Mythological Transformations through Time

Symbiosis: Institute for Comparative Studies in Science, Myth, Magic and Folklore


By Katherine Sullivan


In my paper I will be talking about aspects of my research for the degree, Master of Fine Art. I will be touching on aspects of mythology, religious belief systems and practice, and philosophy, intermingled with my own art practice. As the subject area is so diverse and mythological stories and elements are not necessarily exclusive to any particular culture, religion or belief system and have the ability to cross cultural boundaries, it was necessary to narrow my field of research without restricting it to any particular culture or religion. I will be exploring the chameleon role of the serpent, flood stories, and universal symbols such as the boat form, the circle and the egg, as well as sacrifice, interconnecting them with the cycle of life and death, creation and destruction.

The nature of my research is not new, as people through the ages have been exploring the concepts of mythology. Myths have been recorded, dissected and analysed, distorted and recreated and simply loved for their history and content. Their sole survival depended on the oral traditions and practices of past societies, who believed in and lived by their mythology. Over time these oral traditions were overtaken by industrialisation and scientific knowledge and with these changes so was the myth, becoming part of our written world history, suspended in time and devoid of the human aspect attached to mythology via the enactment of the ritual. We may lament the loss of this process of evolution but at the same time we must be thankful for the actual preservation of myths.

Probably the question most asked by humanity is “what is the purpose of life and death?” Through the ages people have attempted to answer this question, which has resulted in the multitude of myths, rituals and belief systems that exist throughout the world. These have acted as a common bond, giving groups and individuals a sense of purpose and community.

In the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology edited by Felix Guirand, it states that myths have two main functions. The first function was to explain the creation and destruction of the world, the creation of the first human being and the destination or resting place of souls after death. The second function was to justify existing social systems and account for traditional rites and customs.[1]

Joseph Campbell stated that the principle function of mythology was to enable humanity to remain in harmony with the universe.[2]

Irrespective of the origin and purpose of mythology, they are an interesting source of story telling, firstly passed down orally and at a later stage in written form. They have been accredited with special powers and used for a variety of purposes from the creation of the universe, the worship of gods and heroes, the creation of humanity, rites of passage, laws of society and belief systems, and the explanation of major events or catastrophes.

The search for spiritual fulfilment has played a key part in the creation of many religious practices. During certain periods in history, each culture would have developed its’ own social laws, religious beliefs, spiritual ritual practices and associated symbolism. As the dynamics in society altered so did the practices. They melded together to form part of a conceptual language, a vehicle for the expression of thoughts, fears and desires. It was a means by which people connected themselves with the world around them and the surrounding cosmos.

Even today religious practice uses symbols and rituals, which were part of our tribal or pagan history when superstition was part of the way of living. People felt a need to be able to take control of their daily lives and to explain misfortune, which was not generally seen as a natural occurrence but created by higher unseen forces. We still carry these beliefs in our subconscious as individuals and as a society. It is difficult to comprehend foreign religious practice and its associated concepts and use of terminology, which has little meaning outside its social context, without firstly examining the religious practices of the particular religion and the associated past history.

As humanity developed so did cognitive thinking processes and with it symbolism. Ellis Davidson states that humanities ultimate concerns must be expressed symbolically and that symbols point beyond themselves to something else, and that they actually participate in the power of that which they signify. The symbol opens up levels of reality, meaning and being in the human mind, which would otherwise be closed to us. It grows out of the individual or collective unconscious, and cannot function without being accepted by the unconscious. It has the capacity to grow and die according to the way in which it produces responses in people.[3]

One of the problems with symbolism is that people tend to get too concerned with the actual symbol and fail to make a connection with the spiritual message, which may not be based on actual events or rational thinking but on the intangible. By participating in the practice of scientific examination and analysis of myths and their symbols we run the danger of overlooking the actual meaning. Even the best attempts at explanation especially from a western mentality may not necessary be successful as in the process of translation, a loss may occur, due to the process of metamorphosis.


'Duality'- 1999: Bronze and marble, 96cm x 49cm x 33cm.

Duality The two serpents represent the creative forces, especially the masculine and feminine elements present in the creation of a new life. The work is based on the twin serpent concept and encompasses the ideology of balance in nature and in the individual as in yin (feminine) and yang (masculine). The work was influenced by the “Caduceus” (twin snake encircling a central staff) held by the god Hermes/Mercury, who guided souls to the knowledge of immortal life.[4]

For thousands of years the serpent has been recognised as an emblem of eroticism and can be linked to the sexual act of the serpent, which may be practised in the erect position as in the mating of the Indian Cobra. In India, at religious festivals women carried the symbol of the serpent entwined around a Lingam and worshipped the actual living serpent placing milk, eggs and gee as an offering.[5]

There are folk legends throughout many parts of the world that say that if a man sees two snakes coupling he will be turned into a woman for seven years.

