Myth and Depth Psychology

Little Red Riding Hood

“We are always in myth…”
Thomas Moore

Every time we hear the words “once upon a time” we allow our imagination to lead us away from the present into a time and place where fantasy is expected to set the stage for a story to unfold, where we can sit back to enjoy the ride of imagination, what James Hillman would call “the persuasive power of imagining in words.” What makes us enjoy the ride or identify with one character more than another? What makes the story resonate with us and why?

Television, cinema, performing arts, literature; we have at our disposal today thousands of ways to escape the boring routine of our daily lives. We lose ourselves in the fantasies of Hollywood, identify with a hero, actor, singer, daredevil, with anything or anybody outside of ourselves; we allow our imagination to make us part of their glamorous private and professional lives; only to realize one day that these heroes we fantasize about are mere mortals like us, with weight problems, troubled children, messy divorces, moral or financial bankruptcies, cancer, heart disease, etc. Then we think that our lives are not so bad after all, compared to theirs. We distance ourselves a bit from their “fairy tale” lives and continue living ours; at least until tomorrow or next week. The fact is we cannot live without fiction, without imagination.

Like depth psychologists looking at symptoms through mythic stories, we can enter and exit through myth and fantasy new levels of awareness that help us tap into the multi-dimensional imprints of our soul. By doing this, we can arrive at new levels of understanding that show the commonality of our daily challenges, where even our most excruciating lessons turn out to be archetypal after all. We need to start by inviting active imagination to serve as a bridge between the unconscious and our conscious mind.

We need to look at our lives as a story and realize that we all can be storytellers. What are the emotions that help define our character? What is our stretch? What is our breaking point? Do we ever get to know ourselves fully? Mythic tales can become our frame of reference; they resonate with us because they place our struggles and everyday challenges within contexts that are not only universal but commonplace. Fairy tales and mythic stories show us how we can move from imagination or the transpersonal to the personal. What starts as a children’s story or a folk tale (or a movie, or tabloid account about our favorite movie star), transforms in front of our eyes as we allow our personal mythology to unravel through creative imagination. The presence of the unconscious is then felt. And, it is this presence that makes each one of us react differently to the story, because its ambiguity allows us to create our own subplots. Robert A. Johnson notes, “There is material contained in our minds that we are not aware of most of the time.” What lies outside the boundaries of our conscious mind is also part of our personal story.

“Sometimes the most direct way to tell the truth is to tell a totally implausible story, like a myth” (Ursula Le Guin). When I work with Transformational Tarot, I ask my clients to draw a few cards and to make up a story while imagining themselves inside each character they create. As their stories unfold, personal challenges and problems begin to take a new dimension; the fictional characters transform into basic archetypes that not only reflect their own personal assessment of themselves, but that also show they ways they cope with life in general.

When story becomes a narrative of the inner workings of the soul we know we are safe to bare it all. How we acknowledge and experience the unconscious often determines the way we live. Sometimes we need to step into fantasy, myths, imagination, to claim back consciously a lost part of our soul.

Let’s imagine, for example, a young mother today, dulled by her daily routine, finding refuge in fantasy as solace from her frustrations about her unappreciative husband, tedious chores, and the unavoidable responsibilities of motherhood. She has so much to do, no time to really be herself anymore. She used to be wild and witty and she remembers (once upon a time) great sex. What happened to her? She asks herself one day. When did it all change and why? Little Red Riding Hood could be a story about this mother and about how sometimes we must hold on to our wild nature to go on with life. Stephen Larsen notes that animals are “manifestations of the hidden archetypal powers that lie behind the transformations of the human soul.” For me the mother, the grandmother, the hunter as well as Riding Hood and the wolf are all symbols or fields of energy of one person’s journey into individuation.

The unlived life of an adult, if not acknowledged, could indeed turn up in the psyche of her children. The mother in this fairy tale sends the girl with the basket of cake and wine for grandmother (cake and wine for a sick, old, weak woman?) and warns the child not to stray from the path. Yet, she doesn’t warn the child about the wolf; perhaps hoping that her child archetype might encounter without fear her shadow, that part of her natural instinctive psyche represented by the wolf and that Clarissa Pinkola Estés would call the “Wild Woman.” I imagine the mother in search of her wolf totem or wild archetype, releasing her child energy to stray from the path, to feel the enchantment of nature like only a child could, picking flowers until “she had as many as she could carry.” Distractions are sometimes a good thing, especially if we are sidetracked by beauty. We know we are in an enchanted forest when hazel bushes are our mark to find grandmother’s house. (In Cinderella the hazel bush symbology is also used to intimate magic and transformation.) The part of the mother that is sick and weak in the middle of the forest, in the deep dark unconscious, needs to be rescued, and she knows that the only way to save herself is by taking the plunge into the belly of the beast and accepting wildness and basic instincts back into her life.

