Mythic Truth

“Myth embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words.”  I recently came across this quote from Ananda K. Coomaraswamy.  Coomaraswamy was a philosopher and metapmhysist from Ceylon, and like many eastern thinkers had a more holistic view of the world than western rationalism.  We’re taught from a young age that myth is something false, not true.  This colloquial use of the word is so common that those of us who’ve specialized in myth slip into it during everyday conversation.  Words, however, have uses rather than meanings.  Coomaraswamy was engaging this reality in the quote above.  Words can take us only so far in exploring reality when we have to break into either formulas or poetry.  Although they are under-appreciated poets are the purveyors of truth.

Having studied ancient mythology in some detail, it became clear to me as a student that these tales weren’t meant to be taken literally.  Instead, they were known to be true.  It takes a supple mind to parse being true from “really happened,” as we are taught in the western world that on what “really happened” is true.  In other words, historicism is our myth.  Meaning may not inhere in words, but when we use words to explore it we run up against lexical limits.  Is it any wonder that lovers resort to poetry?  On those occasions when I’ve been brave enough to venture to write some, I walk away feeling as if I’ve been the receiver of some cosmic radio signal.  We have been taught to trust the reality of what our senses perceive.  Myth, and poetry, remind us that there’s much more.

The Fundamentalist myth is that the Bible is literally true.  If they’d stop and think about it, they’d realize the mockery such thinking makes of Holy Writ.  The Good Book doesn’t look at itself that way.  In fact, it doesn’t even look at itself as a book—an idea that developed in later times.  The time and the cultures that produced the Bible were cool with myth.  They may not have called it that but the signs are unmistakable.  Ananda Coomaraswamy knew whereof he wrote.  The closest to absolute truth we can come takes us to the end of declarative, factual writing.  Scientists writing about the Big Bang devolve into complex mathematical formulas to explain what mere words can.  Myth is much more eloquent, even if we as a society, dismiss it along with other non-factual truth.

Mythisotry

Positivism takes no captives. I’m not talking about the philosophical system—not necessarily—but about the phenomenon of assuming absolutes are available for human consumption. Some physicists, for example, assume that because our five senses can detect reality only the perceptions of those senses can be considered real. Material. Nothing more. Nothing less. A similar view plagues those who believe history is the telling of “what actually happened.” No historical event has ever been fully explained. All stories are told from a perspective. This is particularly dangerous when religions get involved. Many mistake historical veracity for “truth.” If it didn’t occur just as “the Bible says” then we should throw out the whole shebang. No point in believing in half truths. This is a myth.

This point was reinforced when a friend send me an article about the production of “The Hollow Crown” on the BBC. Apparently a local politician tweeted that having a Nigerian of Jewish descent (Sophie Okonedo) play Margaret of Anjou, a French queen, didn’t match history. As proof he provided a downy white Medieval illustration of the queen. In a rare moment of academic cool, an historian quickly pointed out that the illustration came from a manuscript that claimed Margaret descended, Leda-like, from a swan. Her whiteness, thus, belonged to her avian DNA. As the story makes clear, history is the modern mythology. We assume we know what happened, but we will only ever have part of the picture.

582px-Leda_mosaic_crop

Prejudice seldom worries about historical accuracy, unless, of course, it helps to uphold the bias. I used to caution my students about taking history as a statement of fact. Certainly there are events with factual elements, but when everything is interconnected we can never untangle precisely what happened. When we “believe” history, we are choosing to accept a certain viewpoint of things. One person’s manifest destiny is another person’s genocide. Peculiar institutions are very peculiar indeed. History, as we’ve come to know, reflects the point of view of the historian. It must be read and evaluated as the opinion of the writer and not as the absolute truth. For me, I rather like the idea that some people are descended from birds. It certainly helps to make more sense of what I see in the behavior of those who claim to be making history today.

Same Old Story

Once upon a time fairy tales were considered appropriate only for children. Unlike myths, fairy tales are frequently oral (yes, there are oral myths but this is not the place to discuss technicalities) and have origins that are obscure. A friend recently sent me a story entitled “Phylogenetic analyses suggests fairy tales are much older than thought” by Bob Yirka on phys.org. Using phylogenetic analysis, researchers have traced some fairy tales back thousands of years, into the Bronze Age of the ancient Near East. This will no doubt surprise some analysts who supposed fairy tales were a more recent, European invention. The tales change with time and distance, no doubt, but the basic story is very deeply rooted in who people are. Fairy tales are adult fare, after all.