While the single serpent wrapped around a staff or central axis represents imbalance in nature and imbalance in our conscious and unconscious lives. In Hebraic patriarchy the serpent wrapped around the tree of Eden may be interpreted as the masculine energy dominating feminine energy.[6] In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve freed themselves from the single serpent theme by partaking of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, of good and evil, thus giving rise to knowledge and the awareness that they were different and opposites, male and female.[7]

The work is devoid of the negative forces associated with the serpent as depicted in the single serpent wrapped around the tree in the Garden of Eden.

'Flying Dragon Snake'- 1998: Bronze, brass and timber, 51cm x 61cm x 14cm.

'Travelling Dragon Snake' – 1998: Bronze, 23cm x 41cm x 17cm.

The work titled the Flying Dragon Snake and the Travelling Dragon Snake are not directly linked to a particular reading of a myth. They are creative extensions of the serpent theme and are linked to the fantastic beings contained in myths, such as dragons, winged horses, talking animals, gods and superhuman mortals, fantastic beings that signify philosophic concepts of transcendence and freedom by releasing the human condition from the earthly confines.

Demonic and mythical serpents and dragons have played a role in myth making. Although the serpent has been frequently worshipped, it has also been feared and associated with a variety of characteristic and diverse powers. In the writings of Chinese pilgrims it lays claim to poisonous “dragons who when evil-purposed, spat poison, winds, snow, drifting sand, and gravel stones”, while other dragons were restrained from sending rainstorms.[8] In part of the Gnostic system, a great dragon with its tail in its mouth was said to encircle the earth in the place of the outer darkness. Its purpose was to swallow the souls who have not attained knowledge.[9]

'Manu and the Fish' – 1999: Bronze, brass and timber, 51cm x 61cm x 14cm

The work titled Manu and the Fish is based on the Indian flood myth about the destruction and rebirth of nature as well as the kind-heartedness of humanity and the rewards forth coming. In return for saving his life, the god Visnu gave a warning about the forthcoming flood. He requested that Manu prepare for the flood by loading up the boat with “two of every living creature and seeds of every living plant”. The god Visnu, in the form of a fish further assisted Manu in the steering of his boat through the floodwaters, by using a serpent as a rope.The myth reads as follows –

One Day Manu, a very wise man, was down at the River Ganges having a wash. He scooped up a handful of water, and was just about to splash it over his face, when he noticed a tiny fish in the palm of his hand. To his great amazement, the fish talked to him, begging him to allow it to live. Tenderly, he carried the little fish home and put it in his biggest water jar.

The next day, Manu went to free his little friend. When he looked into the jar, he could hardly believe his eyes. The little fish had grown so big overnight that it completely filled the jar. As he didn’t have a bigger jar, Manu decided to take the fish to a nearby lake. Each day, he visited the lake to find out if his friend needed anything.

To his great surprise, the fish grew so quickly that even the lake was too small to hold it. The next time Manu came to the lake, the fish asked him to take him back to the sea. This wasn’t easy, as the fish was much bigger than Manu. However after a great deal of effort, he managed to get it to the edge of the sea.

As Manu was about to heave the fish into the water, it warned him of a coming flood. The fish told Manu what he should do. He was sent a large ship, which he was told to load with two of every living creature and seeds of every living plant. Manu did everything he was told and then got on board the ship himself. As soon as the gang plank had been pulled up, the ocean rose up and covered all the land. Even the highest mountain was soon under the sea.

Looking over the side of the ship at the raging waters, Manu saw his friend the fish. He nearly didn’t recognise him because he had grown so large and had a huge horn sticking out of his back. He was also covered with gleaming, golden scales. This wonderful creature was really he god Vishnu. The fish told Manu to anchor the ship to his horn. Manu took the largest snake and used it as a rope to moor his ship.

In this way, mankind, the animals and the plants were all saved from destruction.[10]

There are a number of myths around the world about the creation and destruction of humanity. Humanity was destroyed for a number of reasons, such as wickedness, being too noisy, being too quarrelsome, or for the infringement of a basic law. The great flood stories are examples of the destruction and also the cleansing of humanity but at the same time may be seen as the salvation of a select few and the creation of a New World order.[11] For example in the Christian community we have the great flood story, Noah and the Ark, recorded in the Book of Genesis, in the Jewish and Christian Bibles.


'Transformation' - Installation, 2002 Bronze and water, 0.56m x 6m x 6m.

The work titled Transformation is based on an Australian Aboriginal creation story about how the black swan came into being. To an outsider the myth may be interpreted as punishment for the wickedness of humanity but to the Aboriginal people the myth was part of their Dreaming and embodied the truth of an actual event, long past. The myth reads as follows –

Once a group of men went fishing in a deep lake. They baited their hooks with meat and put out their lines. One man almost immediately felt a huge tug on his and when he looked into the water to see what he had caught realised very quickly that he had hooked a bunyip.