Allan B. Chinen associates the Trickster with a profoundly transformative energy that can offer guidance and even hope when life as an adult boxes us in with too many responsibilities. We can easily identify the wolf with the Trickster who, like the Fool in Tarot, forces us to “take the plunge” into self discovery or to just look at life with wonder.

I see the grandmother’s sickness symbolic of the young mother’s inability to tap into her personal history or tribe wisdom. The grandmother energy is that part of her psyche too far into the forest or too weak to be of help as purveyor of instinctual knowledge (the traditional old crone’s role). When the hunter says, “So, I’ve found you at last, you old sinner” (sinner…a wolf?), it could suggest the mother’s ambivalence about waking up her wild instinct; but when both grandmother and child jump up from the belly like a jack in the box, the unconscious unleashes a sudden new energy; a sudden jolt of the unconscious awakens the dormant soul. Now it’s time to open the wine and celebrate.

The sudden end of the story signals the way that sometimes we must experience radical transformation, like being slammed against a wall and quickly transforming from frog to prince, or falling from a tower like Rapunzel to suddenly face adulthood, or crossing a body of water (Hansel & Gretel) to claim your right to go home. The ritual of opening the belly of the beast and rescuing old and young parts of the soul is what makes us whole. The symbology of the hunter skinning the wolf’s fur is enough to seal the ritual. The mother has earned the skin of her totem animal. What is essential is the ritual of skinning the wolf in order for the mother shaman to receive the archetypal energies of the wolf and for the healing to be complete. “Loss energy is retrievable. If we choose to serve the soul, the energy comes back and then serves us,” reminds us James Hollis. Myth psychologist Jonathan Young transforms the hunter into a shaman with the same intention, to give him a mythical role in the tale, thus emphasizing the underlying theme of rebirth. James Hollis notes that, “Just as the shamans would enter the spirit world to recover that part of the soul which had been split off, and bring it back to reintegrate it, so we are therapeutically obliged to find what has been left behind and bring it back to the surface.” How we each perform this therapy or ritual becomes part of our personal journey.

How do we integrate all our lost and hidden energies? Hillman proposes Jung’s method of active imagination and moves us out of the audience onto the stage of the psyche, to become characters in the fiction of our lives. Mythic stories allow us to arrive at some kind of magical, detached introspection and like a shaman become the storytellers who weave a new fiction in the timelessness of the now. How deep we dare go into the forest or the swampland is left up to each one of us.

But, it is good to have tools along that make our journey less tedious and more meaningful. We can learn to use Tarot or I Ching as such a magical tool, like the alchemical vessel of yesteryear.

Alchemical transformation often means discovering the inner gold within through radical self acceptance. In fact, I strongly believe that the only way we can really heal is to first love ourselves, warts and all. “We don’t have to be reborn; we can rebear." (Ursula Le Guin)

What does the soul want? Sometimes we unconsciously ask darkness to visit us in order to learn to cherish what we have or to learn the necessary lessons for our soul’s progression. If we start looking at our lives as stories with innumerable opportunities to spin off our own tales, then we can also imagine new endings and new beginnings. We all live in old and new stories at the same time. We all have the opportunity to weave our own tales. And yet, so few of us even dare.

Next time you get caught up in your story, take a minute to reflect and to imagine a new one. Allow your soul to breathe freely. Dare to dream. Dare to imagine. Allow myth to spring forward from the subconscious energy of the psyche and rescue you.



Grimms Fairy Tales, 1819 edition, compiled by The National Geographic. 2000.

James Hillman. Healing Fiction. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, 1983.

James Hollis. Swamplands of the Soul. Toronto: Inner City Books. 1996.

Robert Johnson. Inner Work. New York: Harper & Row. 1989.

Stephen Larsen. The Mythic Imagination. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International. 1996.

Thomas Moore. Care of theSoul. New York: Harper Collins. 1992.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Women Who Run with the Wolves. New York: Random House. 1995

Yonathan Young, editor. SAGA I. Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press. 2003. (Ursula Le Guin's quotes
taken from this book also)

Copyright © 2005 Yolanda M. Robinson, PhD