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Sonoma State University

Psychology 322

Myth, Dreams, and Symbols

Professor Geri Olson, Ph.D.
(707) 664-2265


Office: Stevenson 3091
Office hours:
Wednesday, 2-5

Stevenson 3042

Click Here for Class Calendar


In this seminar students explore the search for meaning as it relates to both individual growth and the evolution of culture. Mythology, dream work, and symbols are explored from the standpoint of history and theory, group interaction, and personal reflection. This seminar is experiential in nature and requires journal-keeping, the recording of dreams, and the use of the expressive arts and imaginal processes to reflect on one’s life story. Each week students will share dream work, writing, and a variety of art process assignments. Because of this emphasis on personal reflection, the richness and electricity of the class will be deepened by your commitment to writing, artwork, and research outside of class.

The objectives of this seminar are 1)to gain a deeper understanding of the inner life through art, writing and ritual, 2)to explore meaning in the art, mythology and symbols of other cultures, and
3) to practice a variety of art processes that creatively portray our own personal myth and meaningful symbols and 4) to be able to reflect on personal experiences in light of psychological knowledge. Dream theories, journal keeping, autobiographical work, and creative art process will be introduced as useful tools for self-exploration.

The course will include narrative exercises, guest speakers, student presentations, and films. Students are asked to keep an illuminated journal that includes dream entries, collage, and other art and writing assignments. Students will be exploring their life story and transforming that story over time into a personal myth. The final project culminates in a figurative piece that accompanies the personal myth.
In-class assignments include work on a reliquary (click here for more on the reliquary project), creating symbol cards, and a variety of ways to use collage in the journal. The journal used in this class is sometimes referred to as a visual journal and needs to be a separate from other class journals. The workshop and experiential nature of this class requires complete participation and absences will lower your grade.

The text is Myth and Knowing by Scott Leonard and
Michael McClure and Inner Work by Robert Johnson. Additional reading will include articles, handouts, and additional books for the research project. The research project is selected from an extensive list of topics that include the study of symbols, mythology, fairy tales, art, embellishment, and ritual and will be discussed on the first day of class. A blank journal is required for the class. Additional costs for this class could include art supplies and copy costs. Please note: papers sent electronically will not be accepted.

Evaluation will be determined from a base of 200 points. These points are distributed in the following way:
20 Research presentation
25 Personal myth
25 Figurative sculpture
25 Reliquary
25 Quiz
30 Journal
50 Assignments
points total

The following projects are examples of the work that is required for the class. Please note that the art process work does not require any previous experience with art. The emphasis of this work is on process and how art inspires a venture to the interior.

Journal. Please have a blank journal that is dedicated to this class. It should be about 8 x 10 inches and spiral bound if possible. The journal is used for recording dreams and for working on the personal myth. We will also use the journal for in class assignments so please bring it to class each week. 45 pages 30 points

Dreams. Begin to record your dreams in your journal as soon as class begins. The class will study several different approaches to working with dreams and will work in a small dream group for eight weeks. After one absence, five points deducted for each absence.

A reliquary is a container or shrine where sacred items or relics are kept. Each person will construct a reliquary as a way of exploring the potency of images that are important to each of us. This project is an assemblage of images and found objects and will be started in class and finished at home. 25 points

Personal Myth. Beginning with autobiographical writing, we will strive to transform our personal narrative into a mythic structure. Fathers become kings or ogres and dear friends find themselves translated into guides and wise companions. Mythic writing requires suspending disbelief and a willingness to explore the imaginal realm. This extraordinary process is an adventure in creativity. The myth requires three illustrations. 30 points

The Figure. Once the myth is under construction, one of the characters in the myth is selected to emerge as a three dimensional piece. This figure can be of a human, animal, a fanciful beast or a mythic character not yet imagined. The options for materials, the size limitations, and other guidelines for this piece will be discussed in class. 25 points

Research Presentation. Throughout the semester, topics related to myth, dreams, and symbols will be presented. A list of selected topics is attached, but you are not limited to these ideas. You may work individually or with another person. See the attached list on this research project and we will talk more on the first day of class. 25 points

Exam. There will also be an exam on the reading. 25 points

In-class and other assignments. 50 points. These points cannot be made up.

I look forward to sharing our collective wisdom and to the unfolding of our stories.

Please note: All students with special needs are invited to meet with me early in the semester so that I am prepared to support you. Please register with the SSU Disabled Student Services (707-664-2677, Salazar Room 1049) and bring the authorization form indicating the specific accommodations needed. Adaptation of methods, material, or testing may be made to provide for equitable participation.

I encourage all students to become familiar with the student support services on campus. This includes tutoring, writing support, health care and counseling services.