‘Unhook it,’ said his fellows. ‘Let it go. There’ll be a disaster if you don’t.’

‘No,’ said the man, ‘I won’t.’ He dragged the bunyip to the shore and took it away with him. But the bunyip’s mother had also lived in the lake. When she discovered she had lost her son she said to the waters, ‘You must follow that man.’ At once they rose higher and higher till they covered every bit of the country – all the people fled to the highest mountains but quiet in vain for the waters followed them even there, rising up and up the mountain until it lapped about their feet, at which every one of them turned into a black swan and has remained a black swan to this day. —-Australia. Victoria [12]

Irrespective of the true meaning of the myth, I saw it as a catalyst for the creation of a sculptural installation, about the transformation from one way of being to another way of being. This work also makes reference to the metamorphosis of the old discarded car tyre, which made its appearance in the Australian front and backyards, as a form of sculptural decoration- the Australian iconic rubber swan.

'Creation' – 2001: Plaster and mixed media, 7cm x 28cm x 24cm.

The work titled Creation uses the universal symbol of the egg, especially the fertilised egg from which life originates. The work is also linked to the celebration of Easter and the resurrection of Christ. In the Ukrainian Orthodox Easter celebrations the coloured or decorated egg is one of the foods presented for blessing at the all night Easter Church service. The Christian festival of Easter is an embracement of the old pagan festival of the spring equinox.[13] It is also linked to the forty-day fast of Lent (church’s way of harnessing and cleansing the spirit), which coincided with the final months of winter when the barns and granaries were becoming bare.[14] Today in Western societies the celebration of Easter has become very commercial with more emphasis placed on the purchase and consumption of the factory produced chocolate Easter egg than on the spiritual aspect.

'Ode to Sacrifice' – 2000: Metal and wax, 6cm x 27cm x 21cm.

The work titled Ode to Sacrifice is a satirical look at sacrifice and makes reference to the beheading in myths, fairytales and legends. On the more serious side, it refers to the ritual practice of human sacrifice carried out in order to appease the gods and to gain favour from the higher forces of nature. Hastings defines sacrifice “as a rite in the course of which something is forfeited or destroyed, its object being to establish relations between a source of spiritual strength and one in need of such strength, for the benefit of the latter.”[15] For example, in some parts of the Papuan Gulf of New Guinea, human sacrifice was practiced by tribal groups, who held a beheaded corpse over the bow of a newly constructed canoe to enable the canoe to be covered with blood.[16]

In the service of the Eucharist, the people partaking of the holly communion are also partaking of the symbolic body and blood of Christ. In the liturgy of the Consecration, God said to his disciples to eat the bread,

For this is my Body”

and to drink from the chalice

“For this is the Chalice of my Blood of the new and eternal covenant: the mystery of faith: which shall be shed for you and for many unto the forgiveness of sins.”[17]

Members of a Christian sect, who considered the serpent and Son as the same, used the serpent to bless the Eucharist by crawling over loaves of bread, which were later broken and distributed among the votaries. The Serpent was further revered by a kiss on the mouth by persons present.[18] This work also makes reference to the practice of religious ceremonies and feasts that are held in the graveyards of deceased family members, which are held in the Easter week in many Slavonic countries. Food and drink were placed on the graves of the dead, to assist the ancestral spirits in their journey.

'Passage' No1. - 2001: Copper and wax, 21cm x 54cm x 29cm.

'Passage'- Installation, 2002: Copper and mixed media, seeds, hair, feathers, eggshells and bones, 1.5m x 7.7m x 0.6m.

The work titled Passage is a metaphor for journey, nurture and confinement and encompasses aspects of creation, existence and demise. It makes reference to the tangible and the intangible aspects of our existence as well as the spiritual aspects associated with our conscious and unconscious minds.

Boats and vessels were believed to have sacred powers. They have been imbued with certain religious and magical aspects and ritual often accompanied the building and launching of boats. They have been used in magical rites in order to cure disease and in funeral rites connected with the dead.[19] In Eddystone Islands, leaves resembling canoes were sent out to sea, carrying ashes, thatch and shells. In Ancient Scandinavia, The Vikings used ships as funeral pyres. The ritual involved the laying out of the dead leaders in ships, which were ignited before sending them burning out to sea. In China boats in the form of dragons were burnt on the foreshore, to take away or ward off evil influences.[20]

'Circle of Evolution' - Installation, 2001: Timber and chair, 3.6m x 2.9m.

