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Volume 6, Number 140
1 January 2006

Myth, Ritual, and Symbol

by Loren Cobb

Dear Friends,

In this era of accelerating change, it often seems to me that my youth was spent in a departed age, and that my father's youth was spent in a world so different from mine it might as well have been on another planet. Against this ever-shifting background, where can we find the constants of life? Where is the well of universal and timeless waters into which we may dip to refresh our sense of meaning in life?

People find meaning in their lives from symbolic sources, far from the domain of rationality and economics. If you look at the people around you with eyes that see beneath the surface of everyday affairs, you will find traces of this wellspring everywhere.

Let us see how this works, with three unrelated examples drawn from everyday life.

The Flag as a Symbol

When I was a young teenager, growing up in Pakistan, movie theaters invariably preceded every film with a clip of the national flag waving in the breeze. Everyone in the theater would stand up when the flag appeared on the screen, and we would all sing the national anthem. It meant little to me at first, but over the years, as I became accustomed to this rite and began to learn the words, it grew to have great meaning for me. Even now, forty years later, I can still sing the anthem of Pakistan.

The flag of Pakistan was a symbol, of course. Its white crescent moon and shining star against a green background told everyone that this was a Muslim nation, and the flag itself spoke of the pride and hopes of a young nation (about as old as I was, in fact). Perhaps even more importantly, to those singing in the theater in those days, the flag gave meaning to the deaths of the uncounted millions who had recently died during the traumatic birth of that nation: surely they cannot have died for nothing — so the thought went — they died that Pakistan might live.

Every nation on this tiny planet of ours has a flag, and those flags never mean more than during and after a war. A flag does not merely stand for a nation — it refers to and takes its meaning from those who died under its banner, and in death their lives receive meaning from the continued life of the nation over which it flies. This is why flags are such potent symbols, why veterans of foreign wars weep as their flag marches by, why the burning of a flag is such a powerful symbolic protest.

A Ritual for Our Times

Several weeks ago I attended a beautiful rite, a modern interpretation of an ancient Jewish ceremony. Martín, the 13-year-old son of a good friend, became bar mitzvah — responsible for himself as an adult under Jewish law — as we watched and sang and chanted the ancient ritual poems and prayers.

The ceremony was attended by friends and three generations of his family from three continents, and it was conducted in Hebrew, English, and Spanish by a talented leader in the Jewish Renewal Movement. I listened in awe as the story of Martín's ancestors was retold: the flight to Ecuador from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the family's rise to public prominence, and how his great-grandfather cast Ecuador's vote for the existence of Israel at the United Nations, in 1947.

At the climax of the rite, the young man's parents each addressed him directly, eye-to-eye, expressing in their own words what he meant to them, how much they loved him, how they hoped for his continued good fortune. There was not a dry eye in the house, and young Martín unexpectedly found himself so deeply moved that he had to sit down for a few moments.

Rites and ceremonies like these are filled with symbols, but the deeper impact of a ritual event comes from our active participation in the organized sequence of symbolic actions, phrases, and tokens. We are not merely passive observers, untouched by ceremony. By joining with the ritual and its action, each of us creates an additional layer of meaning, both for ourselves and for everyone else who is present.

For the rest of his life, Martín will remember being surrounded by his relatives, enfolded by his ancestors, and receiving their blessings and good wishes. He became an adult on that day, fortunate to have been supported by and part of a community whose nurturing presence he will always feel. Such is the power of ritual.

I have often thought that every 13-year-old, Jewish or otherwise, should have the opportunity to experience the ritual granting of adult responsibility, and to feel directly and immediately the love and support of his family and community. It might help to innoculate our youth to the wild hormonal turbulence of their teenage years. Each religion could intrepret the ceremony in its own particular way. I would love to attend a Quaker bar or bat mitzvah someday.

Frankenstein — A Myth of the Industrial Age

A myth is a narrative of such extraordinary symbolic power that it speaks primarily to the unconscious mind, bypassing ordinary awareness and rationality. Whether the events in a myth actually happened matters not at all. What counts is the way the mythic narrative resonates with the deepest hopes and fears of a person, or of an entire culture.

In 1817, in the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. In her story a medical scientist, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, discovers how to imbue inanimate matter with life and intelligence. He creates an artificial man, who is unfortunately an ugly monster. Initially innocent and harmless, the creature is shunned by its creator and becomes a vengeful killer. It kills the doctor's brother, his best friend, and his wife. Dr. Frankenstein pursues the monster northwards past the Arctic Circle, but dies in the attempt. Filled with remorse, the monster vows suicide and disappears over the arctic ice.

