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~~ Analyzing the Mythic Tales ~~

Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth....
Joseph Campbell

It's not an exaggeration to say that mythic language is the groundspring of culture, the original fountain not only of religion, but of poetry, history, art, sociology, psychology, philosophy, geography, and politics, too. For that reason, it can be a little bit daunting, approaching myth. But on the other hand, a myth is a story. And like any other story, you can approach it with familiar interpretive tools. At the heart of any story are the people in it, the characters, and the conflicts they face. Who are the people in the mythic tales you are reading? What are they struggling with? Joseph Campbell, in a brilliant leap of synthesis, teaches that all mythic stories embody the same basic conflict between the energies of the body and energies the mind (the soul, the spirit), that the stories dramatize our awareness of the split and our desire to be rejoined, unified.

Myth is like a culture dreaming itself. Mythic tales are so richly populated with people and places and events that sometimes seem so surreal they boggle the imagination. Where are these places? Who are these people? Do they seem like you and me? How do you understand their struggles? Are their struggles in any way related to your own?

Narrowly viewed, myth is sometimes referred to as "dead religion." But personally, I can't think of anything more mistaken than to call these stories "dead."

Genesis

The fantastic elements in the Adam and Eve story abound. The surrealism begins early with the depiction of "God," a formless, disembodied abstraction, a "spirit," a "voice" which speaks the world into existence, and which is only barely recognizable to us. The voice of God begins the act of creation by saying "Let there be light." And as soon as light appears, everything else can follow. What is light? Why is light the primal act of creation?

I'm picturing the cartoon light bulb suddenly appearing in the void (an idea!)... idea-not a particular idea, but an idea-making energy-pops into the world. The appearance of light in the churning cosmic void is miraculous, the foundational miracle of creation. It's also symbolic, it seems to me, of the appearance of consciousness. You're not a pre-programmed amoeba, you're an intelligent primate infused with mysterious light, with ideas, with consciousness. From consciousness flows language and from language flows thought, and from thought we become aware of our own awareness, we become conscious of our consciousness. The human condition. God, though formless, becomes very recognizable as soon as "light" is created. Once we have consciousness, all the rest can follow: heaven and earth, land and sea, fish and fowl, and "every living creature that moveth" (Gensis 1:21). And THEN man.

God makes Adam in "our image, after our likeness" and then gives him "domininion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth" (Genesis 1:26). This is such an important point, that it is immediately repeated in 1:27 and 1:28. Man is to be like God upon the earth. His place is at the "crown of creation," superior to the other creatures-their ruler, their subduer. This all seems very good, to God and to us. And it has been our culture's way of viewing itself, its relationship to nature, ever since. We are a placed in nature, our home is here, but we are also above nature. How strikingly different this view is compared to the view expressed in the Blackfoot Genesis, or Native American mythology generally. Nothing speaks more eloquently to that difference than Chief Seattle's letter, which he wrote in reply to the U.S. government request to purchase tribal lands. You can read that letter now, just to compare.

Furthermore, this position we're in raises so many questions for us, even today. If we are in God's image, does that mean God looks like us or does that mean we look like God? How can it be possible? Can God look like 6 billion people simultaneously, not to mention the billions that were alive before us? It seems impossible. Which image of God is the right one? Does God have dark skin or pale skin? Black hair or blonde hair? A long nose or a short one? What does it really mean, then, to say that we are "in God's image"? Does it mean we have a God-like nature? How can that be, since we are so imperfect? Is God implying itself to be imperfect, too? Maybe originally our nature was God-like, but since being disobedient and placed in exile from the Garden of Eden, our natures have become more "human," less god-like? It's not immediately evident exactly what it means to be "in God's image." It's an ambiguous line, inviting interpretation. Maybe it means we are what God imagines he would be, if he had form. We are an idea that took form in God's incredibly creative imagination...

Another kind of fantastic element found in the Adam and Eve story is the familiar character of the talking animal, in this case, a talking serpent. He seems to be the "evil" one in the story, the tempter, the trickster. Yet, he also something more (or less). He's an emblem of our free will. The serpent may not actually speak to us here in our world, but our range of possibilities do. We are not limited, we are free creatures. If the serpent represents that "diobedient" aspect of our own minds, if it's really a projection of our own free will, you can ask, "what kind of a will is it?" Is it a "will to power"? Is it our will to restless will to take risks, and therefore our will to grow?

