The Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, was once terrorized by her brother, the Storm God. Fleeing, she hid in a cave and pulled a boulder tight across the entrance. As she sealed herself in, the world outside grew dark. While she remained hidden, life on earth was endangered. Eventually she was lured out of hiding by the enticing sounds of a party. Stepping out of the cave in a blaze of glory, she saw her reflection in a mirror. “Who is that beautiful being?” she asked, dazzled. “It’s you,” the gods and goddesses replied. “You never saw yourself before.” Amaterasu promised she would never take her light away from the world again.
I tell a greatly expanded version of this Japanese myth to women are overcoming homelessness. Before telling the story, I set the stage by describing the bare bones of the hero’s journey: overcoming obstacles to attain a goal. The women readily recognize the pattern and suggest other examples. Frequent suggestions include Bella from Twilight, Katniss from The Hunger Games, Princess Leia from Star Wars and Sam and Frodo from Lord of the Rings. At the end of the discussion, I invite each woman to imagine herself as the hero of her own life, walking her own heroic journey. With that context as background, I tell the story of Amaterasu, the goddess who was driven into hiding but who returned to the world and reclaimed her power.
Many of the 35 women who are listening have experienced domestic violence; many of recovering from substance abuse; almost all suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They hear Amaterasu’s story as their story, and it offers a profound context of meaning and hope. As Amaterasu makes her journey from terror to awareness and empowerment, each woman makes the journey along with her.
After the story is told, we embark on a series of processes to “unpack” the story. I invite general reactions. “How’d that story strike you?” Then I ask for more individual connections. “Can you see yourself somewhere in the story?” Finally, we do activities that draw upon specific metaphors in the story. We orally compose a collective poem based on stem lines that descript a journey from darkness to light. We do a mirror exercise that solicits positive reflections from group members.
Through all the processes, with the myth as framework and the hero’s journey as a universal pattern, the women begin to re-frame their own narratives. They listen to their lives in a new context. What had seemed shameful (for example, relapse, jail time or loss of parental rights) begins to be integrated in a journey towards health and wholeness. Their self-image is not frozen in an unyielding past; the movement of the myth suggests possible personal movement, an arc of transformation. All of us humans, but particularly those with chaotic backgrounds, can be uplifted by the notion of an archetypal structure with a known trajectory towards wholeness.
Traditional myths and stories have served humanity well for millennia. I continue to tell them not only in therapeutic but public settings. They offer wisdom and perspective beyond the personal. Listening to my own life stories through the prism of myth contextualizes my challenges and affirms my struggles. Myth connects me to the fears, hopes and longings of humanity through the ages. As fragmentation and isolation become more pervasive, myth’s power to connect and unify becomes ever more valuable.
As printed in Storytelling Magazine, Winter 2017, Volume 29, Issue 1