GABBLER RECOMMENDS: Why Are We So Resistant to the Idea of a Modern Myth?

‘Experts, I fear, aren’t much help here. You can collect academic definitions for as long as your patience lasts. “The word myth,” as Northrop Frye rightly says, “is used in such a bewildering variety of contexts that anyone talking about it has to say first of all what his chosen context is.” Folklorist Liz Locke put it more bluntly in 1998: “such a state of semantic disarray and/or ambiguity is truly extraordinary.”

Finnish folklorist Lauri Honko nonetheless gives a definition that kind of sounds like what you’d expect from an expert: a myth is

a story of the gods, a religious account of the beginning of the world, the creation, fundamental events, the exemplary deeds of the gods as a result of which the world, nature and culture were created together with all parts thereof and given their order, which still obtains. A myth expresses and confirms society’s religious values and norms, it provides a pattern of behavior to be imitated, testifies to the efficacy of ritual with its practical ends and establishes the sanctity of cult.

This is a fair appraisal of how myth has often been regarded by anthropologists. But it is fraught with dangers and traps. Like the word “anthropology” itself, it seems to offer an invitation to make myth something “other”: something belonging to cultures not our own, and most probably to ones that even in the circles of liberal academics retain an air of the “primitive.” Gods, creation, ritual, cult: these are surely notions that we in the developed world have left behind and only pick up again with an air of irony. Our “gods” are not real beings or agencies but metaphorical cravings (“he worships money”) or celebrities (rock gods and sex goddesses).

This picture is tenacious, and I suspect it accounts for much of the resistance to the notion (and there is a lot of resistance, believe me) that anything created in modern times might deserve to be called a “myth.” To accept that we have never relinquished myths and myth-making might seem to be an admission that we are not quite modern and rational. But all I am asking, with the concept of myth I use in this book, is that we accept that we have not resolved all the dilemmas of human existence, all the questions about our origins or our nature—and that, indeed, modernity has created a few more of them.

One objection to the idea of a modern myth is that, to qualify as myth, a story must contain elements and characters that someone somewhere believes literally existed or happened. Surely myths can’t emerge from works of fiction! The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski asserted as much, saying of myth that “it is not of the nature of fiction, such as we read today in a novel, but it is a living reality, believed to have once happened in primeval times, and continuing ever since to influence the world and human destinies.”’

 

[Via]

Quotes from: American Afterlives: Reinventing Death in the Twenty-First Century by Shannon Lee Dawdy

“Scholars and social commentators have pointed to the embalming ritual as evidence for a propensity to deny death by re-creating a lifelike body, another case of American exceptionalism. Historian David Sloane calls it the ‘death taboo.’ But Beverly told me that viewing or touching the embalmed body does quite the opposite–it helps overcome death denial. I will return to this puzzle and how I have come to doubt strong versions of the ‘death denial thesis,’ but first I want to dig into the historical roots of embalming to better understand how Americans became neo-Egyptians in the first place.

President Lincoln’s embalmed and cosmeticized body was placed on a funeral train that made several stops on its two-week journey from Washington…How much this corpse viewing was driven by respect for the martyred president, versus fascination with the novelty of embalming, is impossible to say. But the second motivation should not be discounted…During this same period, ‘Egyptomania’ had captured the American imagination. The display and ceremonial unwrapping of Egyptian mummies was itself a popular spectacle in the nineteenth century…The link between Egyptomania nd the rise of embalming is no trivial coincidence. Early embalmers I interviewed referred seriously to ancient Egyptians as their forerunners, if not forefathers.

When I started this project, I had no idea I was going to run into magicians and ancient Egyptians.

Despite his alter to the Egyptian gods (which we did not discuss), Michael say that modern embalming is not a form of mummification for eternity. The preservation it provides is temporary–a matter of years, maybe decades, but not centuries or millennia. I have come to realize that this is another big disconnect between professional and the public understandings of the embalming practice. Most laypeople seem to assume that the embalming will prevent decay of the body indefinitely. The actual time frame, as with any archaeological deposit, depends on local environmental condition…Materially, its primary purpose resides in the funeral ritual.

Cremation can be romantic. In 1822, the poet Percy Shelley was cremated on a pyre on a beach in Italy by Lord Byron and friends after a boating accident. In death as in life, Romantics wanted to bring back what they thought were the nobler practices of ancient Greece and Rome. The embrace of creation by educated Europeans started to chip away at cultural (and largely Christian) biases against it, but creation did not take off until the later nineteenth century…Historian David Arnold argues that another significant factor in its adoption was the strident defense of traditional cremation by Indian Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs against critiques of the colonial British government. The debate led to a greater public awareness of cremation and a practical need to accommodate the Indian diaspora.

Cremation as a human funerary practice runs deep into antiquity. Archaeological evidence indicates that ancient Australians were practicing cremation at least twenty thousand years ago, possibly much longer….In Bronze Age and Iron Age Europe, Anglo-Saxons and other ‘barbarians’ practiced cremation before Christianity and its peculiar cult of the revenant dead wiped out this form of disposition (it was thought that cremated bodies could not be resurrected on Judgment Day). Protestantism, neo-paganism, secularism, and the influence of immigrants from the colonies opened the way for cremation to return to Europe in the nineteenth century. The revival of cremation also meant the return of fancy Roman-style urns. Shelley would have been pleased.”

On Deus Ex Machina:

The Greek tragedians were likewise criticized by Aristotle. In his Poetics, Aristotle does not just put forward an early version of Western craft (one closely tied to his philosophical project of the individual) but also puts down many of his contemporaries, tragedians for whom action is driven by the interference of the gods (in the form of coincidence) rather than from a character’s internal struggle. It is from Aristotle that Westerners get the cultural distaste for deus ex machina, which was more like the fashion of his time. Aristotle’s dissent went forward as the norm.

