Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Mythical Woodworking - Stephen Hynson

Mahogany Cupboard by Stephen Hynson

In addition to being a professional woodworker I am also a practicing Jungian psychologist. In this later role I am always curious about the archetypal and mythic contexts for the life stories I am told. Among other things, active myths are indicators of the current cultural zeitgeist as well as an individual’s strategy for engaging life and life engaging us. The myth of the flawed hero is a long standing story in American culture. Our founding fathers are often portrayed in this light. Hollywood recapitulates the story again and again, in such films as Rocky, Star Wars, and most recently, Avatar.

In myth of all types specific behaviors are modeled, various moral dilemmas are confronted, if not resolved, and unconscious elements are brought to the foreground. One theme of Star Wars is the power of unconscious forces to lead one to the dark side. Another story line is the redemptive power of love. Viewed this way, myths can be seen as a learning tool. Myths, in sense, provide a a set of idealized behaviors if not also a psychic template for all us. There is a two way street here as myth also provides a lens, a window of sorts to contextualize and understand the world around us. A world view that looks at all tasks as Promethean is very different from the world view of the followers of Bacchus. Is life a struggle, or is life a party?

During a long stretch of sanding I got to thinking about the stories and myths I grew up with that involved woodworkers and woodworking in the plot line. Pondering this I came up with two general sorts of stories and characters. First we have the woodsman. In stories like Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and Peter and the Wolf, there is the heroic figure of the woodsman that slays wolves. On a metaphoric level, it is someone that has a familiarity with the forest and its wild things that is able to and does tame, if not, kill the wild things. From a psychic standpoint, there is a specific set of skills of the self that manages the wild urges.

As woodmen and women we have a direct relationship with the natural world in order to tame this world. We are the mediators between the wild world and the civilized world. This might also be thought of as a more general definition of the artisan and our world of craft. The tales of Paul Bunyan pick up on these themes also. An extra large character with a large blue ox for a buddy, Paul Bunyan is also often in the role of the Trickster as well as the lumberman mediating nature and civilization. Like Hermes and Ulysses, Paul Bunyan has a bit of mischief and mishap in him, and is a mediator between worlds, wild and civilized, unconscious and conscious.

The other set of stories deal with the working of wood directly. There is of course the story of Jesus and his filial responsibilities. Leaving the family and the world of carpenters, he of course goes onto something a bit different. Among other things, it is the story of the heroic.

Another story about a woodworker is the tale of Geppetto, a very poor woodcarver, and Pinocchio, an animated marionette. Like the early story of Jesus, it is about the relationship between a father and son, and family life. Created from a piece of talking pinewood, Pinocchio goes on to live the life of the Trickster. Something wild, the pinewood, has the appearance of humanness. Yet it is only through the tempering fires of his misadventures that he finally becomes truly human.

Both the story of Jesus and the story of Geppetto and Pinocchio offer ways of deepening into our human nature, the former through transcendence and the later through engaging the travails of the mundane and every day. Woodworking offers a very hands on experience for this work of the soul. It is wild stuff we work with. And that which is wild, untempered and unconscious is worked, whittled down and refined into a gift from our self to another. It is a very alchemical process of transformation. And like Paul Bunyan we also have a bit of mischief about us and a glint in our eye. Next time, ask your clients what they see.

©2010 Stephen Hynson, reprinted with permission.

To see more of Stephen's work, please visit his gallery

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