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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Where are our myth makers?

Uncredited text by Bob Trubshaw

'In the earliest times, which were so susceptible to vague speculation and the inevitable ordering of the universe, there can have existed no division between the poetic and the prosaic. Everything must have been tinged with magic. Thor was not the god of Thunder; he was the thunder and the god.'

Jorge Luis Borges The gold of the tigers

Successful recent myth-making must include such role-playing games as 'Dungeons and Dragons', though the best known and accepted is the 'heritage myth' perpetrated by numerous stately homes, various theme parks and not-just-a-few museums. In this never-never-land, rose-tinted retrospectives rule. The past becomes a sub-set of recreational pastimes.

Within this free-for-all fantasizing, the most flagrantly fictional is the 'Celtic industry' which attempts to treat cultural similarities between various (racially-distinct) north European peoples as evidence of shared 'Celtic consciousness'. In fact, such notions of 'Celtic unity' arise only in the eighteenth century. It is distinctly missing from early medieval Irish and Welsh texts.

' . . . upon a deep, virtual level, fiction is a more honest form of truth. Our allegedly "true" histories, both cultural and personal, begin to perspire and shift uncomfortably when exposed to the bright, third-degree lights of any strenuous interrogation.

'On a cultural level, our model of History seems only to approach anything resembling accuracy when it deals with the broadest generalities. . . .  Even when pertaining to events within living memory such as the Kennedy assassinations or the Vietnam war, the constant stream of fresh disclosures on both subjects would indicate that the officially accepted tapestry of our past has some clumsy tucks here and there, a few gaping holes and a general appearance of having been badly stitched up. . . . 

'Which returns us to fiction; to myth and to legend; the only form of historical information that clearly bears such a warning. By proclaiming themselves to be fictions, myth and legend achieve what is to my mind almost a superior level of truth and honesty . . . '

Alan Moore. Introduction to Robin Hood: the spirit of the forest, Steve Wilson, Neptune Books, 1993.

'Myth furnishes us with more than a repertoire of literary plots and themes. . . . For westerners, our interpretation of our mythological heritage conditions the way in which we think about ourselves. Myth has been appropriated by politicians, psychiatrists and artists, among others, to tell us what we are and where we have come from. . . . 

'Within the study of mythology, female figures have too often been viewed reductively, purely in terms of their sexual function and thus confined to a catch-all category labelled fertility. . . .  Women need to know the myths which have determined both how we see ourselves and how society egards us. Feminist anthropologists and literary historians have in recent years discovered new evidence about how women have been perceived; they have illuminatwed mythical patterns and re-examined historical traditions from a feminist perspective.'

The feminist companion to mythology, ed. C. Larrington, Pandora, 1992

'Tell me your myth that the whole world may turn to myth.'

Nikos Kakantzakis, trans. Kimon Friar, The saviors of god: spiritual exercises, Simon and Schuster, New York.

'I have this dread that afflicts me . . . it is that, somehow, we have lost the power to generate new mythologies for a technological age. We are withdrawing into another age's mythotypes, an age when the issues were so much simpler, clearly defined, and could be solved with one stroke of a sword called something like Durththane. We have created a comfortable, sanitised, pseudo feudal world of trolls and orcs and mages and swords and sorcery, big-breasted women in scanty armour and dungeonmasters; a world where evil is a host of angry goblins threatening to take over Hobbitland and not starvation in the Horn of Africa, child slavery in Filipino sweatshops, Columbian drug squirarchs, unbridled free market forces, secret police, the destruction of the ozone layer, child pornography, snuff videos, the death of the whales, and the desecration of the rain forests. Where is the mythic archetype who will save us from ecological catastrophe, or credit card debit? Where are the Sagas and Eddas of the Great Cities? Where are out Cuchulains and Rolands and Arthurs? Why do we turn back to these simplistic heroes of simplistic days, when black was black and white biological washing-powder white? Where are the Translators who can shape our dreams and dreads, our hopes and fears, into the heroes and villains of the Oil Age?'

Ian MacDonald King of morning, Queen of day, Bantam Spectra Books, 1991 p295

If dreaming reveals the individual imagination, then it is through myth that we see the 'collective imagination' of a culture. This distinction, proposed by Jung as fitting in with his idea of a 'collective unconsciousness' seems to have a wider validity, fitting in equally well, for instance, with aspects of Rupert Sheldrake's morphogenetic fields.

