Writing Myth Now
The very first storyteller was, I think, a journalist. He was the man who reported on what was happening “out there.” Through the ages it was he who journeyed from village to village to give an account of what was going on in other places. He knew more than his listeners. Chronology was of great importance in his story: Were the cattle speared first, and then the soldiers came, or did the soldiers come first, and then the cattle were found dead? For his listeners, it was extremely important to know.
With chronology went compression. It was impossible for the telling of the story to take the same amount of time as the events told. Compression produced a summary, a useful and gripping report about what the listeners had missed.
Compression was the first step towards fiction. The storyteller became aware of the possibility to play around with the form of his story. He could leave some matters unmentioned and simply suggest them. He could add things. He discovered the power of devising storylines. Language was no longer his instrument, it became his material. There was nothing underhand about this. The storyteller went about it quite frankly by starting with “once upon a time….” He could exceed his limits, and the listeners could enjoy the bird’s-eye view offered by fiction: to finally have the feeling that here is something you can see as a whole, neatly enclosed within a separate world, with a beginning and a conclusion.
Magic and reality were linked. What people knew, what they believed, what they wanted to believe, all this became part of stories. The boundary between what people knew and what they believed constantly shifted, and with it shifted the boundary between realistic fiction and fiction that was much more fictitious: myths, fables, fairy tales, legends.
Fairy tales, myths and fables are fiction to the nth degree. They do not just tell about what has not happened, they also tell about what cannot happen. A long time ago, I was told that this kind of story helped us determine our place in the universe. That could be right. But then you wonder why we repeat them over and over again. What they say about our place in the universe often is not attractive. They pin us down in the place where we already stood: in the temporal, the temporary, the transitory. They remind us that our place in the universe cannot be seen separately from our time.
Still, the myths pass like a whisper through the generations. What is so comforting about the repetition?
My guess is that, even though they confront us with our mortality, they aspire to do more than confirm our feeling of temporalness and impermanence. They are about how humans define themselves as separate from the gods, and how they find value and self-esteem in that definition. They are about how humans become confident in their understanding of their nature. It took courage for humankind to believe that it could stand next to the gods, that it had a role in universe, that it was not futile. But above all, myths are about connectedness, with companions in hardship, in this time and in the past.