What is Mythology? (Part 3)

In Part 2, I ended by evoking William Irwin Thompson’s notion of “Myth-as-Fugue,” or the idea that ancient and classical myths served multiple purposes and contained a variety of discourses (political, spiritual, historical, etc.). Key to this concept is Thompson’s use of a musical term, “Fugue,” where competing voices cohere (not without tension and dissonance) into a single composition. Here is Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ (trust me, you’ve heard it) with the separate parts represented visually:

The result is a composition that should not make sense, but does. It makes sense in traditional fugues because of the pleasing contrapuntal effect of independent melody lines playing off of each other. As long as one doesn’t mind being pulled in multiple directions, but instead enjoys the dynamic tension that results, fugues can create a richer listening experience, and, some would argue, a whole brain workout that forces the listener to mentally juggle and synthesize multiple, disparate factors.

This is, incidentally, how good poetry works. Often, through linguistic and symbolic ambiguity, a well-wrought poem suggests layers of meaning, sometimes establishing sharply contradicting interpretations.


To cite one simple example, Robert Frost’s “The Mending Wall,” which begins with the line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” is a poem that gives voice to at least three positions: the highly quotable anti-wall posture of “Good fences make good neighbors,” the skeptical idealist narrator who declares that “before I  built a wall I’d ask to know/ what I was walling in or walling out,” and Frost’s own voice, in the background, carefully painting the narrator as a snob who imagines his uneducated traditionalist neighbor as “an old stone savage,” not to mention the poem’s perfect blank verse structure. We have, it seems, a poem about walls that sets in motion competing views on the subject matter, all the while traipsing along in deft, vernacular iambic pentameter (as carefully structured as a stone wall), written by a poet who once declared writing free verse to be “playing tennis without a net.” One final note, it is “frozen groundswell,” or frost (get the pun) that destroys the wall in the beginning of the poem.

Form? Freedom? Love? Suspicion? Equality? Hierarchy? Creation? Destruction? What is this poem about?

My answer is the same answer I give to all my students: read it out loud.  That is what it is about.

This reinforces the need to read myths out loud, their connection to oral tradition, and the idea of myth as ritual, discussed in Part 2.

But let’s not go in circles. The same quality that frustrates undergraduates about poetry informs ancient and classical myths: they are multidimensional, multi-directional, ambiguous, contradictory, symbolically rich and diffuse, and densely-packed with all kinds of meanings and associations. “Why can’t you say exactly what you mean?” the frustrated undergraduate demands of the dead poet. “Because,” the dead poet replies, “in order to say exactly what I mean, I must say it inexactly.”

This is mythopoetic language: the art of approaching the mystery mysteriously. One cannot tackle a water buffalo head on.

Language is a good medium for giving directions to the grocery store, for explaining evolution (but not quantum mechanics), and for filling a crowd up with enough pride so they will vote for you. It’s not so good, however, at explaining the essence of experiences that extend beyond its purview, or in questioning why language (or anything) exists in the first place. It gets tangled up in knots at this.


Let’s take Bumba for example, the creator-god found in the Boshongo and the Bakuba traditions of Zaire, who vomits the sun, earth, and humans into existence. It is an act of rejection and creation at once. He is both giving birth and trying to eradicate the discomfort of spent, harmful material. His stomach is both a womb and an underworld. Additionally, vomiting seems an apt metaphor for the scientific narrative of what happens during the Big Bang, when matter violently emerges from a much smaller enclosed space.


Vomiting then, is simultaneously a shortcut to understanding and a digression from it. You wouldn’t want mythology to function otherwise. It wouldn’t be mythology.

Mythopoetic (also “Mythopoeic’) language has been described as myth-making, and if one is going to make a myth, he or she must think poetically, speaking or writing in images dripping in meaning, images which seem to speak directly at first, though soon begin doing abnormal things, associating with other images in leaps and fits, the sorts of images that at once suggest an ancient connection to truth made readily apparent, undeniable symbols from the unconscious, yet which quickly recede behind fog, or shape-shift, or break apart and shatter, reflecting something, anything, what?

