The Emotions of Myth

This paper explores the idea that myth addresses the primary emotions that are evoked at times of pain, crisis and failure. These emotions can be difficult to handle at an individual and cultural level. They are often repressed. Myth, it is suggested, can be seen as a guide to handling these deep emotions and what can be seen as ‘trauma’ in an individual or culture’s life.

We plan to use these emotional systems as part of the explorations of the Myths on the Nine Waves III Fenian Series.

The Emotions of Myth

This paper explores the idea that a central function of myth is to help an individual and culture work and engage with the challenges caused by experiences that evoke difficult powerful emotions, that are difficult to handle and process. These crisis moments in life are evoked through the telling and retelling of these ancient stories, and these moments stir deep emotions and memory. These great narratives which are the bedrock of perennial philosophy continue to live in our human experience through our dreams, memories and are aroused in our emotions. They usually involve our relationship with significance, power, intimacy or indeed transcendence,      Myth, in this sense, it is suggested, a potential guide for us as individuals and as cultures. 

If the emotions are not dealt with they are suppressed and become unconscious.  Emotions are deep arousal states in our psyches and are experienced through our bodies in ways that point towards what we need. This is usually experienced through a sense of lack and we often cover up this sense of seeking what we need by our defences, This is usually experienced as anxiety,  Typically this means they are likely to have unintended effects: limiting development and growth setting up defences to have deep feelings, causing mental and physical illness and harm, often self-harm.  From a cultural and political perspective this can lead to decisions and choices that are against one’s self interest, both individually and collectively.  These difficult experiences and the emotions they evoke tend to throw the internal systems out of balance.

The myths themselves are tales about situations and circumstances that evoke or trigger these primary emotions.  The wisdom of the myths is that these emotional systems need to be in balance and that any imbalance leads to illness and disorder, mental and physical at an individual, community, cultural and cosmic level.

In this regard the task of the Bard (or Shaman) would be to draw from the vast store of cultural myths in their possession those stories or story that best speaks to the circumstance, imbalances and disorders of the moment.  And it would be at those moments of greatest crisis, danger, illness, pain, failure and even trauma that these interventions could be most helpful and transformative.  What myths offer is a dramatic set of figures (archetypes) and a dramatic situation.  For the listener the myth is heard as a reflection of their own situation so that they can identify with the story they are hearing, and yet it is not the actual situation or experience.  The myth is both familiar yet distant.

It is this paradox of familiarity/distance, it is/it isn’t that gives myth and particularly myth telling a potentially very important role in helping individuals, communities, nations deal with crisis, pain and failure.  What can happen after a painful experience is that the emotions are too strong to handle.  We effectively short circuit.  The emotions are suppressed.  They become unconscious.

And there is a silence.  The stories are not told.  They are too painful to tell.  The danger here is that if the experience/feelings are not dealt with they become frozen.  And this freezing can leave the individual or the collective frozen too and unable to move on. And the problem there is that undealt with emotions tend in an uncanny way to repeat.

A Consequence: Two Types of Rhetoric

We learn from neuroscience the centrality of ‘emotion’, especially primary emotions, in shaping action and choices.  The maxim being ‘we feel before we think’ and ‘you can’t change feelings with facts’.  The consequences are evident in modernity in the ability of certain politicians and campaigns to evoke deep emotions (especially fear and anger) to influence choices made at the ballot box.  This style of campaigning is not based on the rational form of rhetoric that is core to our education and academic systems.  With this rationally based method you state your premises and assumptions and then follow a logical argument that reaches a conclusion. The belief and assumption is that it is this logic that will lead to the persuasion of the listener  This is the Greco-Roman system of logic.  We call it Blue Rhetoric.

Another type of rhetoric is based more on what philosopher Kenneth Burke would call “identification”.  It operates by speaking to the deep, largely unconscious emotions of the listener.  The result is the listener feels “you get me”, you understand me and especially my feelings of fear, anger and resentment.  Indeed the storytypically evokes and stirs those feelings. The teller can also make it OK to have these negative feelings.  The teller can make it alright to feel angry and hateful.  The rhetoric style will use a story/myth that creates an enemy who has caused the situation, I then have someone to blame, and hate.  They are the ‘mob at the gates’ who threaten your very survival. It is, therefore, perfectly legitimate to hate.  And that can feel good.

This form of emotion based rhetoric we call Red Rhetoric.  It can make the listener feel good in their victimhood and their hatred.  It can also speak to their hopes and longing, “I’ll take you to the Promised Land”.  The association/immersion can confer identity and meaning to the listener.

