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Guidelines for Metahistory

The writings in /guidelines present essential orientation to the concept of metahistory, its assumptions, themes, and applications. These texts are:

How Metahistory Works sets out the Socratic orientation of metahistory.org and examines the problems posed by the inveterate need to believe in what cannot be proven or tested. It carries links to other texts that bear closely on the many issues raised by human reliance on belief.

Tree and Well explains the logo of metahistory.org, a composite of ancient images of a magical tree and a sacred spring or well. The figure of the Norse deity Odin represents a timeless theme of human experience: the shamanic calling to access the Otherworld and interact with supernatural powers. (This theme comes to full expression, and rather outrageously, in the Planetary Tantra.) Finally, this text emphasizes the power and beauty of language and the veracity of story-telling.

The Right to Believe is a brief, one-page text addressing the question of the risk of believing in blind faith, balanced against the necessity to imagine what may be possible.

The Four Concerns considers how all human concerns reduce to four primary issues corresponding to the four relations that pertain between God, Nature, and Humanity. This orientation essay stresses that human reality is relational, comprised of a web of relationships. We may frame or approach the relationships in belief, but ultimately the relationships have to be tested if we are to know the veracity of such beliefs.

In the Knowledge that Frees explains the status of metahistory.org as a teaching site and explicitly states the author's purpose: to teach teaching what I regard as lost knowledge of the Mystery Schools of pre-Christian antiquity.

The Arch of Metahistory with its five themes presents a suggested format for thematic organization of the material on the site. Access the Arch from the menu tree in the righthand margin.

Background to Metahistory is a long, long essay n the antecedents of metahistory, going back to founding of Rome in 747 BCE, an event in which mythical and history converge. Then it comes forward through the Middle Ages and Enlightenment to Hayden White, the American academic who coined the term "metahistory" though his studies have little in common with the material on this site.

Myth in Metahistory is on long essay on teh nature of myth, the eight categories of mythic narrative, and problems concerning the use of myth in its application to actual experience.

The Uses of the Erotic by Audre Lorde is an exception on the site. Metahistory.org does not feature the writings of any other authors except this one. Audre Lorde was a black lesbian feminist active in the 1970s. Her view of the erotic resonates closely to the spirit and tone of metahistory.org, and especially the goddess material. See, for instance, in the eros folder of Gaia-Sophia: Coco de Mer.

The Necessity of a Story

It is wonderful indeed that stories can bind us into a coherent social order, but what if the personal and collective identity of each of us acquires conflicts with the “still, small voice” of individual conscience? American philosopher Henry David Thoreau remarked that society is a conspiracy against the integrity of its members. This is not necessarily so, but it is inevitably so when a society relies on blind adherence to the belief-systems encoded in its core stories.

Metahistory asks, What kind of society would arise from clear and voluntary adoption of beliefs? What kind of a world would develop if we put our stories in question? To explore these issues, metahistory examines the diverse expressions of belief in the three main formats* — science, religion and culture — with close attention to the scripting in the six categories (listed in the definition on the Home Page). This critical but open-ended exploration reveals new options for a social order of enlightened consent, rather than blind consensus. In the language of metahistory, the shift from living by received and unexamined beliefs to living by freely chosen, carefully deliberated beliefs is called alignment.

"The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

- T. H. White, The Once and Future King

What lies beyond history is a new sense of identity developed by choosing for yourself your own beliefs, drawn from a range of stories. Or, more liberating yet, by revising myths and thus introduce new directions for the human adventure.

History is the sum-total of stories derived from the past, the complex inheritance of nations, races, places, creeds and families. This legacy carries vast richness and some tremendous, perhaps life-threatening liabilities. Metahistory presents a way for us to outgrow the limitations of this legacy called “history,” and transcend the conditioning of belief-driven behaviors that deny and defeat human striving for an optimal, compassionate way of life.

The goal of the this site is to generate broadly based, pro-active participation in discovering and evolving the choices that will arise when we put our most fundamental beliefs into question. The process it invites is both a visionary quest and an open-ended adventure in learning.

The basic assumption of metahistory states a self-evident truth: all beliefs held by human beings are encoded in stories. An obvious example comes from Christianity. The belief that obedience to God is rewarded by eternal life (in heaven) stands on its own and can be stated in just these few words, but rarely is. More often, this belief is transmitted through stories preserved in the Bible. The belief that God can overcome death and grant immortality is not presented in a bare formula but in a dramatic rendering, the life story of Jesus Christ.

In the language of metahistory, the belief is scripted in the story.