In order to work, mythopoetic language must be both old and new, surprising us with what we already know. A prime medium, then, of mythopoetic language is the archetype, an image which negotiates the space between the timeless pattern and the ceaseless manifestation of the present. More on archetypes in Part 4.


What is Mythology? (Part 2)


“The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.”  Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Mythology is indeed reality, even though mythology may not be real. Certainly, it is at least based on reality. Gilgamesh and Quetzalcoatl (though not Zeus and Bumba) actually lived and perhaps performed heroic deeds or left historical marks that eventually morphed into tall tales.

This implies that mythology is just another type of literature, to be read as fiction and dissected as such. We may explore the psychology of Gilgamesh the way we would Jay Gatsby, to extract ideas from characters, whether they be 2oth century moguls or ancient kings who are two-thirds divine.

But what if we have this backwards?

Instead of assuming that mythological tales are crafted documents in which literary writers embedded (consciously or not) signs and symbols in order to occupy liberal arts students who don’t excel at math, what if we imagine that the myths were written by the signs and symbols?

After all, authorship is an entirely different deal in mythology. We know F. Scott Fitzgerald (and a bottle) wrote The Great Gatsby. But who wrote the Epic of Gilgamesh? This is the wrong question.

I could give you my usual spiel on oral tradition, which I seem to spend a third of the semester on whenever I teach Mythology. This is because, along with the notion of “Myth-as-Fugue” I discuss below, it is absolutely vital in understanding the crucial differences between mythology and what we normally call “literature,” i.e. stuff written by one person in book form. I will restrain myself, however, and mention just four keys points concerning oral tradition:

1) Before the slow spread of literacy and writing began (perhaps 5000 years ago and continuing to this day) and before the West’s version of the printing press (more specifically Gutenberg’s adaptation of movable type,  550 years ago) accelerated access to books, the primary way in which “texts” were encountered was through oral transmission, i.e. hearing someone perform a memorized and partially improvised story.

2) Oral transmission (which involves learning, reciting, and passing along stories, myths, and poems without a written text) results in multiple primary “texts,” vague or impossible-to-define origins and dates, and no discernible authors. Additionally, these “texts” change over time to reflect regional differences, political agendas, translations from one language to another, and the creative whims of poets, performers, and community members.


3) The written versions of oral tales (recorded on stone tablets, animal skin scrolls, and papyrus) are usually created hundreds of years after their initial creation. Often, as is the case with Mayan and Aztec myths, they are subject to distortion by colonizing forces. In reading a mythology textbook, you are always reading a version of a version of a version, and so on.

4) Myths from the oral tradition can only be understood properly as performance pieces, as the scripts for elaborate cultural or religious rituals, civic rites, or entertainment events featuring large audiences, music, and sometimes human and animal sacrifices. To complicate matters, some myths are derived from the initiation rituals of mystery cults, resulting in texts that are intentionally esoteric and hostile to outside interpretation.

In other words, grab your mythology textbook and some drums and get together with your friends for three days of wine and chanting. Maybe you’ll get a sense of how mythological texts are supposed to exist.


Now that we have that out of the way, how does the reality of oral tradition affect how we read or interpret mythology?

Certainly, it is impossible to ask, “What is the author trying to say about X?” which is a common formula I encourage in introductory literature classes.

First, there is the obvious problem of not having an author, or of reading a text cobbled together with words and ideas from multiple poets, translators, editors, authority figures, priests, and local performers.

Second, the author (whoever that is) might not be trying to say anything. That is, perhaps the myth is an occasion for some pre-existing and mysterious ideas to manifest in the world through poetry. (More on this in Part 3, when I will discuss archetypes and mythopoetic language.)

Third, if you thought “The Wasteland” was complicated, get ready for mythology. A poet like T.S. Eliot might use multiple languages, allusions, and styles of discourse to create a dense, inscrutable collage poem, but that poem still has a one-dimensional function: it functions as poem to be read out-loud or silently by one person so that we may engage it in some literary setting: classroom, library, bookstore, under a tree, or, god forbid, a poetry reading.

