REWRITING MYTHS, REIMAGINING TRUTH
Updated: Sep 16, 2020
When we treat recorded history as 'true' and myths as 'fictional', are we missing the opportunity to discover a deeper level of truth, overlooked by imperial historians?
Who Writes the Past? The `He'-ro and 'His'-Story
We capture only fragments of who we are, and we inherit only fragments of who our ancestors were. The parts that have survived in writing – when where they written? Where were they written? Why were they written? How did the when, where and why influence the ‘what’ that was written? How does the ‘what’ shape our image of the ‘who’?
After so many centuries of translation and retranslation and re-retranslation of ancient stories, how certain are we that we understand what was written, and what it would have meant to the writers and their contemporary audiences?
How much has been lost in translation? How much has been edited out – or edited in? What decisions and events determined which writings were preserved and which destroyed? How would our views change if we could read those lost pages?
There are other questions to be asked, deeper even than these. We have been schooled to understand history as incontrovertible Truth. This is the He-ro, and this is His-story, the story of the great things that He did.
He ‘defeated the enemy’, whether the enemy was a beast, a person, a clan, a tribe, an army, an unjust law, an erroneous belief, or death itself.
He ‘discovered’ a place (let’s all ignore the fact that it was already inhabited by humans for tens or hundreds of millennia) and ruled over it.
He created something that would endure for centuries: a book, a play, a painting, a technology, an ideology, a building, a nation, a cult.
This is history, and all other stories are myth.
What, then, is myth?
Ourstories and theirstories; herstories and heresies
Myth is comprised of the stories that are dismissed: the myriad tales that don’t fit the narrative sustained by the great He-ro and his heirs.
Myth is seen to be at odds with Truth, or, at best, to lack credible evidence to back up its claims.
Myth is what ‘they believe’ (often the same they whose existence was overlooked when places were ‘discovered’), with the word believe usually spoken in a dismissive or patronising tone. It might occasionally find its way into the Additional Reading list, to be glanced at by the occasional scholar who strives for an A* grade; but it rarely, if ever, finds a place in the mandatory curriculum.
Myth is herstories, theirstories, xyrstories, ourstories, mystories. Mysteries.
One of the greatest unmourned losses of the West is the massacre of the myth-makers. Among those murdered by the so-called Heroes of History were those who told Otherstories, unofficial and unauthorised stories that didn’t fit the mainstream narrative: those who spelled out sacred mysteries to the chosen few, in the firelight.
To name but a few, they included the bards, Druids, Cathars, Templars, midwives, oracles, shamans, shamankas, medicine people, healers, priestesses, awenydd (a Welsh word meaning ‘soul-keepers’ or ‘guardians of the flowing stream of inspiration’) and witches (derived from a Saxon word meaning ‘wise women').
In particular, during the centuries of Inquisition, there was no longer a place at the table for the Divine Feminine, the Goddess, the Daughter of Goddess, the Lady Christ… Herstories became heresies, and heretics became martyrs. While some stories survived the Burning Times, the circle of those who were blessed to hear them grew smaller with every generation.
The power of myth: crossing boundaries, dissolving binaries
Its non-reliance on written ‘proof’ allows it to slip in and out of the realms of the visible, audible and tangible, sometimes unnoticed. It dissolves the imagined boundaries between spirit (or energy) and matter, male and female, human and animal, earth and earth-dweller, inner worlds and outer worlds: its language is one of fluidity, of shape-shifting, of deep mysteries beyond our understanding.
Where history speaks the language of ‘either this or that’ (winner or loser, slave or free, conqueror or conquered, hero or villain, angel or devil, true believer or infidel), the logic of myth encompasses not only ‘both this and that’, but the entire visible and invisible spectrum.
With the disappearance of our mythologies, and the devaluing of the gift of myth-making, we have lost something unutterably precious: our ability to imagine, and hence to become, Both-and-neither-and-more.
Even as theoretical physicists begin to rediscover the quantum unpredictability of the universe, dreaming up new myths of imaginary cats that are simultaneously dead and alive, our education systems still force us into binaries: Girl or boy? Right or wrong? Pass or fail? Arts or Sciences? Churches take up the same refrain: Saved or lost? Heaven or hell? Believer or unbeliever?
And meanwhile, those of us who dare to cross back and forth over these lines or attempt to blur them, to ask the forbidden questions or study the taboo subjects or associate with the irrational, still risk public ridicule and our professional reputations. Even to hint at the possibility of a Both-and-neither-and-more - an ‘included middle’ between apparent opposites, or a reality that transcends existing categories - makes some scholars uneasy.
Are myths 'true' - and does it matter?
We cannot judge myth-makers by the same criteria as scientists, archaeologists, or even conventional historians. We may well ask if a myth is ‘a true story’, but to seek for some objectively verifiable truth in relation to events that happened hundreds or thousands of years ago is absurd.
Even if you were to select twenty eyewitnesses to a fight that happened yesterday, and ask them to write an account of it, some details would still differ between accounts. The descriptions of the fight would vary depending on where each witness was at the time, how well they were able to see and hear what was going on, how well they understood the language being spoken by the fighters, and whether or not they had memory problems. Differences might also creep in because of their own prejudices, biases, relevant past traumas, and their respective relationships to the fighters.
What makes a myth important, then, is not whether it is objectively true but whether it ‘rings true’ for the listener. Does it tell you something about yourself? Does it make sense of something, even on a symbolic level rather than a literal one? Does it help to build community, create shared understanding, and set people alight with love and enthusiasm? Or does it just reinforce feelings of division, revulsion, fear, shame and guilt?
There are too many myths in Western society that are more harmful than helpful. One all-too-familiar one is the myth of a British Empire on which the sun never sets: the white saviours with their Bibles, bringing ‘salvation’ and ‘civilisation’ to the ‘natives’ through their tales of a death-defying white Jesus.
Another has become known as the ‘American Dream’, although it’s familiar all over the world: start with the determination to pull yourself out of poverty, work hard, get an education, work harder, earn money, work even harder, earn more money, buy a house, work harder still, become extremely wealthy, and finally gain respect.
A third myth is that non-conformity is to be feared, and that if a person stands out from the crowd – whether by virtue of their clothes, their hair, their body shape, their ways of thinking or moving or speaking, or something as far beyond their control as the amount of melanin in their skin – they deserve to be shamed and ostracised.
Perhaps most dangerous of all, in terms of human survival, is the myth that economic growth is the sole measure of a country’s success - and must therefore be prioritised over the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink.
If the human species is to have any hope of survival, we need to recognise these lethal myths for what they are: stories that we have been telling ourselves for generations. Are they factually true? Perhaps some of them are, for a tiny minority of people. But do they ring true?