All posts in category Joseph Campbell
Posted by Andrew Neuendorf on March 9, 2017
1. Don’t fear the Apocalypse. Emily Dickinson knew she was in the presence of poetry when she could feel physically the top of her head coming off. This was not a metaphor. It was a mystical experience. Incidentally, the word “apocalypse” (from the Greek apokaluptein) means “revelation,” and more specifically “to uncover,” as in lifting the top of a box. Surprise! It’s a present! Let’s not fear the apocalypse, but instead prepare our education system for transformation. Instead of exams, let’s assess them on whether or not the tops of their heads come off. Education should be about running a more complex, subtle operating system.
2. Suck less. There is this guy with a tug-boat who hauls icebergs from the North Pole to the Middle East to provide fresh water for billions. His job is easier than getting students to learn and getting teachers to teach. You can tug an iceberg to a desert and everyone will drink, but you can’t lead anyone to learning. I have yet to see a so-called education reformer address the fundamental problem with the education system, which is, put succinctly: school sucks. Boredom is the main currency of education, exchanged fluidly between teachers and pupils.
3. Create a new center. Where is the Andy Warhol of education reform, charging way out in front of the generals, the avant-garde? It was Warhol who created a new center out in the margins. He built a new camp that at first looked foolish, laughable, but soon became the new center. Prophecy. Then, after some time, his work became the status quo, until…look…here comes another Andy!
4. Be Useless. In The Idea of a University, Cardinal John Henry Newman creates a distinction between useful and useless knowledge, and then sides mainly with the latter. The Liberal Arts are the useless arts and, therefore, supremely useful. The merely useful fields of study are definitely useful, make no mistake, but they are not nearly useless enough. Chuang Tzu knew this, and so favored the disabled and crooked trees, and generally preferred to drag his tail in the mud rather than coming to court with sage advice for the king. Too few sages make the difficult decision to be useless. Too many decide to be useful, to claim a role in the established drama. Watch out for anyone chasing his destiny, submitting to fate, or following his dreams! Too often people dream of being useful. What’s the use in that? The earth, to pick one example, is completely useless. It doesn’t do anything. It plays a non-zero-sum game, and, even better, it’s totally unaware of itself, or at least can’t be bothered to submit the proper reports. The earth doesn’t care. It treats humanity like a straw dog. It does nothing, endlessly. See that oh-so-exquisite school of fish circling the coral? It dissipates, and then reconstitutes itself into various, ever-changing patterns. Constant adjustment, constant beauty, constant change. This is what we should be teaching our children: how to make beautiful schools. Of course, this requires rules and hard work. But mostly it means being useless and doing nothing.
5. End grades. If we treat students like rubrics, don’t be surprised if all they care about is grades, or, worse yet, don’t care about grades at all. The best students and the worst students are the ones who don’t care about grades. Students are not percentages, points, letters; they are not dollar signs, checked or unchecked boxes on rubrics. They are whole people and will respond as such if you treat them accordingly. A rubric is for a mechanic. This is what’s wrong with your car. This checks out okay. Transaction complete. Let me top off your fluid. If creating life-long learners is what we’re after, then why do we care so much if they get it right at the end of each three-month block? Let’s measure them in thirty years. See how well we did. Assess this: Dharma burning through Karma. Or, “We’ll change your brain, or your money back!” MRI instead of final exam. Replace the scantron with the brain scan.There are no grades in reality. There is only practice. The world is practice. God is practicing right damn now. Hey, Shakespeare, you forgot to finish that subplot with Polonius spying on Laertes in Paris. Minus 10 points on your little Hamlet play. Also, your main character has too many contradictions. Was he insane? Was he faking? It’s really unclear. Plus, I’m pretty sure you plagiarized, Shakespeare. I saw you looking over little Thomas Kyd’s shoulder.
