I made another video attempting to follower the “vlogger” approach (see my previous two posts). This is the first part of a two-part series on Oral Literature as it applies to my Mythology course.
I made another video attempting to follower the “vlogger” approach (see my previous two posts). This is the first part of a two-part series on Oral Literature as it applies to my Mythology course.
Posted by Andrew Neuendorf on August 1, 2013
Below is my attempt to create an online lecture based on the advice given by Tad Suiter in the video I posted here. Essentially, by learning from the style of effective vloggers, Suiter recommends to create short videos (3-7 minutes) characterized by a style of fast-talking, high energy, and jump cuts to eliminate wasted time and space.
Basically, get in their face and engage them.
I’ve also included pictures, visuals, and some text. It’s a little long at 9:42, but as the opening lecture, I had some key definitions and concepts to cover. I think I can break it down some more.
Also, I’m still not comfortable editing in Camtasia yet, and some pictures move around a bit. I have a lot to improve (including higher energy levels, quicker cuts, more succinct delivery and outlining), but feel I’m heading in the right direction. Thanks, Tad!
Posted by Andrew Neuendorf on July 29, 2013
Posted by Andrew Neuendorf on July 27, 2013
After reading David Byrne’s recent ode to Iowa (in which he recounts the state’s socialist utopian roots and observes that Iowa “may not be cool, but it might be beyond cool. Here among the winding creeks and fields of corn they may have arrived at some kind of secret satisfaction”), I went looking for more wisdom from the former Talking Heads musician and found his TED talk (which was thankfully decidedly un-TED. By that I mean it wasn’t a breathless, triumphant paean to the coming salvation of our digital overlords).
In fact, Bryne’s presentation is quite understated. He only makes one simple point: the evolution of music can be tied to architecture of performance venues.
This sound obvious, but it carries immense implications, essentially undermining the Romantic notion of creativity’s emergence from individual emotion and intuition. In other words, creativity isn’t the product of inner-magic. It is shaped by the external environment. In fact, Byrne argues that the external form might precede creativity, or, as he writes elsewhere:
So, the order of the process is the reverse from what is often assumed: the consideration of the vessel comes first, and that which fills it comes afterwards. Most of the time we’re not even aware of this tailoring we do. Opportunity is often the mother of invention. The emotional story — “something to get off my chest” — still gets told, but its form is guided by contextual restrictions.
He is writing about music, but I instantly thought of online lectures, and of the classroom in general.
Today, I read an anti-MOOC article in Slate by Jonathan Rees which, among other complaints, trashes the lecture format that appears in some MOOCs:
But the most common way to assess learning in the MOOCs offered by the largest providers is a single multiple-choice question after approximately five-minute chunks of pre-taped lectures. If I had told my tenure committee that I taught history this way, I’d be in another line of work right now.
I know exactly what’s he talking about, but I think he’s missing the point. You simply can’t teach the same way online that you can in the classroom. Had he told his tenure committee that he recorded and uploaded a live 80-minute lecture and discussion session onto Blackboard, he would not have pleased them either. Online instructors who use the 5-minute-and-quiz format are not trying to dumb their product down (that might be the unintentional result). Instead, they’re trying to adapt to a new environment.
I write differently on a blog than I do with my pen and notebook. I teach differently in a lecture hall than in an oval-shaped seminar room. I have some classrooms that I’m still trying to figure out. Exactly how do I teach in here?
The online classroom is one of those. We are all struggling to adapt.
Perhaps I was enamored by Byrne’s star power or his recent praise of Iowa, but I was able to pay attention to his lecture, in part, because of environmental or technological factors (it helped that I was intrigued by his argument as well).
That is, he used pictures, which he changed frequently. Also, the camera angles changed often. I don’t have a crew to replicate the latter, but the former is quite simple to do in an online lecture.
The video below is my relatively recent attempt to make a lecture that suits the online format, minus the camera (I have a hard time making this look natural or finding the right setting. I wish, like Byrne’s TED talk I could be recorded in a hall packed with people). Still, I use ten slides in less than 10 minutes, not MTV fast, but enough perhaps to keep attention.
In this respect, I should probably follow more of Pecha Kucha format, which is 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide. Here is author Dan Pink explaining and demonstrating:
Finally, here is a recent video I did using a webcam and a few pictures and text on PowerPoint. Someone told me it looked like I was talking in a closet. Again, I’m not sure how to make the video appealing without either having the camera pointed up my nostrils or projecting me in the background like a specter:
A regular classroom is just a regular classroom. No one is expecting Literature 101 at 8:00 in the morning to be a Hollywood production. But, once you create a video and upload it to YouTube you are, in a way, competing with the pros.
