It started when I saw a painting, a work by Renaissance painter Correggio entitled "Jupiter and Io." In the image, a naked woman lies in the embrace of a dark and consuming fog which has unfurled itself around her body and has the slight outline of a face gently kissing her on the mouth. It’s a beautiful but strange image and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I wanted to know the background story. Who was this woman? And who or what was the beloved supernatural force that she held onto dearly? I bought Edith Campbell's famous book, “Mythology,” a digestible compendium of Greek and Roman myths, and got reading.
Now, I see the archetypes of Greek and Roman mythology everywhere. They are everywhere. I can’t help but draw parallels between Katniss Everdeen of "The Hunger Games" and the “protectress of dewy youth,” fierce archer, huntress and goddess Artemis. I even hear it in day-to-day language. The word “panic” brings to mind Hermes’s son, the goat-hoofed god Pan to whom wandering travelers attributed the strange, wild sounds of the nighttime.
Why do these myths remain so relevant? Though the prevalence of Greek and Roman mythologies in modern day art and media can be attributed partly to our society's position in the grand flow of history, it still doesn’t explain why virtually indistinguishable archetypes repeat in different societies across time or how certain stories continuously have such weight on our collective psyches.
Carl Jung, the famous psychoanalyst, argued that such archetypes are self-portraits of human instincts. Not only are these epic figures and symbols present in mythology, fairytales and religion, but also dreams and those inaccessible parts of ourselves. He claimed that archetypal images are older than mankind, belonging to the collective unconscious. Though perhaps his perspective is a bit extreme, stories and characters are often a way through which we understand ourselves and our world.
While reading Campbell's "Mythology," I started to hear a lot of familiar terms and names from one of my favorite TV shows, "Battlestar Galactica," which draws heavily from Greek mythology (and which I would recommend to almost anyone, despite the “nerdy” stigma around it.) I’ve started to re-watch the whole series, excited that I now understand a whole host of references. One line that is repeated throughout the show and has emerged as significant to me is, “All of this has happened before and it will happen again.” Archetypes and myths are a part of the human condition, speaking to what makes us human, and thus will continue to emerge in art throughout history.
Unlike some other mythic idols throughout history, the Grecian gods were riddled through with flaws. They entertained the trivial and petty, blinded by all-consuming obsessions. Even Zeus himself, the king of Olympus, was adulterous and impulsive. His wife, Hera, violently jealous, wrathful and temperamental. Perhaps these flawed characters are in fact psychological projections, a means by which we can unconsciously reject those aspects of ourselves we find undesirable.
The lives of the Greek gods are simultaneously both human in nature, a mirror of man's own psychological dramas, yet also part of a larger cosmological play made meaningful through their (literally) epic proportions. Campbell writes in Mythology: “To the people who told these stories all the universe was alive with the same kind of life they knew in themselves. They were individual persons, so they personified everything which had the obvious marks of life, everything which moved and changed: earth in winter and summer; the sky with its shifting stars, the restless sea, and so on. It was only a dim personification: something vague and immense which with its motion brought about change and was therefore alive.” Artists isolate, reorganize, beautify, manipulate and compile the day-to-day of life, attempting to unearth some truth that’s been missed, to imbue it with humanity.We live in a world where billions have come before us and where archetypes have been defined and redefined. As a human in the Internet age, I sometimes feel like everything has been said and all art created. In the face of such a legacy, it is easy to freeze and feel like nothing I could create would be original or as good as what has come before me. Tavi Gevinson, founder and editor of online magazine "Rookie," explains the beautiful side of this in a talk at the Sydney Royal Opera; art helps "you feel connected to other people, and you realize these feelings pass through all of us, and they have for years and years and you’ll be okay.”
In a previous editor's note, Kathy Zhou wrote that it has "never been easier to feel so discouraged and lost by your work: that it isn’t a real work of art, you aren’t a real artist and besides, everyone recycles the same material and technique, everyone shares in the same trite influences and wisdoms."
Art is and has always been a form of recycling, taking those things we know and reordering them in new combinations, using what is shared to emote something individual. Maybe your new combination of the old will speak to someone in a beautiful and new way. The parts may be finite but the combinations are endless.