Myth, Legend and Culture: Part I

I’m going to take a short break from commenting on current events just because things are, at the moment, depressing. So, I offer up the following:

This is from a series of lectures I gave a few years ago to a class of 125 scientists and engineers in Oak Ridge, TN. Disclaimer: While I use more than a few religious references, such use is not meant to advocate for those religions or, for that matter, religion at all. Such references are important for religious myths and legends form a greater part of the structure of almost all historic cultures. It is a shame I have to use a disclaimer, but in today’s world such is the case.

Prospectus: Myth, Legend and Culture: A three lecture survey of myths and legends and their impact on past, current and future cultural changes.  The class will discuss several classic, and modern myths and legends from the perspective of origins, meanings, changes over time and impact on current and future societies. We will compare and contrast myths of faith, heroes and cultural practices while also exploring myths/legends that were constructed and propagated to cloak, shall we say sometimes silly or foolish but always ill-advised, endeavors.  Our goal is Truth and sometimes truth is unpleasant or at least uncomfortable, but when you unmask one myth you just may stumble upon another less known and more important one.









Old Wives’ tales


Right now, each of you are operating on a combination of these constructs.  Yes, constructs for each of these is a constructed artifact.  That is, they do not in and of themselves represent anything in the singular but rather are a gathering of ideas which are constructed into a larger ideal or concept. They shape your philosophy of life. They shape your perception for as many of you have heard me say repeatedly: Perspective is predicate to perception and perception determines action. These constructs are the very basis for the perspective you have on life and what happens day to day.  So, how does this happen?  And are we using truthful constructs or constructs that are based on fallacies and misconceptions. Some people have defined Myths as something you think is true but isn’t.  I take issue with that because I know plenty of myths that if deconstructed properly have a truth at their core.  That’s what we’re going to explore in our three seminars.

My goal for this class isn’t really to teach you anything.  It isn’t to show you how smart I am nor to wow you with information.  My goals are to show you that knowledge lies in our unconscious, that the truth is out there but that you often have to strip away layers of abstruseness that have been added, in some cases to protect the truth and in others to obfuscate it. It was Churchill who said, “The truth is protected by a bodyguard of lies” and in some cases he is correct. We are seekers of the truth and we mean to find it.  If, after the third session, you leave saying, “well there are some things I’ve been meaning to check out,” I’ll be happy and will think I have succeeded in my effort. 

            What is the purpose of myths, legends, parables, fables and so forth?  Well, they inform.  They inform us about history, about morals, about ethics, about the natural truths of the universe but sometimes they inform us of lies, conceit and misdirection.  They teach and set examples for us based on continued observations of human nature and natural events over time.  Legends tell us how we ought to act in adversity based, we are told, on the conduct of heroes and villains.  In most legends there is little room for ambivalence, no grey areas, just good and evil, right and wrong.  And from these legends we learn to face adversity, but we also learn cautionary tales of good gone bad, rot eating into the heartwood of a hero, the lust for power subjugating the desire to do good and we learn of that most often-used excuse for failure, rationalization.

            There are legends being created as we discuss these things, symbols of legendary conduct are being forged before our very eyes and ears.  Symbols that will cause an emotion in our inner being. Symbols, the desecration of which, will push us towards uncivil actions against the perpetrators of that desecration.  Myths, legends and symbols are the very basis of our moral and ethical codes and we will defend those codes with vigor. 

            We’re heading into turbulent air so cinch your seatbelts tighter and hold on to the arm rest and hopefully none of you had sloppy joes’ or any other greasy food for lunch.