What is someone with no training in media and performance supposed to do? I guess become famous and let the TED folks film you.
I’ll get right on that.
Posted by Andrew Neuendorf on July 25, 2013
I ended Part 9 by calling for a transdisciplinary approach to mythology, which begs two questions:
1) What the hell does transdisciplinary mean?
Big word, simple meaning: going beyond the limitations of fields of study, majors, programs, departments, genres, etc., in order to search for a more holistic approach to education that can adapt to the creative complexity of the world. This doesn’t simply mean buffet-style education, taking a little of this and a little of that, but actually putting some of the pieces together to form a bigger, more functional picture of reality.
2) Isn’t it a contradiction to continue to use the term “mythology” while pursuing a transdisciplinary approach, since mythology is itself such a narrow sliver, confined to the dustbin of the dustiest department: Literature?
No. And please stop asking me questions. Simply behold.
But actually, you’re right. It’s just that I’m convinced mythology isn’t really a discipline in the way the sociology is. Well, mythology may be a discipline, but “myth” is not. Furthermore, many myths (as we’ve been discussing in connection with “myth-as-fugue.” See Parts 2 and 3) were composed during a time of limited literacy and less division among fields of study. They tend to serve multiple functions, containing their respective civilizations’ political, historical, spiritual, religious, psychology, and literary aspirations. In that sense, myths are pre-disciplinary. They can teach us quite a bit about how poetic narratives tie things together.
Which brings me to this point: I want a new myth.
Cue Huey Lewis and the News: (WARNING: Please don’t watch this video unless you are prepared for unmitigated awesomeness!)
This video raises several points: First, that red suit should be back in style shortly. Two, Huey Lewis is really bad at lip syncing. Three, why hasn’t this song been used by a pharmaceutical company yet? (Call me if you’re interested in some freelance ad work!) Four, how could this band have had an actual fan base? Who were they? Nerdy frat boys from Indiana?
Huey Lewis is a bad example of taking multiple traditions (blues, rock, soul, doo-wop, funk) hitting puree, and serving a palatable, yet tasteless product. When searching for a new global myth, we want to avoid this. The transdisciplinary movement has also been criticized for churning out endless new majors that sounds like word salad. Here’s a chart that shows how one of pop psychology’s more annoying trends may have emerged:
I’m all in favor of this kind of work and believe that whatever insights we are learning about the brain should be disseminated. However, the downside is that it leads to a lot of shallow analysis, especially considering we’re still in the early stages of research, which has not prevented the proliferation of dozens of books with titles like “Left Brain, Right Brain, Fight, Fight, Fight: How the Latest Neuroscience can Make You a Better Cheerleader.” (I made that up, but if you want to discuss the possibilities here after we nail our Huey Lewis/Heart Disease pitch, I’m all ears.)
Brain is the new black. And writers and publishers are jumping in with both feet before the ink on Neuroscience Quarterly is even dry in a desperate attempt to to coin the newest buzzword (Neurogrilling: how understanding your mind can improve the tang in your tangy barbecue sauce.)
It doesn’t stop there. Many of the fastest growing college majors are spliced together from old ones: cyber security, biomedical engineering, health management, computer game design, and so on. These majors merely reflect changes in the marketplace, and no one should be blamed for heading to where the jobs are.
However, this sort of hyper-specialization presents obvious problems, especially since the biggest issues facing our planet seem to be global in scope. Where are the big thinkers?
The above majors are inter-disciplinary, but not transdisciplinary. They are pieced together from narrow slivers within preexisting disciplines, but don’t strive for a more complete pictures beyond their narrow focus. And that’s probably okay for them.
Let’s look at one example of a new major, however, that strikes me as potentially transdisciplinary, and then look at how it might contribute to a new global myth.
Take environmental studies, for example. From the start, one is forced to consider complex systems. It’s not sustainable (pun intended) to isolate particular elements in an ecosystem and expect the health of the entire system to be maintained. Certainly, an environmental studies major would be expected to know chemistry and biology, to get right down into the muck of matter, but when you start making a list of all the factors that contribute to the well-being or ill-health of an ecosystem, you will never stop: water regulations, the local economy, local diet, religious and philosophical ideologies, and, certainly, the fundamental story humanity has written to reflect our relationship to the planet.
But there is no story. Only stories. Only mythologies.
In a post titled Toward a Humanities of Global Consciousness at Evolutionary Landscapes, I advocated for Chief Seattle’s idea that we belong to the planet, not the other way around. This is short enough to fit on t-shirt, but deep enough to challenge certain understandings of Christianity and market-based capitalism to the core. At this stage in the game, it doesn’t matter the source of the myth or even whether or not it’s true: all that matters is how we would be served by it, and if it is beautiful, elegant, and inspiring enough to help save our planet.
