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

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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?

Sorry.

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:

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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:

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.