“At the root of myth is a praxis, a way of being within the world that expresses itself in a corresponding way of feeling and approaching reality, including the Supreme Reality that wraps all things around; God.” (215)
- Leonardo Boff
The Maternal Face of God (1987)
“Myths are sets of symbols. They are the oldest and most fundamental expression of the experience of ultimate reality.” (142)
- Paul Tillich On Art and Architecture (1987)
Ever since the Winter Solstice, I’ve been thinking about the role of mythology and literature in an earthen spirituality. I have been looking back at biblical mythology and the research I once did on biblical narrative. I have revisited the Celtic Voyage myths (which you can see a revised page about at this blog) and found myself reflecting more deeply on their nature as texts, as well as their role in a narrative praxis. I’ve thought about mythic themes in films and novels, games and plays. I have seen some positive applications of mythology, as well as a number of negative ones. In meditation this morning, I came round a bend with the thought that mythology is not literature; it is something else.
What is mythology? At this point, I think that mythology is an entire culture’s intuitive grappling with the way of the world; with the World as Being and Becoming—and it is the framework – Boff called it a “praxis,” which works equally well – in which a culture expresses its basic and most insightful cosmological precepts. It is expressed in narrative and is constructed over time; over the course of multiple generations. As such it cannot be by an ‘author’ – or even a number of authors – in our modern sense. Mythologies were originally transmitted orally; only later would they have been written down. A living mythology grows and changes with the generations and over the centuries is transformed along with a culture’s intuitions about Earth & Cosmos and what lies beyond these physical realms; for lack of a better shorthand—in the ‘transcendent’ realm. A mythology has many complementary strands; all of which, twined together, constitute the intuitive landscape of a culture.
There is a tendency to confuse mythology with literature, but mythology is not literature; its purposes, constructs, manner of ‘composition’ and its aspirations are largely distinct from the workings of the literary impulse, though there is obvious overlap. After much reading, study and reflection, I have come to think of literature as a body of work that attempts to illumine our world and our everyday lives through narrative. Very simply put; but accurate as far as I need to go, here. It is usually ‘authorial’ (i.e., it is by an author or a group of authors), and it comes from a specific cultural locus; i.e., a specific moment in social space and time (e.g., Jane Eyre was published in England on 16 October 1847 and its author herself lived in England in particular sociocultural contexts). Literature tells stories that reveal us to ourselves, and does so whether or not it is set within our contemporary horizons or in some other time and place, past or future. Myths may also reveal us to ourselves; but in different ways—at a different ‘level?’ A key difference is the authorial one; literature springs from identifiable authors, whereas mythology arises out of a culture over time. Perhaps this is an artifact of the evolution of human cultures from oral to written transmission of their traditions, but it helps distinguish these two expressions of the human spirit, and it facilitates a critique of certain uses of ‘mythology’ in recent pop-culture and spirituality.
Another difference (with overlap, as usual) is that mythology is preferentially cosmological in nature; whereas literature is generally existential in its orientation. Mythology attempts to elucidate and make real the ‘felt limits’ and transcendent aspirations of a whole culture. It often makes space ‘sacred’ and time ‘teleological,’ at least, if not an outright rune of ‘divine’ presence. Mythology speaks for a whole people; and while literature also has this ability – as when a novel or poem becomes a cultural phenomenon – mythology directs our vision and our attention to relations that speak of a ‘higher’ or ‘deeper’ reality than the one literature generally deals with; which I would equate with the horizontal dimension of our existence, which is our lived-in and experienced, mortal reality.
This is not to say that literature cannot deal with supernatural themes or that mythology cannot deal with existential themes; as when a particular story within a mythology evinces struggles with the constraints and conundrums surrounding choices a person may be faced with, or when literary works construct a myth-like world in which to enact the stories the author wants to tell. But, in general, I would suggest that mythology employs a set of symbols and metaphors, implying beliefs and rituals that attempt to articulate the hearer of the myth with that dimension of life often called ‘sacred;’ the ‘vertical dimension’ as I sometimes call it—or perhaps ‘the transcendent dimension. It’s not just that mythology implies religious attitudes and beliefs, whereas literature doesn’t (because that’s clearly not true, either). Rather, it’s that a mythology – as a whole collection of a culture’s stories – illumines the world as a whole in ways that direct our gaze outward – toward the transcendent – as well as inward – toward the personal struggle of self-realization and self-transformation.