In essence, then, myths are symbolic frameworks which are shared by more than a very few people. They include what the more objective-minded would want to term 'ideologies'. They are what makes up a culture or sub-culture - from the myth of materialistic science with pervades the Western mind or (in a self-referential sort of way) Jung's concepts of collective unconsciousness and of archetypes, which is itself a manifestation of myth-making . Some people would readily see 'fringe' beliefs such as established religions, or astrology, or divination, as 'nothing more' than myths. But that is not the correct emphasis. These are all, indeed, 'nothing more than myths', but in the same sense that every aspect of our so-called conscious thought cannot be reduced to anything more substantial than specific belief systems.

We cannot stand back from our nested sets of myths; we cannot peel away the layers of the onion and reach an objective kernel. We are trapped within the mythical structure of our language. The record or history of facts, our entire experience, is designated by nouns and verbs. This is to say, the reality or realities which materialistic science discusses remain ultimately undefined. What would happen if our language consisted only of verbs? This is no idle speculation, the language of the Nootka indians has no nouns. Their world contains no things, only processes.

The language spoken by the greatest number of people alive today - Chinese - likewise has great ambiguity between verbs and nouns. After all, when we say 'It is raining', what is the 'it' that is raining? For a Nootka or Chinese, this sentence is untranslatable. Their expression would be simple and would mean both 'raining' and 'rain'. Plainly, there can be no rain when it is not raining. Extend these ideas across the whole field of language and the differences become far more than mere semantics. A cup is pottery than is 'cupping'; the pottery - in the final reduction - is just a pattern of dancing atoms or energies which, at this moment, are 'potterying'. A noun-less language does, indeed, reveal the very dance of life. Far more than we ever realise, language creates the fundamental structures of the world around us.

'It is really the most astonishing hybris to suppose that the highest wisdom is constituted by the standpoint of conscious reason, for we hardly begin to understand the neural processes without which the very simplest act of reasoning is impossible. The entire possibility of logical and scientific thought rests upon a structure which was formed unconsciously, which we do not understand, and cannot manufacture. Should the finger acuse the hand of clumsiness?'

Alan Watts Myth and ritual in christianity 1954; paperback edition Thames and Hudson 1983

Looking at things from an individual level, the sense of 'self' or personal identity is nothing more than habitual behaviour, a persistent pattern of meeting the present moment, the 'new', with a mind conditioned wholly by the past. Many of those 'habits' are those of the culture we inhabit, or the sub-culture we adopt. Only at a detailed level do they differentiate into individual mannerisms. Our lifestyles are indistinguishable from deep-rooted mythologies.

But if we proceed on the basis that the 'facts' of any belief system are a sub-set of myth, then what are we doing to improve our myths? For the first time in history we have access to - usually reliable - accounts of the myths from nearly all the cultures which have ever flourished. From Frazer's Golden branch to Joseph Campbell's The hero with a thousand faces we have attempted to collect and classify this rich heritage. But we have fared badly when developing a focussed or defined myth-set of our own. Robert Graves might be considered among the greatest of this century's mythologers, but his White goddess remains a child of its time and grows old less-than-gracefully. Star wars embodies the best of Joseph Campbell's appreciation of timeless myths and, indeed, has developed understandable cult status. But it merely reflects the superficial present-day, making little attempt to probe deeper and hidden depths.

'Unlike reading or other forms of entertainment, watching television (and going to the cinema) activates a trance state. Each day millions of people watch 'entranced' the enactment of the essential principles of the most fundamental of all myth cycles in the daily soap operas. Even a person without a TV set must be aware from conversations overheard at work, in the pub and at bus stops, how we are passively exposed to these mythic experiences, but without scope for personal development. It could be suggested that this is just one step beyond mainstream religion which offers divine mysteries to a congregation sitting passively.

'Those who seem to be most actively seeking the myths of our modern times also seem to spend little time watching TV, with the occasional exception of documentaries and news programmes. Certainly their need for myths are not met by the soap-style entertainments.'

Julia Phillips Web of wyrd No.7 p37/8

Of course, Earth mysteries has created its own set of myths - the interest in visiting megalithic standing stones, burial mounds, and such like goes beyond the merely material. Leys, for instance, are true mythical entities, whether one is thinking of Watkins'-style physical alignments or dowsers' energy lines. Archaeoastronomy, shamanic straight paths, and other 'hot chestnuts' of EM reveal further myth-making in progress. But are we just recreating the past in our own image?

Ultimately, yes. Then again, so are academic archaeologists. Most of the 'digging dirt' brigade have difficult recognising that they only see the past through their present preconceptions, but a coterie of critics from within archaeological academe have busied themselves 'deconstructing' the past in true hermeneutical fashion. The resulting literature is turgid and technical, but the motivation and overall revelations are well worthy of our attention. They are the nearest we have to a radical new mythology for the past - and, by indistinguishable extension - for the present and future.