The book was an instant success, as were its film adaptations. The earliest film of Frankenstein was produced, appropriately enough, by Thomas Edison (1910). Since then, at least 24 films have used Frankenstein's monster as a central tragic character, misunderstood and cruelly hounded by its human progenitors despite its innocent nature.

The mythic core of the Frankenstein story concerns the hazards of manufacturing life, especially intelligent life. In every version of the story, this act of hubris ends very badly for all involved. Thus the name of Frankenstein has come to be associated with almost every major advance of biotechnology; the latest is found in the new term frankenfood, which refers to food made from genetically engineered organisms. (For more on this theme, see TQE 114: Who is Human? )

Recently the myth has expanded well beyond its original plot structure, and has emerged only lightly disguised in stories about artificial intelligence and hybrid life, e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Terminator, and Jurassic Park. The tragic theme in all of these stories is unmistakable — for the new life forms as well as for the humans who gave them life.

The popularity and ubiquity of the Frankenstein myth, in all its many forms, confirms that our culture harbors the deepest possible reservations and conflicts over the emergence of new forms of life. As the day approaches when true artificial life first appears, we can expect a crescendo of stories and films that explore our fears of creating new life forms. In this telling and retelling of ever-changing variations of the Frankenstein myth, the human race will collectively come to grips with the meaning of its new-found powers of genetic and robotic engineering.

A Final Word

This essay has been an attempt to show where the experience of meaning comes from. Not shallow meanings, as conveyed by the simple referents of individual words and phrases, but deep, powerful, life-sustaining meaning which comes to us from the domain of myths, rituals, and symbols.

In these three examples I hope you have seen how meaning comes from those who have died (as symbolized by a flag), and also from those who live, as enacted in a modern-day rite of passage. While we can only dimly see the shapes of life to come — monsters in the shadows? — or what they might mean for humanity, still we can clearly see in contemporary cinematic mythology a deep and abiding concern for the possibility of tragedy in the innocent life forms created by a future Dr. Frankenstein.

The unending flow of deeply symbolic communication constitutes a quiet subterranean "conversation" between people and cultures, largely unseen and unremarked. As a rule, we are no more aware of this conversation than a fish is of the water in which it swims, yet it communicates meaning and value and connectedness to all humanity.

Happy New Year!

Loren Cobb


A History of Wealth & Poverty

The Quaker Economist is the proud publisher of an online eBook entitled A History of Wealth and Poverty: Why Some Nations are Rich and Many Poor, by Jack Powelson.

Originally published in 1994 by the University of Michigan Press as Centuries of Economic Endeavor, this new electronic edition is now available to the public at no cost. Click here to see the Table of Contents.

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Author's Note: Apparently some readers have been unhappy with the topic of this TQE, believing it to be too far afield from economics. As a reply, I would like to repeat with emphasis what I wrote in TQE 116:

"As for Letters on the connection between core Quaker beliefs and how one should act in the world, these are on the way. I believe that insights of modern depth psychology have much to offer to Quakers of all traditions. TQE 115 gave some hints of my personal spiritual path, without psychological jargon or religious theology, and there will be more, interspersed with traditional economics. I hope occasionally to address such issues as irrational choice, awareness of delusions and denial, healing from trauma and despair, and enlightenment through metaphor, myth, and meditation."

This is my approach. It is eclectic, polymathic, and very personal. As I have done all my professional career, I intend to range freely across all domains of knowledge, literature, and spiritual practice, without regard for academic or theological boundaries. I invite all of you along for the ride.

— Loren


In response to your essay on myth, I can't resist putting in a plug for Friends Conference on Religion and Psychology. FCRP has been exploring myth and symbols — the hallmarks of Jungian psychology — and their relationship to Quakerism for over 60 years. You cite Joseph Campbell. He spoke to FCRP many years ago, before he became well known.

Information about the organization is at our website, http://fcrp.quaker.org.

— Dick Bellin, Friends Meeting of Washington, DC.


I am a Quaker who is a birthright Jew and I was, of course, blessed with a bar mitzvah. By the time my oldest son reached 13 years, I had joined the Relgious Society of Friends. What to do? I knew how important that ceremony was to me and what it could mean to him. So, I held a ceremony for him at the First Day class I was leading.

