A Myth is Not a Lie Pt. 1

chief_seattle

Chief Seattle. Courtesy Wikimedia.

INTRODUCTION: When I originally wrote this essay, I succumbed to the temptation of so many writers in quoting the famous speech by Chief Seattle. It’s probably the most quoted speech of any noted aboriginal figure in Western history. There’s only one problem. We have no historical verification Chief Seattle ever said these words:[1] “We are part of the earth and it is part of us. …The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each ghostly reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people.”[2] Even this poetic version of Chief Seattle’s words lacks any corroboration amongst either archival material or the popular versions of his speech. Perhaps it was a sense of white guilt that drove Dr. Henry Smith to claim that he had witnessed the speech. If so, Smith nails it when he uses the term ‘sacred.’ Perhaps Smith was responding to the zeitgeist of his age by drafting his own version of the Native American myth. Even the most careful ethnographers of aboriginal culture fell into this trap, though many of them from sincere, if misguided, motives.

But it’s understandable that First Nations people are unimpressed with our co-optation of this iconic figure for our own purposes, however noble. As US National Archives historian Jerry L. Clark wrote in 1985, “Does it really make any difference today whether the oration in question actually originated with Chief Seattle in 1855 or with Dr. Smith in 1887?  Of course it matters, because this memorable statement loses its moral force and validity if it is the literary creation of a frontier physician rather than the thinking of an articulate and wise Indian leader.  Noble thoughts based on a lie lose their nobility.” The fact that Chief Seattle’s speech has persisted in the popular consciousness 30 years after Clark wrote this corrective is itself testimony to the enduring power of myth.  

  1. The Surpassing Power of Myth

“Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry; it is metaphorical. It has been well said the mythology is the penultimate truth—penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words.” —Joseph Campbell[3]

Myth. It’s a term that’s been the victim of misuse in our culture. Too often it’s equated with something we can prove isn’t true, for example when we say, “Oh, that’s just an urban myth.” But this does an injustice to one of the great literary motherlodes. Humanity’s oldest extant work of literature—the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, c. 2,600 BC—has themes that continue to resound today in everything from literary poetry to the Marvel Comics superhero series. In fact, as the great psychologist Carl Jung wrote, a myth is a universal story—a story that can be found in various guises in all world cultures. It’s as fundamental to human consciousness as dreaming. As the great mythologist Joseph Campbell once said: “The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth.”[4]

joseph_campbell_circa_1982

Joseph Campbell c. 1984. Courtesy Wikimedia

Thanks to the clarity brought to Campbell’s academic work by broadcast journalist Bill Moyers in the popular 1980s PBS TV series The Power of Myth, we now understand that mythology is no mere intellectual toy. Campbell coined the phrase “the hero’s journey” and it was his development of this concept that inspired filmmakers like George Lucas to create epic stories such as the Star Wars series. Neurological studies have shown that we are ‘hard-wired’ to respond to stories. Jung’s work showed that we respond most deeply to mythic themes that are universal, or ‘archetypal.’ Campbell went so far as to state: “Civilizations are grounded on myth.”[5] When we lose touch with the rich subterranean vein of meaning contained in mythology, we live too close to the surface. We lose touch with society and even with the Earth itself. Yet it’s precisely at times of crisis that an understanding of the power of myth can come to our aid. The current mass popularity of films and TV series based on archetypal myth—Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Once Upon a Time—testifies to this deep-seated human need.

What both Jung and Campbell made clear is that the great epics and myths aren’t just remote fantasies that have little to do with our lives. On the contrary, they are mythic templates that give us clues about how to overcome obstacles and fears in our own life journey. They are a door with the potential to lead us to wisdom and empowerment. In an evolutionary sense this probably served as a survival tactic among our prehistoric ancestors, with the tribe encoding acquired knowledge and experience in stories told around the campfire. “Mythology has a great deal to do with the stages of life, the initiation ceremonies as you move from childhood to adult responsibilities… All of those rituals are mythological rites.”[6] Campbell makes the distinction between folk tales and myths—folk tales tend to be more specific to a culture, whereas myths typically share universal elements such as heroes, anti-heroes, threshold guardians, spirit guides, etc. But there’s more to it than a purely materialistic, evolutionary instinct. According to Campbell, “the folk tale is for entertainment. The myth is for spiritual instruction… Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.”[7]

At a time when individuality has been elevated practically to godhood, with all the problems that implies, it’s important to understand that Campbell wasn’t trying to say self-realization is the only goal of the hero’s journey. The true hero—man or woman—is the one who through self-realization begins to attain selflessness—a sense of responsibility to their community. “The ultimate aim of the quest must be neither release nor ecstasy for oneself, but the wisdom and the power to serve others. One of the many distinctions between the celebrity and the hero…is that one lives only for self while the other acts to redeem society.”[8] Sure, it’s hip to pour scorn on Hollywood celebrities like George Clooney, Susan Sarandon or Leonardo DeCaprio for their high-profile pursuit of various social and environmental causes. But that’s too easy. From a Jungian perspective, these are individuals at least trying to integrate selflessness into their consciousness. We should reserve our cynicism for the daily denials and evasions of climate change and social justice in mainstream media.

