Today, I start a new chapter in the textbook (Introduction to Poetry, 7th Ed., X.J. Kennedy). “Myth”. Myth can be a controversial subject as it delves into the intimate and touchy subject of religion and religious beliefs. Perhaps I don’t believe that Zeus still walks among us and judges our actions, but there may be people in Greece who still take this to be a matter of fact.
Like Symbol (conventional symbols), Myth is a shared cultural belief. It is different in that Myths are stories, not just objects. These stories are used to explain poorly understood natural phenomena, to remember traditional customs and the great heroes of that culture, but most of all to understand humanity’s connection to the divine. The textbook defines it as just the stories of the gods, but I think that that is an oversimplification (though not inaccurate).
Whenever Myth is discussed in a literary context, the discussion always veers to why myths exist. No one actually knows exactly why humans felt the need to create them. Some say that it was an explanation of natural phenomena. And when you see myths from Africa titled “Why We See Ants Carrying Bundles As Big As Themselves” or Native American tales “Why Rabbit Has No Tale”, or the story of how Fenris the Wolf in Scandinavian tales swallows the moon every month (very slowly), or even in the bible how the snake lost it’s legs, I can see how that theory would hold water.
Other theories state that myth served a function in ancient cultures to record what needed to be remembered. And how can you forget a burning bush, a Trojan horse, a bird made of fire and lightening, an all-wise 50 foot dragon, or el chupacabra! These stories might have been used, as one of my professors put it, to not have to reinvent the wheel. There are bits from the Iliad that take you out of the story, long detailed bits of telling the proper way to suit up into armor, the proper way to carry a shield into battle, things that seem a little too obsessed with detail. In an oral culture, those obsessive details are the difference between a soldier that will survive battle and one that won’t (I can just see the soldier using his poetic mnemonic, that bit of the Iliad the spoke of proper armor application, as he suits up before battle much like a guy reciting the tie rhyme to remember how to properly execute a Windsor knot).
They also served as a warning of what not to do or who not to be. The tales of the trickster gods getting themselves into trouble showed what cultural norms needed to followed. Some tales warned about specific things not to do. I can remember reading about Jenny Greenteeth, an evil river fairy that dragged children into the river and drowned them, or Baba Yaga who kidnapped children who wandered through the woods. I believe that it was the wisdom of the ancients who understood that children will never do what they’re told, but a story can keep them from accidentally drowning in the river or getting lost in the woods. Sometimes a story was all that stood between a happy healthy child and a dead one. I still remember the story my mother told me of the little girl who played with matches in her frilly lace dress, accidentally lit herself on fire and was forever maimed. My mother told this terrifying story with such vivid detail that you can bet I didn’t touch a match until I was sixteen and even then it was with reservation (I’m still extremely careful with fire). Had she simply said, “don’t touch matches” it would have only peaked my curiosity and I would’ve been drawn to that forbidden thing like a… well, like a moth the flame. So, stories serve an important function as a transmission of culture, as an instruction manual of what to do or what not to do, as remembrance of something important and impactful.
Myths serve as a part of a culture’s identity as a part of a people’s heritage. Yes, we are the ones who come from King Arthur or Cuchulain, we are the people of Sun, Paul Bunyan’s folk or even George Washington (and, yes, America has a large number of myths ascribed to the American Presidents). This hits yet another theory as to why myths exist, to remember the lives of the heroes of their culture. Some claim that the ancient Greek Gods were real people whose accomplishments were greatly embellished. And when you read them, it sounds quite plausible. I believe they did. They were still great people before they were embellished, but their image became a symbol for bigger things and these symbols served people in helping them to make sense of their lives, to help them to understand the bigger picture.
But the big question in all this is, do myths still serve a purpose? We have writing, so we don’t need a story to remember important details or important people. We have science to explain how natural phenomena work. Religion seems to fill the niche for those who need a connection to the divine. But I feel as if there’s nothing else that replaces that transmission of culture and cultural identity. Myths say this is who we are as a people, this is what we accomplished, this is what we want to remember.
In a way, I believe they also help to make sense of the universe. We don’t take them literally, but there is a secret knowledge of how things are of why things work the way they do that no other form can explain. Who knew the human heart better than the ancient Greeks? Even today, I read their myths, nod and say, “that’s so true!” Pandora will always open that box, Hera will always strike at the woman Zeus had slept with, Icarus will always fly too close to the sun because he can and innocent Persephone will always be tricked into eating the pomegranate seeds that bind her to the Underworld and her mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, will always mourn and cause the world to whither when her daughter goes for her obligatory journey to the Underworld for three months (she ate three seeds) and for it to revive when she returns.
The textbook states that poets use myths (originally the tellers of the myths) to use a shared cultural story that the audience understands so that they don’t need to explain the context of the image they’ve chosen; it’s already known. But I think that myths are so rich, so filled with emotion and cultural context that that they serve a higher purpose. I think that they are able to take the poem to a higher level, and as an homage to the culture that brought them into being, sometimes as a way to protest something broken in that culture (I’ll never forget the image of Odin in Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently novel as he gave up on life outside the comfort of the crisp, clean sheets of his hospital bed). What good do myths do? The most important purpose of all, they give your story or poem significance beyond your own experiences – they connect you to something bigger than yourself.
by D.H. Lawrence
Not every man had gentians in his house
in soft September, at slow, sad Michaelmas.
Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the daytime, torch-like, torch-like with the smoking blueness of Pluto’s gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto’s dark-blue daze,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter’s pale lamps give off light,
lead me then, lead the way.
Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower
down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness
even where Persephone goes, just now, form the frosted September
to the sightless realm where darkness is awake upon the dark
and where Persephone goes, just now, from frosted September
to the sightless realm where darkness is awake upon the dark
and Persephone herself is but a voice
or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom,
among the splendor of torches of darkness, shedding darkness on the
lost bride and her groom.
Gentians are the flowers pictured above. Pluto is the god of the Underworld, or where you go when you die. He abducted Persephone and tried to feed her a feast, but Persephone remembered her mother’s advice to eat nothing, for anything eaten there binds you there forever. But she got very hungry and didn’t see the harm in eating three pomegranate seeds. Pluto married Persephone which made her a permanent fixture in the Underworld, but Demeter, her mother, the goddess of the crop and plant life, was so stricken with grief that she caused the worth to wither and would not let it revive until she saw her daughter again. The gods could not allow this, so they forced Pluto to allow Persephone to visit her mother six months out of the year, but always had to go back for three. When she went away, the world withered and when she returned the world sprang back into life and this was the explanation for the change in seasons. I think that it’s interesting that Bavarian Gentians are plant that remind the poet not of the goddess Demeter (for whom they grow), but of Pluto, the god of death? I wonder what makes them seem so deathlike to him and I wonder why they make him feel as if he too is taking a journey to the Underworld?