One of the unfortunate aspects of modernity is that those what are most naturally gifted at ‘red rhetoric’ and at the ‘Identification’ style of persuasion are charismatic leaders most of whom have authoritarian tendencies. They also tend to have one, two or three of the most common personality disorders: paranoia, psychoses and narcissist.  They seem to have a deep, probably unconscious sense of these deep primary emotional systems and. can evoke them in their audience to good political effect. Meanwhile the other blue rhetoric folk are putting together policy papers, campaign strategies and running focus groups!  The Red Rhetoric folk are drawing on deep cultural myths to connect, emotionally, deeply and immersively.

It is, then, one of the central missions of the Bard Mythologies Project, to help ‘healthy’ folk understand how red rhetoric/identification storytelling and myth making works.  The “Emotions of Myth” are very important.  We must know the Myths we live by.  And it is the immersion in to the culture’s myths that is one powerful and effective way to understand this world.

But what then are the primary emotional systems.  What are the emotions evoked during difficult and even traumatic times?  How can we recognise them?  How can we process them? There are also important secondary emotional systems.  It is proposed to spell out these primary and secondary emotion systems so we can recognise the way the myths are working with them.  We will draw on some theorists whose work relates to this areas.  

The Primary Emotion sand Myth

It was the Estonian American Jaak Pankseep whose work, “Affective Neuroscience” identified seven primary emotional systems.  His work meant probing the neural construction of emotions and the location was the deep foundation of the mammalian brain.  These are the emotions that are viscerally felt.  They elicit a chemical reaction in the body.  And they are emotions that lead to action, they directly affect our behaviour and choices.  They are also, we are suggesting the emotions that are triggered by an immersion in a cultural myth and especially when well told!

Pankseep outlines seven primary emotional systems.  Four are what can be called positive.  They are Seeking, Care, Play and Lust.  Three are more negative: Fear, Sadness and Anger.  

While describing the emotions of fear, sadness and anger as negative it is also important to point that anger fear and sadness can also be positive emotions. Anger can be what gets you what you want in good ways too. Fear is self-protective and could well save your life. Sadness can be a necessary release. 

But in most cases these emotions are experienced in the context of a negative experience: danger (fear), sadness (loss) and anger (an aggressive transgression)

So returning to myth and narrative, what we can say is that mythic narrative is always about a change of state, a transformation in the story from one emotion, negative to another, positive.  Here is an initial proposed outline of what these emotional transformations might be:

One of the skills of a Bard would be to have an intuitive sense of the collective emotions of a community and then make a choice from the vast database of cultural stories as to where that group of people were, emotionally.  The Bardic Skill then is to tell the myth in such a way that the audience get the feeling, that is how I feel, this storyteller really understands me, and almost understands me better than I do myself.  The result is identification.  And it is this that leads to a deep loyalty, love and on the shadow side what can be a cult like following.

What is also important is the transformation.  There is a quote people don’t remember what you say, but they do remember how you left them feeling” (adapted from Maya Angelou).  The gifted Bard will take the audience through the negative emotion, with which they identify.  But then leave them in a state where there is a release or catharsis.  Interestingly, as folk singers are with their soul songs, and tragedians how with their drama, you don’t always have to literally talk/sing them out of the emotion.  Experience fear, even terror or sadness felt deeply can be strongly uplifting.

The Secondary Emotions and Myth

There are another group of emotions that might be described as rooted in culture or human groupings.  They are perhaps not always as immediately visceral as the primary emotions but they are nevertheless invariably very deeply felt.  And they can be closely linked with the primary emotions as outlined above.  These emotions include Guilt and Shame and we will look at the work of British sociologist, Anthony Giddens in relation to these.  They also include Jealousy and Envy and here the work of French historian and philosopher, Rene Girard is helpful.⎯ Giddens and Guilt/Shame

Giddens locates the emotions of Guilt and Shame in the emotions related to trust especially with regard to the early caregivers.  He describes guilt as the anxiety produced by fear of transgression, it concerns things done or not done.  The obverse of guilt, according to Giddens is reparation.  You make good the transgression.

Before outlining his views on shame, Giddens has some interesting things to say about identity: “A person’s identity is not to be found in behaviour, nor important though this is – in the reactions of others, but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going”. Shame, for Giddens, is directly connected to one’s self identity.  It is fears of being able to sustain the narrative by which we sustain a ‘coherent biography’.  A moment of shame is a real threat to the story/myth we live by.   He also refers to Helen Lewis’s distinction between ‘overt’ and ‘bypassed’ shame.  Overt are the feelings where a child is humiliated by another person.  Bypassed shame is an experience of feeling that I am inadequate, my ‘self’ is not good enough.  The ‘bypass’ is beyond unacknowledged guilt.

The distinctions are further laid out in a table by Giddens in his book ‘Modernity and Self Identify’.  

Guilt axis Shame axis
Concerned with discrete acts related to the violation of codes or taboos Involves cumulative processes, in which autonomy is developed by surmounting repressions Exposure of misdemeanours or transgressions  Concern about violation of codes of ‘proper behaviour’ in respect of the body Feeling of wrongdoing towards a respected or loved other Trust based on absence of betrayal or disloyalty  Surmounting of guilt leads to sentiments of moral uprightness Concerned with the overall tissue of Self-identity Involves insight into the nature of the narrative of self-identity, which does not necessarily progress in a cumulative way Exposure of hidden traits which compromise the narrative of self-identity Concern about the body in relation to the mechanisms of self-identity Feeling that one is inadequate for a respected or loved other Trust based on being ‘known to the other’, where self-revelation does not incur anxieties over exposure Transcending of shame leads to secure self-identity 

⎯ Rene Girard and Envy

Rene Girard articulated the mimetic theory.  At its core is the insight that beyond the satisfaction of our basic appetites and desires we are not really sure of what we really want.  Therefore, we are constantly on the look-out beyond ourselves.  And when we see someone who has that desire we find we now recognise what it is we want.  We copy, which is the term mimesis, what is another’s desires.

There is a triad of relationships in this system of Girard’s:

It is the excluded desirer that has the intense feelings – of envy.

Advertising works strongly with this idea of memetic desire, with this notion of imitation.

The problems arise when someone else has that object of desire and we do not.  It is this feeling that leads to jealousy and particularly envy and it is these intense feelings that can lead to violence.  Girard goes on to develop this theory about how scapegoating is a common cultural mechanism for handling the violence and the danger of it spreading out of control.

Scapegoating becomes unity (and peace) minus one.  Someone is expelled but the rest of the collective returns to feelings of contentment. Girard then suggest that the Judeo Christian Revolution in the gospels is an exposure and a reversal of the whole scapegoating process.  The violence of the crucifixion being the work of the sinful and envious human beings.

What is important about ‘mimesis’ or imitation is it plays a powerful role in bringing people together.  A community will imitate a style of chess, mannerisms, language, values and behaviour.  It is therefore a force for unity, for gregariousness, a uniting force in community, culture and nation.  On the less attractive side it can be a force for bland conformity and a dull uniformity.

It is though when we bring desire in that we can see that this mimetic process can both draw people together and pull them apart.  And it can do so simultaneously.  The best of friends can become the worst of enemies.

The two emotions that are relevant here are envy and jealousy.  Envy means an intense discontent longing for what someone else has, for the advantages they have.  Jealousy can be seen as an unpleasant suspicion when something desirable that is possessed is threatened.  Jealousy occurs when you sense the presence of a rival.

How then do these secondary emotions of guilt and shame and envy and jealousy work out in a mythic context.  What are the emotional/narrative transformations.

What has to be said is that with these emotions the individual/community has some choices, some agency.  With the intensity of the emotions of shame and guilt, envy and jealousy it has been the case that these emotions can be exploited by those seeking power.  This can work by evoking and exacerbating these feelings, then legitimizing them for the listener (the identification model).  The message is ‘it is OK to feel like this’.

The consequence of this is the listener(s) are framed as the victim of circumstance.  The next step is to fuel someone, some group to blame (scapegoating) and indeed hate.  This can create an in-group and good feelings that are certainly a lot better than shame and envy.  The mythic vehicle though is invariably that of the Strong Man (Moses, Marduk, Yahweh, Cowboy) who alone can deal with the threat, the cause of the shaming, the possessions of that which is desired.

The identification of the group with the myth teller (the political figure) can be deep and intense.  They invariably have a guru/god like status.  But the consequences are dependency, and stuckness and in the worstcase violence against the ‘out group’ who has caused the intense feelings.

Where to?

It is proposed that we work with, debate, refine the paper on ‘Emotion and Myth’.  It is proposed we seek to explore how the ‘emotions’ and associated transformations apply in relation to the myths we are exploring.  And finally it is proposed we discuss what are the consequences and implications.


October 2022

Listen to our Stories
Become a Subscriber
Contact Us

Subscribe to our Newsletter