Myth and the Body

Earlier in the project, I introduced Pat Ogden’s idea of core organizers, which are like building blocks for inner experience. Ogden’s five core organizers are:

1. Cognitions

2. Emotions

3. Five-Sense Perception

4. Movement

5. Body Sensations.

We work with core organizers to reduce trauma triggers and in general feel calmer and more integrated.

I added to Ogden’s list a sixth core organizer, the imaginal. The imaginal includes images, fantasies, dreams, and metaphors that make up so much of inner life. Many consequences of sexual trauma reveal themselves through the imaginal, whether nightmares that keep us tied to a painful past, or fantasies of safety, power, confidence, control — what cannot be expressed or identified in ourselves or in our environments.Like other core organizers, giving mindful attention to the imaginal contributes to recovery from trauma.

When CG Jung was in the depths of his recovery, he discovered working with the imaginal transformed his emotions, resolving distress and pointing him in the direction of growth. Energy that had been trapped in dreams and fantasies became available for living with conscious intention.

Jung thought some symbols were archetypal, and part of the collective unconscious’ attempt to compensate his ego-driven life. He identified archetypal dreams by their numinous quality — what some have called big dreams because they seem to portent momentous events or direct attention to important yet neglected aspect of ourselves.

Jung believed archetypal symbols originated in ancient myths. Myths model important life processes, including recovery from trauma. According to Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched, “Collective myths and folk tales tap the deep resources of [the human] race and give us ways of relating to our own experience, informed by the wisdom of the ages.” [1] When we resonate with archetypal symbols found in myths, our personal traumas lessen their grip as we begin to identify with the larger story of humankind. We more readily witness the universality of suffering, which is oddly comforting. Accessing a sense of solidarity where once there was alienation, we become aware of the path toward recovery others have taken before us.

The significance of myths for recovery from traumas like sexual abuse is found in their connection to the body. Through this connection, the imaginal acts like a core organizer that can be worked with to increase emotional regulation and psychological integration. Just as we work with emotions, beliefs, and body sensations to bring ourselves back into the window of tolerance, we can also direct the imaginal in ways that are grounding. According to Jung, “When an individual has been swept up into the world of symbolic mysteries, nothing comes of it; nothing can come of it, unless it has been associated with the earth, unless it has occurred when that individual was in the body…. Only if you first return to your body, to your earth, can individuation take place.” [2]

Myths can serve as guides for how to direct somatic energy to promote healing and growth. According to Joseph Campbell, “The human imagination is grounded in the energies of the body.” [3] Somatic therapist Stanley Keleman wrote, “myth is a poem of the experience of being embodied and our somatic journey.” [4]

This somatic understanding of myth differs from how most of us think of ancient sagas and allegories. More often, we view myths as stories and characters, such as Persephone’s journey into the underworld, or the rape of Medusa. Yet when Jung, Campbell, and Keleman made connections between myth and body, their ideas resonated with how myths functioned in earliest societies.

The first myths may date back a hundred thousand years to when speech is thought to have emerged. The first language is believed to have taken the form of myth. All phenomena — from the celestial objects to the pain of grief — were understood in the context of myth. Thinking in abstractions, holding personal beliefs — let alone a separate identity from the group — wasn’t likely part of early human life. Instead, through myths they made sense of their world, expressed what they felt, and fostered social cohesion.

Like any good story, the symbols found in myths are meant to arouse emotions and body sensations. This is the power of images, symbols, and metaphors relayed in myths that also populate our dreams and fantasies. Especially through images and metaphors, myths have the power to physically alter and emotionally move us.

According to Keleman, images are the body’s manner of communicating. “The heartbeat, the continuing peristalsis of the intestine, the pulse, and muscle tones produce sensations that the brain organizes into a neural image, and then a pictorial image.” [5] Indeed, evidence exists that images are how the body speaks to psyche — much as Jung described the collective unconscious’ interactions with conscious awareness. [6]

Myths are Metaphors

The ability to create metaphors — describing one phenomena in terms of another — is a profoundly useful tool that has been central to human evolution. Metaphors allow us to communicate about experiences and phenomena for which we might not otherwise have an explanation. Think of all the poetic attempts to describe love: love is like a red rose, the first day of spring, the gentle flow of a meandering creek — and on and on. But what is love? Well, many different things, but all meanings point back to an ineffable quality we touch upon through metaphor.

In an earlier post, I discussed affective neuroscience and the discovery of the ancient subcortical emotional systems. Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven outlined seven affective systems:

SEEKING — emotional states of expectancy that drive exploration

FEAR — emotional states of anxiety

RAGE — emotional states of anger

LUST — emotional states of sexual excitement

CARE — emotional states of nurturance

PANIC/GRIEF — emotional states of pain and sadness associated with separation and loss

PLAY — emotional states of social joy. [7]

These ancient affective systems, which we share with other mammals, can feel as if they come upon us, even overriding conscious control. They can seem otherworldly, especially in overwhelming or life-threatening circumstances. However, through metaphors we evolved to gain a measure of control over emotions and related body sensations.

The body itself can also act as a metaphor that directs our response to challenging situations. Consider the connection between the physical experience of feeling cold and the emotionally distressing state of social isolation. Quoting Panksepp: “When we are lost, we feel cold — not only physically but also as a neurosymbolic response to social separation …. This may be nature’s way of promoting reunion. In other words, the experience of separation establishes an internal feeling of thermoregulatory discomfort that can be alleviated by the warmth of reunion….” [8]

Panksepp further claimed, “[the] affective experience of social loss [is] an experience that, in the human mind, is always combined with the possibility of redemption — being found and cared for when one is lost.” Such is the transformative power of myth, which ultimately is grounded in states of the body.

Myths are metaphors. Their evocative imagery has the potential to resonate deeply within and stir to action. However, unlike us moderns, early humans did not passively consume their stories as we have largely learned to do. They lived their stories. They also didn’t wade through a deluge of images and metaphors as we do today, searching for those that apply to us and our circumstances. For the most part, we have lost the healing connection between story and the body. Nevertheless, myths (and fairy tales) survive. And they still have the capacity to transform embodiment and guide us in the direction of recovery and growth. 

Activities to ponder: Next week, we’ll look more at myths and fairy tales and their role in recovery from sexual trauma. Until then, consider revisiting a myth or fairy tale you personally like, or an important myth from your culture. You might want to read  “10 Best Mythological Tales from Around the World”, which gives brief accounts of well-known myths. There are also quite a few websites dedicated to mythology from different cultures.


  1. Kalsched, Donald. (2013). Trauma and the soul: A psycho-spiritual approach to human development and its interruption. New York: Routledge, p. 285.
  2. CG Jung, Visions Seminar 2.

  3. Quoted in Keleman, Stanley. (1999). Myth & the body: A colloquy with Joseph Campbell. Berkeley, CA: Center Press, p. 3.

  4. Ibid., p. xiii.

  5. Ibid., p. 35.

  6. Goodwyn, Erik. (2012). The neurobiology of the gods: How brain physiology shapes the recurrent imagery of myth and dreams. New York: Routledge, p. 28.

  7. Panksepp, Jaak & Biven, Lucy. (2012). The archaeology of mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

  8. Quoted in Goodwyn, p. 42.


© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).