Who are Adam and Eve in the Garden? They are children, God's "children." Like (lucky) children, they have all of their needs met and are fully protected, they have a sense of immortality, very little understanding of death; they are ignorant of evil and not responsible for "knowing" anything. They are completely dependent. Their only responsibility is "obedience." But their obedience is not blind; it's not a pre-programmed instinct. They are "in the image of God," like no other creature in the Garden. What separates them from the rest of the creatures God created seems to be their will. They have a choice: to be obedient or not to be obedient. The serpent is their growing awareness of this choice.

Why does growth introduce death? There are a couple of ways to think about this. Perhaps it's because growth is a progression, and this entering into a progression enters us into the field of time, our time. No more eternity. The fulfillment of growth is death. This idea seems simple but it's actually very profound, because the kind of mental growth that Adam and Eve undertake by eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil is a growth by leaps and bounds. If they have the knowledge of good and evil, they become "like gods," in that they now must exercise judgment, they must be WISE. It will be they who decide what is good and what is evil, and, in effect, who will live and who will die. These matters will rest in their hands now, not God's. In the Garden, God alone has had this power. The responsibility is enormous. If they arrive at the conclusion that everything which is good for man is "good" and everything which is not good for man is "evil," then they will feel quite justified in eliminating any competitor that stands in their way. (This is the theme of the novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.) The result of that will be the destruction of "nature" (which is evil, and which humanity has "conquered") and by extension, the eventual the destruction of humanity itself. A very sad story!

In Paradise, in the Garden, we see Adam and Eve in their youth, in a state of blissful ignorance. They are animal like, and yet not animal like. God has made them in "his image." As I said earlier, it's not immediately obvious what this means. But if it means that we have minds like Gods, then we are bound to grow from this youthful state. And an adult is surely something completely different from a child, just as we want to say a human being is something completely different from a crocodile, or even a chimpanzee. An adult has freedom and independence. A human being has freedom from instinct. Would it have been better NOT to grow, not to emerge from the Garden, not to distinguish ourselves from the rest of creation?
That's surely a loaded philosophical question! The great resonance of the Genesis story is that it expresses the great blessing and the great tragedy of our free will, that troublesome mind of ours, with its god-like powers of independence and judgment.

Freedom is a blessing, isn't it? Isn't freedom at the very heart of the adventure? Isn't tasting the apple, the thrill of the risk, the feeling of growth, the excitement of knowledge and new experience-aren't these freedoms the very soul of life? Eve, who first tasted the apple, is named "life."
On the other hand, it's this cursed free will that has made us disobedient (to God? to the natural law?) and this has enraged God, who has kicked us out of the Garden and out of eternity, sent us headlong into the field of time. We betrayed the very thing that gave us life with our messy disobedience. We've been pushed through the gate, born into the world we have now, a world we create ourselves.

Blackfoot Genesis

Quite apart from the Biblical Genesis, the Blackfoot Genesis tale provides its own version of how the world came to be and what humanity's destiny might be in this world. It communicates an entirely different set of cultural values, as you would expect. What might be striking is the many ways in which the two stories overlap, the ways in which, though oceans and millennium apart, they are in fact somewhat similar.

Both stories use "REVERSALS" (as defined by Rabkin in the introduction to Fantastic Worlds). In Genesis, for instance, man "gives birth" to woman, a reversal of what you would expect. In the Blackfoot story, the "Old Man" (although he is the creator, the god) is imperfect; he has to repeatedly fix and adjust his work, whereas you might expect him to get everything perfect on the first try.

