out of all knowledge…

History became legend, legend became myth…”

— Galadriel, Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien

It is unfair to myth to let it become a mere synonym of error and/or antiquated, foolish notions. Joseph Campbell includes the following in description of term and its true function: “A ritual is the enactment of a myth.”

Rites serve civilization as on-the-job training for establishing the connection of individual to the social environment. Ritual dramatizes recognition – in the sense of both comprehension and the act honoring. Such practices serve as a foundation to assess our culture and, hopefully, to understand our talent and role within it. Myth is instructional metaphor intended to build sameness and community not bring it to raze and ruin. Ritual and mythology are far from absent in today’s society.

The word and its importance are being abused. At least half the time it is seen on the internet it is pressed into service as part of clickbait. “Ten Myths About…” is, more often than not, the beginning of an attempt at indoctrination – leading the reader away from genuine truth. This usage is propaganda not a mechanism that may imbue a person with effectiveness.

Myth and ritual used this way is exploitation of the trusting souls and their beliefs. Those who engage in this misuse view their targets as dupes and rubes; that’s exactly the strategy of a cult.

There is a dichotomy in how we view ancient civilization. In terms of their religion we represent them as naïve primitives without the sophistication to understand plainly stated morals given after highly stylized tales. Yet at the same time we laud the same people as the inventors of our celebrated ideas of republic and democracy. “Behold the gullible genius!”

The larger-than-life tale is best used as mnemonic device or as an attention-getting preface. In contrast the hoax and the bold-faced lie depend on reaching the impressionable.

For both the individual and society resisting indoctrination depends on enough introspection to know what we believe and why. We must maintain our memory (and history) properly fit and exercise due diligence to confirm new information before writing it into our memory as actual fact.

Critical thinking is our best tool after domesticated fire and the wheel. Healthy skepticism, however, is not the same as ineducable suspicion. Willful opposition to new data is deplorable embrace of ignorance. As a practice that is certain to earn us a reputation as superstitious post-Neanderthals.

taprobane

In 139ᴀᴅ Ptolemy is said to have produced a map of the demi-continent called Taprobane (Ταπροβανῆ). There is no evidence that he traveled across the Indian Ocean nor any account of his having been asked to describe any such journey. Still, for centuries others copied the gigantic island onto newer maps and expeditions hoped to find it.

Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds is famous due to the panic it caused. Following a similar dramatization in Quito, Ecuador on 12 Feb 1949 the aftermath was greater. As many as twenty people were killed. There is no record in either case of people simply changing the station.

Myth is not error or falsehood. Mistakes are mistakes and lies are lies. We are the vanguard against the latter armed with the former when properly understood and utilized.

Or else —

Five centuries from now will John McCain be on his way to being regarded as the builder of the Panama Canal and began construction of the Great Wall on the southern border of The United States of New Laurentia. Will the senator’s maverick nature eventually inflate his image to the equivalent of a Trickster god?

And how much truth will be salvaged about McCain by any euhemerism at the end of the next millennium?


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ex metum…

It seems to me that any thinking, rational humans have decided for themselves that life is precious and good – perhaps without knowing this choice has been made. An alternative view, that our sense of survival and self-preservation derives merely from instinct, would mean that none of us are more than creatures.

The universal view of how wonderful having a life and living it for as long as possible is best represented in legend by the world’s various Flood myths. Noah’s story and that of Utnapishtim (in the Epic of Gilgamesh) are the most well known but the concept is a worldwide and long-standing one – appearing in the lore of at least a few dozen cultures.

Most involve the construction of a boat; those that do not indicate that survivors climbed tall trees or the highest mountains to reach safety. In Greek mythology, there was a deluge of incredible magnitude at least three times, two of which marked the end of a specific Age. The first of the three was considered an ancient event by those we now call the ancient Greeks.

After the second the line of Deucalion and Pyrrha to the end of the Heroic Age consists of ten generations. The chronology of Archbishop James Ussher places the Genesis Flood at 2348 ʙᴄ. This can’t be made to match timelines of Greek myth as the end of the end of the Bronze Age is estimated somewhere between 1480 and 1450ʙᴄ. It is interesting to note that the 2nd Christian Age also lasts ten generations – from Noah and Emzara to Abraham and Sarah.

generation

I don’t mean to suggest here the Flood myths and traditions are all the same. Further, I do not support the claim that a very widespread myth is in and of itself evidence of an otherwise unsubstantiated event in prehistory. The dates can’t be forced to match. Hesiod’s list of Ages does not align with that of St. Augustine.

What all the world’s epic disasters do seem to have in common is the reaction to the perception that things are getting worse all the time. The philosophy of “life sucks and then you die” and the complaint about “these kids today and their haircuts” are nothing new but they become amplified when society is seen as being in decline.

The notion that might makes right also has a long history and gains strength in such times whether the decline is real or not. In essence, the diagnosis of social woe is: “The Divine has forsaken us for we have lost our righteous way.” From this point the reaction in myth and sociology follows a similar pattern.

realmyth

This is all shockingly familiar in today’s political climate – but really not the point of these stories if life truly is precious and good. Not to be too cute about it but I think we’ve missed the boat.