6. Destroy Departments; Kill Majors. The new schools should soften all boundaries between genres, subjects, majors, departments, and degrees and instead orient student energy around direct action, creation, and experiment. The only reform necessary is a release and redistribution of energy. (Education reform! Ha! Was it ever formed to begin with?) The ever-shrinking art, music, physical education problem solved: do them all at once: climb and swing from ropes to splatter paint while listening to music and recording audio and video to edit into a film later. Or else we do all school work while walking 2.2. miles-per-hour on treadmills, ala Brain Rules by John Medina. Walking and writing. Perfect. Word art! Large scale installation art work made of language, maybe heavy-lifting in there, too. Let’s throw all subjects together! Science and Home Economics and History, study the chemical composition of food and the history and culture of dishes and cuisines. History, Literature, Religion, Philosophy, Psychology, Astrobiology, Evolution….these are not separate subjects. Never could be. The inventor of the concept of “bits” thought of himself as neither physicist nor engineer. The writings of Emerson are neither essays, sermons, or in line with normative categories of literature we might use to partition a syllabus: poem, play, fiction, non-fiction. What was Teilhard deChardin writing? You might find him in the bookstore under philosophy, religion, paleontology? Joseph Campbell? Marshall McLuhan? Bucky Fuller? There is nothing liberal about partitioning knowledge into categories or majors. The globe cannot be divided into majors and minors, so neither can its consciousness. The university is the globe’s consciousness. Not, “What’s your major?” but what are you working on, thinking about, advocating, becoming? Not, “Where are you from?” but “Who are you now?” In order to change schools, you would have to change yourself, and no one wants that. Socrates, at the beginning of Western Education, said, “Know Thyself!” and still, we do not listen.
7. No classrooms! Learning is the goal. Who cares the vehicle? As soon as you set the times for a class period, you kill learning, which does not occur in 50 minutes chunks at the appointed time. In school, out of school. In class, after class. Such ridiculous boundaries. Education has a design problem. Create whole learning environments, entire learning communities (not just like two classes jammed together for 6 credits.) I mean a whole learning world. Does the Internet exist? I mean, if the internet is everywhere, it is nowhere. It just is. If it’s in our cars, phones, brains, then it is an extension of life as we know it. Same for education, same then doubly of online education. It should be called just education, and then, not even that. There is no classroom, never was—don’t go to class—you are the classroom, the pupil, the teacher, the world, the universe, basic human consciousness is the university. The university is nowhere and everywhere or else its center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. I forget which one.
8. No more hoops and papers! Jump through the hoop! Get the piece of paper! No, let’s paper over the hoop and at least make them crash through it. Or shrink the hoop! Maybe expand its circumference beyond detection. Make the center of the hoop everywhere, the circumference nowhere! If you get your piece of paper, you will be prepared, at least, for the coming fascist onslaught. (Show me your papers!) If the paper is what matters, than the trappings of education matter. The book itself matters more than the content, more than the act of reading. Book as bludgeoning device. There is no teachable moment, only one continuous mistake. Shikanza, shikanza. Your assignment for next time: Build a new planet from scratch with your hands.
9. Charter for a New University (Based on Mirra Alfassa’s Auroville Charter)
—The university belongs to nobody in particular. It belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in the University, one must be the willing servitor of the Global Consciousness.
—The university will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress and a youth that never ages.
—The university wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, the University will boldly spring toward the future realization.
—The University will be a site of material and spiritual research for a living embodiment of an actual human unity.
Posted by Andrew Neuendorf on January 22, 2014
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
We’ve reached the point in this discussion where we must attempt the impossible: to define “archetype.” (This is difficult enough, especially since I haven’t even properly defined “Mythology,” but have only danced around it in Part 1.)
But, before that, a quick digression. In Part 3, I introduced the vomiting god Bumba, whose barf gave birth to the earth and its creatures. He is, however, not the only mythological figure whose ralphs are heard ’round the world.
In Greek mythology, the titan Chronus swallows his first five children in an attempt to protect his grip on the throne. When the sixth child (a chap named Zeus) is switched with a rock, Chronus swallows the rock and subsequently yaks his other children, the first generation of gods, into the world.
