Since I’m still busy compiling, todays post is from the old files – a quick paper on mythology I wrote up for someone long, long, ago…
“The Age of Superstition and Mythology… Is At An End.”
Since the age of enlightenment there has been a tendency to act as if “Mythology” is a thing of the dead and dusty past, completely irrelevant to modern life.
It isn’t true.
Mythology seems to be something fundamental to the human experience, deeply embedded in the structure of the mind. At a guess, it may be related to the development of object permanence – the idea that something continues to exist whether or not it is under observation at the moment – and the development of language, which allows the sharing of ideas. Infants are known to develop the idea of object permanence by the age of four months (1), and demonstrate substantial linguistic skills by the age of two. Those two abilities lay at the core of mythology and religion. Object permanence is a simple but powerful principle, confirmed again and again by daily experience. It is easy to generalize it; if items you cannot observe continue to exist, may not other things exist which you cannot observe? What about the whatever-it-is which distinguishes the living from the dead? A personality is certainly “something”. It can be examined, make a powerful impression, and recognized by anyone who spends much time interacting with it. According to the generalized principle of object permanence, it must continue to exist even after it can no longer be observed.
What happens to it? Where does it go, and what does it find there?
Individual answers to such questions are generally vague and unsatisfactory. Language, however, allows people to share such abstract ideas, to blend and build upon them, until they share a rich fabric of the imagination.
When the individual swatches of that fabric begin to share enough common threads, and their tales and images begin to reflect the common themes and archetypes of life, it graduates from a mere collection of folklore to a mythology – a living weave, holding enough recognizable reflections of the myriad experiences of life to act as a guide into the inward recesses of the mind (2).
Despite denials, mythology continues to be one of the major ways humans use to evaluate, and interact with, their world. For a recent case in point, consider the restoration of wolves to Yellowstone Park. There are a tremendous number of facts available about the wolf. Among them that there has never been a serious attack on a human being by a wolf in North America, their average territory size of ten square miles per wolf, statistics on their tendencies to roam and population density, and behavior (3). Wolves are, in fact, so thoroughly frightened of mankind that it was a common practice for early western farmers to climb down into a pit containing several wolves and set to work hamstringing them before hauling them out to provide sport for their hunting dogs (4). Perhaps the most vital fact is the most easily stated; Wolves are essentially just large, undomesticated, dogs. They’ve never been bred for a willingness to accept humans as a part of their pack.
The reason for reintroducing them was equally simple; the ecosystem needed some large predators to keep the large herbivores from stripping the place bare. The park management could have done it with a hunting program, but that was hardly appropriate for a national park and would have seriously interfered with other uses. It was also extremely unpopular, would have been tremendously expensive, would have had to be a perpetual program, and would not have fulfilled the requirements of the endangered species act. It was a simple scientific and economic decision.
It also provoked twenty years worth of political and legal conflict, cost a fortune, and led to an ongoing human conflict on the federal level that continues today (5).
None of which had anything to do with the scientific data.
It did have something to do with the mythology of the wolf.
The classic symbology of the wolf is as a ravening destroyer. An all-devouring monster (6), capable of anything, and guilty of monstrous crimes. A fearful menace to human life. Such a depiction of the wolf dates back centuries, tracing it’s roots to the demon-wolves of the germanic traditions – Fenris, who would devour mighty Odin, Garm, guardian of the paths of the dead, Skoll and Hati, who would devour the sun and moon (7) – as well as to the more recent sexual entanglements of the werewolf cycles (8) and to genuine incidents in mediaeval europe. By the 1920’s a full cycle of wolf legends had grown up in Montana, with a pantheon including such figures as the Custer Wolf, Snowdrift, and the “White Wolf of the Judith”. As an example, consider the Dillon Examiner’s recognition of the death of the Custer Wolf in 1921;
“The master criminal of the animal world, the Custer Wolf, has at last been killed. The death of the cruelest, the most sagacious, and most successful animal outlaw the range county has ever known was announced with a sigh of relief. …For nine years the Custer Wolf struck terror in the hearts of ranchers. Many credited the story that it was not merely a wolf, but a monstrosity of nature – half wolf and half mountain lion – possessing the cruelty of both and the craftiness of Satan himself”.
As late as 1980, the “Bearpaw Wolf” was credited with killing nearly a hundred farm animals, over an incredible range, inside of a year. The fact that such a feat would require jet propulsion and an appetite which would do credit to a forest fire made no impression whatsoever on the local ranchers (5).