Not so with myths, which aren’t just literary documents (though we treat them as such in the college setting). Instead, since myths were created before the specialization of knowledge and (as the previously beaten dead horse reminds us) before widespread literacy leads to obsessive data collection, myths had to hold everything. Myths were the storage unit for a civilization’s history, poetry, religion, politics, entertainment, and so on. Cultural historian William Irwin Thompson refers to this as “Myth-as-Fugue.”

I’ll finish Part 2 by posting a video lecture I recently made on this concept and how it applies to The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known epic tale:

What is Mythology? (Part 1)

2001 Space Odyssey (08)

Mythology is not a canon of lies, though it is never true.

Or at least the products of mythological thinking are not true. Stories never are. Even true ones. Non-fiction is impossible.

A myth, then, is the lie that emerges from truth. And since you can’t tell the truth with the truth (you can’t contain water with water), lying is the only way to go. Build a dam. It will hold for a little while.

Let’s start over. No, really start over: let’s say two million years ago. Dates may vary. Remember, I am telling a story.

The first archaic humans begin to develop something that resembles symbolic reasoning. Perhaps this started much earlier with bands of apes requiring communication and planning to ward off other scavengers who were physically superior. The human race, it is known, clawed its way to the top of the food chain from the lowest rung: sucking marrow out of sun-dried bones picked clean by the stronger predators.

(This is probably where the myth of the self-made man comes from, he who pulled himself up from the bone yard to the captain’s logos.)

This is precisely the point. Once you devlop the ability to recreate what you saw at the watering hole using signs and evocative grunts, you can coordinate. Language was our most important survival tool.

But let’s not tell all of human history as if physiological need explains it. (There is no time for a tangent on bonobos and sexual politics.) Don’t you think that once the beasts were driven off, and the proto-humans had secured their meat, and they sat around newly plump and full of ideas, that perhaps they practiced their powers of communication, first planning the next day (for with language comes conception of the future) and, languid with food and brimming with strange identifications, began to discuss the stars and, some day, their own demise.


None of this happened over night. It is still happening. Perhaps history has not moved forward from the first moments when human experience began to be externalized in symbols, images, and words. We began telling stories, none of them true.

The Dawn of the Lie was born, and we were ejected from true history, straight out of time into endless digression.

But the ant tells stories. The ant teaches, organizes, coordinates, steals. Lies. (What is the mythology of the ant?)

The Big Bang is a lie. It is true as myth. It has only existed as story. The story is pointing to the truth, which is true, I suspect, though the story is not. Science is a myth. Some myths are better than others.

Take me there and I will believe, jettison all stories, curl up in the question and die. In the meantime, tell me lies.

Myths explore; they do not explain, for what the best myths are attempting to explain can never be explained.

Take the famous philosophical question, “Why is there something instead of nothing,” or, in Heidegger’s simplification, “Why the why?”

This is unsolvable using language, using rational explanation. Perhaps because it is a language trick. Perhaps because knowing the answer would require empirical data unavailable to us. Perhaps because we’re not God. Perhaps because there is no God. Perhaps because God doesn’t go by that name anymore and is instead taking a vacation doing the backstroke through the waters of your right eye.

Mythology, I believe, began with a recognition, a feeling suggested by Heidegger’s question, the weirdness of being, you could say. Why is anything here, and how strange that I am awake to perceive it. What is this?

It’s not really a question at all, and it has no answer. Feeling it deeply enough is the verification of truth, but once we set out to explore and explain using language, we fail. Mythology is beautiful failure. Weird stories attempting to return you to the simple feeling of being weirded out by life and consciousness.

What does any of this mean? Don’t give me an answer (there aren’t any). Give me a myth.

