning of the great transformation by moving back and forth from one end of history to the other in a notation especially designed for ideas that large — mythology.”

“Events that are too large to be perceived in immediate history register in the unconscious in the collective form of myth, and since artists and visionaries possess strongly mythopoeic imaginations, they can express in the microcosm of their works what is going on in the macrocosm of mankind. Because they lack economic power, they are open to other possibilities, and they can cultivate other faculties. Ironically, it is only the man who is free to do without technology who is in a position to master it.”

— William Irwin Thompson (1973), from “Planetary Mythologies” in Passages About Earth, pp. 121-123

“In the space-time of the unconscious, the past and the future mysteriously interpenetrate in exactly the way the ancient Maya understood in their fantastic calendar of millions of years of cyclical, spiraling time. The priestly hierarchy knew that this planet earth was an enormous vehicle moving through infinite expanses of space and time. In the temples the priests kept the records of who we were, where we came from, and where we were going. But as the cosmic myth of the age of gods decayed through time, the distance between the decadent priesthood and the oppressed peasantry increased. The peasants rose up, attacked the ceremonial centers, and then abandoned them — to lower their horizons from the stars to their fields of growing corn.”

— William Irwin Thompson (1973), from “Planetary Mythologies” in Passages About Earth, p. 126

“If a person is open to a new worldview, it can often mean that he is not firmly rooted in the reality of the old world view; as a lunatic or an alienated artist, his own neurotic traits can become magnified as they tremble with the new energy pouring in from the universal source. In the history of ideas an new idea is often first picked up by a crazy person, then elaborated by an artist who is more interested in its imaginative possibilities than in its literal truth; then it is picked up by a scholar or scientist who has become familiar with the idea through the work of the artist; the savant makes the hitherto crazy idea perfectly acceptable to the multitude, until finally the idea rests as a certainty in the hands of a bureaucracy of pedants…But when an idea has become so routinized with the pedants, there is a “ricorso” back to stage one and a new generation of crazies shocks us by talking of extraterrestrial intervention in human evolution.”

— William Irwin Thompson (1973), from “Planetary Mythologies” in Passages About Earth, pp. 131-132

“The point is to see the present crisis of earth in the light of the cataclysms that have destroyed the previous civilizations of lost time. The gods gather and decide to send yet another mission to the incorrigible planet, and, a briefing is held to prepare them for their descent. The gods descend to become men, but to live among men they must lose all memory of their divinity. They will have to discover one another on earth, recover their memories through intuition, and piece together the members of the descent.”

— William Irwin Thompson (1973), from “Planetary Mythologies” in Passages About Earth, pp. 136-137

“Something is carrying on an extended conversation, through the opening and closing of our epochs, with the informational cells of our civilization. Some say it is Christ preparing for his Second Coming; pagans would say it is the return of the gods in their flying saucers; technologists would say that it is not to the heavens we should look for an explanation, but to the earth: they themselves are the new gods who are ending the trivial culture of Homo Sapiens through genetic engineering. If we take all the variants of this planetary mythology, and try to sort out the information from the noise, we come up with four propositions of a new world view.

1. There is intelligent life in the universe beyond earth. 2. The meeting we are expecting in front of us in linear time has already occurred, is now occurring, and will continue to occur. The gods do not talk to us, they play through us with our history. 3. There is more to our history than the meager record of six thousand years. Our religious myths are the detritus of the lost history of earth. 4. Our subjective-objective distinctions about reality are incorrect. As in the world view of the Hopi Indians, Matter, Energy, and Consciousness form a continuum.

As the old civilization of the industrial nation-states is falling apart, it is also falling into new forms of a very old consciousness. Within this consciousness an ancient vision of reality is taking us into another dimension in which we can find our bearings once again to make the transition from civilization to planetization. Some god or Weltgeist has been making a movie out of us for the past six thousand years, and now we have turned a corner on the movie set of reality and have discovered the boards propping up the two-dimensional monuments of human history. The movement of humanism has reached its limit, and now at that limit it is breaking apart into the opposites of mechanism and mysticism and moving along the circumference of a vast new sphere of posthuman thought.

A new ideology is being created in advance of its social need; what particular institutional form this ideology will take no one can say. Perhaps it will take no institutional form at all, for it now seems that social institutions are no longer adequate vehicles of cultural evolution. We cannot go to church to find radiant Godhead, to the army to find glory in war, or to the universities to find aesthetic transfiguration or wisdom. Now only mysticism seems well suited to the post-institutional anarchism of technetronic culture, on the one hand and the infinite posthuman universe on the other. The internal disciplines of the great mystical traditions seem to offer the only means by which man can feel at home in a universe so vast that, without the self-mastery and centering functions of meditation, he would go insane instantly.

Mystics think that they are solitary visionaries of God, but actually, in the transition from civilization to planetization, they have become the true political scientists. Mysticism seems impractical in technological culture because it is the dialectical negation of that culture and the affirmation of the next culture…Now, man is too busy with his elaborate tools to create the even more dazzlingly simple and advanced planetization.”

“There are many paradoxes in the dialectical process of history. As one looks at the mirror-images bouncing off one another, it would seem that for every thought there is an equal and opposite action. Religions that are created to liberate us end up controlling us; technologies that are created to rationalize us end up by mystically stimulating us. In each case it was the man who rejected the society of technology who, again paradoxically, became the artistic master of that technology. To work “within the system” of a technology is to be turned into a functionary of the tool; to wield a tool one must grasp it from the outside.”

