A cultural mythologist? What in the world is that? It's become a sure way to get a laugh from my friends, but I know they are still believers in the cause. If there is a pop culture trend or topic they don't quite grasp, they'll turn to me and say, "Hey! We have our cultural mythologist with us. Let's ask her about it." And I always reply with a straight face: "Everyone needs a cultural mythologist."
So just what is a cultural mythologist, and how does a playwright become a playwright-cultural mythologist? That's why I created a free online journal called HeadlineMuse.com — to show people the power of pop cultural/archetypal writing, to explain the psycology of myth, and to illustrate what cultural mythologists do.
For me, the journey started in 1997 when I decided to go back to graduate school yet again. My bachelor's degree is in theatre from UCLA, and my first master's degree is in English from the University of Colorado, but I couldn't quite figure out which field seemed appropriate for me for the long road of the Ph.D. Because I had worked for years as a professional playwright, having written 20 plays (among them Portrait of a Nude, The Other Shakespeare and Amelia Lives, all published by Dramatic), it seemed redundant to pursue a playwriting Ph.D. I knew, too, from all my years of teaching in university English departments that something else was calling me. And so I ended up getting my second master's degree in mythological studies with emphasis in depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute, where I am currently a Ph.D. candidate. Thus, I become a bona fide cultural mythologist.
During the many years I matriculated at Pacifica, my classmates and I would look around at each other every quarter and say things like, "What the heck are we going to do with this degree? No one knows what a cultural mythologist is. What does a cultural mythologist do?"
Everyone does know about the work of Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and the myth renaissance that the PBS series "The Power of Myth With Bill Moyers" created in the late 1980s. But since that time, no one else in the mainstream has brought us a mix of pop culture/mythological analysis on a regular basis. The reason I wanted to study myth, especially as a playwright, was to find out why certain stories resonate so strongly in the human psyche. Myths are imprints of human behavior. What constellates an archetypal image? And what is it in this pattern that is true to the human experience. Yes, a myth is true. A myth is not a lie; it contains something so true, so deep, that it lasts thousands of years in the human brain and affects the soul each time it's revealed.
In 1999, I started writing political essays for the Los Angeles Times, using my archetypal toolkit to analyze things like the impeachment hearings, Kosovo, and Hillary Clinton's bid for the Senate. Another publication published my analysis of Y2K in June 1999. I even got a few fan letters from the "general public" as responses to these essays. I started to realize something: people are hungry for this sort of analysis—an alternative way of viewing life that takes into account ancient patterns of the psyche, drawn from cross-cultural pantheons.
Thus, the idea for HeadlineMuse.com was born. With my brother Jim as web designer, we launched a prototype issue in early 2000, and since then we've been blessed to feature the work of therapists, lawyers, historians, cultural mythologists and award-winning writers. We always highlight current news stories (e.g., an analysis of Columbine a year after the tragedy, Elian Gonzales, election news, or the death penalty) as well as cultural trends (like Pokemon).
Our roster of monthly columnists includes Gene C. Toews, L.C.S.W.; Australian mythologist Adrian Strong; Writers Guild Award winners Lynn Montgomery and Addison DeWitt; award-winning playwright Elizabeth Wong; and film reviewers Brett Love and Elizabeth Terzian.
I decided to show the relevance of myth to current events by writing the first archetypal advice column ever, which I call "Updating Aphrodite." This has proven to be a real challenge, but it's always stimulating to research. It usually takes three to five hours for me to create each column because I throw academic citations into the mix. That's a lot of writing time—especially for someone who never dreamt of emulating Ann Landers!
In case you're interested in knowing what an archeypal advice column looks like, here's a short excerpt from "Updating Aphrodite," a response to a lettter from a woman who had been dating two men at the same time:
Q: "They're both great guys, and I don't want to hurt either of them or myself. What would Aphrodite say?"—Loving Two Much.
A: Dear Loving Two Much: Aphrodite would say enjoy, enjoy, enjoy! Well, I can't speak for her entirely, but I imagine she would be quite happy for you to have a choice between such pleasant suitors; it's certainly one of her mottos. (Hey, did you recently draw "The Lovers" card in a Tarot reading?)
Alex is the passionate, educated, fit performer whom you've known for three years. Kent is the younger, spiritual, tender junk-food eater you've hung out with for several months. As you say, there is no reason to make any choice at all right now. It seems like a good idea to keep getting to know both of them.
Although it's been a long, slow burn for the Alex situation, recently he's changed. Perhaps the rivalry with Kent has charged his armor? Now he's throwing some Ares energy at you. Ares and Aphrodite share passion: "I imagine them both feeling that their instinctual passionate nature has met its match and delighting in that. Because Aphrodite can bless Ares' passion, she transforms it." (Christine Downing, Gods in Our Midst).
Of course, since my first love has always been the theatre, I hope to find a way to merge my knowledge of mythology and playwriting by writing myth adaptations for the stage based on the archetypal ideas I've learned to honor. My newest play, The Weird Sisters, was read last fall at the Geva Theatre and the Globe Theatre. It will be produced in 2002.