And of course we will need more than one.
Unless we re-imagine our relationship to the planet, we will almost certainly initiate a catastrophe. Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have recently reached 400 ppm, and may be at their highest in 2 million years. Water supplies are projected to continue their precipitous decline. The mining of minerals and fossil fuels will eventually deplete the raw materials of our economy and way of life. We may not be walking around consciously planning our day around a collective myth, but we are certainly acting in compliance with a few assumptions: 1) Whatever is here is here for our taking, and 2) Technology will eventually fix this for us. (I’ve written about the theme of technological utopianism before, and I believe it is a myth that explains much of contemporary behavior.)
I believe exploring myths can force us to question the implicit or explicit stories we use to navigate existence. It is perhaps time for us to examine these stories and their effects, and consider reorienting ourselves. I not sure where to begin with such a task, but I will just end by presenting a few thinkers who are cosmological in nature, and whose work points toward this kind of reorientation. There are all, in my view, accomplishing this through story-telling. Their myths are different, but, I believe, improvements over the two assumptions I’ve listed above.
Buckminster Fuller’s notion of “Spaceship Earth” suggests that we are at the helm and must take responsibility for understanding how this ship works and how to engineer it properly. His most famous invention, the geodesic dome, was the result of deep insights into mathematics and a quest to create the best possible structure with the least amount of material. His writing and talks often strive for a comprehensive take on human affairs that incorporate math, science, architecture, design, and economics. He is perhaps one of the earliest prominent systems thinkers:
Carl Sagan’s description of humanity living “on the shores of the cosmic ocean” is a sweeping attempt to reorient our perceptions, both humbling and elevating. His writing is often poetic, mythopoetic perhaps, and seeks to induce awe and respect in the face of the vastness of the universe:
James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis forces us to consider the earth as something of a living, self-regulating organism (this can be taken literally or as a metaphor, and it borrows, of course, from Greek Mythology). If the Earth is trying to balance itself, and we are of Earth, maintaining this balance must be our duty:
Posted by Andrew Neuendorf on July 19, 2013
I enjoy the anthology I have been assigning for my Mythology course, World Mythology: An Anthology of Great Myths and Epics. It covers myths from across the globe and is filled with wonderfully informative historical glosses and highly readable translations.
This last feature is also a bug.
You see, the entire book is written in prose even though almost all myths were composed in poetry. Prose translations are pretty standard fare for textbooks, and I understand why. It is difficult enough enticing students to read obscure works that are thousands of years old. Poetry adds one more layer of complexity.
However, something critical is lost when myths appear in prose. I first discussed the concept of oral tradition in Part 2, and it is likely to be a recurring theme in these posts. It is, like most academic terms, invented after the fact. No one reciting The Odyssey to a crowd in Athens would have stopped and said, “Thank you for supporting the oral tradition! I’ll be here all week!”
This is exactly the reason we need to keep reintroducing this term. It is foreign to us. Without understanding how the oral tradition informs mythology, a central point is lost, perhaps the central point if we consider how myths were often ritualized. Myths are performances, and poetry is the preferred medium for this. In fact, “song” is probably a better word to use than poetry. (The difference between poetry and song is less defined the farther back you go in history.)
Watch this brief excerpt from a performance of Beowulf, featuring a furiously intense performer with a stringed instrument:
These events would have been nothing like the timid and moribund poetry readings you might have stumbled upon at a local bookstore with the poet meekly reading poems directly from his book. In the time of Beowulf, the “scop” (pronounced “SHOWp) sang and recited the epic poem accompanied to music. Anglo-Saxon poetry was highly alliterative and based on a set number of accents per line, and in the video you can hear him repeating consonant sounds at the beginning of words.
The best contemporary translation of this text is by Nobel-Prize-winner Seamus Heaney, who retains much of the alliteration in his English version, which is, of course, sold as a book meant to be read silently. Performances of poetry like the above video are rare in our culture. Perhaps the best contemporary equivalent is a rock concert. This scop would have been performing Beowulf to a large, enthralled crowd hanging on his every word. The music, meter, and alliteration would have helped with this, but also the story itself, its violent action and how it reflected their cultural values.
