Saturday, April 14, 2012

A to Z: Mythology

Mythology is one of the most interesting and persistent of the imaginings of human beings.
I love this stuff.
In fact I seem to love this topic so much I just kept writing and writing.  Hard to shut me up.
You might want to grab a donut and something to drink, or read this in sections.
I hope you find it as interesting as I do, if not then sorry for hogging your bandwidth ;)

The first rule of a conversation, especially one that might get controversial, up to and including an argument is to define the terms.  More misunderstandings could be avoided if people would just do that.  So real quick, let's define the term 'Myth' because most people misuse the word.

A Myth is a story or legend, usually otherworldly or metaphysical in nature, which is endowed with or explains the value of the culture.  Notice what isn't part of this definition? Nothing about whether it is true or not.  Irrelevant. The truth or falsehood of the story isn't an issue: a myth can explain the cultural value whether it is a true story or not.  So when people say something like "oh that's a myth" when they mean "that's not true dumbass" it's a non sequitur.   A myth does what it is designed to do, and doesn't matter if it's true or not.
So if I say your favorite god is a myth, I'm not slandering your belief: it is a myth whether it is real or not.

Term defined, now on to the fun stuff!

Myths have got to be as old as human's telling of stories.  Humans have a basic instinct to wonder, question, and look for answers, and if we can't find an answer, we'll cobble together something out of what we experience and our imagination.  What is thunder? Don't know, but it sounds angry, like a mean man or wild beast, comes from the sky... I understand angry life form, I don't see one in the sky, but I can imagine it: therefore, there is a pissed off powerful being in the sky.  Not a hard concept to grasp.

The variety of myths around the planet throughout the millenia though is staggering.  Some are immortal powerful humans, some are animals, some are parts of both, some are pure elemental.  But always, they are a reflection of the culture that gives birth to them. The culture fights a lot, they have lots of warrior gods, like the Vikings.  The culture comes from a chaotic environment, their gods are unpredictable and hard to please, like Mesopotamia & Mesoamerica.  From a more stable region the gods might be orderly and rigid, like in Egypt. Come from a splintered, fractured region and your gods end up constantly bickering with shifting alliances, like in Greece.

But it works the other way too: once established, myths then promote the culture and reinforce it.
People hear these stories as they grow up and the values the story holds become the values of the listeners.
Lots of stories of obedience and that will be more instinctual for those people, stories of rebellious individualism and you'll see more of that cultural trait.

My favorite example of this: The Serpent. 

You might be familiar with the 'Garden of Eden' myth. It is a creation myth: a story about how everything came to be. I can't think of a culture that doesn't have one.  In this myth, Creator God sets about his work, makes the world, makes animals, makes people.  The order is important.  Humans come last.  But what does this signify? Must read on.  Once everything is done being made, Creator God tells humans "I made you, the animals and this home for you.  What you see is what you get: it's all for you.  Oh yeah, the animals?  Go name them.  And oh! Almost slipped my mind don't eat from the tree of knowledge (or of life), or you're out of here."  This is loaded with cultural values.  It says a ton!  And whether those who hear it are aware of it or not it is teaching them a lot more than what they get on the surface.

What?  Well, let's say you're a little kid and one day your dad comes home and has a puppy.  Awesome!
He sets the puppy down and says to you "name her".  Question: who's puppy is it?  Not who's going to get stuck walking and cleaning up poop: we know that is dad. But obviously the puppy is yours! Why? Because you named her.  Go back to Eden: it is Adam & Eve's! -Well, first it was Lilith's but that's another story.  They name the animals, they are the 'masters': superior. What cultural value does this imprint on the members of the culture who's myth this is? The Earth is ours by right of birth and being the most important species.  Suck it dolphins.

It should also be noted that Eve being made from part of Adam and for him creates a very unequal relationship between males and females and probably explains a lot of the misogyny common in our culture.

Carry on with the myth. Get back to that tree.