This is a critical distinction to understand in the era of global climate change and the social re-engineering of monopoly capitalism. Climate change is arguably the Cold War of the 21st century—a massive existential threat to all species. Many writers and sociologists are thus calling for a ‘new mythology,’ a new set of universal stories, to replace those that no longer serve us. Not the universal dogmas of religious fundamentalism, which can exercise a deeply negative effect on the psyche, especially when taken to the extremes of terrorism. As British folksinger Roy Harper once said, “We no longer have the luxury of dogma.”

But in fact, what we need is less a ‘new’ mythology and more of a return to the life-giving wellsprings of mythology. Our dumbed-down culture suffers from a misunderstanding of the true source of power contained in mythology. As I wrote in an essay titled The Myth of Invulnerability, a review of the Peter Jackson film trilogy for The Hobbit,[9] current interpretations of the hero myth in superhero or fantasy films too often get it backwards. The hero’s journey tale is not about attaining superhuman strength or abilities, it’s about our fundamentally human vulnerability. It’s about teaching us our limitations, not just our potential. It’s not about the hero getting everything he or she wants through superhuman abilities. The goal of the hero’s journey is to learn the humility necessary to take up one’s role in the community. The Sumerian king Gilgamesh, hero of the eponymous tale, realizes at the end of a quest that has cost him the life of his dearest friend that he too must die just like everyone else.

gilgamesh 1

Gilgamesh, ancient King of Uruk, learned the limits of power.

Without a sense of limits, we succumb to the temptation of ego or greed to constantly push for more—to be bigger, stronger, smarter. This is what has largely led us into the environmental catastrophe we face today. And it’s what the myths of aboriginal cultures around the world have been trying to tell us all along. In the term ‘aboriginal cultures’ I include the origin myths of all cultures. Whether it’s the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Irish mythic cycle ‘The Book of Invasions,’[10] or Haida stories of Raven, all have something to teach us about limits and our place in what was once known as the ‘great chain of being.’ They tell us that we are merely one strand in the web of existence, and not the most important one. All the more reason, then, for us to seek the wisdom of mythology, so that we temper our power with proper respect and consideration for other creatures.

To me, where the rubber meets the road is not whether or not a myth can be proven ‘true’ or ‘untrue.’ What matters is its significance to us individually and as a culture. If a myth tale imparts in us a sense of the world as a sacred place, not to be treated brutally or without care for the future, then its work is done. A myth is thus a path to spiritual knowledge and awareness, not a tool for attaining wealth, power and influence. It attunes us to our surroundings, to the myriad life forms we share this planet with. For me, that’s enough, and it’s everything, especially where we are right now in the stream of history. The last word goes to Campbell: “The only myth that is going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is one that is talking about the planet, not the city, not these people, but the planet, and everybody on it.”[11]

[1] Thus Spoke Chief Seattle: The Story of an Undocumented Speech, Jerry L. Clark, Prologue magazine, National Archives website: https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1985/spring/chief-seattle.html

[2] As quoted in The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1988, p. 42.

[3] The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, ibid., p. 206.

[4] The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, ibid., p. 48

[5] The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, ibid, p. 72

[6] The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, ibid, p. 14.

[7] The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, ibid, pp. 5, 71.

[8] The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, ibid, p. xiv.

[9] See blog post: https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2014/08/01/the-delusion-of-invulnerability/

[10] Known in Irish Gaelic as Lebor Gabála Érenn.

[11] The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, ibid, p. 41.

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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2 Responses to A Myth is Not a Lie Pt. 1

  1. Ruth Roberts says:

    Hello Art,

    Congratulations on your next venture in your life! You have the ability to do these ‘interviews well. I presume that if we keep watching the links you have provided that we will be able to see the television show(shows?) I remember the stories in the newspapers about this young couple and their premature baby and have wondered, at times, what has happened to them. Now I hope to find out. Thanks for informing us about this project.

    from

    Ruth

  2. Ruth: always great to hear from you! And thanks for your ongoing interest in my work. Hope you’re both well. Once the episode is filmed it may take some time to get it online but the links I gave here should take you there once it’s ready.

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