The world of contemporary poetry and rock-and-roll, however, have little to do with one another at the moment. Poetry is largely confined to classrooms and independent bookstores. There are exceptions. In many ways, poetry slams carry on something of the oral tradition. There are also outliers from the contemporary poetry scene, such as Robert Bly, whose readings often feature music and his trademark didactic style. He is also the one contemporary poet most in touch with Joseph Campbell’s work and the role of mythology in poetry. In fact, his book Iron John is an imaginative (in Karen Armstrong’s sense of the word. See Part 6.) application of mythology to address the psychological journeys of men. It’s a book that would not have existed without Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which, Bly could retort, would not have existed without poetry. Here is Bly reading the work of the Indian poet Kabir:
The tendency to translate mythology into prose makes sense for another reason: unlike most contemporary poetry, myths of the ancient and classical world are narrative-driven, performing more of the function that novels do today. Probably the epic poem met its demise when Cervantes wrote Don Quioxte. Novels could start telling the long stories. Cervantes published his novel in 1605. Incidentally (or maybe not) the important epic poems begin to trail off at this point. We get Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), several insane William Blake epics in the early 19th century, Byron’s mock-epic Don Juan (1824), a few by Keats and Shelley in between, and Goethe’s Faust (finished 1831). It’s not that poets stopped writing epics ( Nobel-winner Derek Walcott’s Omeros, for example), but they have either taken on the interior spaces as opposed to the external heroic journeys, effectively become more subtle, psychological, and, well, contemporary, or they have launched off into meta spaces and become self-aware parodies. By the time James Joyce published Ulysses in 1922 (patterned after Homer’s The Odyssey) the novel had become to the vehicle of choice for epics, and for longer literary narratives period. Poems are now confined to a much smaller space.
Although narrative-driven, the old myths were also poetry. (We keep returning to the concept of myth-as-fugue from Parts 2 and 3. You see, myths are impossible to dissect, pin down, classify. Poem, novel, song, ritual, history, esoteric spiritual manual, etc.) In the textbook for my course, Gilgamesh is in sentences and paragraphs, appearing as some surreal short story out of South American magical realism (though set in Southern Iraq, of course). In reality, it would have looked and sounded more like this, from the first page of David Ferry’s translation:
Translators of this epic usually attempt to replicate the rhythmic structure of the originals, and here it seems Ferry uses anywhere from 4 to 6 beats per line. Stephen Mitchell’s translation uses 5 in some sections and 4 in others. In any event, the rhythm and repetition (in particular of the word “who”) create a sense of immediacy and tension (as repetition often does in performance). This of course gets flattened out or just plain removed in prose translations.
Here’s a related passage from the textbook I’ve been mentioning:
Who as the Gilgamesh who built these walls of lasting fame? Who was the Gilgamesh who built this most majestic temple? Gilgamesh was the renowned king of the city of Uruk. To his people, Gilgamesh was a tyrant who became a great hero. Gilgamesh left his city to learn how to avoid death, and he returned having learned how to live.
Cue the “The More You Know” music from those NBC commercials. Certainly this is more readable than Ferry’s poetry translation, if you define readable as instantly palatable. Much has been lost, of course. Reading Ferry’s version, I can almost hear a pounding drum and see people gathering close to the poet to listen and be reminded of the lore of their civilization.
I just keeping thinking that mythology is poorly served by quiet textbooks and desks arranged in neat rows. This is a bigger problem than I can tackle here (or likely in my lifetime), but I’ve written in the past about the need for a more transdisciplinary approach to education. Studying Mythology in the English Department (or in any one department at all, given the whole myth-as-fugue situation) is as myopic an approach as studying the environmental crisis entirely in the Biology Department. To do a proper job of this, we need Chemistry, Political Science, Marketing, Education, and so on.
A Mythology course should include, at least, the following departments: English (Literature and Creative Writing), Foreign Languages, History, Anthropology, Music, Theater, Speech, Religious Studies, Philosophy, Sociology, Political Science, and so on. Sure, Culinary, too. We’ll get hungry doing all of this.
Posted by Andrew Neuendorf on July 18, 2013
The word “Mythopoly” came to me as I was waking up this morning, so I thought I better try to explain what my subconscious was thinking.
I had hoped that I had coined a new term, but a quick Google search discovered a few custom-made board games bearing that title, including Sarah Anderson’s wonderful gameboard pictured below:
I am thinking of “Mythopoly,” however, as a combination of Mythology and out-sized claims to ownership, the idea of one religion seeking to sell a story as its own, as the only authentic version, or even to claim that its worldview is “the one true way,” effectively crowding out all competing views.
Often this is accomplished by simple omission. Some religious leaders and parents do not teach children alternative myths, either because they are not familiar with other traditions, or because they wish to keep their youth in willful ignorance. (Philosopher Daniel Dennett has been advocating for the teaching of world religions in public schools. In this video, he explains how ignorance of other traditions contributes to the toxic environment of distrust between faiths.)
Perhaps such comparative studies might also create inter-faith dialogue (of the constructive or deconstructive sort) as uncanny connections between myths emerge. In Part 7, I said that regardless of attempts to read myths as literal divine transmissions, myths will always remain myths. When read closely and with an open-mind, it becomes impossible to take them simply at face value.
