In 1928, mathematician Milutin Milankovich, Ph.D, authored a rather forward-thinking book on popular science for his day, titled Through Distant Worlds and Times: Letters from a Wayfarer in the Universe. In it, Milankovich addressed the fields of climatology, planetary science, and other disciplines through a romantic fictional narrative.
As the story goes, the narrator travels with an unnamed female companion through time and space, in which they don the appropriate attire for periods they visit, and roam the ancient world. “Unseen by the natives, they spy Babylonian priests, Aristotle, Eratosthenes and other great scholars and figures of antiquity and modern history,” the book’s entry at Wikipedia reads.
A whimsical history of science was not all that the book discussed. “In the central part of the book, the writer discusses climate change, and cyclical ice ages throughout the history – and future – of the Earth.”
Apart from the impressive knowledge the book offers, I find it unceasingly fascinating that this particular archetype of the time-traveling “professor” and his companion appears to reemerge throughout various literary disciplines. Similar imagery appears in Jungian psychology, for instance; during a period of Jung’s own life which he described as “a violent confrontation with the unconscious,” Jung related visionary experiences in which he observed an old, sagely man, accompanied by a young woman who was apparently blind. The underlying suggestion of this imagery is the wise old man “leading” or teaching the blind young woman, or in essence, helping her to see.
In Jung’s later writings, he would also expound on the concept of the senex, or “wise old man”, which emerges as a part of the broader process of individuation, or in essence, self-actualization that reveals one’s whole personality. Marie-Luise von Franz also cited Jung’s work in her 1978 essay, “The Process of Individuation”:
“If an individual has wrestled seriously enough and long enough with the anima (or animus) problem…the unconscious again changes its dominant character and appears in a new symbolic form…as a masculine initiator and guardian (an Indian guru), a wise old man, a spirit of nature, and so forth.”
Of course, the most obvious modern counterpart to the “senex” archetype is the BBC’s Doctor Who, the longest-running science fiction program on television. In it, viewers since 1963 have seen the many faces — 13 in total, as far as actors that have official taken the role — of The Doctor, a time-traveling alien being from the planet Gallifrey whose appearance and mannerisms change when he “regenerates”, either upon reaching the end of his life cycle, or being mortally injured.
The entire Doctor Who storyline seems to parallel cultural traditions about reincarnation, and the broader notion that a singular soul, perhaps capable of living many lives, persists over the course of time… and perhaps several bodily incarnations, as well. In my article “Home, the Long Way Round: The Doctor Who Enigma,” I noted the timelessness of the character who, despite the various outward appearances afforded him throughout his regenerations, maintains an ancient, and at times epic sense of a much older self within:
“Even when possessed within the facade of a younger body, The Doctor’s character is an ancient soul, with all the many years of travel and experience throughout his lives compounded within a single, timeless spirit. Critics have particularly attributed this characteristic to actor Matt Smith, who became the youngest to take on the role during the program’s tenure, often displaying a childlike wonder for simple things, juxtaposed against a very, very elderly man (as indicated often in his style of dress, which has been likened to that of “an Oxford professor” with his trademark bowtie and tweed jacket, the latter being replaced in later seasons by a long frock Crombie-style coat, and suspenders being traded for a waistcoat, giving his dress an Edwardian appearance; all of which contrast rather uniquely with the young actor’s appearance.”
Similar themes also emerge in the Arthurian legends, in which the wizard Merlin was often depicted as an instructor to younger mentors, most notably Arthur himself.
Countless other similar examples no doubt exist, but what is the reason for these apparent trends, that seem to tie together the loose ends of our folklore throughout the ages? Some might even complain that there is, in the very truest sense, “nothing new under the sun” (or paraphrasing how guitarist Keith Richards once put it, “every song ever written is a variation on the same tune Adam and Eve sang in the Garden!).
Perhaps, rather than an age-old retelling of the same familiar tale, the similarities that emerge from of our mythologies are instructions, of a sort, about deeper psychological realities within the mind. Part of this “depth” may be the way that timeless knowledge has been so often preserved in the form of a narrative involving a wise, and often magical or mysterious teacher; could this fictionalization of the narratives of history assist the mind, maybe even in a subconscious way, with retaining the broader lessons to be learned? Supposing this, what symbolic functions of the mind begin to be recognizable to us, and does this aid us in understanding the human treatment and perception of ideas and “memes” we encounter today?
According to James Harvey Stout’s excellent online essay, “What is Mythology?”, the author explains that, “beyond the pragmatic reasons, we [mythologize] to satisfy our natural, healthy craving to live in a world which is still filled with mystery and wonder and archetypal grandeur.”
He continues to say:
“Mythology is a valid way to look at the world. Even if we respect the archetypal significance of mythology, we might disregard myths as primitive, clumsy attempts to express those psychological truths. But some authors have argued that mythology is actually a sophisticated means of labeling and studying psychological dynamics — a means which is as cultured and insightful as that of modern psychology. Surely some myths were concocted by soma-intoxicated shamans, but perhaps others were devised by thoughtful scholars and mystics who intentionally chose mythology as a vehicle for passing on their revelations. These sages might have realized that myths are:
1. Easy to remember in an illiterate society in which ideas cannot be written nor read.
2. Approachable and somewhat understandable by people of any level of intelligence, including people for whom a philosophical discourse would be incomprehensible.
3. Stimulating to the imagination and feelings, where the effect can be more profound and life-changing than that from intellectual comprehension.”
Stout also asks if mythology can be used in modern psychological studies. “Although we might include mythology within psychology, we would surely not abandon psychology’s scientific approach for the stories and practices of traditional mythology.”
“But the idea of a “mytho-psychology” is intriguing,” he writes. “We can envision the advice given by a Roman priest in a counseling session with a person who, for instance, was experiencing problems due to a lack of self-discipline.” (Stout’s entire essay can be read here).
So it could, in a sense, be argued that there are instructional aspects to our adherence to mythologies, and the archetypal themes they portray. As for the reappearing “professor and his companion”, as referenced throughout this article, perhaps this innocuous archetypal pairing is merely one noticed by this particular author; on the other hand, maybe there is more to it after all… physicists argue that, in an ever-expanding, infinite universe, the potential for a countless number of imagined possibilities are afforded us. This rationale has been used by the likes of Neil deGrass Tyson and Elon Musk, among others, as justification for the likelihood that we may exist within a sort of simulation; but are there other interpretations of reality that this kind of logic might help ascertain?
While we are entertaining such hypothetical possibilities, is it any more of a stretch to imagine that certain other familiar “archetypes” could represent humanity’s recurring encounters over time with, for instance, space-time travelers? We might even imagine a pair of wayfarers tumbling about the universe together, resembling a “professor” and his companion, whose appearances on Earth since time immemorial were noted by those who encountered them. What if those encounters, in turn, were subsequently adopted as myths, that were carried along in the oratory traditions, and later the written mythologies of ancient cultures?
“Who” knows… maybe in such cases the truth really is stranger than fiction; or at very least, it’s interesting (and fun) to stop and allow a moment to consider it from “time” to time.