Then, of course, there were the opposing myths; the wolf as a valorous guardian and faithful parent, as a glorious incarnation of freedom and the wilderness, as devoted pets for those lucky few who managed to raise one, as the stars of calenders, documentaries, and nature programs. The wolf as a symbol of the frontier and the wilderness that the nation had lost. Friendly wolves at play as the emblem for conservationist movements. Cute little wolf pups doing cute little things on posters and coffee mugs.
Neither viewpoint was scientifically realistic, but the two were to dominate the discussion for twenty years. Opponents claimed that wolves would devour children waiting at school bus stops, proponents that they’d add wonder and inspiration to any visit to Yellowstone Park and were utterly indispensable in it’s ecological balance. The few, lonely, scientific voices – “Wolves are no big deal” – were invariably drowned in the mythological debate (9). While the “Wolf as the spirit of the wild” viewpoint eventually prevailed – it had, after all, the backing of the scientists in insisting that wolf restoration was a good thing – the final outcome hinged on politics at the state and federal level. Unfortunately, those levels rarely respond to science. Swaying politicians requires a massive shift in public opinion, usually involving millions of people – something that a hundred or so biologists are unlikely to achieve. As demonstrated in the recent congressional discussion of global warming, if something is politically inconvenient, a politician can always trot out some crackpot and listen to their “scientific” opinion instead of that of the opposing 99% of serious researchers.
The necessary millions did not respond to science. They did respond to myth. Despite the rationalists, mythology remains one of the most powerful ways to manipulate people ever discovered.
Of course, while mythology remains potent, individual mythologies do lose their power over time. Like Jung’s archetypes, the power of a mythology is derived from personal associations – seeing yourself and facets of your situation reflected in it’s tales. Mythologies reflect their culture and it’s environment, they respond to the same forces that shape the people who hear them. As the culture changes, the mythology must change as well – or it will lose it’s power to move and inspire people, gradually becoming nothing more then a collection of pretty stories, with little more then historical relevance.
A mythology set down in books, isolated from cultural change and preserved for posterity, is as dead and embalmed as Lenin. Like a tree, mythology lives where it grows. The heartwood of a mythology is always dry and dead – but, like a tree, a mythology may flourish long after it’s core has been eaten away. Reality always lags behind the myth, for the known always has boundaries. Thanks to satellite photographs and modern mapping there may no longer be room for the lost worlds of fairyland on earth – but that merely pushes them out into space, in the form of exotic aliens (12) or requires that they be summoned forth by the very science which banished them (13).
Living mythologies adapt, at least so long as their associated culture survives. For an example, consider the Oni – the demon ogres of Japanese tradition. Eight to twelve feet tall, powerful, and virtually invulnerable, these monstrous creations of evil gods would emerge from the underworld to wreak devastation, toppling great fortresses, looting the villagers, and spreading fires. Even if hacked to bits or slain, they would return after a few weeks. They could occasionally be defeated, but this usually required the aid of a pure and heroic child or massive doses of sleeping potions. Even more rarely, they could be persuaded to help innocents, although this, again, usually required the intercession of a child hero. More often, they could simply be outsmarted or avoided (10).
All understandable enough in a land often subject to earthquakes and volcanism. As earthquakes became better understood, and the limited land area of Japan was more and more carefully explored and parceled out, the tales of Oni gradually faded into the background of tradition.
World war two provided a new nightmare to worry about. A power that destroyed entire cities, that warped and sickened it’s victims for years after it’s use, and that burned the images of incinerated children onto walls. The atom bomb was a terror worthy of inclusion in anyone’s mythology, as even the most tongue-in-cheek of the authors of the time could recognize;
“Oh, my people had many gods. There was Conformity, and Authority, and Expense Account, and Opinion. And there was Status, whose symbols were many, and who rode in the great chariot Cadillac, which was almost a god itself. And there was Atom-bomb, the dread destroyer, who would some day come to end the world. None were very good gods, and I worshipped none of them.”
-Lord Kalvan Of Otherwhen, H. Beam Piper.
In 1954 the Oni were reborn as the offspring of a nuclear blast. Larger, stronger, and more brutal, as befit their new parentage, the incarnate terrors of the nuclear age strode onto movie screens – and all the armies of the world were impotent against them. Godzilla and his brethren had arrived. As before, the old archetype blazed a trail into the depths of human fears – of the uncontrollable powers of nature, of natural disasters, of being victimized by groups and organizations too formidable to face. They expressed a new fear, of what uncontrolled technology might bring – and they expressed the ancient hope that the next generation, the children, would triumph (15). Campy and entertaining as they are, the continuing popularity of the genre’ is sufficient to demonstrate that they appeal to something securely buried within the human psyche.
Of course, many other mythologies are effectively “dead” – cut off from the cultures that created them. While they may still be of great importance as a source of ideas and inspiration to later cultures, they no longer grow and change, and are no longer linked with the introspective cultural associations which gave them greater meaning.
