“You have confused the true and the real”.
–George Stanley / In conversation
(Epigraph from Delany’s Dhalgren)
Sometime it seems to me that we have a rather dismissive attitude toward myth.
I think it stems from the notion that for ancient societies, the function of myth was to explain natural phenomena. The changing seasons were “explained” by the abduction and periodic return of Persephone. The daily path of the sun was “explained” by a god who made a trek across the sky — either in a blazing chariot (for the Greeks) or with the sun slung across his back (for the Navajo). Thunder? Lightning? Those were the terrible weapons of Zeus or of Thor.
But how should we view these sorts of stories? Did they really represent a sort of primitive pseudoscience? I don’t have access to any actual ancient people, but I have a hard time buying this notion. I think ancient people were, for the most part, as capable of abstract thought as we are. Sure, there were rubes and yokels — just as there are today — who might have believed that a whirlpool could really be the ravenous maw of a monster. But experienced sailors doubtless saw whirlpools all the time. Sure, sometimes they represented hazards that had to be avoided, but they knew they weren’t monsters. So why turn a whirlpool into a monster? Because that’s what people do: we tell stories. Myths are stories, full of symbolism and metaphor, and we’re missing something if we dismiss them as the geewhiz hokum of a bunch of bronze-age simpletons.
It was, I think, common for the ancient Greeks to see the world as permeated by spirits, by deities. Some were major: Zeus, Athena, Poseidon, Hera, etc. Others were remarkably insignificant. A road, a river, a tree, could have a particular deity associated with it. Not a deity of all roads or all rivers, but a specific god who inhabited or embodied a specific road, a particular river. If you look up “Greek goddess of childbirth” on your computer, Google will pop out the name Eileithyia. She was, certainly, a goddess of childbirth in Hellenic and pre-Hellenic cultures. But the Greeks had many goddesses (and some gods) who were directly associated with all the various stages of labor and childbirth: a goddess of conception, of quickening, of the cessation of menstruation, of swelling, of itching, of nausea, the production of colostrum, first contractions, bloody show, water breaking — any of these events or symptoms (and many others) likely had their own associated demiurges. German philologists had a name for these sorts of deities: augenblick gotter. Momentary gods. They existed for the one purpose, the one moment, and that was all.
Did all Greeks pay their respects to all of these deities? Of course not. Many were specific to a particular region or tradition. But the idea of having a multitude of truly trivial gods would’ve been familiar to most ancient people. Polytheism was the rule, not the exception, and you can see similar systems in place for the Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Norse, the Aztecs, as well as for followers of Hinduism, Shintoism, and other religions. The world was a place of magic, and even the most mundane event could be seen as an aspect of that magical world.
When I refer to the world being a magical place, I’m talking about the way it operated, not assigning it a quality. Just because because it was full of wonders doesn’t mean it was all wonderful. Nature abounded with hardships and cruelties. Life was nasty, brutish and short — and it was also full of wonders. Food grew on trees, and sprung from the earth. Life itself arose from its own destruction. New life came from our own bodies (well, women’s bodies, but that’s a subject for another time). And even in the face of hardships, we found tools — fire, blades, augers — to help us cope. Tools that we took from the world around us and modified to our our needs. Really, how could we not have wondered if there was something supernatural behind it all? And if that magic failed us, as it so often must have, well, that just spoke to the inscrutable nature of those powers, those designs. We don’t really understand what the world wants from us, but it seems like it must want something. Otherwise, why give us all of these things? And why, conversely, be so harsh, so demanding, so inexplicable?
And these sorts of questions, this sensibility, is at the root of the human impulse toward religion. It comes from fear and from wonder. It can inspire rigid dogma — and it can inspire creativity. There’s not that much difference between the miraculous things that happen in the Bible (or the Torah or the Koran) and the stories recounted in Homer or Ovid. (In fact, there are some stunning and not-at-all inadvertent parallels between some parts of those narratives, but again, a story for another time.) But hardly anyone worships Eileithyia or Persephone or Dionysus anymore, so we’ve downgraded their mysteries to amusing old folktales, rather than powerful religious symbols.
There IS an explanatory function to a lot of myth. But reducing it to an explanation of the weather or how the leopard got spots is selling it way short. Myths deal with the invention of language, with the origin of rituals, the reason for certain taboos, with heroism, with love, with the beginnings of life itself.
Above all, myths are stories about us. And while it’s common to assume that myths are meant to edify, even a cursory reading makes such an idea almost laughable. The classical Greek gods aren’t meant as models. You’d be hard pressed to find a worse band of jealous and conniving liars, bellicose egomanics, cheats and rapists.
But do they tell us something about ourselves? Absolutely.
Mythology is too complex, too mixed, too multilayered to be reduced to a single purpose. Reza Azlan said: “all religions are nothing more than a language made up of symbols and metaphors to help an individual explain faith.” Okay. He’s a contentious figure, but his description is apt. Myth is metaphor. Myth is story, and we use story to express what we find otherwise inexpressible. The narratives we create in fiction are distinct from the stories we use to convey facts and information, because those facts are mired in, and limited by, our attachment to the real. No matter how realistic our fiction is, it is not real.
And that’s the point. Sometimes we need to go beyond the real to get at the true.
That’s where religion comes from.
That’s where myth comes from.
That’s where stories come from.
(Robert Graves saw the entire body of classical Greek myth as chronicling the invasion and subjugation of the bronze age matriarchal societies of pre-Hellenic Greece by the invading, patriarchal tribes from the north — essentially political propaganda. He makes a compelling case for it, too.)