Psychology is often considered a discipline confined to the ivory towers of academia and the modern clinics of therapists. Yet, much of what we know about the human mind was first explored through stories and myths that have survived the ages. These ancient tales, from Greek mythology to Eastern parables, offer intriguing insights into the complexities of human behaviour, motivation, and emotions.
These ancient tales, from Greek mythology to Eastern parables, offer intriguing insights into the complexities of human behaviour, motivation, and emotions. For example, the story of Oedipus illustrates the universal themes of parental attachment and forbidden desires that drive us all. The Epic of Gilgamesh explores a heroic figure’s quest for meaning in life through friendship and adventure. And the Bhagavad Gita wrestles with conflicts of duty, morality and purpose that we still grapple with today. By studying these classic works, modern psychologists gain a fuller understanding of the human experience across cultures and eras.
The myth of Sisyphus and the concept of resilience
In Greek mythology, the story of Sisyphus serves as an early examination of human resilience. Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a mountain, only for it to roll back down each time he reached the summit. His task was both endless and pointless. Yet, the tale resonates as a metaphor for the human condition, wherein we are often faced with repetitive or seemingly futile tasks.
French philosopher Albert Camus interpreted the myth as a commentary on the human spirit’s ability to endure and find meaning, even in the face of absurdity. Camus’ existentialist views align with modern studies on resilience, which highlight the importance of adaptability and a strong sense of purpose. Studies have demonstrated that individuals with a sense of purpose are better equipped to bounce back from adversity.
This sense of meaning also motivates them to push through challenges. Additionally, studies demonstrate that resilience can be cultivated through practices like mindfulness, self-care, and fostering social connections. By drawing lessons from myths like Sisyphus, psychologists continue to unravel the complexities of human resilience.
Icarus and the psychology of risk-taking
The Greek myth of Icarus warns against the dangers of overconfidence and the perils of not heeding wise counsel. Icarus, outfitted with wax wings, ignored his father Daedalus’ warnings and flew too close to the sun, melting his wings and plunging to his death.
In psychology, risk-taking behaviour is often studied as a composite of factors such as impulsivity, overconfidence, and a disregard for consequences. Overconfidence and a lack of self-awareness often contribute to risky behaviours, echoing the lessons in the tale of Icarus.
Research shows that overconfidence is correlated with increased risk-taking, as people tend to overestimate their abilities and underestimate potential dangers. This hubris can lead to poor decision-making with potentially disastrous results. To avoid ‘flying too close to the sun,’ psychologists emphasise the importance of self-reflection, seeking advice, and tempering impulses with caution and preparation. The ancient story of Icarus exemplifies the wisdom that still rings true today – pride comes before a fall.
The parable of the Good Samaritan and empathy
Moving from Greek mythology to Biblical parables, the story of the Good Samaritan offers a profound lesson in empathy and altruism. In the tale, a man who has been robbed and left for dead is ignored by his own countrymen but is eventually helped by a Samaritan, a member of a rival ethnic group.
Modern psychology delves deeply into the concepts of empathy and altruism, attempting to understand what motivates individuals to help others. The parable’s teachings find echoes in the psychological theory of “reciprocal altruism”, which posits that altruistic acts are often motivated by the expectation of mutual benefit, either immediately or in the future.
But psychologists have also identified truly selfless altruism driven by feelings of compassion rather than expectation of reward. Studies show that empathy, perspective-taking, and exposure to suffering tend to increase altruistic behaviours. The Good Samaritan illustrates how compassion can overcome social barriers and lead to moral acts. By integrating timeless lessons from parables with scientific research, psychologists further illuminate the complex interplay of factors driving human kindness.
Why ancient tales still matter
The enduring relevance of ancient stories is a testament to their psychological depth. While they may be dismissed as mere tales or fables, these narratives are rich in lessons that have been corroborated by modern psychological studies.
Psychologists and therapists can benefit from incorporating these tales into their practice, using them as allegorical tools to help clients gain a better understanding of their own behaviours and emotions. Not only do these stories entertain, but they also enlighten, serving as mirrors to our psyche and helping us navigate the intricacies of human relationships, motivations, and decisions.
For example, a therapist could use the myth of Sisyphus to help a client reframe monotonous or frustrating tasks as opportunities to cultivate resilience and meaning. Biblical parables could encourage clients to examine their own capacity for empathy.
By continuing to analyse these enduring works, psychologists uncover new applications to promote mental health and self-reflection. The ancient wisdom of myths and parables will likely guide generations
Alexandra Felix, PhD is a psychologist and writer who blends storytelling with scientific research to explore the intricacies of the human mind.