What other conclusions could students of world religions reach upon learning, for example, the endless list of gods and mythological figures before the time of Jesus who were brought into this world in miraculous ways, either by being conceived through Parthenogenesis (birth without fertilization), emerging through their mother’s sides instead of the vaginal passage (Buddha and Set), or by being born from a rock (Mithra) or even from the foam surrounding severed genitalia floating in the ocean (Aphrodite)?
One could conclude that these alternative stories are false and that only Jesus’s miraculous birth is true (In other words, enact a mythopoly). Or, you could see these sorts of miraculous births for what they are: well-trodden motifs in mythological stories, created for effect or symbolism or propaganda. They imply a great deal about the special status of the character, and may even suggest a theology (to be born in a non-natural way preserves purity and cleanliness and a certain remove from the material trappings of this world), but they should not be taken literally.
This idea of miraculous birth is just one of countless mythological motifs used around the world, in various cultures, and across different time periods. Once you lay out the world’s mythical motifs on the table, like cards, and sort them neatly into piles (one pile, let’s say, for all the myths featuring angry sky gods at war with earth-bound goddesses, or another pile for myths with half-man/half-god characters sent to earth to prove something to the world), it becomes much more difficult to maintain a Mythopoly without a serious case of denial.
Two distinct possibilities could then arise in the mind of the student:
1) All myths are bogus, just recycled themes passed along as pre-rational attempts at explaining, indoctrinating, and entertaining captive audiences, but they are ultimately the by-product of a by-gone era.
2) It can’t just be a coincidence that cultures who had no communication with each other and/or lived one thousand years apart developed mythologies featuring compatible ideas. It must be universal psychological principles at play, reflecting fundamental similarities between humans across time and across cultures.* Therefore, by studying these myths, we can learn about the human experience and how it has been represented in mythological imagery as old 4000 years (which just includes the oldest written myths, not artwork or cave paintings that are even tens of thousands of years older).
Option 2 has led to an entire tradition of mythological study, beginning perhaps with Carl Jung and moving through Northrop Frye, Joseph Campbell, and James Hillman, perhaps even into integral thinkers, such as Ken Wilber (who claims Campbell as an early inspiration, and whose work is comparative to its core) and William Irwin Thompson (who is highly critical of what he sees as “chauvinism” in Campbell’s work, but who nonetheless reads and approaches mythology as a mirror of psyche.) It is this kind of archetypal, psychological, and spiritual reading of Mythology that is featured heavily in my course and which is one basis for reading it critically in a Literature classroom.
In fact, no study of Mythology is complete without diving into the work of Joseph Campbell, who may be single-handedly responsible for restoring contemporary interest in mythology. More on Campbell in future posts.
*There are, of course, other explanations for certain reoccurring content. First, stories passed along via oral transmission really could survive, thrive, and become absorbed into other traditions as long as the geographical scope was not too large. This is why, for example, the story of Noah’s Ark appears first in the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh and then migrates into Jewish oral tradition over several hundred years. Apparently, it was a powerful enough story to maintain an audience for so long. Second, translation conducted by colonizing groups was often accompanied by substantial revision in order to interpose their own culture into the subjugated people’s myths and values. This is why some Aztec myths contains Christian imagery and references. Third, we cannot automatically discount the idea of a World Spirit or “Meta-God” whose divine revelation, though unitive, takes on the local flavor wherever it appears. In other words, there is a God, but It is just way more multicultural than It gets credit for. Finally, one can always take a more conspiratorial route and read these coincidences as the product of an alien being leaving messages for us. After all, the various accounts of gods walking the earth in spectral form (or something like the far-roaming white-skinned god writers such as Graham Hancock discuss) could be connected to the same parental alien civilization doing its proselytizing. Doubtful, but imagination is a wonderful thing.
Posted by Andrew Neuendorf on July 17, 2013
What is the difference between mythology and religion?
There are two cynical answers: “Nothing” and “A mythology is just a religion no one believes in anymore.”
I reject both of these answers, mainly because they fail to grapple with the subtleties of the question. With a wave of a hand, 100,000 years of human culture are dismissed.
Also, the terms “mythology” and “religion” are addressing two different things. Mythology is the study of myth. Religion is a system of beliefs and practices formally organized and set into action in the world. Myths are usually contained within this system. While myths can be formed outside of religion (think of national myths, such as Johnny Appleseed), most myths have some connection with religious systems. It could be said that myths are the literary content of religion.