The secretions do not stop there. According to Chapter 2 of Kathryn Valdivia’s online Mythology lectures, creation myths often depend on such bodily emissions as: “vomit, sweat, urination, defecation,” and so on.
What’s going on here? A true reminder that mythologies were formed during the childhood of humanity? Or some kind of Freudian obsession with bodily functions written into translations by repressed priests and shamans? Or are these pre-literate, pre-Christian groups just less uptight about perfectly natural phenomena?
Perhaps, but I think there is reason to believe that such references have a third layer of meaning beyond the literal interpretation (“a god is barfing”) and the figurative (“the god barfing represents how the world was created out of nothing, or possible from a reconstituting of materials rejected by the gods”).
This opens up an entirely different discussion about the function of myth, but I promise I will circle back to discussing “archetypes” before the end of this post.
As I mentioned in Part 2, myths make less sense when plucked from their original context as communal ritual, usually performed as music and poetry, and ritualized for purposes both civic and spiritual. For example, Washington Matthews’ translations of The Navajo Night Chant can perhaps be read as something akin to contemporary poetry when found in the Norton Anthology of World Literature. However, reading it silently (as one would read a poem by John Ashbery or Mary Oliver) can feel a bit odd, especially given the seemingly excessive repetition:
In beauty may I walk.
All day long may I walk.
Through the returning seasons may I walk.
On the trailed marked with pollen may I walk.
With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk.
With dew about my feet may I walk.
With beauty may I walk.
With beauty before me, may I walk.
With beauty behind me, may I walk.
With beauty above me, may I walk.
With beauty below me, may I walk.
With beauty all around me, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.
It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.
This looks like a typical quiet contemporary poem. But, in practice, it sounds like this (from Voyager’s Sounds of the Earth recording:
The text stretches on for days with chanting and song as part of a healing ceremony intended to purify and transform the sick. The event lasts for nine days, including ten straight hours of dancing on the ninth day. Only when translated, written down, and divorced from its context does it become what we commonly call “literature.”
Though I have never been there, I am certain that sweating and vomiting occur, as it certainly occurs in various other religious ceremonies around the world, many of which include physical deprivation, dehydration, starvation, extreme temperatures, and consummation of what we call “drugs” in the contemporary Western world. Ayahuasca and peyote almost always involve vomiting, as would excessive amounts of wine in Dionysian ceremonies.
If mythological texts are fugue-like (see Part 3), and if one function is to describe the process of being ritually initiated, then perhaps the descriptions of bodily functions are simply (or not so simply) part of the ritual. And, of course, since these are secret groups who by definition must remain mysterious to outsiders, none of this can be said directly. It helps to remember that many myth-makers intentional obscure their meanings by using esoteric language.
So it seems there is a logical explanation why so many myths feature bodily secretions. On one level, it could be mere data, a compilation of what goes on during shamanic rituals and cultic celebrations.
This would not, however, explain the repeated use of such imagery in stories of how the world was made. If a given myth is created over time and takes on layers of meaning in order to reflect the various functions of the myth (i.e. not just a “script” for the ritual, but also a culture’s cosmology) then perhaps certain physical acts came to be seen as microcosms of the divine order.
Vomiting as a physical necessity, but also as part of the customary ritual, yet also as a recreation of the origins of life, so that, in some sense, the participant is returning to the source, beginning again, healing in the deepest way imaginable. (It is telling that Bumba, discussed in Part 3, later walks from village to village in an attempt to cheer up his creations, repeating, “Let joy flood your hearts!” His imperfect creations caused him to vomit, but he is not about to let this ruin the world.)
Why then, across time and space, do so many cultures use images of bodily emissions to explain how the world was made? If we expand the category a little bit, we also find numerous creation myths depicting severed body parts used as the raw material for the creation of land, ocean, and sky. In “The Enuma Elish” (the Babylonian creation myth), for example, Marduk crushes Tiamat’s skull and breaks her body in two like a shellfish, forming from it the sky and the earth. This is a motif that shows up often.
