Discovering Truth Through Myth

[Editor’s note: We’re very happy to welcome longtime Classical Pursuits leader and classical painter Sean Forester back to Toronto. Sean’s 2018 seminar offers opportunities for both rigorous discussion about classic works and personal reflection on what roles myths play in our lives.]

In a bit of the witty repartee Oscar Wilde was so known for, his character Lord Darlington admits, “I can resist everything except temptation.” That’s a playful take on a serious theme. What does temptation look like in your life? Sugary treats, strong drinks, overheated political arguments? Reaching for your phone each time you feel bored or lonely?

Or maybe temptation is deeper and more subtle. Many of us feel social and personal pressure to conform, to go against the voice of our heart.  We end up in careers and relationships that are unfulfilling. And even for those at the pinnacle of success, in the darkest hour there comes a voice: At the core there is something wrong with you, you are not good enough, not lovable.

Yes, life has a way of confronting each of us with inner and outer dangers. In response, men and women have sought wisdom from myth. This is what we will do this summer in my Toronto Pursuits seminar The Enduring Power of Myth. Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and Clarissa Pinkola Estés will be our guides as we explore mythology from East and West. To complement our reading and discussion, I will show slides of paintings and sculptures that bring these myths to life.

From the earliest cultures to the present, secular and sacred myths show us a protagonist called to a heroic task. In Homer’s Odyssey and the legend of Gautama the Buddha we see the universal pattern of the hero’s journey that the Campbell identifies:  separation – initiation – return. After confronting many alluring seducers and fearful adversaries, Odysseus finds his way home. In one of his trials, Odysseus is told by the gods that he must face the Sirens, temptresses whose beguiling songs lure sailors to their deaths. He is instructed to have his crew plug their ears with wax, but his crew in turn must tie him to the mast with his ears open to the beautiful, destructive melodies. Why does he have to have experience desire but not yield?


Ulysses and the Sirens

Ulysses and the Sirens by Waterhouse


Two Victorian artists vividly depict this episode. In the image above, J.M. Waterhouse paints the Sirens as black-winged harpies, and the heroic adventurer in white with his community of sailors. And below, Herbert Draper captures a strong, tempting sensuality with the Sirens as long-limbed female nudes climbing out of the sea. One is a seascape with, some might say, a moral confrontation between good and evil. The other is a close-up that physicalizes psychology. Which of these paintings is closest to the spirit of Homer’s poem?  Why is the feminine connected to temptation and death?


Ulysses and the Sirens

Ulysses and the Sirens by Draper


The Odyssey is an adventure story. And as Campbell, Jung, and Pinkola Estés argue, the poem can also be read symbolically as an inner journey. What do the gods, demons, and tempters represent in Odysseus’s psyche? What is the uncharted sea of each of our lives? What prevents us from coming home? Most of us will admit to not being heroes, yet we may recognize in our personal landscape the helpers, the obstructionists, the tempting diversions, and the sense of purpose that are telling elements in our life’s journey. Hence the clear parallel between myth and dream that we will explore as we read Jung. The heroes of myth are not as far from us as we might imagine.

Amida Triad

Amida Triad

Our second hero, Prince Gautama, left his royal palace to search for truth. He tore off his rich robes and donned monk’s garments. He lived the life of a beggar and spiritual seeker, trying to master his body though ascetic practices and taking austerity so far it almost killed him. Then one day he took his seat in meditation under the bodhi tree and vowed to not get up until he had found liberation. As he went deep into meditation, the god of love and death, Mara, appeared riding on a great elephant  and surrounded by his army of twelve thousand leagues. He hurled rocks and burning weapons then summoned thunder, lightning, whirlwinds, and four-fold darkness. But Gautama’s meditative powers transformed these ferocious dangers into a shower of celestial blossoms. Mara then sent his daughters, Desire and Lust, but the Buddha did not give into temptation. Mara made one last assault, but Gautama touched the ground with his right hand and Earth Goddess bore witness with a hundred thousand roars – the Buddha, the awakened one.

Buddha’s enlightenment, like Christ’s crucifixion, has been the subject of amazing artworks. Here are three: The first, to the above right, is a sculpture from Japan, the Tachiban Shire from the eighth century. The Buddha is seated on a blossoming lotus and behind his head is a rising sun, itself lotus-like.

Second, below, is from the Liao dynasty, China, in the 12th century. It’s a beautiful polychrome wooden figure. The gesture is graceful and the sculpture shows the Buddha’s calm and compassion.


Bodhisattva Guanyin

Bodhisattva Guanyin


A 20th-century Thai sculpture of the Buddha under a multi-headed serpent provides a striking contrast to the right. (It can be found in Sala Keo Kou Sculpture Park in Nong Khai, Thailand.)  Is the Buddha being protected by these cobras, or do they represent Mara’s temptations?


Buddha with Multi-Headed Naga Serpent

Buddha with Multi-Headed Naga Serpent


The Buddha by Redon

The Buddha by Redon

Finally, a work by the 19th-century French artist Odilon Redon. This Western pastel is interesting to compare to the Eastern artworks. Redon’s painting is vibrant, containing the full spectrum of the rainbow. The Buddha is standing rather than seated in meditation and above his head is an exploding sun – enlightenment. The background landscape feels like a dreamscape or the interior of the body, with sun-circles that almost look like cells and tree branches that could be nerves or blood vessels.

I hope you enjoyed these two examples of the hero’s journey as expressed in art and literature. I invite you to explore more deeply the world of myth and its connections to our own lives in my seminar The Enduring Power of Myth.

See you in July!

– Sean


One Comment

  1. Andrew Smith says:

    Hi Sean.

    I have been a Toronto Pursuits participant for about seven years but have never been part of one of your sessions. However, this year I have signed up for “the Enduring Power of Myth” and I am really looking forward to it.

    There are four texts that you have asked us to obtain, which I have. However, they add up to about two ‘War and Peace’s’ in length so I am wondering if there are specific sections that you will be focusing on. This will be helpful to know as I set out on my quest to read all four.

    All the best.


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