Hesiod did not suggest what Age would follow his own times. And the implied 7th Age of St. Augustine starts with the End of Days. In the first formulation one might expect something worse than the Dark Ages but even that would be preferable to the prevailing current meaning of apocalypse.

Since Hesiod is silent and we believe life is so precious and so good we’ll go to heroic lengths to preserve and maintain it, let’s not assume that the best days are behind us in an ever more remote Golden Age. Such an Age should be held as an ideal to strive toward rather than a long-ago lofty perch from which we’ve fallen (and continue to fall). If we can’t actually reach Ages of Silver or Gold, I’d settle with joy for a new Heroic Age.

Rather than paint the sort of heroism required by who is condemned and who is spared I’d prefer to define righteousness by who best points the way and lights the path.


Citius, Altius, and away…

When I was very young my great grandmother told me, “If you want to be something – first admire it.”

In some way, shape, or form that statement of simple truth has stuck with me ever since. It informs who I hope to be as a person and is part of how I construct characters. To a certain extent, it is part of my reaction to other people and to the work of other authors. All of these situations raise the question: “What is being held up to be admired here?” It is rarely far from top-of-mind.

This may also be why I have never quite been able to count athletes and rock stars as true heroes. Their accomplishments can certainly be admired but it seems likely that any record can be surpassed with diligence, proper training, and a bit of luck.

If being admirable is at least part of the definition of a hero, doesn’t that begin with their code of behavior or conduct? A set of binding principles that contribute positively to the quality of the individual in question seems a better yardstick than the applause of a stadium of fans. Being admirable on the basis of such faculties is an essential part of true heroism. They don’t have to be perfect. In real life that’s impossible and in a novel it damages the story.

The heroism of Superman is characterized by his “never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” Officer Alex Murphy, better known as RoboCop, initially operates with three explicit directives: 1) Serve the public trust, 2) Protect the innocent, and 3) Uphold the law. The number of traits need not be limited to three. A short list does, however, make any potential hero more comprehensible and accessible.

In addition to The Code, a would-be hero must choose to do good. Many heroes make this choice regardless of whether anyone will ever know. They are not motivated by a reward. The achievements of a hero must also be above and beyond the simple good society encourages from all of us. The average good is not heroic; it’s expected after all. A hero must exceed the achievement of good that the average person might accomplish regardless of determination, acquired expertise, or good fortune.

Heroes – in life and fiction both – should inspire us whether we can replicate their feats or not. We should honor them when they help us toward being the best human we can possibly be and then reset the scale to try for more. Heroism is an ideal. It should perpetually be out of reach and eternally pursued.

Our heroes are the embodiment of our aspirations and hopes, our desire to believe that we are capable of facing anything and against all odds. We dream of ourselves as willing to act in defense of our ideals no matter the cost.

In the film Iron Giant (1999), a young boy by the name of Hogarth Hughes tells the robot, “You are who you choose to be.”

superman

I think that strongly echoes my great grandmother’s advice.

In Elizabeth (1998), Sir Francis Walsingham tells his Queen, “All men need something greater than themselves to look up to and worship. They must be able to touch the divine here on earth.”

This is, in essence, the point but not necessarily from above or outside – but from what is worthy of our admiration and awe.

Doing good is not enough.

STADR

 


ceteris paribus…

It is probably reasonable to assume that the faith of our parents, if any, is assumed in our early years to be the only faith. I remember noticing and asking about the different iconologia and emblemata of the 14 houses of worship in my very small hometown. It was a disproportionately large number of options. For reasons that are beyond the scope of this post, I was a member of at least five different congregations belonging to different Christian denominations before the age of 12.

And prior to that age, the United States was ramping up to its Bicentennial celebrations and participating in the first two Olympics of which I was aware (some years before the Winter and Summer Games were split and staggered). On display at home was a vast array of old and newly minted patriotic symbols. Each nation of the more than 90 competing The Games (half the world at the time) had brought an entirely different selection of icons to the stadium.

Surely formal education contributed to an awareness of how much larger the world is than I might have imagined before adolescence. But the diversity of religious and national expression was given sharp emphasis by experience and observation. This has allowed me to acknowledge that dignity can arise everywhere on the planet – from each person who will allow it to manifest – regardless of place of birth.

There is a vogue in political thought here, the notion of American exceptionalism. The nation may unfortunately have been born with it. The soil here is not a magical home plate (to employ the metaphor from our “national pastime”). It isn’t where a person is born or lives that makes their accomplishments special. Accomplishment and the person who achieves it are both special – anywhere. I’m not running for office. I don’t have to perpetuate a myth.

As readers of this blog may have guessed, flags and maps fascinate me. A flag is not just the equivalent of a postal code. It is a declaration of a certain set of beliefs and, it must be said, opinions. A map is more than a tool for where to find things. For me, maps have long and collectively been metaphors for the intrinsic potential of what things may be found.

thank youSurfing the Zeitgeist is intended to share my perspective on the value and mission of creative expression – along with a certain view on the universality of potential. The above map shows the nations from which Visits have been made. I track this as a reminder that there isn’t just one zeitgeist to surf. Each visit is more than a “pin in a map” for me. It’s a vantage point – a reminder that my point of view is only one way of examining the zeitgeist. I’m curious about them all – and I think I always have been.