            We’ve noted a few of the things myths, legends, fables and such have in common but there is one element they all share:  they must be communicated.  We’ve had myths and legends for as long as man has walked upright, and perhaps even longer, so how do we communicate these lessons and explanations one to another.  How did homo erectus communicate to his companions that he had discovered a herd of mastodons two valleys over?  It wasn’t, “I say old beans I’ve just glommed onto the fact there’s a herd of mastodons in the next valley plus one.  What say we grab our spears and make up a hunting party?  It’ll be jolly good fun, don’t you know.”  No, more than likely he acted out a mastodon and a point in the direction of the herd.  You see, over time the tribe would have accepted certain movements to indicate specific items.  The thrusting motion with a spear, the drinking motion with the hands cupped, the hunched back and arms held narrowly curved indicating tusks for mastodons.  These were accepted across the tribe and it’s how they communicated.  Sometimes they drew pictures but only when time was not of the essence.  Mostly pictures were drawn afterwards to create a record of the efforts of one or many.  Those seeing the pictures would understand what deed had been done by whomever had drawn the pictures. 

They had no numbers or even a concept of numbers so the arms wide in a circle would probably indicate many and so forth.  These were the basics of communication and the same holds true today.  That is:  to communicate you need, a sender, a receiver, a message, a mode and the most important, a common core of experience.  Here let me show you on the board.

The sender has a message they want to communicate to the receiver, they speak, draw, gesticulate, write, text, whatever.  The message is taken in by the receiver and, assuming there is a common core of experience between the two, the receiver understands the message.  If there is not a common core of experience, then the receiver will not understand the message.  They may, in fact, misunderstand the message.  Example, if you do not speak Russian and you encounter a Russian who is trying to tell you something, you will not understand.  If, on the other hand, he makes a gesture like pointing to a street and then crossing his hands back and forth you’ll more than likely understand that you shouldn’t go down that street.  You see you do have a common core of experience in basic sign language.  You and the Russian aren’t going to be able to enjoy a discussion of philosophy or for that matter even the weather, but they were able to communicate to you the dangers of a specific street.   The greater the common core of experience the more that can be shared.

            So, we went from sign language to pictures to spoken languages, but words are but simply symbols for ideas and things so how do we communicate when we want to describe something?  Words and expressions are fascinating, for example what is the origin of the word ravenous?  It’s a word based on observation over time.  The observation is that the bird, a raven, is an omnivore and will eat anything including hunting and killing small animals.  Thus, when you are so hungry you could eat anything, you’re ravenous. 

So, the words we pick to describe actions, nouns, attributes and so forth are based on observation over time and what is the most readily available artifice that we can observe? 

Ourselves and others.  So, when describing something we very often choose to describe it in terms of human attributes.  This is called anthropomorphizing or giving human attributes to non-human things. It allows for people to tell stories that are relatable because if we start talking about ideas and forces of nature that are unexplainable, we lose ourselves in a morass of unfamiliar words and concepts. Or, we are just mute.  It’s like a 21st century physicist attempting to explain the theory of relativity to a 13th century alchemist.  Even if they had a common language the alchemist has no ability to appreciate the advances in science and understanding of natural forces made in eight hundred years.  Consider a fable, that’s where animals take on human characteristics to tell a story that might otherwise be less likeable.  We make the animals human and build the story around them.  We have done this ever since we started trying to explain things.

            Now here’s where I make a statement that some of you will find heretical.  We are told that God created man in his own image.  We’re told that our fates are held in God’s hands and in the Hebrew Bible God can be quick to anger.  Hindu’s Vishnu can take on many forms and some of them have human attributes, but some also have animal attributes.  So too with the gods of Greece, Canaan, Philistine, and Egyptian will give you gods with both at the same time.  But the key is that whether it is human attributes or the attributes of animals these are discernible and observable things we as humans have experienced and understand. 

Thus, we know how to treat with and deal with the abilities being displayed.