Research Project, Selected Topics

Myth and Legend
Saint George and the Dragon, the cult of Saint George
Comparative mythology, Greek, Roman, Hindu Gods, timelines, the cast of characters
Selected culture such as Celtic, Scandinavian, Russian, Japanese, Australian mythology
The Female Divine: The Dark Goddess, Black Athena, the Hebrew Goddess, the Great
Mother, Venus of Willendorf, the Muses, Maiden/Mother/Crone,
Greek nymphs
The Male Divine: Trickster, shaman, king, destroyer, judge, sage, warrior
Selected themes such as romance, siblings, twins, the moon, marriage, the spiritual quest, emergence, creation, battle, grandmother/father, the mentor/guide, triumph
Selected animals in myth and legend such as the serpent, owl, rabbit, the dog, the horse, dragons, monsters, ogres and other fanciful beasts
Myths reinterpreted in music, dance, sculpture, film and painting such as:
Botticelli, Sandro, Birth of Venus (1480)
Dali, Salador, Apotheosis of Homer (1945)
Orpheus, directed by Jean Cocteau (1949)
Chagall, The Fall of Icarus (1975)
Cellini, Benvenuto, Perseus and Medusa (1545-1554)
Beethoven, Ludwig von, The Creatures of Prometheus (1801)
Breughel, the Elder, The Fall of Icarus (1555-1556)

Fairy tales, Fables, Folklore and Narrative
Narrative epics and ballads, such as the story of Evangeline
Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen
Selected themes such as the moon, wedding, stepmother, wise elder, sanctuary,
jester, witch, spider, orphan, fortune teller, betrayal, enchantment
Objects in fairy tales and children’s stories, such as a doll, animal, quilt, cloak

Saints, Kings, Martyrs and Mystics
Monks, monasteries
The cult of Saint Anne
Our Lady of Czestochowa
Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalen
Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe
Holy cards, shapes of the halo
King Arthur, Merlyn, conquest, castles
Saint Augustine, conversion
Shamans, sorcerers, magicians, seers
Christian mystics, pilgrimage, intentional suffering

The Human Figure
Art of the Lega
Creation myths
Akua’ba and fertility
Native American dolls
The story of Pygmalion
Shadow puppets, Banraku theater
Pagan/Christian doll ceremonies
Greek nymphs, Greek burial stones
Prehistoric artifacts, Goddess figures
Effigies, burial figures, shrine figures
Contemporary Santeras and Santeros
History of the dollhouse, history of the crèche
The doll in children’s literature and fairytales
Otherworld mates among the Baule (West Africa)
Evocation of the child: African fertility dolls and figures

Archetypes, dream symbols
Dreams in art and literature
Dreams and outsider artists
Dreams and creativity or invention
The role of dreams in other cultures
Approaches to dream interpretation
Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime art

Symbols, Art, and Ritual
Burial rituals
Milagros and charms
Huichol yarn drawings
The Ghost Dance ceremony
Feather art from ancient Peru
African Voodun, Haitian flags
Public ceremony and pageantry
Holiday symbols, folk assemblage
Liturgical arts, altars and shrines
Art and oracle, rituals of divination
Ritual bowls, jars, containers, bells
Reliquary, diptych, triptych
Nineteenth century retablo tradition
The history of the shaman to Santa
Buddhist reliquaries from ancient India
Medieval Georgian enamels of Russia
Court, cathedral, university, monastery
The Bwami Society, secret societies, cults
Afro-Jamaican folk healing, ethnomedicine
Medieval bestiaries, hunting and hawking
Ancient chorus, hymns, musical devices
Illuminated manuscripts, liturgical books
Trance states, Sufi dancing, serpent handling
Icons: Byzantine, Russian, Ethiopian, Hispanic
Art and ritual of childbirth in Renaissance Italy
The Northwest: totem poles, masks, marionettes
The Southwest: sand paintings, Kachina dolls, Navajo textiles

Personal Adornment/ The Body
Hair braiding, headdress
Emblems of power and status
Yoruba beadwork, African Kente cloth
The history color, especially blue or red
Costume and identity in Highland Ecuador
Body art: tattoos, piercing, scars, war paint
Warfare: Shields, armor, military emblems, hunting charms
Ceremonial robes and clothing: capes, button blankets, vestments of religious orders, shoes, buttons, pendants, bracelets, the kimono, ojime and inro, the veil, the tunic

Important Works:

Franz Boas
Edith Hamilton
Jean Shinoda Bolen
Carl Jung
Joseph Campbell
Bronislaw Malinowski
Ellen Dissanayake
Erich Neumann
Mircea Eliade
Huston Smith
Sigmund Freud
Marie Louise von Franz
Sir James G. Frazer Edward
C. Whitmont
Marija Gimbutas
Heinrich Zimmer

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