In their own words, these theorists are 'reinventing the past'. At the same time, they acknoweldge that our thoughts and actions are created through the past! Yet, our world of consumerism and multinational corporations emphasises personal control, multiple choice and the cult of the individual in a manner that may have less - or no - validity for other cultures. Cultural changes, such as the domestication of plants and animals and the formation of settled villages, characteristic of the European neolithic period, reflect a ceasless interplay between cultural structures and events - and we may not recognise some of the structures, and thereby misinterpret the events.

Such insights and interpretations do not exist in an impersonal vacuum. The fundamental archetypes are the archaeologist's own. Referring to a famous early neolithic settlement, Ian Hodder, the doyen of such post-modern interpretations, writes: 'Catal Huyuk and I, we bring each other into existence. It is in our joint interaction, each dependent on the other, that we take our separate forms. But to what extent is this dialectic merely a playing out of larger structures?'

Ian Hodder, The domestication of society Blackwell, 1990.

Hodder uses various 'binary'contrasts such as that between 'the home' and 'the outside'. A very similar contrast is used by Hans Peter Duerr in an overview of European mythology entitled Dreamtime - concerning the boundary between wilderness and civilisation (Basil Blackwell 1985; 1st edn Germany 1978). The importance which 'liminal spaces' - the in-between 'no man's lands' - occupy in early societies has been lost in our neatly-packed society where everywhere belongs to someone. Celtic temples favoured the boundaries between tribal lands, the Romans and pre-christian Anglo-Saxons buried their dead on the edge of settlements (indeed, the key archaeological distinction of christianity is the burial of dead in the centre of settlements, which have persisted in the parish churchyards).

'One of the most exquisite images in modern mathematics creates an aesthetically simple explanation for all mathematical thought simply by starting with the idea of creating a 'distinction' - for instance, 'inside' and 'outside' - and noting that we cannot make any type of 'indication' without drawing such a distinction. The details of G. Spencer Brown's postulations are way beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say that, starting from the most basic principles, his novel approach led to such practical applications as devising complex switching systems for British Rail signalling.'

G. Spencer Brown, Laws of form, Allen and Unwin, 1972.

But bipartite structures can include many other such pairings: back/front; west/east; death/life; wild/domestic; raw/cooked; male/female. Anyone familiar with Taoism will recognise the essential principle of the Great Ultimate, or Tao, only being manifest in dualities such as light/dark; up/down; hot/cold and so forth. So the Chinese sages, as far back as 4,000 years ago, pre-empted Spencer Brown's equally erudite and elegant theory.

But there are clear suggestions that the underlying 'structure' of indo-european culture was based around a deliberate three-fold system. George Dumizel has identified a priest/warrior/farmer triad which pervaded the religious and social systems until recent eras. To summarise his reasons and ideas is not relevant here, my intention is simply to draw attention to tripartite as well as bipartite systems underlying major cultural traditions.

G. Dumezil, Gods of the ancient northmen, Univeristy of California Press, 1973; see also 'Priest warrior and farmer', Alby Stone, in Talking stick No.5 for an overview of Dumezil's theories.

But to bring this metatheorising back into a more day-to-day perspective, if we can now appreciate that there are multiple and competing pasts made in accordance with different cultural - even ethnic or gender - orientations, perhaps it is true to say that there are as many pasts as there are individual people with an awareness of the past, which is just about everyone without severe learning difficulties. But this brings us back to the original differentiation between 'dream' - individual imagination - and 'myth' - collective imagination. Yet, the notion of an autonomous individual whose imagination works in isolation is also a myth, a direct product of the isolation endemic in contemporary capitalist societies.

So, where are the myth makers that add deeper meaning to apparently individual concerns? They are you and I. By recognising and developing new ways of 'reinventing the past' we are remythologising the past. Whether we do this well or not is another matter. It is not a question of an 'academic' view of the past contesting an 'alternative' one, both camps contain a plurality of approaches. None can claim 'objectivity' but subjective details and interpretations should be distinguishable from information. Frankly, to breathe life back into the past, our approach must include the subjective. The trick is to 'deconstruct' a specific idea and establish what is left when the subjective is taken away. Too often the offerings from the 'alternative' camp merely blow away in the breeze of such separation. I just hope that the pages of Mercian Mysteries will continue to provide some more susbtantial suggestions, perhaps ones that will resound and find the archetypes of modern-day minds.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.18 February 1994.

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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Created April 1996; updated November 2008