Myth Miscellany

So I’ve been thinking about why I love myths (and legends) so much. I’ve tried to write a few posts and they all suck Gibraltar through a bar straw. That’s mostly because I’m not good at writing essays and such, but more because I have so many thoughts and feelings about them, it all kind of mish-mashes into stupidity. But I do want to talk about them, in general and specific, so I figured the most sane thing to do is just post a list of sorts.

 

One of the things that irks me is when I hear people interchanging “myth” and “legend”, like they’re the same thing. I’m no anthropologist or anything, but there’s a real basic difference in the societal function of a myth and the societal function of a legend.

A myth explains something found in Nature that the society doesn’t have an explanation for. Things like, why one season is so cold and you can’t grow anything during it. Or the bones that are bigger than a man, with skulls with odd holes in them or horns unlike anything living that we’ve seen. Or places where people either get visions or drop dead. Or lightning striking down from the heavens, sometimes breaking the frozen winter ground or burning down an orchard or someone’s building. There were no explanations in anything they knew, so it had to be gods and monsters. Gods and monsters made sense. Anger a god and get struck by lightning. Go there and it was the passage to the Underworld and you wouldn’t come back.

A legend is about people, probably historical people, whose lives either teach a lesson or, perhaps, promises hope. Hercules tries to lead a good life, but is tricked into doing a terribly wicked thing and then must pay penance for it. There’s several good lessons in there. Arthur united England, succumbed to a temptation that ultimately destroyed him, yet is said to be sleeping, ready to come to England’s aid when she most needs him.

Then there’s also folklore and fairy tales, which seems to mix and match the both myth and legend, using supernatural creatures to teach the moral lessons that society values. Things like: be good, don’t wander away, don’t travel at night, be wary of strangers being overly nice–practical, life-saving lessons.

 

These stories have always been fascinating to me for many reasons.

They have a sense of wonder, of “WTF?!?” that, as a child, I so wanted to be a part of. I look at myths, and I relate to them. Even more, it gives me a glimpse into their lives, into how their minds worked, what was important to them. It wasn’t just a monster, it was a centaur, which was a wise and fierce creature whom, if you could befriend it, would share knowledge beyond Man’s grasp with you. It wasn’t just a monster, it was a Sphinx that demanded answers to impossible riddles and would slay you for it. A field of dinosaur bones had to have been a battlefield of giants, but the only thing to slay giants were gods.

That is just so COOL. No science to explain away the wonder.

Mind you, science can be cool too. It’s often mind-boggling to me–I seriously do not understand where most of what’s known by science comes from–but I appreciate some of the by-products of it (computers and the internet, big time), but it makes my eyes glaze over when people try to explain it. I don’t get it. I get wonder. I get monsters, gods, heroes and demons. I get that Mankind cannot have all the answers. Even more, I’m not sure that Mankind should have all the answers. I hope we never run out of questions to seek answers for, even though it seems science wants nothing more than to do just that.

 

People created stories that made what they experienced and found make sense. They told stories that demonstrated why some things were better and some things were bad, to remind themselves of their place in the world when they weren’t really in control. They communicated their hopes, their fears, their quests and desires in these stories. Myths, legends, folklore seem to me to contain the essence of what it is to be a human being, trying to live in an unpredictable, uncontrollable world and an oft-times puzzles, ever-changing society. Stories changed as people changed, as people learned, and technology improved.

For me, this lays a ground work, an inherent commonality between all kinds of people. When I get to the point where I want to pull something out of my imagination and share it with people who aren’t wired like me, it helps to have that framework that we all can relate to. However I might play with it, there is a path I know we both can follow, writer and reader. One that the reader at least knows of, and might know better than I do, but it’s something we share because those stories laid the foundations for how we think, how we look at things we don’t understand, and how we go about looking for answers.

That’s probably the coolest thing about them–that bridge between very different people which allows communication and understanding to happen.

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1 Comment

  1. This was my favorite sentence of your post: “Myths, legends, folklore seem to me to contain the essence of what it is to be a human being, trying to live in an unpredictable, uncontrollable world and an oft-times puzzles, ever-changing society.” I thought it summed it up well. (FYI, I clicked over here from AW’s blog post.)

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