It has been argued that the Dreamtime myths of aboriginal Australians represent the oldest living mythology, dating back 40,000 years. But of course, any mythology based on dreams can only come secondary to myths exploring the waking world. One would have to develop waking consciousness first in order to shine some light into the unconscious state of sleep. Once the language acquired to survive during the day penetrated sleep, some dreams were pulled back out for study.

Though I may have this backwards. Perhaps symbols from deep in the Unconscious slowly made their way to the surface, and this was the dawn of human consciousness. After all, didn’t life emerge from the ocean? Doesn’t the sun come up from the Underworld?


Many of the earliest myths were developed to explain what, to us, is now explainable: what is the sun? What is the moon? What is a thunderstorm? But even before these questions rests the question, “Why the Why?” It was the dawn of self-reflective consciousness itself that gave birth to mythology, not as an incidental by-product, not simply as an evolutionary necessity (tell stories or die!), but as a new reality, as the only reality.

Myth, it turns out, is the only thing that is real.

Reality is a lie.

Lies are the only form of truth.

Mythology is the truest lie available.

Reality is a myth.

Myth is real.

Nick Courtright reading his poem “The Apocalypse”

At a recent poetry reading at Beaverdale Books in Des Moines, Iowa, poet Nick Courtright previews our collective nightmare.

Contemporary Mythology

Zooming In/Zooming Out

One potentially helpful framework for revising and expanding a paper is to think in terms of “Zooming In” and “Zooming Out.” To me, this metaphor has been made more prescient by the existence of tablet devices, on whose screens you can use your thumb and index finger to expand or shrink web pages, maps, and pictures. We should consider revising our papers through this process as well.

First, “Zooming In.”

Can detailed analysis, further examples, or elaboration be added without merely tacking on more content. We want to avoid the feeling of rambling on at the end of a paper to reach the minimum word count. Some people call this b.s.-ing.

Instead, have you left major points unexplained or unexplored. If, for example, you’re making the claim that “The protesters in Brazil lack a coherent political message,” (I couldn’t tell you the answer to this.) have you given us one example of an incoherent message from said protest? How about two or more examples that add up to incoherence, followed by your explicit analysis to prove how incoherent it is? How about a quotation from a political commentator or politician making the case for incoherence, again followed by your words tying this quotation back to your argument?

You certainly want to avoid repeating the same information, but multiple pieces of evidence add nuance and depth to your argument. Sometimes it’s very effective to overwhelm the reader with a lot of examples, quotations, and research citations, provided you establish the context and explain the evidence. The reader just might throw his or her hands up in the air and say, “I’m convinced!” Just remember that every time you cite evidence from source material, you must introduce it and follow up by analyzing it and tying it into your argument.

You, as the writer, are in control of the argument and the flow of information. Your voice should dominate.

Second, “Zooming Out.”

I really love zooming out on Google Maps after studying some local street intersection, which of course disappears in the bigger view. (I can’t wait for “Google Space” so I can see how truly small our little blue planet is.) You may want to invest time and energy into expanding individual sections, paragraphs, and sentences (i.e. Zooming In) to develop the ground you have already staked out.

Or, you may want a global view. You might be leaving out an entire continent.

Especially if your task is to double the length of your paper, you may want to consider the backbone of your paper (thesis and subtopics) as representing a single continent. What am I leaving out? How can I make this picture more complete?

Let’s return to the above argument: “The protesters in Brazil lack a coherent political message.” (Again, I wish I were following this development more closely. I really don’t know much about it. The above opinion represents nothing more than a hypothetical.) You can almost “zoom out” on individual words here, such as “Brazil.” What if the paper suddenly became about worldwide protest movements and their messages? Or what if we considered related movements throughout history? What if we stayed in Brazil and expanded our focus to other issues in that country: protests, crime, economic development, foreign policy? One would have to be interested in Brazil to begin with, but hopefully that’s why you selected this topic.

What if the paper  turned into an analysis of incoherent political messages in general, and explored why they fail? What if it became a paper about the failure of language in general to communicate effectively? That’s really zooming out!

Zooming in and Zooming Out both require more research, but hopefully this is how you will obtain your additional sources for the paper.