The historical process is the expansion of cross-cultural contacts between various peoples and a resultant sharing of a continuously growing pool of information, ideas, and myths. This body of inherited and shared information represents our collective understanding of the nature of our species ’ conscious journey through time.
— Terence McKenna, The Invisible Landscape

An example of a different belief about immortality comes from Melanesia. The story tells how humans were originally immortal — i.e., they did not have to earn immortality — and shed their skins like snakes. One old woman went to the river to change her skin and discharged it into the current where it fetched up on a stick. When she got home her children did not recognize their mother in her youthful skin, so she returned to the river, retrieved her old skin and put it on. Since then, all humans ceased to cast off their skins and so they live once only and die. In bare form the belief encoded here is that we die from attachment to personal identity.

Both versions, Christian and Melanesian, are not “rational,” but they exhibit a certain form of logic typical of mythical thinking that combines rational and imaginary factors. Both stories represent beliefs that exert tremendous influence in driving or guiding human behavior at the individual and collective levels.

In metahistory the beliefs scripted into our most enduring stories are brought to attention so that our behavior can be liberated, re-aligned, and consciously guided. The purpose of the material in this site is not to present a specific agenda for action but to propose views for alignment and open new perspectives that can lead to optional ways of acting and believing.

Motif and Mytheme

The basic practice in metahistory is to investigate the beliefs contained in all kinds of inherited stories. This approach assumes that social and collective belief-systems reflect a limited set of formulas, or thematic plots. These universal and recurrent plots can often reduced to motifs found in myths from around the world. The story of Jesus encodes the belief in immortality, as noted. The promise of ethernal life is a universal motif not exclusive to Christian faith. The same story also encodes the belief in salvation by a higher power, but this comes about through sacrifice, for Jesus must sacrifice his life to save the world from sin (so the belief states). Sacrifice is another example of numerous universal themes, or motifs, which determine the plot-structure of various stories.

Comparative mythologist Mircea Eliade, a pioneer of metahistory who made an inventory of these motifs, called them mythemes (pronounced myth-eeme), short for mythological themes. The mytheme of sacrifice displayed in the life of Jesus occurs in countless other stories, but it does not always convey the same value or meaning. The motif is consistent with the encoded belief, although the beliefs (in this case, beliefs about the meaning of immortality and sacrifice) vary through a range of different stories. The Melanesian belief that we are originally immortal conflicts with the Christian belief that we must earn immortality. In both belief-systems the same motif operates, but is treated in a different way.

The number of mythemes in the entire inventory of human stories is not infinite. It amounts to about thirty in all. These can be grouped in five categories under what might be called master themes. The Arch of Metahistory (see menu tree in righthand margin)) describes these five components of the universal story-telling process and indicates how each category is related to the other.

Detecting the mythemes in the stories that drive human behavior is the key to unlocking the power of those stories.

In metahistory, the terms story, script and scenario are largely interchangeable. To regard a story as a script indicates that we bring a questioning attitude toward the story. The story of the colonization of the New World after Columbus is a supported by vast research and documentation, but it is more than just a collection of names, dates and events. Any version of this story is also a script that contains beliefs, assumptions, hidden agendas. For instance, the belief that the natives of the New World were violent and immoral savages who needed to be socialized by conversion to Christianity is one such script. The same distinction applies to “news” stories presented by the media. In every case, the so-called “facts” are not neutral. The selection and narration of the facts is directed by beliefs, sometimes openly and sometimes not.

Identification and Alignment

The scripts that make us behave the way we do are rarely chosen by us. They are inherited and imposed without options, usually by telling us what we must believe rather than by asking us what we want to believe. The effect is so profound that most of us are largely unaware of how we enact belief-driven scenarios. (Whether the compulsions thus enacted are unconscious or merely unadmitted is a key issue in metahistorical ethics.)

The version of history proposed, and imposed, is always the version approved by the teller. The “generally accepted” versions of history carry moral beliefs, religious doctrines, political ideologies, sexual, and political agendas and familial credos deeply held by those who impose them. All these components are pre-scripted without the knowledge or conscious consent of those of us to whom the story-scripts are transmitted. Every religion consists of a belief-system framed and created by its originators. To accept a story is to adopt its beliefs. In a moral sense, the believer belongs to the story, because he or she enacts the belief it carries.

Acceptance confers identity, a sense of what it means to be human, including how we are related to God, race, nation, society, family, gender. Identification serves the human need to belong, but it can stifle human potential, because the inculcation of belief-systems often risks suppressing the innate gifts of the individual. Socialized identity can contradict feeling, stifle imagination and overwhelm personal conscience. Unexamined scripts bind people blindly to the beliefs embedded in the story. You, the individual, are rarely given the chance to examine a scripted belief before adopting it. The stories for modeling behavior are almost never presented in optional form, as one choice among others. They are imposed as the single and exclusive truth that confers identity to those who embrace it. If you do not believe, you do not belong.

--> Revised Nov 2009












Sacred Nature
Moral Design



Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2014 by John Lash.