In blogalectic with Jenna St. Hilaire and Masha

Mythology is dead. And we have killed it, you and I.

In “Everyday Mythologies,” Jenna discusses what seems to be the role of mythology in 21st century American culture:

America, of course, is hardly a unified culture with a consistent, shared mythology. We have mythology by all the Oxford’s definitions in wild variety—an enormous sampler platter both for use and study, not only of belief systems but of exaggerated tales by which we’re all credulous about our neighbors and crazy relatives and Californians and Midwesterners and the Founding Fathers. We have New York and Washington and Hollywood. We have religions and the lack thereof in every imaginable form. We have playful nonsense about Chuck Norris, of whom the dark itself is reputedly afraid. We’ll also buy into the most appalling rumors and lies about Barack Obama or Sarah Palin, depending on which side we’re on.

Fantasy, she suggests, and the creation of fantasy world, affords relief from the clamour of wildly disparate “everyday mythologies”; the creation of art “may not come up with magic solutions” but it might—and this seems key to her argument—create a higher level of mythology that allows rivals and “crazy relatives” to “stand […] side by side for a moment, caught up in shared wonder and eucatastrophe.”

Masha develops a line of thought tangential to this, discussing the role of “comforting mythology,” both the mythologies of living and of story:

[I]t’s easy to feel healed in the mythology of living when surrounded by candle-light, reading about Long Meg and Her Daughters, standing stones which no man man can count, while coyotes howl in the night. My own collection of myths is full of tales of Christ coming hidden in the night, of saints who hide among the birches to keep the evil out, of feasts, and fasts, and reasons to avoid mirrors at night. […]

Understanding mythology is like collecting dreams, something is always left out, forgotten or misplaced. The essence of myth is not something that can be studied, it can only be experienced. The stories and characters can be written down, studied, and known, but the essence is elusive, like a half-remembered dream.

As much as I enjoyed both articles, and as much as I tend to agree with both my colleagues, I can’t help but feel that something is missing. That something, more correctly, is somehow missing the mark. Notice that Jenna talks about “a sample platter to use and study” and Masha refers to “my own collection of myths.” This, to me, suggests—I do not say proves—an underlying assumption, though not mythology. It presumes, basically and essentially, that we can choose which mythologies or which bits of myth we like best. It presumes we can decide what to believe.

But I’m not convinced that’s how mythology works.

Mythology proper, the stories of gods and ancestors, can be understood as a story about how the world works. But not many rational people would call, say, physical science a mythology.  For one thing, there’s not specific plot. For another, it’s just how the world works. Take it, or leave yourself in well-intentioned ignorance.

Mythology grabs us round the throat and tells us the way the world is. It demands from us sacrifices and rituals and prayers and traditions. If we accept mythology, we don’t have the luxury of choice. The world is in some way set. The stories are there. We can embellish them if we want. We can question them. We can, of course, walk away from them. But at that point we are no longer within the mythology. We have stepped outside of that story. This is laudable, or foolhardy, or despairing—it depends.

The implication of language, as Jenna points out, is that mythologies are untrue. And so we are left starved. The banquet is gone and we find ourselves nibbling at the sampler platters. At least for many if not most of us in the “civilised” West, our view of mythology is etic, clinical. We choose what we study, the way we choose what to vote for or which place of worship to attend. And this ability to choose is a good thing. It’s part of what makes us human.

But that’s not actually mythology.

It’s an accessory to our thinking, and it’s often necessary and beautiful. But it’s not mythology like when the gods were in the thunder and the spirits in the grass, when the fairies lived on the hill. Mythology is dead, for all our stories, and I do wonder if something precious has been lost.

3 thoughts on “mythology

  1. My son asked me when he was younger (maybe 8) if “The Lord of the Rings” was true. My instinct was to say ‘yes’ and so I did. I remember his eyes widening…the wonder in his face! I (of course) was being a Obi Wan…it’s true from a certain point of view. When he got older, I explained to him that The Lord of the Rings is a myth and a myth is something that is truer than ‘real events’ which is how we usually perceive what’s true. And the look on his face then was something different than wonder. He was disappointed. That little moment of loss was a tearing away of something.

    I long for the day when I will, along with Chesterton, grow young again.

    Thanks for this bittersweet post.

  2. I like what you’re saying, and I’m grateful for the clarification. You’re right that we can’t really chose our mythology, it does, “grab us by the throat”, but I think that sometimes, the mythology that grabs us isn’t pure, it’s a mingling of myths that fall together because they are all born of the same imagination, taken in different directions – a lot of old school paganism melds better with Christianity than we’d like to admit, and mingled, they become richer and fuller for the mixing.

    Good to have you back!

  3. Very thought provoking, but I think I only partially agree. Scholars like Roland Barthes and Thomas Kuhn–who seem to me to qualify as ‘rational’–would talk about physical science as having various mythologies that give it life and purpose. I wonder if like how we look at the medieval model of the heavenly spheres, future generations will look back and talk about the scientific mythologies that are promoted today. Just look at the new study showing neutrinos traveling faster than light. In other words, maybe you only call someone else’s stories ‘mythology’ and, necessarily, because you believe your own stories so implicitly, think that their stories are dead in some sense. The very term ‘mythology’ for example didn’t come about until the 19th century when people wanted to talk about the false beliefs of other cultures.
    And while I think that there is a slight reason for nostalgic sadness, I also think that this distance is precisely what allows us to enjoy these mythologies aesthetically. Augustine would be quite ecstatic to find how strongly belief in the gods has faded. And fairies are much more intriguing and interesting if you aren’t afraid that they might abduct your child.

    Still, it must be a good entry to get me to fill out one of these online forms. 🙂

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