I tried to make this point in an academic article that was rudely rejected by the journal Folklore some years back. I mean “rudely” literally. I’ve had academic articles rejected before—many of us have—but the letter that came with this one was insulting. My “error”? Suggesting that the story of the musician who travels to the underworld came from ancient Sumer. The article had its origins in my wife’s reading of the Mabinogion. The story of Bran’s head being washed down the river still singing reminded me of an Edinburgh ghost story the tour guides used to tell right outside our window. You’ve probably heard similar: a tunnel is discovered, a musician (a bagpiper, since this was Scotland) is sent down while playing so that those above can follow the sound, but the musician never emerges. I traced the story through the Celtic tradition of Uamh ‘n Òir, the cave of gold, through Bran, Orpheus, and finally back to Ishtar’s descent into the underworld. It was a fun piece, but serious. It ended up published in a Festschrift to a scholar with a noted sense of humor.

Photo credit: Kim Traynor, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Kim Traynor, Wikimedia Commons

The fact is, traditional stories often go back very far in history. We haven’t the tools to trace many, nor can the results be taken for Gospel, but the implications can. People are storytellers by nature. We find meaning in what would today be called “fiction.” Too often I’ve had to hang my head in embarrassment when admitting to a fellow academic that I read (and sometimes write) fiction. It is something, however, that ancient mythographers and folklore singers would have understood. We can be academic some of the time, but we are human full-time. And telling stories is something that predates even the Bronze Age. Of that we can be completely certain. And they lived happily ever after.

And a Literate New Year

One of the most common criticisms of religion, among its detractors, is that it is “uninformed.” I suspect that this is intended to critique the education of those who adhere to religion. It is not too often, however, that you see those who disdain religion giving credit where credit is due. Reading, for example. Although reading has changed in its accidents and character over the millennium, it remains the case that texts—what would eventually evolve into books—were originally a religious creation. Once writing moved beyond keeping track of things like how many cattle a person owned, and grew into literature, that literature was based on religion. We recognize many of these stories as myths today, but that does not devalue them. They are our earliest stories. For many literate people throughout history, their initial reading material was the texts of their religion. One of the purposes behind public education was to teach children to read the Bible. Religion and reading naturally go together.

Now that a new year is upon us, many websites are offering reading challenges for the new year. Long ago I gave up on resolutions. I figured if I noticed something wrong in my life, I wouldn’t wait until January to fix it. Nevertheless, the start of something new is inspiring and full of hope. So it was when my wife showed me Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2016 Reading Challenge, I gladly accepted. Like many reading challenges, the goals are based on about a book a month—twelve titles for the year. My personal goal is to get over one hundred books read this year, but I like the challenge to read particular kinds of books. On this particular challenge, for example, are books that intimidate you, or that you’ve previously abandoned. Books, such as many of us have, that we own but have never read. Although we may not know what it is yet, a book published this year.

Apart from being a kind of religious activity, promoting literacy is surely one of the best ways to address social ills. Those who read learn to consider the viewpoints of others. I disagree with a great deal of what I read, but I would not wish not to have read it. “Iron sharpens iron,” as one old book says. To put it in modern terms, the only stone hard enough to cut diamond is diamond. Reading material that engages critical faculties is like that. Even so, reading books that are simple or fun also offers bonuses. A guilty pleasure read is one of my favorite rewards. For our own sakes, for the sake of the world itself, I hope that everyone takes up a reading challenge, no matter how modest, as a way of celebrating a new year and, I truly believe, a better tomorrow.

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Tales of Wonder

OnceUponATimeI knew of fairy tales as a child, but I recall them mostly being mediated through the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights, just before bath time.  I don’t recall experiencing them in written form, and although I may have experienced them as narrated versions from time to time, my memory is mostly of the animated variety.  I’ve been reading about fairy tales lately since folklore clearly relates to many sacred narratives.  My most recent book on the subject is Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time: A Short History of the Fairy Tale.  Like most of Warner’s books, this is a unique telling, one which takes into account modern and some post-modern concerns.  Addressing what fairy tales tell us about the supernatural, gender, psychology, and growing up, this is a little book with big thoughts.
 
Unlike the polished literature of the elites, fairy tales come from the folk, the common person.  In this sense they are often truer than the establishment version of things.  Life can be violent and magical, and nobody raises an eyebrow when something supernatural occurs.  These tales often contain uncomfortable truths.  Fairy tales may help children to cope with eventualities, but they also unsettle along the way.  Rare is the tale where someone doesn’t die before it’s all over.  Like many disenchanted adults who’ve discovered the promises society makes to be false and hollow, I find returning to fairy tales as an adult somewhat therapeutic.  Long ago in a land far away often sounds much better than here and now.  Nor is it pure escapism.
 
As Warner points out in the very final thoughts of the book, fairy tales have come to be treated as scriptures.  Like scriptures, they turn into myths.  Myths may be retold, deconstructed, reassembled, and applied to many situations to inform us of the human thing to do.  We sell ourselves short by not recognizing the other scriptures that wisdom has provided down the ages.  While most of the folk wisdom we have preserved in the canon of fairy tales don’t go back to the Bible, they do retread some of the same territory.  By calling some of it scripture and other secular, we might miss that very many of the truths are similar indeed.  The assumption that growing up means leaving truths of childhood behind may, on occasion, bear reexamination.  If we look closely at our fairy tales we may discover that we should keep them close at hand, no matter what our age.