  Perhaps then, it isn’t God who has made man in his own image but man who has described God in his own image.  We accord human attributes to God because that is our common core of experience for explaining things.  That is how we understand things. And yet even with a common core of experience we often remain confused to the exactness of the message because while we have cultural experiences that we are taught and observe as we grow, we also have individual experiences within that culture and these experiences can skew our ability to receive and understand message others are sending us.  Professor C.L. Stanley in his monograph History, Symbols and Revelations describes missing the message because of preconceived concepts that act as filters to incoming messages.  For example, Janice tells you, “I just bought a new car.  It’s the most delicious shade of red.”  You and Janice come from the same socio-economic background, your school experiences were similar, you have comparable jobs, but you grew up watching NASCAR and Janice did not.  Janice says red car and you think Dodge Charger while Janice actually bought a Ford Escape.  That’s a significant difference that could cause misinterpretations downline if left uncorrected. It demonstrates the need to understand, the need to delve deeper.  Once you understand that Janice is a Ford Escape instead of a Dodge Charger kind of person you will know a great deal more about her and be much more likely to understand when she tells you she bought a new car that is a delicious shade of red.

Have you ever played the party game telephone? We all gather in a circle and I tell you something, you tell the next person and so forth until it comes back around to me.  Each person passes on the message to the next and a word here and there gets changed.  Sometimes, depending upon the number of people in the circle the message that comes back to me is so changed that its original meaning has been lost.  That is what happens with myths, legends, and such.

Let’s go back to the claim that God made man in his own image.  Because we are human, we apply the anthropomorphism algorithm and assume God has hands and eyes and feet and is capable of anger, love, jealousy and other human emotions.  But what if the actual message is that God is composed of atoms, molecules, quarks and such.  Then we are made the same as God and the concept becomes easier to deal with, at least in a philosophical manner.  But early man did not yet have the ability to describe atoms, molecules and quarks so he chose hands, eyes and fingers.  

And talking of God, let’s take on creation.  Every culture that has lasted longer than a few years has a creation story.  Notice I didn’t call them a myth because there is a prejudice throughout our culture that myths are not true.  That they are stories created to give a human understandable explanation that taken at its literal does little to explain the otherwise unexplainable when, in fact, they may well be stories that actually explain the unexplainable, but we don’t take the time to strip away the layers of the myth that have been added from generation to generation, more on that later. As I noted being made in God’s image does not necessarily mean that God possesses human attributes although it is the easiest method for man to explain God to other men. 

As I said every civilization has a creation story and many of them involve the breaking up of a primal unity and that’s the key word, primal.  When we strip away the anthropomorphism and attribute not human but physical forces to the actors of these stories, we discover that ancients already understood how the universe was created but they had no words or pictures to communicate it.  Take for example the Egyptian Heliopolis creation story.  It involves the first God Atum aka Ra being spontaneously generated out of an undifferentiated sea and Atum generates Shu and Tefnut who mate and produce Geb and Nut who lie together so closely there is no room for children to grow.  Atum orders them separated and Shu with great force splits them apart forming sky and earth. 

Another singularity being split is the almost four-thousand-year-old story of Marduk and Tiamat.  The key here is to deconstruct the myths by removing the anthropomorphic gods from the equation and the human like actions involved and look at the underlying facts upon which the story is constructed.  In each case you will discover that an outside entity of force acts upon a singularity comprised of opposing elements.  Male and female in the myths, perhaps Matter, anti-matter, in truth.  In both stories, energy forces the opposites apart with one becoming the sky and the other earth.  It wasn’t until 1938 that the big bang theory was proposed, but if you go through any number of creation myths you’ll discover the elements of that event if you remove the humanly attributed gods and actions used to relate the story. 