Of course, there’s an instant problem with this statement. Many religious adherents will object to sacred stories being referred to as “literary.” This is where the cynics are on to something (namely the slippery subjectivity involved in distinguishing between myth and religion), and it results in the following scenario:
If a religious adherent reads a story from his sacred scriptures and believes it to be literally true and the product of divine authorship, the writings, to him are not myths. If, however, that very same story is perceived by another person as a non-literal tale that emerged from an oral tradition of human authors, it is safe to claim it for mythology.
But wait, you ask, doesn’t this imply that the definitions of religion and mythology depend solely on preference?
No, I would argue (in disagreement with Graves) because regardless of how it’s perceived, the myth remains a myth. In fact, if a myth can be read by one person as literal, divine truth, by another as non-literal symbolism, and still another as veiled anthropology, its qualities as a piece of writing must have myth-like qualities, namely a style that calls to mind the previous discussion on myth-as-fugue in Part 2 and Part 3.
This helps clarify a key difference between religious writing and mythological writing, a difference we could characterize as directness vs. indirectness, or perhaps as prose vs. poetry, though that may complicate things.
Let me back up. Religion can be said to be the structures, institutions, and rules that govern the faithful’s participation in their belief system, which is metaphysical in nature and which usually has scriptural support from a range of writings we can loosely divide into two categories:
1) The direct writings necessary to spell out rules of behavior and define beliefs and doctrines clearly enough to create the semblance of coherence among the followers and to distinguish their religion from the next.
2) Indirect and stylized writings that suggest the mysterious qualities of the metaphysical dimensions of the religion, usually without explicit messages attached.
It’s the difference between Leviticus and the Book of Job. The Book of Job, as a story without an explicitly defined moral, lends itself to multiple interpretations. (Check out Carl Jung’s Answer to Job if you want to see how far a legitimate interpretation of Job can go.) In fact, the Book of Job is more probe than story. The truth is not directly revealed because, God tells us, we can never know. It is also a story containing fantastical events and improbable characters. Additionally, some scholarship pegs it as the oldest book in the Bible and the result of a long, evolving oral tradition, written before God and Satan were adversaries. Indeed, they consult with one another as partners at the beginning of the story.
The Book of Leviticus, though containing figures, such as Moses, we may consider to be mythological, is largely a collection of laws meant to be followed to the letter as part of religious practice. Perhaps one could argue that the origin and moral authority upon which these laws rest is mythological in nature, but the nature of the writing itself is direct, prescriptive, and straightforward. In Leviticus 2:7, for example, we know exactly what is being asked of us: “And if thy oblation be a meat offering baken in the fryingpan, it shall be made of fine flour with oil.”
Religion, then, is about how to adhere to a belief. Myths, we could say, are about why, provided the answer is not, “Because God said you had to. It’s right here in Leviticus.”
Perhaps a better way to say it is that myths leave the mystery open. Most religions are comfortable with this as well, to a certain extent, as long as they also have access to a more codified methodology for manifesting their beliefs in the world, via their organization and legal systems.
Clearly religion and mythology are closely related (though myths do get created outside of the confines of religion), but at what point does mythologizing end and religious-izing begin? (I made that word up).
You can see why a cynic might answer “Nothing!” to the question, “What is the difference between Religion and Mythology?” because it seems as if I’ve engaged in nothing but semantics. I think the boundaries are blurry and the discussion of their differences should continue to be open-ended.
Let me just finish with one more answer: The aim of religion is largely to help a follower become better at practicing that particular religion. Myths, regardless of which religion they may be associated with, should make you wonder what you’re even doing here.
Posted by Andrew Neuendorf on July 17, 2013
In Part 5 I tried to be a bit more straightforward in my definition of mythology. Being straightforward is kind of a drag, and if all you ever did was sit around creating, compiling, and arguing definitions, after four years I would deem you educated.
Here are three more definitions of “mythology” I use in my course, all written by prominent mythologists:
1) Joseph Campbell, from The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
Mythology is psychology misread as biography, history, and cosmology. Their function is to serve as a powerful picture language for the communication of traditional wisdom.
As I previously discussed with the notion of “myth-as-fugue,” here and here, myths definitely contain elements of biography, history, and cosmology, among other things. However, you wouldn’t want your understanding of Sumerian history to rely entirely (or even largely) on The Epic of Gilgamesh. History is referenced, but not accurately. Historical fact is, in part, the basis for some of what happens in the epic. It’s just transformed into literature and fantasy, a bit like those made-for-TV-movies that used to be so popular. Though, I should note, the idea of understanding history as a collection of verifiable facts is a relatively recent concept. It’s not that those compiling the myths of Gilgamesh were bent on distorting history (although political agendas may have been driving them).