Enter archetypes. When recurring patterns such as these emerge across time, there are three possible explanations: #1) meaningless coincidence/utter obviousness, #2) universal human psychology, or, #3) to put it one of a thousand different ways, divine plan. I think you could make the case that all three point to archetypes. Or, you could make the case that the first two provide a way to explain such recurrences without archetypes, and that the third is just a fantasy.
Either way, defining archetypes is not easy. In C.G. Jung’s writings, an archetype is a pattern that lies beyond the physical world. We can never know the archetype directly, because it is, ultimately an unconscious idea and, as Jung famously said, “The Unconscious is always unconscious.” These unconscious ideas manifest themselves in the world, suggesting patterns over time. The archetype, then, is controlling or guiding our behaviors and actions mostly unbeknownst to us.
As an analogy, it is helpful to think of how most cultures viewed astrology just a few hundred years ago (and as many people still view it today). That is, when events happen in our lives, it is because they are being guided by mysterious forces “in the stars.” Our lives are the products of alignments and intersections, recurring patterns that are something like generic and abstract plans from which a variety of results can be derived. When, for example, Mars is in retrograde, it determines that certain qualities or possibilities will go into effect. The underlying ideas repeat themselves each time this happens, but the results are always different. You can see the patterns, but never know the ultimate idea behind it.
An archetypal symbol, then, is not the pure archetype itself, which can never be known, but an image that suggests the archetype is at work. It could be that no such underlying idea exists, but that something in us is drawn to repeat the activity or to notice the image. (This is the second explanation listed above.) But this intense response to such images would be enough to study them, and perhaps enough to posit some not-quite-so-cosmic archetype at work on our psychology, something akin to universal human meaning.
Take the snake. (No, go ahead, take it, I dare you.) While very few snakes show up in Inuit mythology, the use of snakes and serpents in mythology is widespread. Why have we chosen them to be featured more frequently then, let’s say, the worm. It could be explanation #1: Snakes are scary. Isn’t it obvious. Perhaps, but Carl Sagan wasn’t happy with that explanation. In his book Dragons of Eden, he argued that our fear of snakes results from an earlier time in our history when larger lizards posed a threat to our survival. This led to the use of dragons in mythology.
Something like this, I believe,explains the prevalence of flood stories in mythology. We will discuss this at more length in addressing Gilgamesh in a future post. (Gilgamesh contains an account of Noah’s ark some 1500 years before it appears in the Book of Genesis.) The question is, why do so many myths feature floods? The obvious answer is: many of the great early civilizations were built near rivers which flooded. Duh. The less obvious answer is: floods were unpredictable events that surely seemed like divine intervention (perhaps explanation #2.) The archetypal theory might posit that flood imagery reminds of how the unconscious can well up and take over, as in the tidal wave of blood Carl Jung saw as he rode the train the year the first world war broke out in Europe, and the year his own unconscious visions began taking over his life and almost drowning him. Floods, then, are archetypal images of the sudden and frightening power of the unconscious. They are the Unconscious speaking to us.
Of course, such messages might not be coming from beyond. Freud would have instantly reduced such imagery to a primal place, the womb, which is the first flood we experience. This is, essentially, the reason Freud and Jung underwent a professional separation. To Freud, the unconscious mainly contains our primal urges, the Id, which are in constant battle with the Superego, a layer of morality we acquire from authority figures at an early age. Jung believe the Unconscious had another layer, a second basement, which was filled with universal archetypal imagery we all have access to. This he called the Collective Unconscious, and it’s an important concept for the study of Mythology since Jung’s work is the primary influence for Joseph Campbell, whose theory of recurring narrative patterns across mythology is archetypal to the core. We will discuss this later when we reach epic tales and Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
Posted by Andrew Neuendorf on July 15, 2013
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.
Posted by Andrew Neuendorf on July 14, 2013
“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:
Posted by Andrew Neuendorf on July 11, 2013