Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Global Myths: Exploring Primitive, Pagan, Sacred, and Scientific Mythologies

Book Review: The Global Myths: Exploring Primitive, Pagan, Sacred, and Scientific Mythologies – by Alexander Eliot (Penguin, 1994) 

This was mostly a fun and fascinating read with analysis of mythology intermingled with stories and biographical accounts of people. The introduction by Jonathan Young compares Eliot to Joseph Campbell and indeed he was praised by Campbell as a masterful storyteller. Eliot tells stories, some according to known depictions but others considerably enhanced and some entirely spun to make points.

Eliot dismisses overly dogmatic analyses of myths. He admits that myths can be frustrating to the rational mind and “inhospitable to the inhibited.” He suggests approaching the ‘mythic dimension’ or ‘mythosphere,’ as one would approach a love affair – with all the daring and uncertainty. 

The first story is of Thor who found himself among giants. He proclaimed his ability to out-wrestle anyone. An elderly female giant grabbed him by the throat until he surrendered. The daughter giant then sought to help him heal by giving him a horn of mead but he was unable to drain the mead which kept refilling and soon passed out. He woke up on a lonely moor wondering if he had been dreaming but he had a bad hangover. He asked Odin about his experience but Odin could only say that the giants were a tough lot and hard to figure out. Eliot then recalls his own experience in northern Norway of unexpectedly encountering a wild reindeer herd that ran right through where he was standing.

Myth and religion co-evolve with our quest to find meaning in life, and death. Myth and dogma seem to overlap and co-evolve as well, guiding our actions and reactions. He notes that psychology has clarified that myth does indeed affect us. Myth also often defies codification and analysis so psychological theories are limited. I think the work of James Hillman may have led him to a similar conclusion. Heroes, characters, ideals, and metaphors give us morphic and anthropomorphic “forms” with which we can identify. Psyche and identity seem intertwined. It is perhaps the subjectivity of individual experience, the phenomenology of experience that makes myth hard to codify. We chase our own tales! (he says, as Aesop might say). The Ancient Greeks assigned both life and death to the hero Herakles. After his death as a human he was reborn among the immortal gods. Myth can envelope such contradictions. 

He mentions the two biggest sources of classical myth in our times: Bullfinch and Edith Hamilton. He notes Bullfinch’s efforts to make myth more suitable for children. Since then classical myth has merged with myths of other societies as well as with psychology, sociology, and ethnology. 

He mentions camping for a few months in Hopi and Navaho territory when he was young where he encountered and interacted with them in their own domain. This helped him break out of his own cultural bubble as well as develop an appreciation for their myths and culture.  

He says there is no ‘true myth’ nor ‘mythic truth.’ The ‘mythosphere’ dwells within, in the human mind. The mind is fluid, inclusive, and inconclusive, he says, and thus can accommodate myth. We participate in the mythosphere. We all help construct myth to some degree. Myth often houses contradictions. It is one way we deal with contradictions and competing ideas. He sees it a bit like the wave/particle duality of light in quantum mechanics. 

Apart from personal myths and fairy tales he sees four kinds of myths: the main two are primitive and pagan myths. Less prominent and rarely thought of as mythic are the scientific and sacred myths, those centered around scientific ideas and the contemporary religious ideas. He likes to compare them to the four winds.

Regarding primitive myth he says it involves humans in nature and likes a definition given by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, “The re-arising of primordial reality in narrative form.” Eliot sees it as unanalytical, intuitive, and bold. 

Primitive myth is sourced and kept by shamans and medicine people. Primitive myth derives from oral traditions and is best presented that way, he says. It is way to connect to ancestors. Here he tells the Navaho story of Bead Woman’s two sons, part of a rarely performed ceremony called Bead Woman Way.

Pagan myth in his classification is mostly classical Greek and Roman myth.

“Pagan myth generally concerns ironic and tragicomic interactions between human and divine beings.” 

It concerns human nature more so than nature. Greek and Roman cultures were fairly patriarchal. Here he tells the story of Amphitryon and his hound Laelaps, who meets his strange fate when in pursuit of a fox vixen. 

Sacred myth stems from the major religions. He recalls William Blake who noted that ancient poets animated all of nature and such notions were later exploited by priesthoods to enslave people to dogma. Dogmatists seem to hold that only their own dogmatic scenarios are divinely inspired and thus “real.” Eliot sees no clear dividing line between divine revelation and human inspiration.

“Religionists say, in effect: “God told me; this is how it is.” Scientists argue: “The relevant data arrayed itself before me and showed me; this is how it is.” 

