Dissertation Title:

Sun Ra: His Myth, Music, and the Alter Destiny


Jesse Carsten

Date, Time & Place:

July 25, 2023 at 3:00 pm


Despite the abundance of research that has been done on the cosmic, philosopher- musician Sun Ra there has not yet been a full study attending to the primacy of mythology in his life, thought, and music. This dissertation explores this mythic aspect and the multifarious stories that Ra told, as woven into the kaleidoscopic body of work that he created throughout the 20th century. As a composer, writer and leader of one of the last great big bands of modern jazz, Ra created a personal mythology that could reach back into ancient Egyptian culture and forward into an intergalactic, sci-fi cosmology. This dissertation unearths the myth that Ra created, elucidating its enactment from a comparative mythological, new comparative, and depth psychological standpoint. This research makes clear that not only was Ra’s a potent, emergent myth, but that it was engineered for widespread social transformation, in defiance of dominant cultural myths and belief systems.

Ra was keenly aware that mythology encapsulates a powerful cultural force: one that could be used by artists for curative purposes or by religion and political forces to control the public’s views and actions. Myth could be used to coordinate minds and souls with a transcendent super-reality or be deployed to justify violent, racist dogmas. Therefore, Ra interlaced myth into every aspect of his being: he took on a magical appellation granting him the power of a timeless, Egyptian Blackness, and told the story of his band travelling the cosmos in a spacecraft powered by music. His myth, he hoped, could become a redeeming spiritual narrative of the future.

Ra’s myth is contextualized in this writing by Joseph Campbell’s four functions of a living mythology, which allow us to view it as a complete system of story, idea, sound, image, performance and ritual, capable of provoking powerful effects. Ra’s concept of the “alter destiny” is shown to be the ultimate goal of his work, a supernatural dynamism that could potentially change the course of history and time, first for African Americans, then the world.

  • Program/Track/Year: Mythological Studies with Emphasis in Depth Psychology, I, 2015
  • Chair: Dr. Patrick Mahaffey
  • Reader: Dr. Dana White
  • External Reader: Dr. Eliza Swann
  • Keywords: Sun Ra, Arkestra, Mythology, Afrofuturism, Cosmology, Personal Mythology, Visionary Artists, Avant-garde Jazz