In both the biblical Genesis and the Blackfoot Genesis:

  • A CREATOR magically "makes" everything. In the biblical story, God speaks the world into being, and in the Blackfoot story, he walks around and puts things where they seem like they need to be. At one point he pronounces to the clay, "And you will be people." What significance might there be to the fact that in both stories there is a single "creator"? Are there significant more subtle differences between the Genesis and the Blackfoot Genesis creator in spite of their broad similarities?
  • A THEMATIC MOTIF: THE CONSEQUENCE OF ACTING "AGAINST" THE GOD IS THE LOSS OF IMMORTALITY. When people stop putting their trust in the God, when they disobey, or go their own way, bad things happen. In Genesis, when Adam and Eve disobey they are banished from the Garden and death is introduced into the world as either a direct or indirect punishment. Similarly, when the woman questions the Old Man's law which would resurrect people from the dead after four days, she ends up bringing permanent death into the world. In both stories the women are to blame for the catastrophe of death. This might seem ironic, for it is women who give birth. Yet a fact of life is any birth carries with it the certainty of eventual death. If women are the source of life, they are also, by extension, the source of death.
  • A THEMATIC MOTIF: THE GODS "CLOTHE" THE PEOPLE. In both stories, the people are "naked" until God puts clothes on them. What does the "naked" state of the people seem to signify in both stories?

As you might expect, the stories are also strikingly different, too. In several significant ways, they are fundamentally opposed to one another.

  • CHARACTER OF GOD. In Genesis, God is an absolute ruler, inflexible and perfect. His law is not adaptable, but permanent. Transgressing his rules means severe punishment with no wiggle room. In the Blackfoot story, however, the character of the Old Man can be seen to be flexible because he's fallible. He adapts to circumstances and changing conditions.
  • PEOPLE'S RELATIONSHIP TO NATURE. In Genesis, man is given "dominion" over the earth and directed to "subdue" it—we are earth's "ruler." Therefore we stand apart from nature, and above it. In the Blackfoot story, people are on a more equal level with the animals, and in some cases they are even inferior (less powerful), until the God provides knowledge which helps them gain an advantage (weaponry and other hunting tricks). The animal world provides guidance and wisdom, and animal "spirits" visit people in dreams in order to help them. When the Old Man grants people the knowledge that helps them gain an upper hand, it seems less for the purpose of "ruling" and more for the purpose of staying alive. Whereas humanity is the "crown of creation" in the Genesis story, in the Blackfoot story he is just one more creature, and not the centerpiece of all creation. The Old Man has other concerns, other peoples in other places, and they are but one. The most significant difference is that in the Blackfoot story, there is no sense of ownership of nature, of being "above" nature. The people have their part, their place, their own territory, but not the entire world. As mentioned earlier, in the Blackfoot tale, man belongs to the earth; in the Genesis tale, the earth belongs to man. The implications of this very different outlook are far-reaching.

The Eye of the Giant and How I Brought Death Into the World

In the two African tales, death comes into being not because of a woman, but because of men—a boy, in one tale, and a man in the other. Neither of these tales is a creation myth like the two Genesis stories, but they both provide an explanation for something that might be otherwise unexplainable.

  • Death is a reality if you go near the Giant (who is the Giant?)
  • The gods exist, they have being; they are powerful
  • Death is a restless wanderer, cut loose in the world by powerful forces beyond our control

Both tales have supernatural elements that we recognize as "impossibilities":

  • A giant as big as a landscape
  • Life-giving medicine
  • A giant's eye, that blinking and winking, causes death
  • Magic "ju-ju" that produce metamorphosis
  • Death is personified, an actual being that can be captured in a net

As well as realistic elements that make the story recognizable:

  • The reality of famine and hunger
  • The idea that you have to work for food, that you have to trade your labor for food

Both stories employ the kinds of reversals that are the hallmark of the fantastic:

  • Even the Gods do normal things like have meals with their wives
  • The boy in "The Eye of the Giant" wants to bring the Giant back to life!
  • When death closes its eye, people die; you might think when death "sees" you, you might die… But the "blinking and winking" suggests a kind of trickery. Does the Giant trick people, wink them, into death??
  • Instead of death being the conqueror, it is conquered and captured

Both stories perform a sociological function, communicating the cultural values that people enact by believing the story:

The Eye of the Giant

  • Eating meat comes at a cost
  • Trading people for food is a disaster, a catastrophe
  • Canibalism is taboo
  • Village elders have the wisdom and authority and will know what to do in any circumstances; put your trust in the community to solve the big problems
  • Communal decision-making
  • Use of medicine, herbs, vegetation for healing and for magical feats

How I Brought Death Into the World

  • The Gods are tricky and very, very clever
  • Never cross a medicine man with ju-ju's
  • The Gods can conquer death and they have purposely loosed it on the world

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     

 


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