Recently I was going over my notes for my classes on the indigenous civilizations that flourished in Latin America before the arrival of the Europeans. I had two points on both the Aztezs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru: legend and history.
I became intrigued by my separation of these two “realities” and wondered why they shouldn’t be one and the same. Perhaps it is because we look at the “historical” as provable facts and “legend” as not being scientific. The more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that our separation of these two realities stems from western dualism; the separation of body and soul. The historical is from the brain, or the intellect, while the legendary is from the soul (Greek = psyche, or the unconscious in depth psychology terms).
Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychiatrist, made a career of studying the archetypal images that bubbled up from the soul (unconscious) that could be found in common in all cultures. Many of these images are ensconced in legends, myths and fairy tales. And many of these legends appear in similar fashion in cultures around the world. Creation stories are a good example of this.
The historical view of how the Americas were populated show roaming tribes crossing the Bering Strait from Asia or coming in boats across the Pacific Ocean from Polynesia. Yet the indigenous cultures in Latin America have their own creation stories which have many parallels to the Genesis account. God created them in their own land, they did not migrate from some other place. Is that any less believable than our view that somehow God created humankind in Mesopotamia? I won’t argue whether our view of creation is historical or not. The fact that similar stories about creation arise around the world is what fascinates me.
My view is that these creation stories, as well as many others that cultures around the world hold in common, come from the indelible stamp of the “image of God” on our souls. Whether you call it the collective unconscious as Jung did, or the soul as I did, these archetypal images and tales give humankind a longing for a relationship with our creator, and a restlessness until we find the meaning for our existence in our God-likeness.
We see the combination of history and legend in many of our Christian celebrations. Christmas, for example, was placed during the time of pagan celebrations of the winter solstice when the ancients feared that darkness would encompass the whole world rendering it lifeless. The festival of lights ceremonies to placate the gods into bringing back the sun is why we have candles and lights at Christmas. The ancients in the Americas had similar ceremonies during the winter solstice.
The historically minded would call this syncretism. I would call this proof of a longing for God that is stamped into the soul of every human being on the face of the earth, and a preparation of the soul for the arrival of Christ.
History or legend? It doesn’t need to be either or. In my view, it is both history and legend. The two do not have to compete with each other. With the one we see with the eyes of our minds, with the other we see with the eyes of our souls.