— William Irwin Thompson (1973), from “Planetary Mythologies” in Passages About Earth, pp. 139-142

“All through evolution man has survived because he remained generalized and adaptable. He did not grow a claw on his arm; he held a tool and put it aside when he was finished with it. Now our tools are not single objects, but an entire culture of technology and management. We are not free to drop the culture of technology and move on to something else, because now the culture is trying to grow on its own terms by adapting us to it. The mechanists wish to alter human nature to make the vestigial ape in man fit for life in a technological society; the mystics wish to change man through consciousness and “kundalini, the evolutionary energy” for both Faust and Buddha there is no such thing as normalcy; the green earth at its best is still a cosmic playpen. The mechanist and the mystic maybe opposites in content, but they are not opposites in structure, because cultures progress dialectically: they break into the opposing forces that are in collusion with one another to end the old and bring in the new…Humanists and ecologists want to make the earth comfortable to their bodies, but the mechanists are destroying the earth as fast as an insect destroys its cocoon. And though mystics may not build factories, they seem just as intent on regarding the death of earth as the birth of the new cosmic man.”

— William Irwin Thompson (1973), from “Planetary Mythologies” in Passages About Earth, pp. 143-144

“Now as human culture seems to be accelerating to the speed of light, it does seem, in proper Einsteinian fashion, as if our mass were expanding to infinity. Cultures move through the medium of time as airplanes move through the medium of air, so it is no wonder that both the mechanists and the mystics are trying to streamline the design of human culture. But our culture is so wholly novel that it seems to be affecting the very nature of time itself. Because human culture is coming to a point, the distance between the edges of good and evil seems to be narrowing. The multinational corporations are devoted to profits and the exploitation of resources; nevertheless, they are creating structures for planetization. They are also accelerating the ecological death of the planet, and this in turn is accelerating the mystical transformation of mankind by stimulating the appearance of a new religious sensibility.

Under the threat of species annihilation, Homo Sapiens is trying to accomplish its transformation into a new species. Since aeons ago man made his own culture into the vehicle of his evolution, the appearance of this new species is to be found not in individual babies with three eyes in their heads but in the cultural vehicle itself. The mechanist works in great contempt for human nature and hopes to improve the race through genetic engineering and electronic manipulation of the brain; the mystic avoids the Faustian pathology of the mechanist and regards machines as crude metaphors for the real powers of the spirit…In walking away from the culture of technology, the mystic spirals back in the direction of the past and up to the post-technological culture of the future. In a phenomenology of opposites there is an exchange of characteristics in which the mystic becomes the new political scientist and the mechanist becomes the solitary laboratory man cut off from his fellow men in pursuit of some alien vision.”

“But the most immediate danger of our technological system of management is that it is interfering with the movements of cultural evolution that are making man ready for planetization. As long as mechanism is checked by mysticism, and as long as planetary technology is checked by planetary mythology, the dialectic works out and the Pythagorean synthesis of mysticism and science is possible; but if one wins out over the other we will have a linear reduction of the wave. The future is in neither the world-denying asceticism of India nor the world-destroying industrialism of America. Just as once Pythagoras took the East into Greece to create the foundation of Western civilization, so has his spirit returned to take India into America to create the foundation of our earthly planetization.”

— William Irwin Thompson (1973), from “Planetary Mythologies” in Passages About Earth, pp. 145-147

“If we are experiencing a change in the cultural vehicle of human evolution, and a new kind of man is emerging, then it is not likely that the old man will willingly disinherit himself. When a culture is at the edge of extinction, it explodes, like the seed from a hanged man, into primitive seminal movements that try to make a new life for the dying culture through a desperate “simplification through intensity.” If Middle America attacked the young for rejecting its middle-class life style, one can imagine the scope of persecution leveled against men who reject their species’ life. Perhaps this is why the Hopi Indians see the evolutionary mutants being taken away by the gods. According to some Hopi prophecies, the earth’s magnetic field will reverse and the sun’s radiation will burn out the dense undergrowth in preparation for a new planting of the racially hybrid, planetized man.”

“Perhaps in the spiral of time there is an occult closeness between primitive Christianity and contemporary anarchist Christianity, and at the intersection of myth and history only a union of contradictory opposites can express the truth beyond institutionalization. There is the hopeful sign that the new decentralizing informational technology has helped to overcome the dreary split between avant-garde and hick backlash that has characterized the thinking of an America dominated by an urban and sophisticated elite. Since it was the urban revolution of 6000 years ago that first split human culture into urban and rural values, perhaps now that we are beginning to live in global villages, we are beginning to overcome the habits of mind of the millennia of civilized man.

Since religion has always been about what lies beyond the container of urban civilization, I doubt if we have come to the end of man’s religious experience. In fact, only man’s religious myths have been thinking on a scale large enough to deal with what is happening. If man is coming to the end of hominization, the next step in human evolution cannot be simply another tool added to a list that stretches from fist-hatchets to computers. The next step will be like the transformation that altered an ape into a man, and looking at our planetary mythologies, we can see that this is what we have been waiting for.”

— William Irwin Thompson (1973), from “Planetary Mythologies” in Passages About Earth, pp. 148-149

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