Telling Stories to Appreciate the Unusual: Diversity, Acceptance and Freedom through Mythology
Like many academics, I like to think that I can write. But, we know that writing is difficult - from trying to find that initial idea to following through until you had to edit a particular section that you were particularly attached to. Writing and editing are not for the faint-hearted which is why we see so many papers full of incoherent ramblings - a constant reminder that just because we know our stuff doesn’t always mean that we can write about it. But, I believe I am luckier than most, in that the materials for my writings have been available for thousands of years and all I need to do was to collect, analyse them a bit and then retell them.
Whenever people ask me what it is that I do, I say that I’m a mythographer. I am a person who collects myths as opposed to a mythologist who studies myths in details, because although I study myths, I’m never really interested in them as stand-alone stories. I prefer to get to know different legends, appreciate them for what they are and what they symbolize, then keep searching. Sometimes these researches that I do lead to discoveries where I feel like I get to see humanity at our best and love us for it. I get to admire our bravery, compassionate wisdom and our cake-making skill – Humanity has been making cheesecakes for centuries. Small cheesecakes were served to ancient Greek athletes during the first Olympic Games in 776 BC. Therefore, eat cheese-cake, respect the ancient arts.
I also get to look at some really weird creatures such as Hyppalectyon. it has the front body of a horse and the back part of a chicken. Even with my limited knowledge of anatomy I realize that this isn’t quite right. The word Hyppalectyon became a term of insult by ancient Greek playwrights such as Aeschylus and Aristophanes, and evidently a rather effective insult at that. I don’t blame them. If someone called me “chicken butt” I wouldn’t be too impressed either.
Mythography allows me more freedom. Instead of specializing on myths from particular regions, I feel that I’m allowed to be greedy and find as many stories as I can from anywhere in the world. I travel a lot, so myths and legends make my travel more exciting as I would hunt for museum, statues and ruins and figure out the stories behind them. Even a piece of rock is interesting - the Australian aboriginal tribes traditionally use rocks and rivers as their way of defining a point in time. This is a completely different way than what we are familiar with. Each Aboriginal tribe also uses their local landscape to make their myth its own. Specific points in the landscape then serve as visual reminders of the mythical characters and their actions, as well as important details of knowledge, validating the society’s ownership of the story.
Imagine, then, what stories contained in every tree or every river. Imagine them bearing fascinating stories in their different languages and customs. I realize, though, that drawing inspirations from nature is not everybody’s style - I favor statues and paintings myself and my visual artist brother draws his inspiration from people. He would sit for hours people-watching (in a completely non-creepy way, of course) and try to imagine their stories - and this works beautifully. My goodness, imagine how much one can learn just by looking at you! Imagine yourself as a point of an arrow, your parents standing side-by-side one step behind you, and their parents standing behind them, then the parents of your grandparents, and their parents, on an on. All these people would have had different skin tones, grown up in different places and listened to different stories. Then, all those experiences were passed down to you. Keeping that in mind, no one is insignificant when they have this massive tribe behind them, and no one is boring as they store in them millions of stories passed down through generations - they may not remember the stories, but they are there.
A culture's mythology is a powerful tool for psychology as it casts light on the culture's shared unconscious. There is no better way to understand a culture deeply than to know and appreciate its stories and dreams. Most of the symbols in our dreams are universal symbols whose meaning is invested in the stories they inhabit, and there are many who believe that these symbols and these stories are encoded in the very cells of our species' DNA. If you don’t believe me, then let me tell you this: the mythological symbol for immortality have not changed from the Neolithic period (stone age). They are the woman, the snake and the bird. There was a statue of the bird-serpent goddess from this period, and as time went on every culture from East to West accepted this symbol as a given. It was not until later that this symbol broke off into its three parts and the serpent became famous as immortal dragons and fairy tale antagonists. The immortal bird became known as the phoenix, and to this day we still recognize them and find their images to be somewhat comforting, because deep within us we remember them. Both creatures have been symbols of immortality for more than 10.000 years in just about every culture in the world.
When I was at school, my specialty was ancient religions. And that was what myths of gods and goddesses essentially were. Not many people like me to remind them of this, but every religion's stories are retellings of universal mythic themes. The Creation of the World, the first Man and Woman, Heaven and Earth, a great flood, stories of heroes and heroines, as well as birds and serpents. And in turn, they became the basis for literature. Myths were exchanged even before people create art, language or the written word. The Cave paintings at Lascaux and Alta Mira are about 30,000 years old and they were not even the oldest. People would have had stories that explained these paintings. Were they stick figures representing a bunch of men and bison? Was there a particular need to paint them? Were the paintings a form of prayer for their safety? Myths and symbols are the elementary particles of imagination and creativity. Jacques Barzun, a cultural historian, says that “what links myth with Literature is the Imagination.”
In fact, if I were to research a person, or create a character, the stories they relate to and their belief would be the first two things I would try to find out about them. Although other writers, most of them better writers than myself I’m sure, may prefer to find a character’s motivation first, the way I see it is this: if a girl wants to be a doctor, yet due to her environment or whatever reason she believes that she will never pass her exams, then it will be more likely that she won’t pass her exam and be a doctor. She would either let her disbelief rule her head and psych herself out or not do her exam at all, because the truth is, what you believe forms a big part of the world you live in. Much bigger than you think. We’ve seen many examples of how someone re-write the rules and change others perspectives. In the Italian animal grotto, the unicorn is placed in the middle of the “real” animals. In the chinese zodiac, the dragon were put in the same level as the other animals. No one was worried about the logic in these arrangements. Different realities can and do exist, and it really started from a belief. If you don’t believe in dragons, it is absolutely fine, but it is important to recognize that many other people we share this world with believe in them, and live with this reality. This is important to recognize as belief, or rather the acceptance of another culture or reality, becomes the base for many others.
Myths show and highlight every culture's similarities as it insists on each culture's uniqueness. In fact, in many places, it was pretty much how I get to know people. I love asking them “what is your favorite myth?” or “who’s the mythological character you relate to the most?” because sharing stories and legends promote tolerance and good-will and bring together those who love hearing, and telling, the stories - even if those stories are urban legends involving scary ladies in white on the side of the roads. The white lady is somewhat of a favorite scary story in Asia who, by the way, is an ancient character from Slavic mythology. Whatever the story is, when you exchange stories with others, you are light and happy, receptive to whatever differences you may find, and ready to be amazed at the similarities between your cultures. I truly believe that the acceptance we continually learn through telling stories will build a future that is great enough to accept and celebrate all of its old legends, and secure enough to help us tell a new and more inclusive legend, suitable to our times and to an even better future.
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