Instead, the recalling and recreating of myths in the present in order to continue the power and promise of the ancestors probably kept history alive in a way that blurred our linear notions of how events unfold. Accuracy in fact and reason did not hold the kind of sway that a direct experience of divine powers did. Once you begin to view the ancient and classical world through their primary values, you have to change your categories of understanding. Myths were not subjected to fact-checkers. The myths were plainly factual each time they were enacted and retold. They succeed via their power to produce effects on the participants. Their truths was blindly obvious, as obvious as the cycle of seasons.
It was, in fact, the movement of time in these cycles that held more sway than any notion of linear history. If the rites were performed and the fertility gods responded, with rain, with floods, with storms, with a good crop, then the facts were readily apparent. We don’t view causation or time this way today, nor did people run around discussing the psychological themes in myths as if they could somehow be teased out and isolated from the performance of the myth in its entirety.
What then does Campbell mean by equating mythology with psychology. If we grant that psychology confronts the psyche and perhaps the soul (as opposed to merely treating problematic symptoms, as a psychiatrist does) then Campbell is rightly claiming a role for mythology that is not occupied by other fields.
Mythology reminds us what it is to be human. It is, in Campbell’s words, a mirror that reflects aspects of our being we often forget or try to oppress. When we read mythology, we can be forced to ask questions about fate, the meaning of life, or deeply held beliefs and emotions. Mythology often recounts the human journey in ways that refuse dissection and classification. It returns us to one of those fundamental questions that are not answerable directly (which is why they are not scientific questions). What am I suppose to do? Who I am? Why does anything exist at all? What is the story of my life? Am I being called to transform my life?
In many ways, similar to other forms of literature, mythology induces reflection, an exploration of the interior spaces. It is perhaps the root of all literature, and therefore more of a radical enabler of reflection.
2) William Irwin Thompson, from The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light:
Myth is the history of the soul.
Thompson sets the history of the soul in opposition to the history of the state, of war, of economics, and technology, or, in other words, the usual markers of history. But what exactly is the history of the soul? It is best to simply refer to a larger context of this quote, which appears numerous times in Thompson’s masterpiece, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light:
Myth at the level of understanding of the Age of Heroes is symbolic or figurative, but the world is still divided. Level IV is the unitive state of the great mystics; it is a state of being, analogous to music, in which myth is not simply a description, but a performance of the very reality it seeks to describe. Here history becomes the performance of myth, for the experience of recalling (anamnesis) enlightens the individual to see that myth is the history of the soul. The ego is locked into a narrow time frame (Plato’s cave), and so experiences from the other dimensions of the soul are recast into the forms and imagery of the ordinary world, but in the experience of illumination the ego realizes that the narratives that seem to be saying one thing are saying much more. (Page 6)
History is an illusion, or at least a narrow depiction of reality which filters out the pure, direct light or reality and presents a shadow play. Myth alone records the non-linear history of the soul, a history which is constantly denied or forgotten, or just extremely difficult to record. In fact, it has largely gone untold, passed along orally, transmitted in secret, available only to initiates. Myth captures some of this, but must be unlocked to be believed. Thompson’s emphasis on performance reminds us how much of our artistic knowledge is not directly explicable. You must see the painting, hear the music, read the poem. Talking about it or trying to use explanatory language around the edges of an artistic performance might provide insight, but it will always be a secondary, filtered experience.
3) Karen Armstrong, from A Short History of Myth:
We have imagination, a faculty that enables us to think of something that is not immediately present, and that, when we first conceive it, has no objective existence. The imagination is the faculty that produces religion and mythology. ….But the imagination is also the faculty that has enabled scientists to bring new knowledge to light and to invent technology that has made us immeasurably more effective. ….Like science and technology, mythology, as we shall see, is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.
This quote would have seemed silly perhaps fifteen years ago. No one took imagination seriously then. Something has changed, however, and creativity and imagination are no longer confined to kindergarten classrooms and New Age workshops. In fact, they’re probably in danger of being abused by corporate America and drained of meaning by one too many TED talks extolling their virtues. The early creators of myths were the first “out-of-the-box” thinkers, I suppose. Maybe the Australian aboriginals will start appearing on “Think Different” posters.
Anyway, I deeply appreciate Armstrong’s use of the term “imagination” as a kind of visionary capacity for creating culture and new perspectives for exploring the vital questions of our being. It also stands as a reminder that many of our key scientific advances began as dreams, hunches, intuitions, and flights of fancy. Perhaps mythological imagination is the creative ground out of which the arts and sciences arise.