This is true with any number of ancient stories.  Let’s consider the flood stories.  Like the creation myths almost every ancient civilization has a flood story.  Flood stories also help us connect different cultures with older more remote cultures. In other words, we look for similarities between stories and they show how a more modern culture has grown from others before it.  For example, every North American Indian tribe has a flood story.  Crees, Algonquins, Cherokees, even the plains Indians.  They vary over generations in their details but by deconstructing the generationally and geographically dictated add-ons the similarities are striking not just to one another but to the Babylonian, Hebrew, Sumerian, Russian, East Asian and South American tribal stories.  The elements are: the people have upset the god or gods with their behavior and a flood is sent to destroy them.  Only the most righteous survive, and the human race begins again with promises to adhere strictly to the requirements of the god/gods so that no catastrophe is again necessary.  The keys to this myth are the behavior of the people, the flood and the aftermath.  Those are where the greatest similarities arise.  So, then how is it that in the days when there was very little communication between communities and even less between continents that we have a world-wide myth of a great flood resulting from the sinning against the gods and the survival of the righteous.  Was it aliens, was it some traveling prophet of whom we have lost the history, or perhaps floods happened in many of the ancient civilizations independently.  But then how do you accommodate the similarity of the causes of the flood and the aftermath.  I don’t have the answer.  Like the creation myths perhaps there is an underlying truth responsible for the stories.  I certainly find it intriguing that we have similar stories that exist all over the world but then I also find it intriguing how very like the pyramids of Central America are the step pyramids of ancient Egypt.

So, myths may contain truths that are obscured to modern interpretation by the addition of details throughout the centuries or even millennia that are expressed in human terms which makes modern man dismissive that any such gods with human abilities could exist.  And yet the myths persist.  Why?

Well, one reason is the human need for order.  Myths bring order out of chaos, they tell us why something happens.  They explain that often because these happenings are the result of actions by gods that the events are outside our control.  That is, originally many of these myths did that but then people realized that if the myths contained elements wherein the actions of the people towards the gods may have brought about the actions by the gods then placating those gods would end the events.  Or so the followers were told by the priests. Then myths that were originally told to explain became religious tools used by a class of people to control others.  The priestly class wielded ultimate control in many cultures until the rise of nationalism in the West and even then, religious leaders continued to exercise tremendous influence.  Take as an example Henry VIII:  He realized that he was not truly the King of the English because all his subjects were under the religious control of the Pope in Rome who exercised that control through Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, Priests, Friars, and Nuns.  All the properties of the Church were owned by the Pope and not Henry.  Henry was the defender of the faith but he too, in that capacity was under the control of the Pope.  Thus, to truly be King he had to sever the ties with the Church in Rome and that is what he did.  He also appropriated the properties and the wealth of the Roman Church dissolving the monasteries, friaries, and convents of the Papal Church.  And Parliament lent a hand with the Act of Supremacy which made the King head of the church in England.  Now there was still the ability of the religious to control the population through tradition, myth, dogma and such but the head of the Church was secular.  As in the Reformation, the Roman Church was challenged and lost, but new religious orders grew out of the old each interpreting the stories of the church and the Hebrew Bible just a little differently and since each new church was in a language other than Latin the words meant something just a little bit different.  This was especially true in languages where the same word carried different meanings according to the context in which it was used.

This is very important for how we understand many myths today is predicated upon multiple translations from language to language, culture to culture and religious group to religious group.  For example: How many gods are there?

One you say, but what are the first and second of the Ten Commandments?

And God spake all these words, saying,

I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;

And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.

These are the same translated directly from the Hebrew Torah.  Thus, there are other gods, it says so right there in the Ten Commandments.  God doesn’t say I’m the only god, God says you shall have no other gods before me and then goes on to explain that God is a jealous God.  Now jealousy is decidedly a human attribute isn’t it, but it is a trait with which all gods seem to be imbued whether they are Hebraic, Babylonian, Greek, Roman, Mayan, or Manichean.  With the exception of Buddhism, albeit the regression of incarnations could be seen as a punishment, and Baha’ism most concepts of God have a component of jealousy and correctness of way.  So, have you been understanding your religion properly? Words are important.  The origin of those words more important and the idea those words are supposed to convey most important.  Too often we misinterpret the message, or the message is garbled in the telephone game like passing of the message from generation to generation.  For example: the sixth commandment in the King James Version of the Bible, the bible from which most modern translations are made, says “Thou shalt not kill.”  In the most original of the Hebraic Torahs that can be found the commandment says, “You will do no murder.”  Now to a modern American or even a 17thcentury Englishman there seems to be no difference in the word change but there is a significant difference to a 4th BC century Jew or a 1st century Christian.  Kill and murder are two entirely different acts.  You do not murder an animal, you kill it.  You do not murder an apostate, you kill them.  You do not murder a foreigner, you kill them.  If you kill a member of your tribe or religion, then you have done murder.  Thus, the admonition is not to kill other Jews and that is an admonition of great practicality when you’re trying to increase your population such as to become a great people.