Who helps the humans challenge this notion? The serpent.  Result? Banishment and mortality and a life of suffering.  Conclusion: the serpent is evil.  And women are weak for listening to bad advice. Adam also weak for listening to bad advice?  Well, let's not go crazy.
People tend to stop there, but don't forget the other tree... if they'd just eaten that one first they'd have been gods themselves.  Oh!  So close!

Later, Christians will interpret the serpent to be Lucifer, but that's really not there in the beginning, that wasn't part of the myth of the people who first wrote that story.  Another fun thing about myths: they can change over time.

Now for the really fun part: This is not the only creation story with a serpent!
The Lakota Sioux of North American have, what on the surface, looks like a similar story:  The world is created, then different animals are created and lastly humans are created.  So far sounds pretty similar, but read on.  Since humans get to the party last, they are clueless.   Don't know what to eat, don't know where to find shelter, don't know much of anything.  Who does know?  Those who have been there longer!  The different animals introduce themselves to the humans, and they teach them what they know.  Animals don't need humans to name them, they've got that covered. They are the ones helping out humans.
The one who teaches them wisdom/medicine/magic (whatever your choice of translation) is the animal that is closest to the earth, the source of this knowledge: the serpent.  He teaches humans knowledge.  Sounds familiar?  But in this myth, this isn't a bad thing, it's natural and needed.

What a fundamental different result: who owns the Earth?  Huh? The question makes no sense at all in this context. No one does.  It is shared by all the species.  A much different cultural assumption is created than the judeo-christian-islamic one of "the world is your dominion to use as you see fit".

Myths are powerful.  Notice, doesn't matter if they are true or not.

I find myths from all cultures interesting for this reason: it's a big clue to why people are the way they are.

One of my favorite mythologies is the Christian mythology: it's just such good story material!

Good vrs Evil in a showdown culminating in the end of the world.  Blockbuster all over it.
They didn't invent it though, it relies heavily on Zoroastrian mythology.  Zoroastrians had 2 gods, a good and an evil: the good, Ahura-Mazda, created the universe, and the evil, Ahriman, not to be outdone, created the world and humans.  Wow! We're made by the evil god? Different than the Christian myth, but the net result is the same: original sin, 'devil' messing with human choices, damned to be destroyed with the world unless 'saved': all that is the same as Zoroastrianism, which is 500 years older. You don't see that stuff in Judaism, but if you take Judaism, and overlay and shoehorn Zoroastrian concepts into it, it's almost like baking instructions for how to make Christianity.  Preheat region to 100*F, bake for 500 years. Serves Billions.

Since it was believed by Zoroastrians that Ahriman would lose the final battle and, along with everything he made, would be destroyed: that means us and our world! But Ahura-Mazda wasn't without some compassion, he decided to give humans a choice to betray their creator and join his side.  To make this understood, it was a prophecy that he'd make a human, the only human he would ever make- and since it was made by the good god, it would be the only human that wasn't 'sinful' (seeing where this is going yet?) and this human would teach & give this option to join the good side and be saved. If there were copy-write lawyers back then the authors of the gospels would have been sued for plagiarism big time!

But my favorite Apocalypse myth is the Norse myth.  I have so much more respect for the Norse gods.
The reason is that, as fun as the whole anti-christ, fallen angels, hell and all that is for a story, the good side doesn't really have much conflict.

As a story, where is the real inner turmoil of choice in the Christian Myth?  The end is known: good wins, evil loses & utterly destroyed.  Where is the choice? "hey, got to make a choice: want to win or lose? Be aware the side effects are eternal bliss or suffering until existence is whipped out." Ummm... that first one? Really, what choice is there?  If Jesus is a god, or part of god, or -yeah,. get's a bit muddled, but clearly a divine entity.. the tempting in the desert has no real power.  Be a king, money, etc?  What of it?  The dude is *God*, what could you possibly offer that he can't make himself and better?  It's like asking a billionaire to throw it all away for a sandwich.  Even a really good sandwich isn't going to tempt him.  Not even one with bacon.  Maybe especially not, he was kosher then.