Some die. Others are born. New cycles of myth arise to replace the old. Among the current crop, one of the most popular revolves around unidentified flying objects – “UFO’s” (14).
UFO’s do exist. Not surprisingly, people occasionally see things in the sky that they cannot identify. Further investigation can, however, identify what they saw some 90% of the time – a ratio that compares favorably with investigations of automobile accidents. The fact that sometimes there just isn’t enough information available to determine what someone saw is no more meaningful then the similar percentage of accidents where there just isn’t enough information available to determine the cause of the crash. Sensibly, few people believe that those unresolved accidents are the work of aliens.
Not so with unidentified lights in the sky. The “Aliens” theory has it’s own television programs, books, “eyewitness accounts”, “abduction” victims, websites, conspiracy theories, archaeological “evidence”, mysterious “alien implants”, and miracle cures – despite the fact that no actual evidence has ever appeared. Where believers, such as Erich Von Daniken (16), are kind enough to put their “theories” down in print so that they can be examined, debunkers invariably materialize in short order (17). Such well meaning scientists invariably fail to make an impression on the true believers. They are committing a fundamental error, attempting to fight a mythology with facts and logic. As might be expected, they enjoy no more success then the scientists trying to get wolves restored to Yellowstone Park.
Of course, if the “UFO Aliens” are myths, they ought to conform to classical archetypes, reworked to fit into current cultures. The question is therefore relatively simple; do they?
The “aliens” are credited with a wide variety of actions. They frighten, and occasionally mutilate, domestic animals, erect giant stone structures (Albeit usually in the distant past), implant tiny fragments of metal and ceramic in people which cause bizarre and mysterious symptoms, jam machinery, make houses tremble, kidnap people and poke them with mysterious implements, occasionally cure people (Apparently out of pure whimsy), leave crop circles or burned areas, carry people off into areas of distorted “relativistic” time and drop them off hundreds of miles away from where they started, shine with a strange light, travel through the sky, and “reveal great truths” in the form of ancient platitudes. They have big heads, enormous eyes, and long, meddling, fingers. They never come out to talk to anybody who wants to find them, but any number of people can easily stumble across them unwittingly. They are utterly capricious. They hate to be spied on, and often mysteriously punish those who talk about them too much.
They act more like a meddlesome bunch of vandals then like representatives of some wise, beneficent – and presumably highly advanced – alien race.
The enthusiasts may never realize it, but this really ought to sound familiar. To substitute a few terms, consider faerie-ridden horses, faerie rings, mounds, and stones, “elfshot”, the shaking and storm which often accompanied a “faerie rade”, the jamming of mills, time-distorting visits to fairyland, and the behavior of faeries in general (18). Not, perhaps, the benign and sanitized faeries of modern tales – but the cruel and meddlesome creatures who were called “The fair folk” because to insult them, or even to mention them by name, was to invite the destruction of the speaker and his or her family!
According to many true believers, these aliens are entangled with our ancestry and were our races earliest teachers.
I find myself forced to concede that bit. Looking at the state of the world, I could well believe that a bunch of meddling lunatics created the basis of the various human cultures.
Like their mortal cousins, myths are born, live, and die. Like mortals, they may leave their mark upon history, or they may be forgotten by everyone save those who knew them. They have their families and descendants. Whether or not they live in the physical world, they live in the minds of men – and they have power. They shape our views of the world.
Failure to recognize that power has doomed more then one good idea, toppled plans, and overthrown governments. A powerful image and tale will, in the forum of public opinion, defeat any amount of logic. Mankind as a whole is rationalizing, not rational. It is always wise to keep that in mind, and it is well to study myth, because – after all – the idea that mythology lacks power…
is itself a myth.
Selected Bibliography and Footnotes :
-) The opening quotation has been attributed to a wide variety of scientists and philosophers in one form or another. Given that the sentiment seems to have been relatively common among scientists and philosophers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Morton White, The Age of Analysis, 1955), it seems best to leave it attributed to that most ubiquitous of sources; Anonymous.
1) Renee Baillargeon, 1987, University Of Illinois. Reference from Childhood, by Melvin Konner, 1991.
2) Man And His Symbols, Carl G. Jung, 1964 edition.
3) The Wolves Of North America, Stanley P. Young and Edward A. Goldman, 1944.
4) Audubon, J. J., and Bachman, J., 1851-54, Vol 2, pg 129. This is a secondary reference from #3, above, and the original title was not given. Presumably it was simply Audubon’s published journals.
5) Wolf Wars, by Hank Fischer, 1995. An internal account of the drive to restore wolves to Yellowstone Park.
