Sunday, January 29, 2012

The evolution of myth

I just finished Book #2 A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong. In it, she walks through each of the stages of civilization and
discusses the myths of those eras. She's quite matter of fact, which on a subject like myth can be a bit disappointing, because it seems like the richness of the subject is lost in her translation, but she did outline an evolution of myth that I found quite interesting and wanted to share.

People have pretty much always spun myths. These weren't codified in writing, obviously, in the early days, but signs of them still remain. Traditions formed around the myths and children were taught their intricacies. These were life lessons - beliefs on how to deal with the existence we are faced with and as existence changed, so did the character of the myths, although they always dealt with answering the main questions about our life and death.

The earliest myths (based on paleolithic graves and observations among pygmie and Aboriginal tribes) were about transcendent experiences. The Sky God overlooked all and represented the ultimate transcendence. But transcendence is a hard thing to hang your understanding of the universe on. Myths cannot focus on the supernatural alone, but need some connection to humanity. They need to be put into practice in order to reveal their hidden truths. The Sky God eventually "disappeared". Some cultures have myths that details how he was removed from the picture. It would put some mobsters to shame.

Shortly after the Sky God exited, myths were formed that focused more concretely on the reality of death. Society was becoming agrarian and struggled to tie the cycle of the harvest to the passage of their lives. Strong, vengeful female goddesses emerged who set the cycle of life, death, and rebirth in motion.

From the farms, man moved to towns and cities. Myths in the era of urbanization were built to explain order's fight with chaos.

Finally, at the dawn of many of today's established religions, in the scientific era, man turned to logic before myth. To order, to experiment, to evidence. Without myth to give structure and meaning to life, society began to despair. Cruel acts of unspeakable violence emerged as the myths that taught compassion, the ability to identify with your fellow man, were pushed aside in favor of cold, hard facts.

So here we sit. Desperately seeking someone to pull us back to a life full of stories and myth and hope. In need of myths that can help us to understand the latest permutation of life on this planet. Who will take up that lead? Organized religion is mired in ritual that has lost its meaning. Perhaps the arts is a better place to look. And to each and every one of us, telling stories and making life a little better for all who listen.

We need myths that will help us to identify with all our fellow beings, not simply those who belong to our ethnic, national, or ideological tribe. We need myths that help us to realize the importance of compassion,which is not always regarded as sufficiently productive or efficient in our pragmatic, rational world. We need myths that help us to create a spiritual attitude, to see beyond our immediate requirements, and enable us to experience a transcendent value that challenges our solipsistic selfishness. We need myths that help us to venerate the earth as sacred once again, instead of merely using it as a 'resource'.

We need stories - go tell one.


Anonymous said...

Are you sure about the advent of religion and the scientific age leading to acts of cruelty? Wasn't there cruelty before? Isn't this a gross oversimplification? Also, could you clarify what eras you are referring to? In my understanding, the Scientific age and the advent of "today's established religions" are around 2,000 years apart.

Aprille said...

What I'm trying to say is that, in the absence of myth and stories to teach us to care, some go off the deep end into the realm of genocide and atrocity. Maybe we just know more about it nowadays, but the scale, scope, and frequency of such events is scary.

Armstrong blends several eras into one as logos takes the place of myth - from the codification of many religions - which is in what she calls the Axial period - to the modern day which is the latest part of the Great Western Transformation.

Overall, I'm playing with an idea, summarizing something I just took in and don't intend it to be the final answer or all inclusive.