Beliefnet
A Pagan's Blog

I have been
struggling with better understanding what Karen Armstrong calls mythos in her book The Battle for Godon religious fundamentalism worldwide. 
I think it is essential towards developing a deeper appreciation of what
Pagan spirituality brings to the spiritual table, among many other things.
Pagan spirituality is filled with myths, and is I think an essential part of
our spirituality, one in many ways barely rediscovered.


Armstrong
contrasts mythos to logos, arguing the “fundamentalisms” are quite modern in
rejecting myth in favor of literalistic understandings of scriptures, as modern
as science.  Because they argue on
the same turf, they are incompatible, and because the fundamentalisms have
chosen to argue on science’s turf, they get the worse of the encounter, and
hence fall back on irrationality and, when they have the power, violence.  I think she is profoundly right on
this. Fundamentalism is the religious version of secular nihilism.

That said, how do
we regain an appreciation of mythos as a
means of knowing?

Myth is about the
interior meaning of things, particularly their meaning within the largest
context of meaning.  Read from the
outside myths are fanciful stories reflecting the times and cultures where they
arose.  But this misses their essence,
like analyzing a book by reflecting on its cover design.

Geologist and
evolutionary biologist Geerat Vermeij in The Evolutionary World starts us off.   Blind since the age of four, Vermeij
used a different set of senses to make important contributions to his field,
along the way writing over 200 papers and five books.  I learned a lot from his fine book.  Describing his experiences on two islands, one in Panama and
the other in Puget Sound, he writes

Reading about a
place is by necessity a sequential act, filtered through someone else’s
sensibilities.  On one page we
might read about trees; on another there is a vivid description of the termites
or the frogs or the birds.  Being
in the forest one experiences everything at once, and one notices things that
others overlooked or considered too trivial to mention.   Shapes, sounds, smells, and
weather come together to offer the prepared mind an emergent conception of the
whole.  The forest is like a city .
. . whose living parts . . . interact with one another and with their inanimate
surroundings to create an integrated structure with properties none of the
constituents possesses. . . . As I observe the whole . . . comparisons run
through my mind, not gradually or serially, but as multidimensional, disordered,
yet memorable thoughts.  My task as
a scientific natural historian is to make sense of all this sensory and mental
ferment. (167)

Vermeij is
describing wonderfully well the difference between direct encounter and the
logocentric approach to communicating facts and insights about that encounter.
But Vermeij’s description deals with a certain kind of surface.  That is, what is communicated
scientifically deals with what can be impersonally observed, measured,
predicted, or experimented on.  It
deals with objects and their mutual relations as objects.  To do this he has to separate out from
the initial experience he described so well what is scientifically interesting.
The emotional impact of the whole is not communicated.

Modern poetry
focuses on meaning as perceived by the poet, the world created by the poet’s
subjectivity. It uses parts of the experience, say of being in a forest that
Vermeij describes, in order to carry us just-beyond-what-words-can-say that the
poet is taking us to.  A poem is
more than its literal meaning, given from the poet’s point of view, or at most
a human point of view as translated through the poet. Poems are personal. Myths
are not.

The bounds between
poetry and myth are porous, and a poet like Robinson Jeffers  or J. L. Stanley, can straddle that line. But in our world today these efforts are considered
poetry and only poetry.

Myth seeks to
describe the meaning from the standpoint of the world in which the poet/myth
teller lives. As such it seeks to connect us with something that cannot be communicated in a narrative, and yet must
use narrative to do so. Like ritual, myth
seeks to cross the border between this world and others.  It seeks to connect us with the meaning
of the world from the world’s point of view, which means myth assumes the world
has a point of view.  This world is
animate, it has interiority. And as such we enter into better or worse relationships
with it.  Myth seeks to help us
ensure those relationships are good ones, ones appropriate for us as human
beings in a more-than-human world.

Myth Today

Most of us have
had at least a sense of being immersed in patterns of meaning of which we can
only grasp a part.  In that sense
the world myth seeks to help us encounter is not so very far away.  But at the same time we have forgotten
how to take our encounters seriously as a society, and so usually stick them
away in very private recesses of our mind as special, or dismiss them as “mere
subjectivity.”

I have been
reading and relishing Pieces of White Shell: A Journey to Navajoland, by Terry Tempest Williams.  Not one of her newer works, I had discovered it while browsing a bookstore in
Moab this past November.  In it she
described an event at her grandmother’s Christmas celebration in Utah.  The family tree is ornamented with
decorations that tell the story of her family’s life, new ones being added
every year honoring grandchildren and major events. As the years passed the
tree and its ornaments became a history of the family.

In 1982 as her
grandmother began reciting the story of the tree beginning with the observation
“You see, this tree is alive….”  As
she continued Williams heard the sound of wings.  She mentioned it, but no one else heard.  Her grandmother picked up her
narrative: “So you see why we think this tree is alive – (7)

Williams writes

Just then a small
bird flew down the chimney, through the flames of the fire, and onto a branch
of the tree.  It was a weaver
finch.  No one could speak.  A living ornament.  He stood on the bough as though it were
his favorite perch in the forest. 
He then circled the tree three times, flew over to a corner of the
living room, hit the copper chimes, and landed back underneath the tree with
all the animals.

Williams coaxed
the bird into her hands.  He was
unharmed by the fire.  “The next
thing I remember is crouching barefoot in the snow with the finch underneath a
yew bush.  I waited for some time
softly speaking to the little bird. 
And then he flew.  The night
was crystalline.  As I walked back
into the warm house, my grandmother out her arms around me as my grandfather
quietly said, “The story’s been written.” (7-8)

Towards the end of
her book Williams returned again to this account.

The land holds
stories. We can learn the stories natural history has to teach and marvel as a
child over its simple design.  We
can begin walking, trusting our own experience and thinking about all the
imagination can bring.  It is here
that a small bird can land on a Christmas tree with a fire burning.  It disappears and we are left holding a
feather.” (136-7)

The skeptic will
simply say a bird got confused, flew down a chimney, landed in a Christmas
tree, bumped into a chime, was stunned, taken out of doors, and flew away.  End of story.  Williams is wiser. 

This event fit
perfectly
into a context of meanings the
family inside was experiencing together, and it added to those meanings in ways
hard to put into words, but evoked by the story.  It demonstrated and strengthened for those present a
relationship between the human world and the more-than-human world.  Williams writes “Oral tradition reminds
one of community and community in the Native American sense encompasses all
life-forms: people, land, creatures.” (135) So does community in any mythic
sense, where we are immersed in webs of relationships and meaning.  Williams then quotes another writer I
admire, Barry Lopez,   “The correspondence between the interior landscape and
exterior landscape is story.”

With this we enter
the realm of myth, a personal myth, a myth for a family such as Williams’, or
for a tribe or even for a civilization. 
It is where we find meaning in the mundane as well as an opening to the
Sacred. It is the cure for nihilism, both religious and secular.

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