Myths about Myth
by Philip Palmer
There are myths, I would argue, and myths.
The story of Osiris is a mythÂ 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.Â Osirisâ€™s lover Isis then recovered thirteen of the fourteen parts – but, to her chargin, failed to find the penis.Â So she then made a gold phallus, brought him back to life and, er, thatâ€™s how babies are born.
(Just take a moment and read that over again; isnâ€™t it gross?)
Itâ€™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 â€˜mythâ€™ can mean a legend; or it can mean a falsehood.Â 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.Â Tolkien borrowed freely from Norse legends in creating his â€˜mythicâ€™ epic about those wretched rings. And the ancient legends (aka myths) about vampires, werewolves, fairies, selkies (thatâ€™s you Nicole!) and other supernatural beings are so deliciously evocative and evil,Â whatâ€™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, thatâ€™s what I believe.Â If youâ€™re a Christian however, you might believe that all theÂ 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 youâ€™re a Hindu, you may believe in the reality of the Hindu pantheon.
If youâ€™re a huge Steven Spielberg fan, you may believe that Indiana Jones is a real person, out there somehow; and if thatâ€™s what you believe, itâ€™s cool with me.
But this brings me to my main point: there is a sneaky,Â lurky, and surprisingly common myth about myth.Â Itâ€™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 Campbellâ€™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.Â And he writes about them as if they are all aspects of one great underlying myth, the â€˜monomythâ€™ (a word borrowed from James Joyce.) He also quotes freely from Carl Jung, who believed that the archtypes of myth are products of mankindâ€™s Collective Unconscious.
Itâ€™s all exhilarating stuff, and every fantasy and SF writer has or should read Campbellâ€™s book at one point.Â 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 Campbellâ€™s book and the way he writes; but what exactly does he mean by â€˜monomythâ€™?
Is there really a one-underlying-myth, an actual connection between all the legends of all the peoples of makind?Â Does Jungâ€™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,Â such as moi, like to get these things straight.
In science – okay, okay,Â this is really geeky – * embarrassed smileÂ * – a theory or hypothesis has to be â€˜falsifiableâ€™.Â In other words, if itâ€™s possible for you to prove a theory is wrong,Â then youâ€™re entitled to believe it mayÂ be right.
The opposite of a falsifiable theory is something like astrology – where the predictions are so vague and ambiguous you canâ€™t ever prove itâ€™s wrong.Â Which makes it a faith; not science.
So is the idea of the monomyth falsifiable? I would say not. Itâ€™s a lovely idea – a haunting concept – but itâ€™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 â€˜mythâ€™ of the beautifully singing Welshman variety; itâ€™s a sweet smelling flower, but itâ€™s not true. And yet, itâ€™s a dogged concept that lies deep in our culture, and is believed or half-believed by a startlingly large number of people.
Hereâ€™s another myth: itâ€™s one I call the Mayan Myth.Â Itâ€™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.Â 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.
Itâ€™s a lovely concept; but itâ€™s nonsense!Â Itâ€™s a myth – a delusion -Â 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, competitiveÂ 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 shallowÂ time; a time when people were gallant and noble, and there was no such thing asÂ the rat-race, stress, and road rage.
I donâ€™t think such a time ever existed. Â Farmers in the olden days had to work their butts offÂ ploughing fields and cultivating crops and whatever other boring things farmers do, and Iâ€™m sure they were just as stressed, and spiritually shallow, as we are.Â (Indeed, I have no doubt that â€˜field rageâ€™ was a common phenomenon. ) It was all in all a tough old life, inÂ 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.Â I just donâ€™t think itâ€™s true.
You see a large dash of the same myth in Avatar, where the blue-skinned alien Naâ€™Vi are shown to be peace-loving and at one with nature; when they kill an animal for food, they tell the dying creature â€˜I see you,â€™ to honour its spirit.
Oh per-lease!Â Thatâ€™s just so sentimental, even I canâ€™t stomach it.Â (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.Â So ideas like the monomyth and the Mayan Myth are great as a source of inspiration, and of stories, and indeed of spirutal solace.Â Iâ€™m just saying – donâ€™t believe all youâ€™re told about the actual underlying â€˜truthâ€™ of myth.
And, indeed, Iâ€™d go a step further, and argue my own strongly held (though, I concede,Â unfalsifable) opinion on this matter. Â 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.