Friday, July 29, 2011

Finding My Voice

By Endymion

When James Curcio invited me aboard this ship of god-intoxicated fools at, I jumped at the chance. To tell you the truth, I was flattered by the invitation and eager to blog about something interesting. Who knows, maybe my thoughts would find an audience with which to resonate. The next thing to enter my mind, however, was confusion… What is Modern Mythology? I mean, really, what does that phrase even mean? How can I write about it if I don’t even understand it? James sent me links to explanatory material. I read these. He sent me a sampling of the material complete with an introductory essay of his own device. I read this. I then spent several weeks reading the various posts by other contributors on the site itself. In the end, I was left more confused than ever.

The various contributions, explanatory prefaces, and articles that I’ve studied were variously thought-provoking, insightful, and humorous. I enjoyed every minute spent familiarizing myself with Modern Mythology. Unfortunately, I was no closer to having an answer to my basic question. What is it? What is the underlying commonality that serves to justify and unite these many voices? What is meant by this phrase “modern mythology”? I am convinced that I can never hope to contribute anything relevant or worthwhile without that answer. How can I find my voice when I don't understand the language?

There is a famous tale about Mark Twain’s wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens. Our Olivia was a refined socialite from a wealthy family of liberals and intellectuals. (If you listen closely, you’ll hear the sound of Republicans gasping and fainting at the thought). Her husband, on the other hand, had been a riverboat pilot and had the salty speech of that occupation with all of its profane proclivities. Frustrated with his inappropriate vulgarisms, she hatched a plot to change his ways. One day, without the slightest provocation, poor Mark Twain was assaulted by torrent of filth from the mouth of his missus. In fact, she was running off a list of words that she had heard him use during the previous week. She swore oaths which, she was certain, would make the Devil blush. Twain listened patiently and politely to this proper lady’s tirade. When at last she had finished blessing him out, he answered her, thoughtfully, “You have the words, my dear, but not the music.”

I have found myself in a position far worse than that even, I have agreed to write the words but I can’t seem to find out the style or genre for which I am expected to provide lyrics. Is it a love theme or a novelty song? Is it a samba or an 80’s power ballad? My task is to write the words, but I can’t hear the music!

When lost in the dark jungles of the mind, I find the only thing left to do is to unsheathe the machete of reason and carve out my own way. First, I find it best to heed the mantra with which that wise old Oxford tutor constantly admonished his students: “Define your terms”.

To this end, I consulted the more respectable and well-researched of dictionaries. I considered the most critical and well-documented etymologies. I even returned to the “experts” in the field of mythology. Then, after hacking through the ideas that proved too culturally biased and those that simply fell apart upon inspection, I assembled a few basic terms with some working definitions. Let us begin by defining myth and mythology, as they are the very meat of the matter.

To call a thing “myth” or “mythology,” I am told, generally implies that it is a lie, a falsehood, or an erroneous notion. I, for one, do not use these terms in this way and, with the exception TV’s MythBusters, seldom encounter anyone who does. In reality, what MythBusters concerns itself with is not mythology, but “urban legend”. Even this latter term is unduly derided. As any folklorist conversant with the field will tell you, just because something is an urban legend doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. Many urban legends are false. But others are true, or half true, or founded on a true event. Were this not the case, that invaluable urban legend website would have long since disappeared from the internet. As it is, The Urban Legends Reference Pages (as Snopes is officially named) remains actively devoted to sorting out the true from the false among those stories reported by that ubiquitous friend-of-a-friend.

“Myth” comes from a Greek word mythos meaning “speech, thought, story, word, or myth.” Although the Greek emphasis is on the spoken word, the thought and the storyline are perhaps more important. The Greeks, like other peoples, expressed their myths via the whole range of the arts. Still, at the heart of these thoughts there must be words. Without language there is no human thought.

Of course, this definition is a bit too broad. While it is true that I see all stories, thoughts, words, and speech as participating in the mythic dimensions, I feel that if something is to be worthy of the name “myth” it must speak to the soul; it must resonate with that vital force within us. A myth must be true as allegory, as metaphor. It must be true, not as mere historical fact but as a numinous expression of something beyond the mundane vision. It must reveal divinity, if we are to call it a myth.

