Standing on the Shoulders of the Master

Myth.  It is a word that has become ‘loaded’ in that it is used, in the common parlance, to indicate something that is inherently untrue.  On any given day one can find at least one example on interworld newsgroups discussing “10 myths about healthy foods” or the like.  There are television shows devoted to the supposition that a myth is, by definition, a lie, just waiting to be debunked by someone. The television show “Mythbusters” comes easily to mind.

Myths have become equated with lies, when what they really ARE are stories- tales that help to describe and explain the lot of humans and their interactions with their environments, both earthly and the postulated divine realms.  Myths help us to understand how people of other times and cultures understood and shaped the world.

In Religious Worlds, William Paden stated that myth “addresses and resolves conflicts and contradictions in human experience.”  Northrup Frye described myth as “charged with a special seriousness and importance” (The Great Code: The Bible and Literature).  And, in The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell stated that myth is “humanity’s one great story… or, as it says in the Vedas of India, Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names.”

Sure, there are examples in popular culture that give myths their due.  They can sometimes be seen as the means of communication that they were intended to be.  In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (‘Darmok’) the crew of the Enterprise encounters a culture whose language is constructed through the use of mythic imagery and events.  Jean-Luc recounts the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu as a means of communication with his alien compatriot.

Generally speaking though, myths have become things to be discounted and dismissed.  In misusing the term this way the implication is that myths are the stories of those who are “other”- i.e. not Western, 21st century, rational, thinking individuals.  The perception is that they are totally fictitious and somehow ‘wrong’.  There is a negative value judgement inherent in designating something as a ‘myth’.

Myths are integral parts of religions and societies- both ancient and contemporary.  They are stories that were created, repeated, believed and beloved.  Yes, there are lots of stories about the gods, but myths also recount tales of historical events of significance to a particular tradition.  As one example, the ritual celebration of Passover reenacts an important mythological event in the religious tradition of Judaism- the release from bondage in Egypt, as described in the biblical book of Exodus.

Ritual, doctrinal and theological dimensions of religions are supported by the myths of the belief system.  Theology uses myths to create doctrines- coherent systems used to present a total picture of the realities of a particular worldview.  Without ‘myth’ there can be no ‘religion’.

But the myths behind various belief systems are not always particularly ordered or coherent.  As such, and given our human (and myth-based) propensity for the establishment of order, we are constantly seeking to make sense of the symbols and themes that recur across cultures and religious systems.  This involves human interpretation of human-created stories which can be both wonderful and dangerous, depending on the lens through which the interpretation is attempted.

Joseph Campbell, the prolific author and celebrated teacher of comparative mythology, brought myth, and its importance, to the masses.  He was the non-academic academic; he made the stories of humanity accessible and brought their study into our homes and consciousness through a body of work that included the series “The Power of Myth” with Bill Moyers in the late 1980’s.  His message, and conversational approach to the study of world mythology, is timeless and remains without peer.

Following Professor Campbell’s example, we have to stop blindly citing short passages of longer, larger, less-ordered myths, waaaaaay outside of their created contexts, as a means of ‘justifying’ current ideologies and culturally based prejudices, and realize, as Campbell emphasized throughout his worldwide teaching career, that our myths connect rather than separate us as humans.  Myths certainly have things to teach us and a determinedly human wisdom to impart that transcends the time and location in which the individual stories were composed, but they must be viewed through the specific lenses of time and place.  And they must be examined in this context in their totality with the irrelevancies and injustices of history removed to better reflect our human evolution.  We are learning, growing organisms, and our interpretation of the wisdom of the ages has to reflect this reality and our advances in science, philosophy and cultural discourse.

Discovering our collective and individual myths is an important way of connecting as humans- and of getting to know others who may, at first, seem incomprehensible to us, but the stories MUST be interpreted according to our contemporary ideals, values and consciences.  They should never be seen as static, but as living, developing representations of people being people who are trying to make sense of the realities of living and dying and everything in between.  As Professor Campbell so eloquently stated:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life.  I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking.  I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.  That’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues (myths) help us to find within ourselves.”  (The Power of Myth).

He was not suggesting that our stories should be unexamined prescriptions for living, but that they can inform our ways of interacting in THIS world and help animate and celebrate this ‘go round’ on the wheel of LIFE.  I realize that I’ve already said that his views are timeless but it bears repeating.  In this world of instant communication we have to strive ever harder to connect with the stories that define our humanity, while relegating those cultural mores that no longer reflect our continually progressing stages of development to the dust bin of positive change.  Doing so will help us to see that we are all looking for our own, personal and societal, ‘raptures’, and will demonstrate that most of our differences pale in comparison to the common drive of all humanity to live the best life possible in the time we are given, through the use of the tools we have created.