And the whole crucifixion?  Not impressed. Sorry Mel Gibson, must be said.
Again, the dude is God. Yeah, I'm sure it hurts something fierce, but what does a few days of suffering mean to an eternal being?  Buddhists monks have set themselves on fire to make a statement. If a human can sacrifice everything he has for a chance to get people to notice, that's a much greater sacrifice than some temporary pain and 20-30 years cut off a mortal life for an eternal being who is going to win the whole battle for existence.  It might be a pivotal moment of the story, but from a character development and motivation perspective, it's pretty poorly thought out.

Still, the big good vrs evil & demons trying to collect souls, that's some fun roller coaster exciting myth there.
And it has as much internal conflict as most myths have.  Such as Zeus: the only internal conflict this guy had was in his pants.

So, compare that to the Norse gods.  They too are in a fight with the forces of evil: the giants.  The world will end in a final battle, Ragnarok, much like the Christian Armageddon.  At the final battle they fight their enemy alongside all of the humans who lived well.  A bit different, but not much.  Except for one thing: The Norse Gods Lose. Yep.  The myth says they lose.  So why fight for right? Because it is right.  What is your reward? Well, nothing, beyond the satisfaction that you know you did your best: what was right. Christians offer a big reward and a place on the winning team. Norse can't offer you anything other than honor and a good death at the end, fighting for good against impossible odds.

I guess this explains why Christianity won out over the Northern Paganism: offer someone eternal bliss or a kick in the nuts and most are going to go for that bliss thing.  But I admire the Norse gods more. No bribes, no rewards, just good for the sake of doing good, even in the face of losing.

If that myth had continued on and been the basis of our culture, I wonder how things might have been different.  It does seem like people are obsessed with selfish reward. "what's in it for me?" doesn't seem like something promoted in the Norse myth. Just makes me wonder.

Last topic on Mythology: Neil Gaiman. 
I'd thought to deal with many more, but this is getting long.

He has done some amazing creative work within the topic of Mythology.
For one, he created a mythology for his graphic novel series 'Sandman'. In it, at the heart of existence itself are 'The Endless': 7 entity-forces which have always existed and always will:
Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Despair, Desire & delight (who went mad & became Delirium).

It also explains how all mythologies are true and do not contradict each other: gods & forces are real: created and shaped by those who believe in them.

It's a fascinating story. The best way to start is read 'Season of Mist'.  The story of how Lucifer decides to quit ruling Hell, gives the key to Dream, and all the other pantheons come begging for the right to take it over.
I'd love to say more, but I'd hate myself for giving spoilers.  If you haven't read it, read it!

Plus, Death is hot.  For a drawing.  Beats that Skeleton in a black robe anyway.

So whatever myth you might believe in, or not believe in, keep an ear open for them. Think about them, watch for the effects they have.  Don't dismiss them as "silly stories" or "lies" because that completely misses the point and keeps your eyes shut to the real power they have.

For the Gamers:
Myths are a huge boon for us!  What great fertile ground of imagination for a miniatures army to be based in, fantasy obviously, but an influence in historical & sci-fi as well.  Find an interesting myth and start in on basing an army around it.  Great stuff!


And one of my favorite 'New Myths', a modern creation and very cool song:

This has been an A-Z Challenge post. 
For the month of April there will be an update for each letter within the theme of: Things that influence and inspire me, or the converse: things which I find distressing or make me want to rail at the world.
Some of these will pertain to the miniatures hobby, but many will venture off to atypical territory for the duration of the challenge, then it will be back to normal with mostly minis and an occasional blithering.
You can find out more about the A-Z challenge my clicking the logo at the top left of the page. 


Anne said...

You did a marvelous job with this and I don't mind that you monopolized my bandwidth (that's 3 M's for you today).

This takes me back to my Comparative Religion class as an undergraduate-the commonalities and points of origin of religion and mythology. The places where they intersect across cultures and when the line between myth and religion blur and eventually become one.

