An Existential-Humanistic Perspective on Myths

Myths have long been influential upon the various depth psychotherapy traditions. Freud, in his early writings, often referred to the famous Greek myths and incorporated much of their symbolic language into the psychoanalytic thought (i.e., Oedipus and the Oedipal Stage). Jung followed in line with a much more in-depth analysis of many of the famous myths in his archetypal psychology. Rollo May, the father of American existential psychotherapy, also explored the importance of myth in his powerful book, The Cry for Myth (1991).

For May, myth is not merely symbolic and not something that is not true. Rather, myths are beliefs that cannot be proven to be true. We must rely on faith, belief, trust, and the unknown when dealing with myths. Myths become problematic when they are no longer seen as myths but are believed to be factual truth. From an existential-humanistic perspective, the denial of limitations of one’s myths, or beliefs system, is one potential source of evil (see Hoffman, Warner, Gregory, & Fehl, 2011).

Myths are also the way we organize meaning in our lives. They give purpose, direction, and comfort. It is in this context that May states the loss of myth in the United States society is one of the primary sources of our culture’s problems, thus the cry for myth.

Elsewhere, I have worked to build upon May’s foundational work on myth in various ways. First, I have explored the idea of myths of self (Hoffman Stewart, Warren, & Meek, 2014), which recognizes different cultural understandings and experiences of self. These different understandings have implications for psychological well-being and mental health. Different myths of self may be associated with better mental health outcomes in different individuals. The differences here are strongly influenced by one’s culture.

Second, I advocated that myths represent a mixture of cultural and personal responses to universal challenges (i.e., the existential givens; see Hoffman, 2019). The final sections of Existential Psychology East-West Volume 1 and Volume 2 each contain several chapters exploring myths emerging from different cultures and how these illuminate cultural responses to the existential givens.

More information about The Cry for Myth is available at the book review located on this site.

Cleare-Hoffman, H. P., Hoffman, L., & Paige, J. (2019). Cultural myths, rituals, and festivals. In L. Hoffman, H. P. Cleare-Hoffman, N. Granger, Jr., & D. St. John (Eds.), Humanistic approaches to multiculturalism and diversity: Perspectives on existence and difference (pp. 117-127). Routledge.

Hoffman, L., (2019). Gordo’s ghost: An introduction to existential-humanistic perspectives on myth. In L. Hoffman, M. Yang, F. J. Kaklauskas, A. Chan, & M. Mansilla (Eds.), Existential psychology East-West (Vol. 1, Rev. & expanded ed., pp. 273-288). University Professors Press.

Hoffman, L., Stewart, S., Warren, D., & Meek, L. (2014). Toward a sustainable myth of self: An existential response to the postmodern condition. In K. J. Schneider, J. F. Pierson & J. F. T. Bugental (Eds.), The handbook of humanistic psychology: Theory, research, and practice (2nd edition; pp. 105-133). Sage.

Hoffman, L., Warner, H. J., Gregory, C., & Fehl, S. (2011). Existential-integrative perspectives on the psychology of evil. In J. H. Ellens (Ed.), Explaining evil (Vol. 3: Approaches, responses, solutions; pp. 263-286). Praeger.

Hoffman, L., Yang, M., Kaklauskas, F. J., Chan, A., & Mansilla, M. (Eds.). (2019). Existential psychology East-West (Vol 1., Rev. & Expanded). University Professors Press.

Hoffman, L., Yang, M., Mansilla, M., Dias, J., Moats, M., & Claypool, T. (Eds.) (2019). Existential psychology East-West (Vol. 2). University Professors Press.

Original Version added 2004; Most recent update December 2020