Such tools can form the basis of dialogues that will ultimately lead us to an understanding of one another, regardless of the surface differences that are highlighted daily in the media, and that contribute to an atmosphere of fear of the ‘other’.  If we need anything in today’s climate, a release from that fear certainly tops the list.  Joseph Campbell’s model for the appreciation of our myths- both ancient and modern- remains an excellent means of unpacking the symbols and meanings behind our attempts at making sense of our existence.  The wonders of our technological advancements allow us to access his teachings, and our stories, with the click of a mouse or the tap of a touch screen.  With such tools so readily to hand, can we honestly make excuses for not accessing the databanks and attempting to understand the perceived ‘other’?

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3 comments on “Standing on the Shoulders of the Master

  1. […] not going to be pedantic and go back through all the discussions (like this one) I’ve had about why the themes and types of characters keep showing up as we, as humans, try […]

  2. One of the things I love about myths is the comparative similarity in characters and stories across cultures. I seem to recollect watching a programme, a few years ago, that wondered at the similarities, given the distance and isolation of one culture from another. You mentioned, in another post, about ‘nothing new under the sun’ and, just a couple of days ago, I was reading one of Paul’s poems that referenced the same thing while I fretted about the future for my kids. I take comfort in the knowledge that, despite cultural differences/distance/time, we, as humans, generally speaking, are on the same path (even if we do get lost!) I’d compare the significance of myths to that of fairy tales and fables. Hansel and Gretel comes to mind. In the absence of the pebbled path we have to use our smarts.
    I wonder sometimes if that’s why I’m drawn to poetry, and particularly, the fantastic. So much can be said through metaphor if we can look beyond the surface. I remember telling a story to kids in class and, in the middle of it, stopping short as I realised a new angle on it. I was blown away that, though I had told this story umpteen times, I had somehow missed a significant point until then.
    Biblical stories, myths and legends, fairy tales, ancient stories of cultures that were passed word of mouth, unfailingly fascinating. That there are those who have studied their significance and can unlock their meanings, with reference to time and place, is equally fascinating.
    The video clip wouldn’t play here but I got it on Youtube. I’d never seen it. How simple the story told to communicate across language and cultural barriers and, aptly, round a camp fire. Maybe, despite scientific advances, there is still very much a place for all of them. (I’m always sure to tell the kids that Goldilocks was grounded for breaking and entering!)
    I’d love to have a chat with you IRL on this. It’s endlessly interesting to me and you obviously know your stuff through your studies. I’d love to hear more of those stories that haven’t come my way. One day, here or there, and a marathon session of mythological proportions! 🙂 x

    • colemining says:

      Yes! Over a dram or many (I got TWO bottles of Scotch for Xmas- my sisters seem to want to enable my newly discovered love of the stuff).

      I think that’s the aspect I miss most about teaching- the ability to communicate to people that we ALL, as humans, have the same wants/needs and similar (if contextually variable) symbols and themes with which to shape responses to these wants/needs. ALL of us. Our sameness is FAR more important than our difference. Comparative religion, as an academic discipline, is often viewed with suspicion in our ‘post-modern’ world- but I truly believe that mythographers (like Prof. Campbell) have much to teach us.

      If more people would realize that- and be accepting of the variety of experience that causes us to create our stories as our road maps for navigating through this existence- we’d all get along a whole lot better. That doesn’t mean we should blindly accept all variants of the stories- we have moral systems and knowledge that transcend context-specific interpretations of old narratives- but finding the commonalities, and using them as dialectic starting-points, strikes me a pretty good place to start working together for things like peace and harmony.

      But that’s just me 😉 If I get my act together in the New Year, I’ll manage to finish up the novel (finally) that plays with the themes of myth and history and living in the world in the present. Going back over this post, in particular, I’m reminded of the importance of Gilgamesh- and his story- and how pivotal it would be if those who seek to lead our contemporary countries achieved even a part of the wisdom that he learned. His story is one of the most poignant tales of responsible leadership I’ve ever come across. He’s quite an inspirational dude. Think I need to re-read my Mesopotamians over the weekend…

      We SHALL have that conversation. Sooner rather than later, I hope. xo

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