Guest Blog: Mythology 101 with Philip Palmer

Myths about Myth

by Philip Palmer

There are myths, I would argue, and myths.

The story of Osiris is a myth  of the first kind: this Egyptian deity was murdered by his jealous rival Set, and his body was cut into fourteen parts and scattered around the land.  Osiris’s lover Isis then recovered thirteen of the fourteen parts – but, to her chargin, failed to find the penis.  So she then made a gold phallus, brought him back to life and, er, that’s how babies are born.

(Just take a moment and read that over again; isn’t it gross?)

It’s also, however, to return to my argument, a common myth that all Welshmen can sing. I am Welsh, and I am entirely tone-deaf; so I can categorically state this is not so.

So ‘myth’ can mean a legend; or it can mean a falsehood.  The same word doubles for both meanings, and the meanings messily overlap.

Ancient myths and legends and fairytales are of course grist to the mill for the fantasy and urban fantasy writer.  Tolkien borrowed freely from Norse legends in creating his ‘mythic’ epic about those wretched rings. And the ancient legends (aka myths) about vampires, werewolves, fairies, selkies (that’s you Nicole!) and other supernatural beings are so deliciously evocative and evil,  what’s not to love about them?

Odin, Beowulf, Jesus, John the Baptist, Osiris, Horus, Hercules, Poseidon, the World Navel, Shiva, Kali, Kama Mara, Sinbad, Prince Five-Weapons, and Indiana Jones – there are just some of the amazing beings and things who have been made up by gifted storytellers in order to create amazing, and fictional, stories.

At least, that’s what I believe.  If you’re a Christian however, you might believe that all the other deities – like Thor, god of Thunder, whose alter ego was, of course, New York doctor Don Blake – are made up, but that Jesus is real.

If you’re a Hindu, you may believe in the reality of the Hindu pantheon.

If you’re a huge Steven Spielberg fan, you may believe that Indiana Jones is a real person, out there somehow; and if that’s what you believe, it’s cool with me.

But this brings me to my main point: there is a sneaky,  lurky, and surprisingly common myth about myth.  It’s this:

Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-Tse: now and again crack the hard shell of an argument of Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale: it will always be the one shape-shifting yet marvellously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.

These are the opening words of one of the greatest books ever written about myth – Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

In his book, Campbell assembles accounts of myths and folk tales from all around the world – Norse legends, American Indian myths, Inuit folk tales, and stories from the great religions.  And he writes about them as if they are all aspects of one great underlying myth, the ‘monomyth’ (a word borrowed from James Joyce.) He also quotes freely from Carl Jung, who believed that the archtypes of myth are products of mankind’s Collective Unconscious.

It’s all exhilarating stuff, and every fantasy and SF writer has or should read Campbell’s book at one point.  These are what I call stories. They are potent, resonant, imaginatively supercharged tales of magic and wonder and heroes vanquishing and heroes defeated and wicked witches and ogres and much much more.

But this is when the science fiction writer in me creeps to the surface. I adore Campbell’s book and the way he writes; but what exactly does he mean by ‘monomyth’?

Is there really a one-underlying-myth, an actual connection between all the legends of all the peoples of makind?  Does Jung’s Collective Unconscious actually exist, in some spooky but utterly real way? Or is it just a metaphor?

Who cares? I hear you cry.

Geeks care, is my reply.

Because geeks – obsessive science-fictiony type people who, um, write science fiction,  such as moi, like to get these things straight.

In science – okay, okay,  this is really geeky – * embarrassed smile  * – a theory or hypothesis has to be ‘falsifiable’.  In other words, if it’s possible for you to prove a theory is wrong,  then you’re entitled to believe it may  be right.

The opposite of a falsifiable theory is something like astrology – where the predictions are so vague and ambiguous you can’t ever prove it’s wrong.  Which makes it a faith; not science.

So is the idea of the monomyth falsifiable? I would say not. It’s a lovely idea – a haunting concept – but it’s just an idea.

So – in the absence of evidence to the contrary – I believe that myths and legends from disparate cultures are similar because they all attempting to describe the essential facts of all human life: birth, sex, death, the power of the sun, the need for harvests not to fail, etc etc etc.

And therefore, for me the monomyth is a ‘myth’ of the beautifully singing Welshman variety; it’s a sweet smelling flower, but it’s not true. And yet, it’s a dogged concept that lies deep in our culture, and is believed or half-believed by a startlingly large number of people.

Here’s another myth: it’s one I call the Mayan Myth.  It’s based on a once commonly held view about the ancient Mayans who lived in the Yucatan Penninsula of Mexico, and whose civilisation collapsed around 900 AD.  Early twentieth century archaeologists wrote with wonder about a Mayan society led by gentle priest-leaders, whose people lived a tranquil uncrowded rural life, and who had no interest in or knowledge of the arts of war, and who spent their days building vast temples and honouring their gods.

The Mayans were, according to these awe-struck observers, a peaceful, kind and gentle civilisation who were in harmony with each other and at one with nature.

It’s a lovely concept; but it’s nonsense!  It’s a myth – a delusion -  put about by soft-headed archaeologists in love with their own half-baked fantasies.

