On Thursday, I went to a session for Mythology instructors at the university where I teach. We discussed many procedural and technical things, but one thing that came up in several conversations was understanding that “myth” does not mean “untrue” or “fictional”. The assertion that “myth is making a comeback” usually gets the rejoinder, “it never really left”. Myth informs all of our beliefs, experiences, and interpretations of the world. It comes in many guises—propaganda, popular culture, stereotypes, and tradition, to name a few. If my students come away with nothing else, I want them to understand how they are often unconsciously affected by myth. If you are asked about a particular behavior or custom, and your response is, “that’s just how it is”, then you’re unconsciously playing out a mythical narrative.
“The Lottery” is a classic story that puts tradition in our faces, and is metaphorical of the horrific consequences of blindly following tradition. Shirley Jackson has always been adept at the best kind of horror, the psychological thriller. The movie “The Haunting” is based on another of her short stories, “The Haunting of Hill House”. If you’ve never seen this movie, see the 1963 original rather than the 1999 remake. (The last time I saw this movie it was projected on the side of a mausoleum at Forgotten Hollywood Cemetery in Los Angeles, which was a weird experience.) One does not need scary-looking monsters, chainsaw killers, or zombies to be scared out of their wits. “The Haunting” leaves us unsure if the house is haunted, or if this is some kind of weird projection of the main character’s own neurotic condition.
“The Lottery” begins normally enough, on a beautiful summer’s day, and the lottery is clearly a big event, but the ritualistic, traditional procedure for holding the lottery tells you that this is not the Pick-Six or the Powerball. The lottery is, for this town and many others, an ancient tradition. The names are put into a black box, and even that is venerated as a sacred object. It is falling apart, but it seems taboo to replace it. All families participate, and the heads of families draw from the box.
There is talk while the drawing is going on of abolishing the lottery. Someone mentions that many towns have stopped doing it. But this idea is quickly put down—they are fools to give up the tradition—it can lead to no good. An early mention of the harvest in connection with the lottery gives it a sort of pagan feel, a la “The Wicker Man”. Much of the to-do during the drawing of lots is from Tessie Hutchinson, who feels that her husband did not have enough time to choose properly from the box. She must have had a premonition, because she was the lottery winner. The people promptly picked up rocks and stoned her to death, so that they could get home in time for lunch.
This disturbing narrative is meant to show us the pitfalls of blindly following tradition. The ritual of stoning the woman to death is reminiscent of old “scapegoating” rituals, the basis of many human sacrifice rituals. The person is an offering to make the harvest fruitful, to take the collective blame for the sins of the citizenry. The fact that this takes place in a more modern time, with such nonchalance, should give us pause about the kinds of beliefs that we have that are harmful to others. When we treat a particular group as inferior because “that’s what the Bible says”, or “that’s the way God intended it”, or, “that’s just the way it’s always been”, it would be worthwhile to read this story, and reflect on it. While no one may be literally stoned to death (though some communities would advocate the death of those who are different), we can do harm to others by making stereotypical assumptions. Continued racial and gender conflicts in our society are sufficient evidence of this.
The collective action of the community is also something that seems out of joint in the modern world, where the freedom of the individual is of the highest value. The development of ego-consciousness was a bastion against blood ritual—there was no need to protect the tribe from numinous forces. The individual identity fights this battle on its own, albeit in a pluralistic collective context. We have not stopped being one group of humans, but we do not all share a common belief, language, or purpose. Some aspects of our being are collective, but our societies are made up of individuals. Hence, the stoning of Tessie Hutchinson just seems senseless and barbaric.
In one of my conversations on Thursday, we discussed why it is that people persist in beliefs that have been disestablished by facts. People don’t think rationally; they think mythically, and certain types of mythical thinking need to be balanced with rationality. One’s story is tied up with one’s identity, and simply stating facts is not enough to change the story. Individuals have to change their own stories, or find new ones that are more suited to contemporary society. As Jung said, it is only individuals who can change collective consciousness.