6) A Dictionary Of Symbols, J. E. Cirlot, 1971.
7) The Norse Myths, as collated by Kevin Crossley-Holland, 1980.
8) Several volumes provide an extensive treatment of the modern, or cinematic, werewolf theme, but the pertinent summary is as follows; The “victim” is almost invariably a young man. The “symptoms” generally include becoming larger, growing hair all over the body, acquiring a deep, growly, voice, getting a little wild, running around at night, chasing pretty girls, and dragging them offscreen if/when they’re caught – from whence they usually reappear with their clothes disheveled. Those symptoms ought to sound familiar; this isn’t a disease, it’s hyper-puberty. Along similar lines, the classic “Red Riding Hood” was originally a cautionary tale about the predatory “wolves” a young girl might encounter upon going to the city. For reference, I would suggest An American Werewolf In London, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, and The Howling, all of which are available on videotape. The werewolf has even become the “hero” of the popular Werewolf; The Apocalypse roleplaying game – which seems to have a special appeal for the teenage boys who make up the primary audience for roleplaying games. Apparently they can identify with werewolves very, very, easily.
9) E. Bangs, 1988, director of the Montana wolf recovery program, a wildlife biologist. This is a secondary reference, from #5, Wolf Wars.
10) The Fire-Flys Lovers And Other Tales Of Old Japan, William Elliot Griffis, 1908. Supplementary material may be found in Old Tales of Japan, Yuri Yasuda, 1947.
11) Hiroshima & Nagasaki Memorial Exhibit. This exhibit, and the organization sponsoring it, are products of Japan, and express their particular viewpoint. However, even without their commentary, the photographs and exhibits are quite eloquent.
12) As in the classic example of 2001; A Space Odyssey – a title which leaves little doubt as to it’s inspiration. The general theme of “Science fiction as the mythology of the twentieth century” has been too thoroughly explored to bother with here, even if relatively little of the actual material supports the thesis. Most “science fiction” fails to reach beyond the category of light entertainment.
13) The movie Jurassic Park is an excellent example, but the basic idea goes back to Frankenstein. Unlike magic, science rarely deals in absolute prohibitions. Most scientific restrictions are of the form “You cannot do that – unless…”. The “Unless” may be something quite impractical, but when has impracticality limited invention and imagination?
14) Others include the wildly popular “Conspiracy” cycle, which serves as inspiration for the various militia movements and a wide variety of fringe groups, and the “Crime Epidemic” which fuels ever increasing paranoia in society. Both are mythical, as can be easily seen by simply adding up the number of conspirators required to make the various conspiracies work (They usually require millions. A few come close to involving everyone except the theorizer. Considering how hard it is to keep a conspiracy involving a dozen people secret, the implausibility here is readily apparent), or by consulting the statistics kept by the federal justice department (These show that the actual incidence of most crimes in the population per year per thousand citizens has slightly decreased over the last thirty years. The FBI statistics have gone up drastically – but not if they’re corrected for increasing population, changes in police procedure, and the effects of automatic, computerized, reporting of every minor scuffle). See; Sociology, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay, 1980, Are We Scaring Ourselves To Death?, ABC news special presentation, 1991, and the department of justice statistics, as published by the federal government.
15) Godzilla, King Of Monsters, Godzilla versus Mothra (And all the others), Johnny Sokko and the Giant Robot (A television series), and other productions too numerous to mention.
16) As in; Chariots Of The Gods – a work which is practically a textbook for mythological thinking. It can be most instructive to compare Von Daniken’s view of places such as Easter Island with those of Thor Heyerdahl, who actually went there. Von Daniken is obviously familiar with Heyerdahl’s work, quoting him in many places – but he blithely ignores those parts of it which do not fit the ideas he wants to advance. Poor science, but excellent mythmaking.
17) The Ancient Engineers, L. Sprague de Camp, 1960, and Crash Go The Chariots, Cliford Wilson, 1972 (Despite it’s religious bent) are reasonable samples.
18) Sources on faeries and their behavior include; Scottish Faerie Tales, George Douglas, 1892, Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race, T. W. Rolleston, 1986, Irish Sagas and Folk Tales, Eileen O’Faolain, 1982, Gypsy Folk Tales, Hindes Groome, 1899, Faeries, Brian Froud and Alan Lee, 1978, and Jewish Fairy Tales And Legends, Gertrude Landa, 1943.
19) No mythic bibliography seems to be complete without some mention of Joseph Campbell. Unfortunately, I’ve always found his style irritatingly pompous, and he’s been used until he’s utterly boring. Therefore his material has been intentionally excluded from this paper to the best of my ability.
20) Direct quotations are generally attributed in the text.