Posted by Andrew Neuendorf on July 16, 2013
In Part 1, I attempted to explain the complexities of the term “myth” and the difficulties of defining it. Largely, this was a riff on the contemporary understanding of “myth” as “false,” as in, “It’s a myth that turkey makes you sleepy.” (Which is true, by which I mean that you get sleepy on Thanksgiving because you’ve eaten too much, have the day off work, and started drinking wine at 11:00 in the morning just to deal with your extended family, not because of the relatively minuscule levels of tryptophan* in the turkey)
Instead, I’ll be more direct. Here is the working definition of mythology I use in my classes: Mythology is the study of stories exploring fundamental mysteries of existence, especially those pertaining to the following three questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
I borrowed these questions from Paul Gauguin’s painting of the same name, “Where Do We Come From? What are We? Where are We Going?”
I then use each question as a separate unit of study: Where Do We Come From? (creation myths) What are We? (mainly epic tales) Where are We Going? (This third unit can cover apocalyptic narratives and stories of the afterlife, but I also use it as an opportunity to discuss the potentially oxymoronic “Contemporary Mythology,” as well as narratives we use to imagine the future, especially futurism, science fiction, and technological utopianism, about which I’ve recorded a lecture and written an article.)
The majority of the texts we cover in my Mythology course fit comfortably into the standard canon (indeed, my central textbook, World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics, is printed by McGraw Hill) but I like to define the term so that texts and ideas beyond just the ancient and classical world can be explored.
This leads me to three misnomers about Mythology, which correspond to the categories of Geography, Time Period, and Purpose. Some of this is addressed in my video “Contemporary Mythology.”
1) Geography. In-coming students often assume that mythology comes primarily from Greece, Rome, and wherever Norse is. This is not their fault. America’s educational heritage comes from Europe. American and European literature mainly references myths from these cultures. These myths have been translated more frequently. More texts have survived, and so on. When you look at them on a world map, however, they don’t even account for 1% of the world’s land mass. Myths can be found in every culture, on every continent (well, not sure about Antarctica), and from every religion. (In Part 7 I will discuss the difference between religion and mythology.) Why not explore mythology on a global scale. For centuries it was believed that Homer’s epics were the oldest on the planet, until The Epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian text which predates Homer by 1300 years, was discovered. The myths of the West are wonderful, but it’s a big world.
2) Time Period. Mythology is not something that simply stops with the later versions of King Arthur in the 15th century. It’s something we do each and every day. We will continue making myths because this is what humans do best. It makes perfect sense to spend most of the semester reading the canonical myths, from Gilgamesh to Arthur, with stops at every civilization along the way. However, it would be a mistake to assume that mythologizing (the verb form, which simply means to create somewhat exalted stories out of reality) was just something that pre-scientific people did when Wikipedia was not around to provide the answer. In fact, I would argue, we create myths every time we come home and answer the question, “How was your day?” or every time we return from vacation or fishing trips. Mythology is a living field of study. Mythological figures emerge from celebrity culture, sports, and politics on a daily basis. John David Ebert’s film criticism is a great examples of this practice. Furthermore, the myths of the past are alive today in exciting ways. When you see someone gazing lovingly into his glowing screen of social media, you are witnessing the living Narcissus.
3) Purpose. I couldn’t tell you for sure why students sign up for Mythology courses. I do believe a good many have a genuine interest in the subject and find the myths they have heard to be compelling and mysterious and out-of-the-ordinary. Some want to have fun (as much fun as a college course can be, which is to say slightly above mowing the yard). Others may anticipate an easy grade. All of the above might be true, but I believe the purpose of mythology is to reconnect with the mysteries of life and to achieve a sense of wholeness. I can’t grade on such a standard, but it’s no accident that Joseph Campbell quickly found himself transitioning from English professor to something like a self-help workshop guru. This is not a path I want, but it does demonstrate the power of myth (to borrow the title of a wonderful book and interview series Campbell did with Bill Moyers).
Finally, I take great pains to emphasize one key portion of my definition, which is that myths explore mysteries; they do not explain them. Certainly if some portion of a myth takes an actual stab at explaining how giraffes developed long necks and concludes that a crocodile bit down on a giraffe’s head one day and stretched the poor creature out, then we should not deny the place of contemporary science to object.
I do not believe, however, that myths were merely an early attempt at science. Nor do I believe that science can do everything that myths can do. In fact, any good scientist will tell you there are certain questions that are not theirs to ask. Some of these are mythological questions.
*First, I should point out that WordPress wanted me to spell “tryptophan” as “Aristophanes,” which is hilarious to me and five other people. Second, dozens of foods you probably eat each week have more tryptophan in them than turkey. Do you say, “Man, this tryptophan is making me sleepy!” after eating a ham sandwich? No? Then be silent. I’m trying to watch the Lions game.
Posted by Andrew Neuendorf on July 15, 2013