by Eric Rosenbloom
copyright 1996

Mythology and the rituals it attaches to are codifications of anxiety. They provide a symbolic re-enacting of the worrisome event to allow mastering it in outcome or comprehension. Their relevance persists as long as an anxiety can be applied to them.

A common and persistent anxiety concerns our complex relation to nature: Between fear of nature in the face of our ultimate powerlessness (especially in the face of our knowledge of death) and dependence on and therefore love of nature, guilt concerning the destructive effect of our survival is deeply embedded in our psyche.

The prevailing human spirit has evolved in its means of coping with this anxiety. Beginning with reverent awe of nature’s bounty and power, it has progressed to a vision of rebellious humanity struggling for equal mastery. Then it emerges towards contemptuous disregard altogether of nature (e.g., Jesus cursing the fig tree that isn’t ripe when he wants it to be). This last stage is accomplished by shifting the root anxiety — nature-guilt — away from nature and completely into the social and personal spheres of the psyche.

For example, the early personification of nature in its adored aspect as a pregnant or nursing mother eventually shaped the view of mothers themselves, and ultimately of all women all the time. In turn, the nature-guilt of increased mastery of nature becomes expressed in hostility towards and mistrust of women, combined with a desire for their forgiveness.

The relationship of humanity to nature is shifted to sex roles in society, men readily taking the role of subduer and liberator. Because nature still confronts men in their arrogance, humans learn to ignore it and to cope with the anxiety by battling womanhood instead.

In other words, hostility towards women is to some extent — and originates from — a displacement of hostility towards nature. By this displacement, resolution of the anxiety becomes possible. This partly explains why women also participate in and defend this state of things, suggesting that it is not all about sex roles and relationships but also represents something deeper, where the transferred image of nature has become the psychologically necessary image of womanhood.

It is revealing as well that psychiatrists insist that the conscience, the superego, is the voice of the father. And yet they also describe the mother’s discipline as the active nurturer of that internal voice. “Female” power, as a substitute for nature’s power, is apparently suppressed as a source of guilt.

Consider too the fear that straying from a culture’s long-accepted sex roles is a threat to the very survival of that culture. Who would care, unless those roles were symbols of a more fundamental order of survival, which entails the nature-guilt we would do anything not to face?

Flood myths, however, do grapple with a culture’s relationship to nature more directly. As in the Hindu tale of Manu, the survivor both respects nature and successfully manages it: In this case, nature is symbolized by a small fish that grows to require, and to be provided by Manu, an ever larger vessel. Manu’s mastery, thus proved and blessed, ensures his and his family’s — and most animals’ — survival through nature’s most thorough brutality (for the land-based), the all-engulfing deluge. They alone remain to establish a new society by their model ethic. Even the creatures of nature must now be thankful to these paragons for their lives. Nature is subdued, and when it isn’t it can now be framed as a problem of the victims’ righteousness. Nature now serves the social order. In response to our behavior, the power of nature is wielded in wrath and mercy by a moral god.

It is also interesting to examine the ritual so common in ancient times of sacrificing a young male god and then revering him. This behavior forms around natural phenomena such as the ebbing and strengthening of sun or moon, the withering and emergence of vegetation, the disappearance and return of certain animals, and so on. In symbolically slaying the object of worship, humans pretend to take control of it for themselves, and usually eat it ritually to incorporate its power. The action affirms their need to master some part if not all of nature, and the revered object’s resurrection reassures them: They are forgiven for the sin that binds them.

The old identification of nature with a woman remains in the mother of these gods. The son is killed instead of her to minimize, or displace, the act that is really against her. We convince ourselves, too, that fate — also identified as female — has already ordained his death. So we beg forgiveness from his mother for being the mere agents of making her son our god. (In a further step, or a reversion to the practice of scapegoating, we simply blame someone else.)

This reveals a disturbing consequence of our unresolved nature-guilt: What we worship we have already destroyed (just as we typically name a shopping mall or housing development for the trees cut down to make way for it). In order to love, we often have first to kill.

Ironically, as humans learn to better distance themselves from their guilt about nature, science blossoms to deal such blows to the human ego as the discoveries of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud that confirm our identity with nature. Our continued progress keeps kindled the lurking anxiety. After outright denial, the psyche’s last desperate act is to finally give in to nature’s power, calling forth its wrath in self-punishing apocalypse and delivery from the tortures of guilt.

Is there a grace that can lead us out of the darkness of our own being? That can honestly show us what we hide from ourselves? Suggest a balance of need and respect beyond self-righteousness and guilt? Art alone, at its best, speaks honestly to the human soul. Art alone takes us out of ourselves and then unlike science or commerce or religion or politics returns us to ourselves. Through art, we move beyond mythology, to accept ourselves and the world and live.

Click here for “Further Notes on Nature-Guilt”