I'm posting my next mini on Sunday and I wanted to get permission from you to mention your blog and insert a link. I'd like the non-gaming bloggers to see that gamer's and painters are interesting people, fun people, intelligent people as well as artists. Your blog would be great for that. Let me know if this is okay.

Now that I've monopolized your comments, I'll move on to something less meaningful and more mundane (bonus M's for you today!)

Laughing Ferret said...

Thanks Anne!
Yeah, that'd be great,very flattered and don't mind being the monkey pointed at ;) Oh, the donut comment was inspired by you ;)

Anne said...

I saw that and I ate my weight in donuts on Easter while we danced around that giant fertility symbol on the driveway. I think I'm pregnant!!

Mr. Lee said...

Wow.. kinda getting a bit deep on us LF.. keep this up and I will have to do some research and investigation before reading your blog so that I can keep up with the topics ;)

Have to ask though, how far in advance did you begin to work on this year's A-Z topics? Seems each are a short story in their own right, that could spawn their own blog or mini-theme.. great work for that!

Paul of the Man Cave said...

We too love mythology - when we got into dark Ages gaming the first things we did was to get a book on Norse mythology

PS There is also an Australian Aboriginal myth (known as Dreamtime stories) about a serpent:

{Quote}The 'Rainbow Serpent' is generally and variously identified by those who tell 'Rainbow Serpent' myths, as a snake of some enormous size often living within the deepest waterholes of many of Australia's waterways; descended from that larger being visible as a dark streak in the Milky Way, it reveals itself to people in this world as a rainbow as it moves through water and rain, shaping landscapes, naming and singing of places, swallowing and sometimes drowning people; strengthening the knowledgeable with rainmaking and healing powers; blighting others with sores, weakness, illness, and death {/Quote}

bouncergriim said...

Here is a fun site with flash animated myths.

I actually discuss myths as I talk about the big bang and astronomy to compare contrast views of creation with science and look and see what aspects are similar and what are dead wrong. Cosmic eggs are kinda a cool idea.

Francene Stanley said...

I love your take on myths. They are certainly something to ponder over. I didn't believe you, at the start, when you said you just go on and on. Now I do, ;-)

Laughing Ferret said...

Anne: yep, really tempted the fates there- wouldn't be surprised. The donuts were probably the kicker. In Eastern Europe the tradition is to make about a billion 'easter cakes', they get blessed at the church then everyone gorges. Another fertility symbol going back to 'seed cake', consuming it as a way to become fertile- we kept the tradition -seen in wedding cakes- but somehow lost the easter cake- or it became chocolate bunnies. odd. well at any rate, each donut was like a plea to the gods 'give me a baby!' ;) only got yourself to blame ;)

Mr.Lee: oh, I'm a natural born procrastinator. A couple days before it started I began a list of A-Z. I still have 3 blanks. But nothing gets written until right before I post it. I do it late at night when I'm too tired to do much else anyway. It's not so hard: the theme being 'things that inspire me or make me want to slap someone' means It's all in me for easy access.Then just find some fun pictures, 1 bc it's fun, 2 bc who is going to read text online? People go online for boobs & cats playing trombone, and sometimes minis. I doubt many read much when I the writing starts to run away with me, but the pictures might give some chance of it ;)

Paul: I love the myths of the Dreaming- such a cool take on existence. I have to read more into that sometime.

Bouncer: Sounds fun, I'll check them out. My personal suspicion is that the 'big bang' is just one of many that happens, while the other 'half' of the infinity universes are at the opposite end of their cycle: greatest point of expansion, and these are constantly pulsing out and in. Impossible to find physical evidence for this, just a hunch. I love creation myths- so many different one. I think humans have them because in our experience so much we see has a before it was and a now it is transition: babies, other animals, seasons, fire, things we make, so it must be natural to our mind to project this process onto existence itself.

Thanks Franene! Oh yes, I'm afraid if not restrained, someday I'm going to write a book. or many books ;)

S. L. Hennessy said...

I love mythology. Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Celtic. It's basically just really great stories wrapped in history. Amazing.

Arlee Bird said...

That was a pretty epic post with some very fine illustrations.

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