As I pointed out in an earlier blog, immersion in a particular mythology has the tendency to ‘educate’ the reader in the cosmology of the culture out of which it arose. And herein is found the main problem I have with the reading and adoption of ancient mythologies for us in our contemporary context, whether with a literary or spiritual purpose, or both. Though I had always been into myths and mythologies, I was deeply inspired to get into mythology after seeing Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth (the PBS program in the late 1980’s) and was moved by his general applications of myths and his erudition—Campbell was a consummate storyteller an brilliant thinker—to focus more on myth than I had done up to that point. The Power of Myth set off an explosion of general interest in myths and mythology; one in which I was caught up for almost a decade. The program inspired explorations of myths from a variety of cultural backgrounds. I was primarily interested in Celtic and Biblical myths, and for a long time put mythology at the center of my spiritual hermeneutics and praxis. Yet I found that when I came down off the level of generalizations – where apparently insightful anecdotes may be drawn from stories set within disparate mythologies, excerpted from any rigorous or thorough investigation of the context of the original stories – and got into the nitty-gritty of particular mythologies – as I did with Biblical and then with Celtic mythology – there often arose an experienced disjunct between the world implied by the myths and the world as understood today through the revelations of science and mathematics. I fell prey to a cosmological seduction and subduction as I got more and more into the particulars of the myths of the specific cultures that interested me, and I sense that this happened to other myth enthusiasts as well. At the end of this seduction, there is a tendency to become the unwitting kindred of creationists, as you adopt the ancient cosmologies of non-Christian cultures so thoroughly that you come to ‘believe in’ one or another non-Western creation account. _I never went this far; but it was at the point that I began to see the potential for this happening that my mythological enthusiasm began to wane.
I don’t mean to imply that simply to read a myth or to explore the mythologies of various cultures is in itself ‘dangerous,’ or that it can’t be personally and spiritually profitable. When a person goes searching through mythology for stories that appeal to them, for one reason or another, they are engaged in a kind of personal ‘bibliomancy’ or perhaps a personal bibliotherapy. Mythology can be studied objectively as well as inter-subjectively and subjectively, and it can be evaluated on a number of grounds. Some of its stories can also be appreciated from a contemporary point of view. What I’m pointing to here is the problem of the myth-enthusiast who immerses him- or herself in mythology to the point where their world-forming mind is shifted toward the cosmological parameters of the culture out of which their mythology of choice first arose.
At this point in my journey with mythology and literature, I do not think that the mythology of any ancient culture is viable as a whole, because it too often deals with issues that were pertinent largely to that society (although there is always a human dimension that makes any society’s problems ‘familiar’ at some level). Certain myths – from the Celtic tradition, for instance – may have ‘lessons’ and implications that we can accept, but too many of the stories I studied operate so much within the logic of a world that no longer exists, that they are unable to communicate much of any real value to us today, beyond being a good read.. Take the Celtic tale of the Voyage of Bran mac Febal, for instance; which I happen to really like as an adventure tale. In this poem, a man is told by a mysterious woman that wisdom is to be found on an isle called Emain Ablach in the wide-maned seas. He gathers a crew, builds a boat, and goes seeking the island, along the way having weird adventures; few of which make sense to our modern mind—as we are not living in the Celtic world out of which the story arose. We are unfamiliar with its symbolic ‘logic.’ As fiction, it is an interesting little adventure tale; the medieval poem in which the story is set forth is worth reading—and it has a certain ‘literary merit.’ But does it mean anything for a contemporary reader?
The main 'message' I now see clearly standing forth from this immram (i.e., “voyage tale”) is a warning about the dangers of venturing into the Otherworld before dying; and how doing so can land you in a kind of limbo. It is thus a myth in the sense that it deals with the ‘limits’ of the world in which the characters live; it is cosmological – yet it has an existential import as well. There is a lot of irony in the story surrounding this idea, but in the end this warning about the two worlds (this world and the 'Otherworld;' which is not the ‘afterlife’ in Celtic mythos—at least not technically) is the main ‘take away’ lesson. If you don’t accept a Celtic view of the Otherworld and if you don’t think the Celtic notion of thin places (which make it possible for mortals to pass back and forth between the worlds) to be real, what does this myth really have to offer? Sure, there are a lot of interesting Celtic symbols; e.g., apples, isles, magic tree branches, etc – but these are all window-dressing for the underlying take-away ‘message’ of the tale. I don’t really find any deeper spiritual lesson to be gained from this tale, as I don’t think its basic ‘gist’ is of much use to me now, having moved from a supernaturalist to a naturalist perspective on life, spirituality and narrative.