Doubt No Alleles

Image credit: Zephyris, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Zephyris, Wikimedia Commons

DNA. Is there anything it can’t do? For many decades anthropologists have built painstaking methods to trace developments in human culture. Those of us who’ve studied linguistics in any fashion remember well the many times instructors corrected our false cognates and pointed out family trees of languages that showed who came from whom, based on subtle shifts of orthography or some other aspect of philology. Entire careers could be made in ancient Near Eastern studies by shuffling around the way words were formed and speculating about how they influenced one another. Then DNA. A recent story in the New York Times demonstrates that DNA studies now tell us whence came the Europeans. Among the three groups that eventually settled in Europe were agriculturalists from the Near East, coming along at just about the same time as the Sumerians show up in southern Iraq. They joined the hunter-gatherers already in situ. Their languages, however, did not dominate as a third group, from western Russia showed up and gave (according to DNA) many of the groups their base languages. And here I thought Latin and Greek and Anglo-Saxon had something to do with it.

No doubt we’ve benefitted much from learning about DNA. We can fight diseases that were mysterious, if not divine, in previous centuries. We can learn how closely we’re related to other animal species, or even the neighbor next door. Sneaky fathers can be determined with a precision that sometimes puzzles, such as the recent story of twins who had different biological fathers. Without DNA such a thing could only have been a myth. I wonder, however, what we’re losing in terms of humanity. I suppose we’ll still need a few archaeologists to dig up the remains for scientists to date. And many traditional cultures will still insist that the human remains uncovered be reinterred and not probed and prodded, even after death. We’ll call them backward and superstitious. We’ll consult the genome and decide who to marry.

Meanwhile some hopeless romantic will insist on sitting off in a corner and composing sonnets to the woman he irrationally loves. Looking at the nighttime sky, he may compare her to the beauty of the moon. We know it is a lifeless rock trapped in our own gravity, mechanically reflecting the light of a burning ball of hydrogen and helium 93 million miles away. And if she’ll run this cotton swab across the inside of her cheek we might well be able to tell if she’s a good choice for mating purposes. We’ll also be able to determine the origins of her ancestors and remove a great deal of the mystery about her—there! Won’t that be better than having to woo her and find all that out for yourself? And when your children grow up you’ll point them to the STEM disciplines, since that is the only direction in which there is any human future. And the anthropologists can join scholars of religion as we wait for someone to put the soup in our bowls.

Pillars of Science

I sometimes wonder if science would have the appeal that it does, if it didn’t have religion to shock and awe. I’m thinking of not only the fact that The Humanist magazine quite often has a focus on religion, but even websites, irreverently named to make the sensitive blush, frequently use it as a foil. My wife likes the site now more commonly known as “IFL Science!” Web acronyms have taught us what the second of those letters denotes, but perhaps because making the name more family friendly leads to more hits, it’s been muted a bit. In any case, the most recent post I’ve seen has to do with that marvelous Hubble image of interstellar gas and dust columns where stars are being born, know as “The Pillars of Creation.” Apart from the stunningly beautiful images, I’ve always been taken by the way that implicitly or even subliminally, concepts of deity lie behind this scene. When the image was first published, I remember staring at it in rapt fascination—here we had stolen a glimpse into the private chambers of the universe. We were seeing what, were we in the midst of, would surely prove fatal. It is like seeing, well, creation.

Eagle_nebula_pillars

Creation is enfolded in the language of myth. Reading the description of this great, gaseous cloud, we are told of the tremendous winds in space (what I had been taught was an utter vacuum) where dust is so hot (I was taught space was frigid) that it ignites into stars, like a silo fire gone wild. It’s like witnessing the moment of conception, although Caroline Reid tells us the dust will be blown away in 3 million years. Perhaps ironically, scientists are scrambling to study it before that happens. Or before that will have happened. At 7000 light-years away, it will have been gone as long ago as Sumerians first put stylus to clay before we know of it. We still have a couple million years for a good gander. And the Sumerians, the first writers of which we know, were writing stories of creation.

It is really a shame that science has, in general, such an antipathy towards myth. As scholars of biblical languages, indeed, nearly any language, know, the language of myth and poetry is especially useful when standard prose breaks down. “Wow!” is not a scientific word. Nor is “eureka!” What other response, however, can there be to seeing the act of creation with our own eyes? Meanwhile there will be those who use science to belittle the worldview of the myth maker and and thinker of religion. Our world, it is widely known, is that of superstition and ignorance. We are those who think only in shallow pools and deny the very reality that is before our eyes. That reality can be full of stunning beauty, but were we to describe it in terms empirical, we might have to keep the interjections and useless adjectives to a minimum.