The Myth-Making Animal: The Place of Myths in a Secular World

 

“Ay, roar well,” said Bagheera, under his whiskers, “for the time will come when this naked thing will make thee roar to another tune, or I know nothing of man.”

Rudyard Kipling The Jungle Book

 

“Orpheus . . . was passionately devoted to music. It is thought that by his skill he could charm even wild beasts to listen. When, grieving for his wife Eurydice, he descended to the Lower World, he praised the children of the gods in his song.”

Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica

 

What do these two passages have in common? They are both works of the imagination. They both quote the fantastical. Both of them tell a story. And the list must go on.

But when we come to ask what is the difference between these two passages, we need to stop at one salient answer: Rudyard Kipling never expected his readers to believe his story to be literal truth. The major difference here is an issue of veracity. No one has ever claimed that the feral child Mowgli ever ran through the jungles of India and was raised by wolves and had to fight a nasty tiger. And yet, children being raised in the Hellenistic world of ancient times would not have doubted for one instant the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. It was taught, fantastically imaginative though it is, as truth.

Incidentally, let us try one more passage.

“Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The tone of the passage might give away its nature. But assuming ignorance, ask yourself this: is this a story like Mowgli’s or Orpheus’? That is: does the author intend you to take his words literally or as a matter of fiction? The devout amongst you will recognize this as a quote from the Bible (King James Version: Matthew 11:30). Has your answer changed now? Is the passage a fictional one or a matter of fact?

Personally, I find the story of Mowgli far more believable than that of a man rising from the dead (feral children are after all not unknown in history – on the other hand, resurrections…?). But more pertinent than that: I find the myth of Orpheus far more compelling and inspiring than that of Christianity. A man literally going through hell and back to save the woman he loves only to fail at the last hurdle because he was overcome by anxiety. Some versions of the Orpheus myth have him reunited with Eurydice when he dies and his soul descends to the Underworld. A tragically happy ending.

So what place do myths and stories have in a secular age? Do I have to believe in the veracity of Orpheus or Jesus to admire the tales spoken of them? Absolutely not. History inclines us to believe that neither of them existed in the flesh. But stories have a way of fleshing themselves out in the cultural mind. And if Jesus and Orpheus never existed, that puts them in the same character as Mowgli. A character of fiction for fiction. Does that in anyway diminish their appeal?

As a child I was completely engrossed and parasitized by The Jungle Book stories. Many a day I would spend running around the house on all fours talking to imaginary Bagheeras and swinging on pretend trees (clothes lines). And to this day the name Shere Khan inspires a slight shiver in me. Of course, I never for a minute thought that talking tigers and panthers actually existed. But they didn’t have to. The adventures they inspired in my childhood mind were real. More than that: even today, that I am boorishly mature and reluctantly grown-up, I still hunger for adventure in the Indian jungles, and cherish the lives of now endangered animals like tigers and sloth-bears. This is the role of myths today. Not just for children.

This is why I find the Jesus myth, and indeed the myths of Judaism and Islam, uninspiring. Human beings are a storytelling animal (read the book of the same title by Jonathan Gottschall for further insight) and as such we have inbuilt in our psychology a mechanism called the suspension of disbelief. Imagine yourself watching Jurassic Park. Remember the scene, in the first film, (apologies to all non-nerds at this point) where the velociraptors are stalking the two children in the kitchen? Can you remember the suspense, the tension, the oh my God run, hide, no! Remember that? Now think about it: what an absolute cretin you are (myself included). You are getting scared and anxious about something that never happened and animatronic figments of imagination. Of course you’re not a cretin. You’re just a homo sapiens mammal. Your brain, whilst you’re watching or reading something fictitious, puts a stop to disbelief, to rationality, to reason. Without suspension of disbelief we would never be able to enjoy any work of fiction or movie or video-game. It makes human beings an excitably exciting species.

But here we have a set of books (the Bible and Quran) that are telling us a story which is clearly fantastical (men rising from the dead, Jinns causing mischief, women being created from a man’s rib) stories and asking us to suspend belief. They expect us to say: no of course all the animals of the world cannot fit onto one Ark, but never mind that, you have to believe it. This works the complete opposite way to fiction. Religious texts are anti-fiction. Fiction tells our brain, I know you know that a tiger cannot talk, but it doesn’t matter, imagine if it could. And we all do, we all imagine it. It is that migration into the pastures of imagination that gives us a taste of inspiration, a whiff of excitement, and the tantalizing feeling that many things are possible.

There is enough historical distance between ancient Greece and us today to be able to appreciate the myths of the mother civilization as fiction (even though there were those like Epicurus who, even in the heyday of ancient Greece, took the gods and their tales with a pinch of rational salt). Now that the religious veil is lifted off them we can appreciate not only the morality embedded into them (the gods are vicious, barbaric, lustful, deranged – yes – but isn’t that the way men would act if they were given such grand powers?) but also be inspired by their emotions, locales and craftsmanship. Look at the stories’ wide-ranging influence on modern culture:

The myth of Orpheus’ musical abilities inspired the director of the film Moulin Rouge!

            The sporting giant Nike is named after the Greek goddess of victory.

Freud famously coined the term Oedipus Complex after the myth of Oedipus.

Mary Shelley originally titled her masterpiece Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus.

Two of Keats’ greatest poems were directly inspired by Greek myth: Lamia and Endymion,

Who can get the image of Goya’s macabre painting out of his head, Saturn Devouring His Son, inspired by the myth of Cronos eating all his children?

These are some of the subtler, lesser known influences of Greek myths on our culture. The others are too obvious to mention. Bear in mind I am mentioning the Greek myths specifically because we are (or ought to make ourselves) the direct heirs of that primordial civilization. This is to take no merit from the myths of other civilizations as diverse as the Egyptians, the Mayans and the San. Myths are an ancient prototype of the artistic genre we now define as Magic Realism. They have their foundations in fact: in human and universal nature (and thus are distinct from Fantasy which is more abstracted). The relationship of myth to reality is cyclical: they are borne from the real world, ascend into imagination, then in return teach us or inspire us about the real world. Literary reincarnation. No myths have ever stood the test of time without being prescient and universally pertinent to mankind.

And these myths are still being conceived today. From literary examples like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children to television like Game of Thrones (artistic merit aside, but its impact on the zeitgeist is undeniable) and films/books such as The Golden Compass. We are all surrounded by myths, wherever we go, and we live in a fortuitous time when no one expects us to believe in the veracity of their fiction. No one deigns to consider Harry Potter a beatified prophet. Not yet, at any rate.

Notice also that most of the myths I have been mentioning (including the ones of scripture) are appealing for children. That is because children are beings who live in their imagination more than any other. The world of fiction and fairytale is as tangible for them as homework and Lego. They are made absolutely giddy by stories and spend many hours carefully re-enacting them. And we, adults, must not lose that childish playfulness. It makes our species the most exciting of the great apes. So yes, read The Jungle Book and take yourself to India, watch Jurassic Park and learn about the Cretaceous world, immerse yourself in The Odyssey and travel the world looking for your Penelope. Myths inspire greatness, greatness inspires myth.

Myths keep us young. The drug of choice for those addicted to inspiration. They are a tool for learning and discussion and thought-experiments. They enable us, through the great vehicle of empathy, to live another’s life, face their problems, making the real world a far more sympathetic place. Keep myths alive: just don’t force them down anyone’s skeptical throat. Indulge in suspension of disbelief but know the fine-line margins. Live amongst the Greek gods by all means, but remind yourself that their capriciousness is not something to be obeyed but rather something to be discussed. And the same goes for those other ex-religious myths.

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