Myths may have secondary meanings, and we may also read our own interests into them; seeking answers to contemporary problems (religious people do this all the time with the Bible and other sacred texts; which are all ancient mythologies)—yet there is always a danger in using mythology in pursuit of spiritual insight and existential meaning-building if we fail to distinguish between the myths and their cultural framework; if we fail to see the built-in cosmological assumptions and then imbibe them unwittingly. And then, if we do read the myth out of its original cultural milieu, we must re-frame it in order to render any meaning out of it. We can translate the myths into our own personal framework and think they mean xyx; or we may set them in our current cultural framework, and think they mean jkl. However, they actually meant abc in their original situ, and so we have not come to understand the myth itself, but rather we have ‘translated’ it into a context alien to it and given it a new content. Is this really all that productive a way to seek spiritual insight and existential directioning in our lives?
After meditating this morning, as I sit looking through my old Poet’s Preliminarian at all the great quotes I inscribed in there over the years about mythology, I see all kinds of glowing praise for myth (mostly from texts I read in the 1990’s), and all manner of general evaluations of the meaning and importance of myth—but when I think about my own immersion in Celtic and Biblical mythology over the last three decades or so, I feel that the quotes must be referring to something else; something other than what I used to read and study; something other than the content of the actual mythologies with which I am familiar! The mythologies I have studied seem largely untranslatable into the modern world; being incompatible with a scientifically informed contemporary cosmology. As such, most myths seem to me largely irrelevant, except as fanciful fictions; they should be preserved as part of our cultural heritage; they are to be read with an antiquarian’s curiosity—yet they are often inferior to modern literature as texts revealing the depth and heft of life as lived. Perhaps there is just too much baggage to ancient myth to make it worth carrying forward with us much further?
My last thought was, “are we creating a modern mythology?”
I would say yes, but that it’s difficult to see and evaluate, because we are ‘inside’ of it. A mythology is an intuitive construct; it is comprised of all those stories that define a culture—and not all of these stories will be positive and uplifting! Some of what a culture imagines itself to be or to need or want may be self-destructive it may be ontologically demeaning or existentially limiting—and as such a culture’s mythology – its mythos – may be something as much to overcome as to embrace. _And this applies to ancient mythologies as well. Too many myth-enthusiasts approached ancient mythology as if it were (the equivalent of being) “divinely inspired”—and then ended up being disappointed once they immersed themselves in it. (Just as those who really read and understand the Bible are often disappointed with its content, and come to believe in a “canon within the canon” as the only way of continuing to believe that the Bible is “the Word of God.”). i do not doubt that have a modern mythology, but as we live in an active cultural tradition, it would probably be next to impossible to distill out what, exactly, are the stories that constitute it. _But we might ask: What are the stories that keep getting told and re-told in movies, books and TV shows? What are the tropes that constantly show up in whatever genre?
As I rose from meditation, I had one final realization: that there is never going to be anything new in Celtic mythology; or in any other ancient mythology. The curators and enthusiasts of mythology may publish new translations of texts and write endless new variations on old secondary ideas in texts about the myths for new readers and enthusiasts; but the old mythologies are not being added to any longer, because the cultures that supported them no longer exist. Re-working their content in endless books and articles and re-framing them for new generations of readers is all that can be accomplished any longer and forevermore—until the ancient myths fade from human memory and are replaced by newer ones; which may, in turn, need critiqued.
Not so with literature and science and mathematics. In these fields of endeavor, new ideas, new discoveries and new texts are continuously coming forth. While the history of these fields can sometimes become as endlessly and meaninglessly poured-over as ancient mythologies, these modes of expression are actually living cultural traditions; they are contributing to human knowledge, self-understanding and our ongoing world construction.
_I want to be immersed in living fields of endeavor; not in dead ones. I want to walk inspired in living worlds; not be entombed in dead ones. So mote it be.