Science also has technology to back it up. It is void of the emotion of religion. Karl Popper noted that science too is dependent on precedent so that it is often fallible. Thomas Kuhn noted that science is paradigmatic, that it is often girded by these “temporary allegorical umbrellas of shared belief.” Truth and/or falsehood in science often implies – being true or false within the context of the currently prevailing paradigm. 

“Scientific myths are valid while they last, very nearly as influential as religious ones… These four myth-types {primitive, pagan, sacred, and scientific}, along with fairy tales and personal myths constitute a luminous although self-contradictory miracle: namely, the mythosphere – thousands of years in the making – as it exists today in my psyche and yours.”

In Part 2 he explores the ‘Labyrinthine Ways’ of knowledge. He first explores a few mythic explanations about how fetishes and statues get empowered. Between and among stories he explores some of the many myths involving twins. Even considering the psychological aspects of mythology he suggests Freud and Jung as mythopoeic twins! Freud saw the sex-drive as prime motivator. Our childhood wishes could become an Oedipus complex, said he. Jung pronounced Freud’s work as incomplete. The “unconconsious” of Freud, he said, was incomplete and so he theorized the notion of a “collective unconscious,” made up of universal anthropomorphic forms, or Archetypes, such as Anima, Animus, Shadow, Wise Old Man, and Cosmic Mother. Mythology was fertile ground for both Freud and Jung. However, Eliot notes, we should be little wary of them:

“They were jealously ambitious mythmaker-poets, disguised as doctors in white tunics.”

He analyzes the Legend of Io who wandered as a cow/cow goddess. Zeus is callous, Hera cruel, and Prometheus obsessed. Zeus/Jupiter/Dzeus-pater likely came from conquering Indo-European tribes from the north and ruled the Mediterranean for over a millennium, possibly replacing goddess-based agricultural cults. The Hellenes, he notes, never developed hierarchical priesthoods like the Egyptians. Prometheus is a provocateur responsible for the fate of humans not unlike the biblical Eve, many have noted. Knowledge was the bane of both Eve and Prometheus. Eliot suggests that intellectual knowledge and ‘know-how’ splits the psyche by favoring intellect over instinct. 

By Roman times belief in the gods had changed form somewhat with different styles of belief. The emperor was seen as a divine king. Christianity grew in importance with its war between good and evil. By the Middle Ages to know was to know Latin and by the Renaissance knowledge of Greek and Greek knowledge was revived. 

He tells the story of Semele and Zeus, with Hera’s discovery of the tryst, the immolation of Semele, and the birth of Dionysus. He sees Zeus here as representing the patriarchal Dorian invaders, Semele as the agricultural goddess-based indigenous people, and Dionysus as the new, the bringer of wine which had both a maddening and civilizing affect. Perhaps coincidentally writing became widespread in Ancient Greece at the same time the Dionysian cults spread. As Nietzsche so eloquently put it, Dionysianism led to the arts of drama and tragedy and they did it, said Aristotle, ‘by inducing heavy doses of pity and terror. Dionysus is dangerous, says Eliot. Below he gives his own rendering of lines from Euripedes’ play Hippolytus:

Whatever far-off world exists
dearer to man than life itself
darkness keeps it in her arms
and shrouds it in a cloud.

No one has found a way beyond
What lies beneath is unrevealed
Adrift upon a glittering stream,
We sigh for some nameless thing.

It is perhaps simple acknowledgement of the frustrating yet intriguing nature of mystery itself and our longing for meaning.

Also coincident with the spread of Dionysian cults was a contrasting movement toward purely rational thought begun by the pre-Socratic philosophers, here called by Eliot, the ‘bold cosmologists.’ It was Thales who essentially said that the invention of deities was not necessary to explain nature. Thales is often seen as a founder of speculative science. His student Anaximander and Anaximander’s student Aniximenes continued this lineage of speculative science albeit with differing conclusions. Further in the lineage came Xenophanes who noted that the gods of different peoples always looked like their people. Next in line was the enigmatic Heraclitus who also disparaged the poet Hesiod. His declaration that “Everything is in flux, and nothing is at rest” predates the Buddha’s declaration that all that is composed is impermanent. Finally, there was Empedocles, who offered yet another version of reality. After him there would be Socrates, Plato, and the myriad offshoots of dialectic philosophical inquiry. This, says Eliot, is not only the beginning history of science, but also of scientific myth. By downplaying the relevance and importance of the gods and their stories they made a new paradigm, and new narrative, of speculative science with its corresponding stories.

