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:

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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)?

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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. 

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What is Mythology? (Part 1)

2001 Space Odyssey (08)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reality is a lie.

Lies are the only form of truth.

Mythology is the truest lie available.

Reality is a myth.

Myth is real.

The Psychology of Apocalypse

The world will not end in 2012. I tell you why.