There were no other adults present, as I did not feel that the Meeting would understand what I was trying to accomplish and I was not led to seek the meeting's blessing for something they could not understand. Even without "the whole magilla," I think what happened was significant to my son and I and to his classmates.

Someone who was important to him recognized, publicly, in front of his peers, that he was now not a child any longer and that he would be seen by me as someone who would be treated as an adult. Yes, the outer world went on as before and he still lived at home with his mom and dad. But there was a cosmic shift that day that helped him on his journey. And it helped me, to acknowledge his becoming part of the world and not as much a part of me, as before the ceremony.

— Free Polazzo, Anneewakee Creek Friends Worship Group and Atlanta Friends Meeting, Douglas County, GA.


I would like to make some provocative comments on the Quaker content of the three themes in TQE 140. My comments are not well thought out, but may stimulate others to more mature judgments. As Bob Solow said of Joan Robinson, "She creates pearls the same way oysters do — out of sheer irritation."

Symbol: I was lead to believe as a young Quaker that it was best not to fly the flag, for patriotism was not a very good thing. I now think this is largely wrong, for the Quakers are more responsible for America as it became a country than almost any other group. Most American historians spend their time on the Puritans, their laws and their rum and slave trade; on the Virginians and their aristocratic slave/tobacco industry; and the Scotch-Irish and their fighting, when they should concentrate on the Quakers under William Penn who were quietly inventing laisse-faire capitalism in the freest colony or country in the world, running the world's first modern real estate promotion, and making Pennsylvania the richest and most populous of all the colonies, while their midlands dialect beat out all others to become the standard for American speech. We should be telling the world that our flag stands for victorious Quaker principles, and we need today to rejuvenate them and eliminate the militaristic traditions that less economically successful groups have forced on America.

Ritual: For an economist, the most important thing you can receive from your parents in a ritual is your share of the family money and the chance to invest it. How else can you become a true man? A book by Barry Levy, "Quakers and the American Family," points out that the Quakers got ahead of the Episcopalians and other protestants economically because they did share their wealth with their children early on, allowing them to invest in their own enterprises, while the poor other protestant children were waiting for their parents to die before they could get their hands on the family fortune. Perhaps we should establish a new Quaker ritual of sharing our wealth more and earlier with our children.

Myth: I think Quakers should admit their share of the guilt for the Frankenstein myth. Kept out of the professions and the universities, and far more interested in technology than Latin and Greek, English Quakers played a disproportionate part in the industrial revolution, like the Darby family that did so much to invent the modern steel industry. If, as she wrote Frankenstein, Mary Shelley was thinking of new capitalists who were challenging nature with their new industrial hubris, I bet she was thinking of a lot of Quakers. Of course no one could tell where the industrial revolution would lead, but I think it lead to many more good things than bad things, and Quakers should take credit for the good while admitting their guilt for the bad.

— William G. Rhoads, Germantown (PA) Meeting.

Note: Bill Rhoads is the most recent addition to the Editorial Board of The Quaker Economist. — Loren


Book Notes

Readers of TQE are cordially invited to send us notes on books they have read. Please send us the book's title, the author, the publisher, and a single informative paragraph about the book. All notes will be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and brevity. Send to: cobb@Aetheling.com


Myths to Live By, by Joseph Campbell. Viking Press, 1972.

Based on a series of Chautauqua lectures given by Campbell in the 1960s, this little book serves as one of the best introductions to myth available today. The first two chapters are particularly good: The Impact of Science on Myth, and The Emergence of Mankind. Readers of TQE may find the following quote provocative: "If a differentiating feature is to be named, separating human from animal psychology, it is surely the subordination in the human sphere of even economics to mythology." — Contributed by Loren Cobb.


Masthead

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting.

Editor: Loren Cobb, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.

Editorial Board

  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • William G. Rhoads, Germantown (PA) Monthly Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board do not necessarily endorse the contents of any issue of The Quaker Economist.

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Please write to "tqe-comment" followed by "@quaker.org" to comment on this or any TQE Letter. Use as Subject the number of the Letter to which you refer. Permission to publish your comment is presumed unless you say otherwise. Please keep it short, preferably under 100 words. All published letters will be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and brevity. Please mention your home meeting, church, synagogue (or ...), and where you live.

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Copyright © 2006 by Loren Cobb. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.
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