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Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Spring 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2004) ENG Q20: Basic Writing (Fall 2004)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Spring 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2004)
ENG Q20: Basic Writing (Fall 2004)
Analyzing the Mythic Tales ~~
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."
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!
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
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."
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:
As you might expect, the stories are also strikingly different, too. In several significant ways, they are fundamentally opposed to one another.
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 mena 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.
Both tales have supernatural elements that we recognize as "impossibilities":
As well as realistic elements that make the story recognizable:
Both stories employ
the kinds of reversals that are the hallmark of the fantastic:
Both stories perform a sociological function, communicating the cultural values that people enact by believing the story:
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