In their Dictionary of English Folklore [Oxford 2000, p.254], Simpson and Roud appear to fumble toward this point when they describe myths as “stories about divine beings, generally arranged in a coherent system; they are revered as true and sacred; they are endorsed by rulers and priests; and closely linked to religion.” Unfortunately, they seem preoccupied with arbitrary distinctions. If the story is not so authoritatively supported by a culture’s political and religious leaders, if it is not necessarily conceived as true, or if the actors are not gods but “human heroes, giants or fairies,” the story is not a myth, the authors assure us, but a folktale. If the principals are in fact gods, but the story is ‘trivial” or religiously unimportant, they claim it is then neither a folktale nor a myth but an example of “religious legend.”

While such distinctions may be useful at times, they don’t survive scrutiny. The myth of Cupid and Psyche, for instance, is not trivial in its content as it gives fundamental insight into the understanding of three distinct divinities of the classical world and gives account as to how Psyche was deified. It further relates directly to classical belief concerning the soul (whom Psyche embodies, by name and imagery) and what has come to be called “the astral double”. Moreover, it is decidedly about the gods, not just concerning itself with human heroes, fairies, or giants. And yet it comes to us through Apuleius’ Golden Ass in which it is a presented as a digressionary folktale, a standard fairy tale, or what the brothers Grimm called a Hausmärchen (a household tale) , told by an elderly woman to comfort and distract a kidnapped maiden named Charite. By the standards of Simpson and Roud, this tale is most definitely a myth, but Lucius Apuleius presents it, quite literally, as an old wives’ tale. I’ve found such problems to occur every time I examine some expert’s attempt at distinguishing and defining myths, legends, and folk tales. It would seem any attempt to set firm barriers between these inexorably interwoven categories of storytelling is doomed to failure.

For me, there is something fundamental about myth; the story somehow expresses the Divine Mysteries of Life and Being to its audience. The mythic dimension, therefore, is not inherent in the story itself, existing instead in the relationship between the story, the audience, and the storyteller.

Mythology is derived from mythos plus -logy (study, discourse, speaking, science), from - logia in the original Greek. This comes to us from the root legein (to speak), itself a verb form of logos (word, story, speech, or discourse). As theologians and students of religious history will know, Logos is a title of several savior gods and messenger divinities having mystery traditions built around them. It is common to the ancient Hermetic schools, the Gnostics, and the Christians. “In the beginning”, says St. John the Evangelist, “was the Word (Logos), and the Word (Logos) was with God, and the Word (Logos) was God.” (John 1:1, KJV)

For practical purposes, mythology means one of two things. It denotes either the study of myth or else it refers to a particular body of myths. Comparative mythology and studies in “myth as literature” meet the former criteria; while Greek Mythology, Norse Mythology and the Mythology of Courtly Romance belong to the latter. A mythologist is therefore a person who studies myths, or it can be a person who recounts the myths (one who “speaks the myths”). As you may have guessed by now, I believe there is something sacred in the act of storytelling. It is a sacramental act and the function of the mythologist is sacerdotal. Truly, any attempt at gathering, organizing and studying the myths may be considered a genuine meditation (in the original medieval sense of that word), however misguided may seem a given interpreter’s attempt. For me then, Myth and Logos are two expressions of one truth. They each embody and express the Divine Discourse, the Living Word, the Sacred Narrative, and the Eternal Story made flesh in he who experiences the tale expanding to comprehend it.

Returning to the Gospel according to St. John, chapter 10 this time, we find a group of people who are about to stone Jesus for blasphemy, having heard him pronounce that he and his father (i.e., G-d) were “one”. Jesus quickly objects that he had shown them many good deeds, asking for which such deed would they now stone him? It is not for a good deed but for blasphemy, they answer, that he is trying to make himself out to be God. At this point you might be wondering “what would Jesus do?” You’d be surprised! It is at this point in the narrative that Jesus speaks the words that so many Christians care neither to admit nor comprehend:

Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods? If he called them gods, unto whom the word (logos) of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken. – John 10:35-36 (KJV)

Despite all their claims as to their belief that the Bible is literally and fundamentally true (and the sole source of truth at that!), fundamentalist Christians are quick to wax allegorical when confronted with this passage, twisting Christ’s words and inventing explanations that have no Biblical origin. I, however, recognize this for what it is, one of the most clearly stated spiritual truths in the Bible and a clear recognition of the exalting power of myth.

