Nine Rules for the Education Apocalypse

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.

What is Mythology? (Part 10: A New Myth for an Old Planet)


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:

Tokuhama 1.1

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:


What is Mythology? (Part 9: The Trouble with Poetry)

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.

What is Mythology? (Part 8: Mythopoly)

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. 

What is Mythology? (Part 7: Religion and Mythology)

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.

This was, essentially, Robert Grave’s position on the matter. He believed  that a religious story was only a myth to those who did not belong to the religion.thewhitegoddess071

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.k9504

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.

What is Mythology? (Part 6)

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:

William Irwin Thompson NYC Gates 279__Under_the_Gates,_Central_Park,_2005_Photo_Michele_LaporteMyth 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:

Karen-Armstrong-Spiritual-QuestWe 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.

What is Mythology? (Part 5)

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.

What is Mythology? (Part 4)

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.

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: