Folklore and the Collective Unconscious: The Mythological Connection Between Disparate Cultures

Writing by Ali Gavin. Illustration by Antonia Popescu.

Most of us have grown up hearing stories - or the remnants of stories - that date back to the earliest days of humanity. Some legends are specific to certain cultures, while other folklore tales have travelled far beyond the bounds of their original borders to become universally-recognised (think Jack and the Beanstalk, Robin Hood, the Pied Piper, etc.).

Depending on where you’re from, you might have been raised within a culture that places significant value on its myths and folklore. For me, this was the case. I grew up reading and being read to from a range of big, bright books which sought to make ancient tales palatable to the young minds of the 21st century. Their beautifully illustrated pages told the stories of Cú Chulainn, of the Children of Lir, of Niamh Cinn Óir and the Salmon of Knowledge, to name just a few. These are tales that have been told and retold throughout history, to the point of being instantly recognisable to even the most modern of Irish people.

In all likelihood, I thought of these stories at the time as standalone tales - delightful, magical and full of colour, but not symbols of a general human psyche (the general human psyche not really being on the radar of a five-year-old). Growing up, though, I’ve come to realise just how interconnected such stories are, not only with the people and culture from which they are born, but also with similar stories from far-away communities and cultures. When you move beyond the myths and legends woven into your own culture and look at those from other cultures, you start to see the suggestion of something that appears to link them.

The exact nature of this something hasn’t been conclusively agreed upon. There are many different thinkers with many different approaches and theories - some linguistic, some psychological, some even biological. There is an entire field of study, called comparative mythology, dedicated to the comparison of myths from around the world, searching for this something. Some people go as far as to posit the idea of one ‘protomythology’ being the origin of all other mythologies.

From comparative mythology, many shared themes, motifs and characteristics have been found between the mythologies of various cultures. Giants, for example, are very common appearances in folklore from all over the world. Kumbhakarna, from Hindu mythology, is a rakshasa (a supernatural being) of gigantic size. Hrungnir is a giant in Norse mythology who was defeated in battle by the god Thor. Fionn Mac Cumhaill, as the legend goes, is the giant from Irish mythology responsible for the building of the Giant’s Causeway on the Antrim coast.

It isn’t just staple characters and creatures like giants, dragons and snakes that beg the connection question. Certain stories seem to have very distinct parallels across a wide range of cultures. One such story is the ‘flood myth’. The legend of a human building an ark in order to bring animals on board, as well as being biblical, is an Akkadian, Babylonian, Sumerian and Hindu tale [1]. Similar tellings of a great flood occur within a variety of cultures - including Greek, Egyptian, Chinese, Irish, Welsh, Finnish, Polynesian, and those of several Native American tribes. In the majority of cases, a flood is sent to a certain civilisation by a deity as divine retribution.

The concept of the ‘hero’s journey’ - something which is still used in modern literature and media - dates back to prehistoric times. Again, this structure can be found within the mythology of an array of unrelated cultures. The idea is believed to have been popularised by the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, with the ‘journey’ being roughly divided into three sections: Departure, Initiation and Return. It is a trope that is applicable to characters from Jesus and Buddha to Odysseus and Oisín.

The link between mythologies becomes all the more fascinating when you realise just how specific the similarities between some stories are. Take the tale of King Midas, for example. Midas is a king in both Greek and Roman mythology - part of the Dionysiac cycle [2]. As the legend goes, the god Apollo decided to change Midas’ ears into those of an ass as an act of revenge. From then on, Midas hid his donkeys’ ears underneath his turban, away from public view, and made his barber promise not to reveal his secret. With the weight of the secret, the barber decided to whisper it into a hole in the ground, which he then filled. The hole, however, grew reeds and, when the wind blew through the reeds, Midas’ secret was audibly revealed.

The story of the king Labhraidh Loingseach in Irish mythology is almost exactly the same. Loingseach had horse’s ears, which he hid beneath long hair [3]. He would have his hair cut once a year, and would have each barber killed immediately after. One barber, however, was spared, but swore to keep Loingseach’s secret. Similarly to the Greek and Roman myth, this barber told the king’s secret only to a tree. However, coincidentally, the king’s harpist chose this very tree out of which to make a new harp - and it was this harp that revealed the damning secret in the middle of a great feast at the king’s hall. The Welsh version of this story - telling the tale of king March ap Meirchion - follows almost exactly the same lines as the Greek, Roman and Irish legends.

Some very specific similarities might be put down to various invasions and contacts between peoples as history progressed, leading to adaptations of pre-existing myths. Many of the connections, though, are not so easily explained. This is where Carl Jung’s theory on the collective unconscious comes in. It’s important to note that Jung’s approach to comparative mythology is only one theory of many, with some people noting that his view is potentially too simplistic to account for the range of similarities that exist.

Still, it’s an interesting concept. Jung, a prominent 20th century psychologist, put forward the idea of a ‘layer of unconscious psyche which is made up of [certain] dynamic forms’ [4]. In simpler terms, the concept of the collective unconscious is defined as ‘a set of memories and ideas that is shared amongst all of humanity’ [5]. Jung believed that each person is born with a shared, universal layer of unconscious (which, as the name suggests, we are unaware of) dating back throughout human history.

While we don’t have conscious access to this layer of psyche, it does make itself known both in personal dreams and in wider culture - including in myths. The collective unconscious, according to Jung, consists of ‘archetypes’ which are, basically, ‘model image[s] of a person or role’ [5]. Each person shares this same unconscious, regardless of the culture into which they are born. At the root of it, this explains Jung’s belief as to why so many vastly different cultures have such similar tales.

To Jung, ‘the whole of mythology could be taken as a sort of projection of the collective unconscious’ [6]. He thought of all of us as being born with shared images and motifs which, in various ways, are projected onto the mythologies of each culture. So, if you take the Jungian approach to comparative mythology, it is these unconscious images and motifs - rather than, as some believe, the weather, or other such factors - that account for the global mythological connection.

Whether you agree with Jung’s theory, or you believe that there are other factors at play here, it’s still an interesting question to consider. In a time well before social media and globalisation, something existed to connect people around the world - mythology and folklore - and it is still being debated into the 21st century.

References:

  1. Johnston, Sarah Iles. The Story of Myth. Harvard University Press, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ed/detail.action?docID=5560192.

  2. “Midas.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/topic/Midas-Greek-mythology.

  3. “(Irish Folklore) The Truth Behind The King With Horse's Ears.” Irish Imbas Books, irishimbasbooks.com/irish-folklore-the-truth-behind-the-king-with-horses-ears/.

  4. Jung, C. G., et al. Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 11 Psychology and Religion: West and East. Princeton University Press, 1970.

  5. Waude, Adam. “How Carl Jung's Archetypes And Collective Consciousness Affect Our Psyche.” Psychologist World, 22 Jan. 2016, www.psychologistworld.com/cognitive/carl-jung-analytical-psychology

  6. Jung, C. G. Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 8: Structure & Dynamics of the Psyche. Princeton University Press, 2014.


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