To my mind, myth is a vehicle of the divine nous, the intellect of Deity, expressing the vital currents of the very “Ground of Being” (if I may borrow Paul Tillich’s apt description of Godhead) through the archetypal or elementary structures of human biology. These elementary ideas or archetypes are never encountered directly in their archetypal, hardwired form. By necessity they are clothed in language. They are conditioned by history, by culture and by experience; and they are limited by the temporal environment in which they are expressed. These fundamental forms and themes, which the great ethnologist Adolf Bastian called “elementary ideas” (and which Carl Jung named “archetypes”) are never encountered in a pure form, but make their epiphany through what Bastian termed “folk ideas”.

If myth is a numinous vehicle of the Divine, then mythology is the spiritual discipline by which the Divine is made present in the moment. Through telling, hearing, or studying a myth the Holy Spirit of G-d, with its rejuvenating influence, is made present in our world. Thus, the Gods are made flesh in our being. If he calls them gods unto whom the word of God came, the scripture cannot be broken. The incarnation of Divinity and the apotheosis of man (whereby the human organism is “translated” or “transformed” into Deity) each hinge upon the magical, mystical, ritual, meditative, and yogic practice named mythology.

With this conviction, I am left to answer two questions. First, my preparatory readings concerning Modern Mythology suggest that I must differentiate between a dead myth and a living one; but how? Secondly, I must determine what it is that makes mythology “modern”?

With regard to the first question, I must confess that anything I say must be taken only as wild speculation on my part. You must understand that, never once in my thirty-seven years, have I encountered an example of dead mythology and cannot even begin to imagine such a corpse. Rather, like my own mythic namesake, or like Great Cthulhu in R'lyeh, untapped myths are not dead but sleeping. You see, a myth comes to life upon its telling (or upon someone’s reading or perceiving thereof). Many of the Sumerian and Ugaritic myths, for example, have been lost; but it is fairly safe to assume that their essence has continued in various shapes and forms, via their impact on neighboring cultures. Even the original form may reawaken should a record of it be discovered and translated. This is what happened with the myth of Inanna and Her descent into the underworld. The current popularity of that story, which has become a dominating spiritual and intellectual theme since its rediscovery, serves to prove that it is very much a living myth.

We humans are time-binding beings and our stories live on long past their first telling. Moreover, we humans are meaning-making animals. By a process known to psychologists and cyberneticists as a “transderivational search,” we breathe life and meaning into anything we encounter. Random events become fraught with fateful implication and the oracular mutterings of some tranced-out Sibyl or carnival cold-reader are imbued with fatidic relevance. Even the random shapes of Rorschach’s ink-blots come to life for us, because it is in our nature to read into things. We habitually lend meaning and life to the symbols we encounter. If a word or symbol is dead it means we have not really heard it or seen it. “Meaning,” said Norman O. Brown “is not in things, but between them.” The Greeks understood Life (zöos) in much the same way. Zöos was a vital process that moved through each bios (organism, form) as a thread might pass through a series of beads. It would be more accurate an analogy to describe zöos as a string and each bios as a knot tied along its length.

So, if a myth seems dead to you, I guarantee the fault is in the interaction between you and the presentation of it. I would hazard to say that the bulk of the fault must be with you yourself, since any random set of noises or marks will yield some sort of meaning to your transderivational search engine. Myth falls dead and meaningless only to those without eyes to see or ears to hear.