Yet, we have taken the admonition from a mistranslated word and believe that Yahweh has instructed us not to kill.  Were that so how then could he command the Israelites to enter Canaan and kill all its inhabitants (command in Deuteronomy and actions in Joshua).  If you understand the difference in the concepts of the words, there is no ambiguity in the texts.  If you cleave to the literal as interpreted by the brain of a 21st century person you are left trying to explain a whole host of abstruse and contradictory events.  Like with everything in history you must be able to look at something from the perspective of an individual in the time in which the event, text, speech, etc occurs.

Now I’ve used the Torah and the Bible enough although I will say that if you cannot understand the second millennium B.C. and try to apply Deuteronomy and Leviticus literally to the 21st century you should be foggy-headed from your attempt to explain; and lots of people are going to experience frustration and pain because of those failed attempts to justify the behavior of a nomadic race that existed three thousand years ago to how we should conduct ourselves today.   

That said let me jump to a fable wherein the meaning is ofttimes misinterpreted because people do not deconstruct the story.  So, we have this race between a tortoise and a hare.  Everybody knows the story, so I won’t retell it.  The tortoise wins, and we tell our children that the victory was due to the perseverance of the tortoise in the race.  Thus, we propagate the myth that dogged (to mix a fable metaphor) pursuit and faithfulness to task will win.  But we forget in the story that the Hare is lazy and easily distracted.  It is over confident in its own abilities and becomes the loser because of deficiencies in character.  But what if the Hare isn’t lazy or over confident?  The tortoise cannot win.  Thus, the situation demands that the hare be substandard, and this isn’t what you’re necessarily going to find in the world.  The fable is a story constructed to push plodders along, but it does so in an untruthful manner.  Yet, it has become a foundation in our canon of educational aids and a beloved story that teaches our children an incorrect lesson.

There are many fables and legends that have as their core a truism in a fact, event or idea but which have become so embellished over the years as to become completely different stories.  Sometimes this is just through the generational telephone effect but sometimes it is through a need or desire to use the story to propagate misinformation for some reason.  

Early in the history of Rome there were competing stories about how Rome was founded.  One had the Trojan prince Aeneas escaping to the peninsula and through a series of battles earning the chance to integrate with the indigenous population and in doing so founded the dynasty out of which the twins Romulus and Remus came, and it was Romulus who founded Rome.  A competing story was that Romos the son of Odysseus and Circe founded the city and thus the empire.  These two stories had pretty much equal acceptance until Rome began to compete with the Greeks for dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean and being descended from Greeks didn’t seem like a good idea, so the story of the Trojan Aeneas became the official legend of the founding of Rome.  Some have pointed to this as laying the foundation for the ultimate end of the Trojan war for Romans, now descended from Trojans, would conquer Greece.  Makes a nice story doesn’t it.  So, the myth of the founding of Rome was adapted for political reasons and it is the official history of the Roman Empire and the city of Rome till this day. As an aside and just a little bit of trivia, the first King of Rome was Romulus and the last emperor of Rome was Romulus.  The first Romulus knew that he was the first king, but the last Romulus did not know he was the last emperor. 

Parts II and III in a few days.

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