However, as time went by, archeologists of the kind who actually believe in evidence learned that the Mayans were in fact a culture dominated by arrogant kings, with an astonishingly large population (more densely populated than China) and possessed of sophisticated farming techniques.

They were also savage brutes (by my moral standards) who practised ritual human sacrifice, as well as being bloodthirsty warriors who enjoyed torturing their prisoners.

The trouble was, those twentieth century archeologists wanted to believe that the Mayans were gentler, nobler, and wiser than the stressed, irritable, competitive  peoples of their own world.

The Mayan Myth is a version of the Golden Age myth – the idea that there was, once, a better, less spiritually shallow  time; a time when people were gallant and noble, and there was no such thing as  the rat-race, stress, and road rage.

I don’t think such a time ever existed.   Farmers in the olden days had to work their butts off  ploughing fields and cultivating crops and whatever other boring things farmers do, and I’m sure they were just as stressed, and spiritually shallow, as we are.  (Indeed, I have no doubt that ‘field rage’ was a common phenomenon. ) It was all in all a tough old life, in  the world before supermarkets, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines.

The Golden Age myth in its various permutations is of course a staple ingredient in much fantasy writing – and I love it in context, in the service of a great story.  I just don’t think it’s true.

You see a large dash of the same myth in Avatar, where the blue-skinned alien Na’Vi are shown to be peace-loving and at one with nature; when they kill an animal for food, they tell the dying creature ‘I see you,’ to honour its spirit.

Oh per-lease!  That’s just so sentimental, even I can’t stomach it.  (And I have an amazingly high threshold for sentimental nonsense…)

As storytellers, of course, working in the imaginative fiction field, we depend utterly on myths, legends, and lies.  So ideas like the monomyth and the Mayan Myth are great as a source of inspiration, and of stories, and indeed of spirutal solace.  I’m just saying – don’t believe all you’re told about the actual underlying ‘truth’ of myth.

And, indeed, I’d go a step further, and argue my own strongly held (though, I concede,  unfalsifable) opinion on this matter.   Namely, that the great myths and legends of the world were all created, ultimately, by master storytellers who revelled in the telling of tall tales, and who quite consciously and brilliantly crafted the common superstitions of their tribes into great works of deceitful untrue art.

Posted by Nicole Peeler

Author, Professor, Lover, Fighter

8 thoughts on “Guest Blog: Mythology 101 with Philip Palmer”

  1. Thanks so much for this post, Philip! I lurv it! Not least because this idea of the Monomyth is EXACTLY what I'm playing with in TR. I always come from the Jungian archetype angle, but I always say I'm applying Occam's razor to archetypes, or the idea of monomyths.

    Obviously, the reasons every culture has these mythologies is because they're REAL, right? Right?

    Okay, maybe not. But if I'm going to create deceitful, untrue art, I might as well revel in that act. 😉 And challenge some of my favorite thinkers at the same time.

  2. Thanks so much Nicole!

    Beware the Monomyth, that's one scary sucker…

    While I have you here, just one question: why selkies? And why Scottish malt whisky? (That's two questions, but I have a hunch they're connected..)

  3. I just discovered this site yesterday and it is chock full of awesome.

    This was an excellent read. I like that it takes no prisoners, though I admit that it raised my eyebrows to see John the Baptist alongside Hercules. Most discussions I read that touch on these things skirt all the way around Christian mythos. Brave, brave man.

  4. Thanks Laurie…I did bite hard on the bullet before writing in all those Christian references – but if you're writing about myths, those are all huge myths! And there's no point skirting around it.

    And of course, many myths have some grounding in historical truth – mixed in with the, let's face it, obviously made-up stuff.

    I write science fiction not fantasy…but myth is the major story tool for all of us. Tales of the fantastical…it's a vast tradition, dating all the way back to when the first gods created the first mythic universe….

  5. One of the (many) elements that Peter Childs includes in his list of important theories that helped catalyze the paradigm shift which was Modernism is Frazier's Golden Bough. Frazier (author of the Golden Bough and an early Joseph Campbell for those of you not familiar with him) went through and first catalogued all these various mythologies, including the Dying God . . . the God who comes to the earth in human form, sacrifices himself, and is reborn. Everyone nodded away at all his examples from pagan mythologies, but then it was like, "Wait . . . God that comes to earth as mortal . . . dies . . . is reborn. . . HOLY SHIT THAT'S THE JESUS." Frazier–although he's not talked about as often as Nietzsche, or Einstein, or Darwin–was just as important as these thinkers in terms of helping catapult us into our modern (and postmodern) world.

  6. I like the Fisher King legend which (if memory serves, though it often doesn't) also appears in the Golden Bough. The Fisher King is wounded and so he spends his days fishing while his country becomes a Waste Land. T.S. Eliot used this as the basis for, er, the Waste Land, and Terry Gilliam made a movie of it. (Boy, that man has chops.)

    The killer in the story is that the Fisher King is wounded in the GROIN. And that's why the land isn't fertile.

    Is that metaphor, symbolism, or did those ancient myth-makers have one hell of a sense of humour…?

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