People describe Greek myths as dead, and yet they influence art, literature, psychology, religion, and the occult practices to this very day. They were a vital part not only of classical pagan Europe, but of medieval Christianity and Islam, as well as being at the heart of the Renaissance. Their powerful presence can be seen in early modern European and American culture, in art, politics, and mysticism. The folk customs and artistic schools of the 18th and 19th centuries likewise embraced the vibrancy of classical mythology. Poets set up turf altars to Pan and so strong was the popular devotion that it was then (and not during the Middle Ages as popular pseudo-histories pretend) that uptight Christians began identifying Pan as Satan. The fact is that these gods were living and vital powers well into the early 20th century. Indeed, a number of neopagan cults and festivals currently serve to honor these allegedly defunct divinities, and their continuing presence is felt in film and novel, poetry and television. From a playful quip in the Pirates of Penzance to Sondheim’s full blown adaptation, modern theater has exhibited a deep obsession with the Frogs of Aristophanes and Greek theater more generally. Who can forget Will Power’s powerful hip-hop flip of Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes? It appears that the rumours of Pan’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Further, Christian mythology has been pronounced dead and defunct again, and again, over the last few centuries, but countless people find vitality and even mystical experience in the Savior Christ and His Blessed Virgin Mother. Even this article has made meaning from the Gospel and I can feel the living essence of the Zöophoros (God, the Life Bearer) as a result of that examination. On a cruder level, consider those folk who quit their jobs and gave away their savings, just two months ago, because of the Reverend Harold Camping’s assertion that the 21st of May was to be Doomsday, when God would pronounce His Judgment, and the “saved” would be taken up, bodily, in the Rapture! Look once again to the arts, literature, painting, sculpture, theater and film. Consider Dali’s painting Crucifixion or Warhol’s quirky vision of the Last Supper. Think of the success of Jesus Christ Superstar or Madonna’s Like a Prayer video. From the profound ruminations of theologians and priests to the plots of the many horror films concerning angels and demons, Christian mythology proves evergreen. Its myths and rituals remain a dynamic force and prove, with all respect to Nietzsche, that God is anything but dead.

All myths are alive if we have eyes with which to see and ears with which to hear. The mythic dimension exists, like Lovecraft’s Old Ones, not in the spaces we know, but between them. There do the old gods wait, serene and primal, undimensioned and by us unseen. Myth dwells in Eternity, outside of space and time. There can be no dead myth.

Although, if mythology is eternal, what can we possibly mean by the modernity of a mythology? This is, after all,

To me, the adjective “modern” suggests a focus on a certain aspect of mythology rather than serving to distinguish it from “outdated, old, or antiquated” myths (whatever they might be!). Modern comes from the same Latin source as does our word mode. The Latin refers to “a given manner”, a way or mode of doing something. It also stands for the now. Beyond this it is defined as “measure.”

Modern Mythology must then describe a process or manner of measuring (i.e., perceiving, structuring, and assimilating) one’s world so that it is imbued with mythic potency. If the modern meaning of “modern” indicates that which is of or pertains to the present (or to the most recent of times), then Modern Mythology is the way by which Eternity may be enticed to burst forth in the midst of temporal existence. It is then that the immediacy of life is experienced as impregnated with the Holy Presence. This is the world in which I live and my mythology surrounds me, feeding into me, feeding off of me. It gives shape to substance and, beyond that, permeates life with the light that shineth in the darkness. As I am made one with Christ or Dionysos or Shiva or Exu, I am made eternal. In this modus, or manner, I do not perish, but have everlasting life, and I experience something far more fulfilling than mere “meaning”. I experience the life process itself. Through the decades I have been learning to surf its currents with greater skill. I am guided by mythology as Theseus was guided out of the labyrinth by Ariadne’s thread.

For Shakespeare, the word “modern” meant the everyday, that which is commonplace, typical, or ordinary. As the eruption of the mythic dimension has become more and more an everyday, commonplace part of my life, I find myself, with greater frequency, supping from the living Word and drinking daily of ecstatic bliss. Ever more typical become those exquisite moments when I taste that “peace of God” famously described, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, as a peace that “surpasseth understanding.”

Whether the revelation is sparked by the Orixa and Vodum of West Africa and African Diasporic culture or the classical deities of Greece and Rome, by a medieval romance or the weird fiction of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, by working through the dense arguments of the Angelic Doctor’s Summa Theologica, or by the campy science-fiction mysteries of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, doesn’t matter. What does matter is that, daily, my soul is enflamed with the power of myth and I am lost in its fever pure passion. Then, if the stars are right (which happens more and more, these days), there is a breakthrough moment when the whole world is caught up in that divine conflagration. The world is, as Heraclitus and the Lotus Sutra agree, a burning house. Like Mansur al-Hallaj’s famous moth, I am drawn each night to that fury of fire. To quote Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three, “we don’t need no water, let the motherfucka’ burn.”
Burn, Motherfucka’, Burn!

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