He tells a story of Empedocles teaching in Athens when an 11-year old ‘brat’ named Socrates asks him a question. I am unsure if the story is from text, lore, or if Eliot spun it. He says that Nietzsche failed to appreciate the pre-Socratic philosophers, but then he quotes Nietzsche saying they are dangerous poets just as he is. Nietzsche did say that we have been molded, or even trapped by rational Greek thought. The Greek scientists like Euclid, Archimedes, Aristarchus, Hipparchus, Hippocrates, and Pythagoras seem to represent another branch of scientific myth, which Eliot acknowledges, is less evident to many than other forms of myth.

He tells the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. He sees it as representative of “the eternal conflict between the analytical and creative aspects of human consciousness.” Theseus is the analytical/objective aspect and the Minotaur is the creative/subjective aspect. Ariadne’s thread is the memory device that defies the forgetfulness magic of the labyrinth. Ariadne is the restorative element of the psyche. A healthy psyche has these two aspects in balance, says Eliot.

Next he muses about Cleopatra and the nexus of myth and history. At this time Roman aristocrats followed two main rival Hellenic philosophies: Epicureanism and Stoicism. Epicurus recommended a reclusive style of controlled hedonism while Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, recommended a hardcore style of introspection said to be derived from the real Socrates rather than the one from Plato’s dialogues. Cleopatra probably died a Stoic. Marcus Aureleus was a Stoic as were several of the early Christian martyrs. Eliot notes Jose Ortega y Gasset’s Prologue to a History of Philosophy, where he states the usefulness of philosophical pluralism:

“The impossibility of comprehending the whole universe from any single position justifies the existence of a variety of fundamental conceptions – which thus prove inevitable.”

Eliot thinks it is the same with the study of myth – that it can and should be approached and studied from multiple perspectives. He says that imaginative participation in reality is a necessity of nature.

Next he describes the nine-day recitation of the stories and songs of the Navaho Mountain Chant, an occasional ceremony for healing. In a key part of the ceremony two painted dancers appear to swallow their arrows but it is an illusion as the hollow shafts are simply telescoped together. However, the illusion can be effective for the person(s) being healed, to increase their belief and thus the placebo effect. Such techniques are fairly common in shamanistic societies. Deception thus can be used for ill or for good.

He explores the strong connection between art and myth, from Paleolithic cave paintings to Renaissance and later nostalgic depictions of classical mythology scenes. The Paleolithic artists, he thinks, were closely connected to the animal kingdom and were aided by visions of their art perhaps enhanced by flickering tallow-lamp firelight in the deep dark caves. The ability to depict in visual artistic form things that were idealized. Art could tell stories and art could heal. It need not be permanent, like the Navaho sand paintings. The Ancient Greeks document, describe, and praise the works of several great painters whose works did not survive. Zeuxis was one such painter and his depiction of centaurs with the torso and above as men and below the body of a horse was said to be so well done as to restore belief in their existence which had declined. It was the artist that had the ability to shape myth. He praises the sublime art of Michelangelo and notes that there is pagan-mythic esotericism within.

He tells a story of Perseus returned with wealth and his bride Andromeda and being summoned to King Dectes to explain, be stripped of his wealth, and punished. Having his basket with the head of Medusa the king’s court ends up turned to stone. Eliot calls Perseus the patron saint of poets. With the imaginative wings of Hermes, the inner invisibility helmet of Hades, and the mirroring shield of Athena, he found his heroic destiny. Here he quotes Socrates:

“The experience of poets is akin to that of seers and prophets, who offer many fine utterances without understanding a word of what they say!”

Socrates spoke of “ancient strife between philosophy and poetry” and sought the banishing of the Muse. Such rhetoric aided his own forced demise. Plato, from whom the stories of Socrates derive, thought that poets should be censored and re-interpreted by the philosophers. The Renaissance would oddly enough revive pagan myth and interpret it in Neoplatonic fashion. Says Eliot:

“Classical philosophical values are not what sparked the Renaissance. The resurgence of deathless poetic instinct did that.”

The mythic poets were Ovid, Hesiod, and Homer, with Virgil coming up a distant fourth, according to Eliot.

He tells a story of the famed Greek playwright Aeschylus:

 “What intrigues me most about Aeschylus is his ability to seize history in his right hand, legend in his left, and bring the two in concert. No poet, not even Shakespeare, has done that better.”

The early historians, Hecataeus of Miletus and Herodotus, began the process of untangling myth and legend from the study of the past (although Mircea Eliade demonstrates that it was both the Hebrews and their alphabetic writing - which was an unparalleled recording device - that really began the process).