Circle of Evolution was part of the exhibition titled “Yesterday’s River Today -The Hunter”, which Joyce Clulow and I co-curated. The collaborative sculptural installation was a metaphor for change and is indicative of the constant evolution of the Hunter River and surrounding areas, which have been affected by the forces of nature and/or by human intervention. The Hunter River has undergone many great changes since the introduction of European settlement, in particular deforestation in order to satisfy the needs and desires of colonisation. These forces have resulted in the creation of the present Hunter Valley landscape and its people. The installation is also a comment on the destruction of the Aboriginal tribal communities whose lives were altered forever with the introduction of Colonisation and European settlement, destroying their people, their tribal systems, their sacred places and their religious practices. Just as the river has survived European intervention so has the Australian Aborigine by rediscovering and restating their place in the scheme of existence.

The circle has been used in ritual since time memorial. The structure of the circle has been attributed to the circular structure of the full moon and the lives of tribal societies were interconnected with the cosmic rhythms of the moon, with its constant rhythms of waxing and waning, birth and rebirth. It was also used as a spiritual barrier protecting the persons within the circle from supernatural forces.

The Circular form has been used as a spiritual structure for worship, for example the Aborigines of the Hunter Valley had sacred circular places of worship, within which they performed sacred ceremonies. Contained within this area they engraved trees with patterns of angular figures, diamonds, triangles, circles and sinuous parrel lines. These Bora grounds were used for male initiation ceremonies associated with entry into manhood. The Bora was believed to be associated with the sky hero Baiame, whose mission was to introduce laws, organisation, customs and ceremonies. The Bora ring represented his sky-world and the surrounding trees bearing engraved patterns symbolised the path to the sky.[21] In Threlkeld’s report to the London Missionary Society, dated December 1825, Threlkeld gave a description of the enacted Bora ceremony performed by approximately twenty men, who stood at the extremity of the circle, which had a diameter of “38 feet”. Within the circle was placed a small hillock, where the mystical bone was to be used. The ceremony was performed as follows –

The men stood at equal distances from each other in the circle, and wheeling round on their heel as a pivot to each other right and left with their elbows on their hips, but the right arm extended horizontally, their left legs swinging over the right foot every turn. They ran and shouted, meeting each other in the centre of the circle uttering a shrill scream. Their frequent running in this manner appeared to increase the hillock of sand in the centre by the shuffling of their feet. They next ran upon all fours from the extremity of the ring, barking like dogs, until they met at the centre, where a genuine howl was set up, which would have been mistaken for real, if heard at a little distance.[22]

The Journey just travelled has been a voyage of exploration, of rediscovery and examination of the past, an examination of the present and a look at the future. It is interesting to look back at the past in order to understand the present but we must not forget that we live in the present. We must create our own mythologies and history, which may be passed on to the next generation and become part of their history.

Felix Guirand ed., Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, London, 1959, v.

[2] Joseph Campbell, Transformations of Myth Through Time, New York, 1990, 1.

[3] Hilda.R.Ellis Davidson ed., Symbols of Power, USA, 1977, 2.

[4] Alan Bleakley, Fruits of the Moon Tree: The Medicine Wheel and Transpersonal Psychology, London, 1984, 22.

[5] George R Scott, Phallic Worship: A History of Sex and Sex Rites in Relation to the Religions of all Races from Antiquity to the Present, London, 1970, 83.

[6] Bleakley, op.cit. 22-24.

[7] Sue Flowers ed., Joseph Campbell The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, New York, 1988, 48.

[8] James Hastings ed., Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, 3rd ed., Vol.11, 415.

[9] Hastings, op.cit. 408
[10] Religious Education Project Team, Education Department of South Australia, Myths and Meanings, South Australia, 1980, 29.
[11] Penelope Farmer ed., Beginnings: Creation Myths of the World, London, 1978. 45.
[12] Farmer, op.cit. 55-56.
[13] Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, The Year 1000: What life was like at the turn of the First Millennium, An Englishman’s World, Great Britian, 1999, 53, n. – “spring equinox – the dawn of the sun’s reign in the northern year. Pagan tradition told of the “Year King”, the human victim who was chosen and sacrificed as winter turned into spring. Buried in the fields, his body would come magically to life again with the rising grain, and everyone could share in the miracle of his rebirth by eating the bread that was made from the grain.”
[14] Lacey and Danziger, op.cit. 57.
[15] Hastings, Religion and Ethics, Vol.11, 1.
[16] Hastings, op.cit. 472.
[17] Rev. Hugo H. Hoever, Saint Joseph Daily Missal: The official prayers of the Catholic Church for the celebration of the daily mass, New York, 1959, 677, 679.
[18] Hastings, op.cit.1, 2, 405.
[19] Hastings, op.cit. 472.
[20] Hastings, op.cit. 473.

[21] Allan Wood, Dawn in the Valley: The Story of Settlement in the Hunter River Valley to 1833, Sydney, 1972, 141-143.

[22] Neil Gunson, Australian Reminiscences and Papers of L.E. Threlkeld, Missionary to the Aborigines, 1824-1859, Australia, 1974, 192-193.

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