He also mentions that the 300 B.C. Sicilian-Greek Euhemerus published a now lost history that asserted that myth is nothing more than natural history enhanced with legend through the mechanisms of oral re-tellings. We now know that this euhemerism is true of much of myth and legend. Euhemerist assumptions have also led to scientific discoveries such as the excavation of Troy and the migration paths of Native American tribes. He mentions the euhemerism of Robert Graves who favored historical and anthropological interpretations of myth over Jungian psychological interpretations. He also wrote of the White Goddess, of the goddess-based agricultural societies that the patriarchal Indo-European Zeus-based conquerers overran and replaced. Yet she is not dead but occasionally reappears as the muse of poets. Of course, one of the most emphatic classical depictions of this universal goddess of nature was provided by Lucius Apuleius’s comical story, The Golden Ass, where he as the protagonist penetrates the initiated mysteries of the goddess inadvertently and unbeknownst to others after being magically transformed into an ass.

Other aspects of myth are intertwined with the sky. Several classical mythic figures were transformed into constellations and astrological interpretations of myth abound in many cultures. Some can be quite fascinating and perhaps derive from the Hermetic axiom: as above, so below – an idea older than Hermeticism that is intuitive in some sense. The gods live on high mountains and in the heavens and we mirror what happens there in some sense.

This book is divided into four parts: 1) myth/truth or the mythosphere as actual (The House of Four Winds); 2) how myth works (The Labyrinthine Ways); the mysteries of myth-shaping (The World Reborn); and 4) morality and compassion (From Eternity to Here).

Eliot adds to Socrates’s famous quote – “the unexamined life is not worth living” by countering with “the unlived life is not worth examining.” Another scholar, Theodor Gomperz in 1896, said pretty much the same as Nietzsche, that we inherited our intellectual history from Greece. They themselves inherited ideas not only from the Dorian invaders and the indigenous people but also from Afro-Asiatic cultures: Egypt, Phoenicia, Persia, and Mesopotamia. Eliot notes that our cultural heritage is not bounded but global in scope.

He tells the story of Aesop and his accidental demise at the hands of the young Delphic oracle maiden Phemonoe. Aesop was around mid-6th century B.C. as were the pre-Socratics, and Pythagoras, Sappho, and the Thracian magician Salmoxis. Aesop is credited with ‘inventing’ the form of the fable. Later around the time of Jesus the Roman poet Phaedrus committed 150 fables to verse. In the 2nd century C.E. the Syrian Valerius Babrius also wrote these tales down. In the 15th century it was the British translator and publisher William Caxton who first rendered Aesop’s tales in English. Although they have since been approached as children’s literature the tales are enduring. Eliot compares them to the Jataka tales of the Buddha and the Islamic Turkish ‘Tales of the Hodja’ all three of which he says he read to his kids. Aesop’s tales explore social realities through fantasy, often with animal forms.

He observes that Chinese myth like Greek myth delights in irony. He thinks it is because both cultures were philosophically inclined. He tells the tale of the Jade Emperor’s mother, who fills in for him answering prayers but soon realizes that the prayers of some counteract and contradict the prayers of others. When he returns he teaches her to moderate and adjust the boons. He tells the story of Li Pin and his magic piglet and another story of lost love by the poet Po Chu-i. Both stories are about men who lived a year and a day married to the Dragon King’s beautiful daughter.

It was said that as Socrates waited in prison for his death he occupied himself by turning some of Aesop’s fables to verse. Plato’s Dialogues and the reminiscences of him from Xenophon are the only textual sources for Socrates life. Eliot tells of Socrates’ fascinating dream of his long dead lover Aspasia.

Eliot also spent a year practicing Zen meditation in Japan with teacher Maseo Abe. He asked his teacher what he thought of a statue replica of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ at the Kyoto Museum of Art. The teacher said teasingly “pursuing illusion.” Eliot considers the difference between noting thoughts without following them as in meditative contemplation and following trains of thought as in science and speculative philosophy. He considers that both are important although the East and West emphasize differently. He compares the philosophical stances of Plato and Chuang Tzu and throws in a story of Manu and Vishnu’s incarnation as a fish. Plato’s outlook was fueled by reason, Chuang Tzu’s by intuition.

He tells the story of Psyche and Eros and their daughter Concord – of how Psyche inadvertently drove away her lover and went to his mother Aphrodite for help. Aphrodite set tasks for her and Eros reunites with his love. Eros loves Psyche, the human soul and in the story she finds the courage and skill to complete the tasks.

The last story involves the Biblical story of God creating Adam in his image, as both male and female. He gives an explanation from The Zohar, by Moses de Leon, who says that a true holy image must be composed of a union of male and female elements.

Eliot tells the tales skillfully and yet concisely with a story teller’s flair. He is easy to read. He offers unusual ways to explore the uniqueness of myth. Delightful and thought-provoking book.

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