13.

Craft, like the self, is made by culture and reflects culture, and can develop to resist and reshape culture if it is sufficiently examined and enough work is done to unmake expectations and replace them with new ones. (As Aristotle did by writing the first craft book.)

We are constantly telling stories–about who we are, about every person we see, hear, hear about–and when we don’t know something, we fill in the gaps with parts of stories we’ve told or heard before. Stories are always only representations. To tell a story about a person based on her clothes, or the color of her skin, or the way she talks, or her body–is to subject her to a set of cultural expectations. In the same way, to tell a story based on character-driven plot or a moment of epiphany or a three-act structure leading to a character’s change is to subject story to cultural expectations. To wield craft morally is no tot pretend that those expectations can be met innocently or artfully without ideology, but to encage with the problems ideology presents and creates.

In my research for this book, I found various authors (mostly foreign) asking ho it is that we have forgotten that character is made up, that it isn’t real or universal.”

-Craft in the Real World, by Matthew Salesses

Quotes from: Women and Other Monsters by Jess Zimmerman

“Justice is not severed in The Eumenides, either. The trial is a nightmare, really. Orestes and Apollo argue that mothers aren’t really the parents of their children, just receptacles for a father’s seed. This convinces only some people, and the jury votes six to six. Then, Athena, casting the deciding vote, says flat out she only really cares about men, which means she considers Clytemnestra killing Agamemnon a worse offense than Orestes killing Clytemnestra. I like Robert Lowell’s translation because it doesn’t mince words: “I killed Clytemnestra. Why should I lie?” says Orestes. “The father not the mother is the parent,” says Apollo, who adds that the mother is only “a borrower, a nurse.” “I owe no loyalty to women. / In all things…I am a friend to man,” says Athena. “It can’t mean much if a woman, who has killed her husband is killed.” Orestes, in other words, is acquitted explicitly on the strength of disdain for women. It doesn’t matter if your reasons are good when you control the law.

Part of the exhaustion of being a monster, part of what keeps you at home in your cave, is knowing that it’s a foregone conclusion: Everything you create will be attacked and destroyed. Everything will exist for being attacked and destroyed, and for heroes to be made in the destroying of it. All your monstrous progeny, so painfully birthed: they will never come to anything but cannon fodder. It is so hard to live beyond boundaries when you know the consequences. Who can bring children into the world knowing they’re fated to be killed? Who wants to go through the pain of birth only to roll right into the pain of grief?”

Quotes from: The Cat in the Mysteries of Religion and Magic by M. Oldfield Howey

“This gives us an idea of the reverence in which Bast was held by her worshippers, and clearly exemplifies her dual nature, embracing both sun and moon, and all that was symbolized by them to the Egyptian mystic, especially the essential unity of the light proceeding from them both. As the Cat sees in the darkness, so the Sun which journeyed into the underworld at night saw through its gloom. Bast was the representative of the Moon, because that planet was considered as the Sun-god’s eye during the hours of darkness. For as the moon reflects the light of the solar orb, so the Cat’s phosphorescent eyes were held to mirror the sun’s rays when it was otherwise invisible to man. Bast as the Cat-moon held the Sun in her eye during the night, keeping watch with the light he bestowed upon her, whilst her paws gripped, and bruised and pierced the head of his deadly enemy, the serpent of darkness. Thus she justified her title of the Tearer or Render, and proved that it was not incompatible with love.

The Vulture which represented Mut (the World-Mother and great female counterpart of Amen-Ra), also appears in connection with Bast where the latter is considered as a member of the Egyptian Trinity that is recognized by the composite name of Sekhmet-Bast-Ra. This figure well illustrates the extraordinarily complicated nature of the goddess, for it depicts a man-headed woman with wings springing from her arms. And the symbolism is further complicated by two vultures growing from her neck, and lion’s claws that arm her feet.

To emphasise the lunar symbolism, the Cat is often represented with a crescent upon its head, but Plutarch would have us make no mistake. He points out that the Cat, from ‘its variety of colour, its activity in the night, and the peculiar circumstances attending its fecundicity’ is the proper emblem of the moon.

In reference to this last matter, the Egyptians stated that the Cat brought froth at birth, first one, then two, afterwards three kittens, and so on, adding on e at each later birth until she reached seven. So that she brought fourth twenty-eight young altogether, correspond to the several degrees of light which appear during the moon’s revolutions.

In chapter CXXV of the Book of the Dead, the deceased in his petition to the gods of the Underworld pleads his knowledge of a word of power.

‘I am clean of mouth and clean of hands,’ he says; ‘Therefore let it be said unto me, “Come in peace; come in peace” (12), for i have heard the might word which the spiritual bodies (sahu)* spake unto the the Cat (13) in the house of Hapt-re.’

What the mystic word is we are not told. But it is recorded that the gods of their own volition sometimes gave to mankind the knowledge of their secret names by which they might be evoked.

Here the Cat would seem to be Isis in her feline for as Bast. The ‘mighty word’ is, therefore, probably the secret name which she conjured from Ra on that occasion when, by means of a magical spell, she created a serpent whose bite caused him an agony she alone could cure. Ra had many names, but it was his hidden title that Isis sough, and finally forced from the suffering god. This name with all the supernatural powers its possession conferred passed from his breast to hers, still concealed from all other gods, even as it was from men. The legend of Ra and Isis was probably an effort to explain the newly accepted Chaldean doctrine that since even the gods were subject to law, it was possible for the man who gained knowledge of law to bend the higher beings to his will. Isis herself had shown the way. The Alexandrian writers say that the Egyptians claimed to be able to constrain the gods to obey their wishes, and messiest themselves to sight. The god could not resist the effect of their evocations and magic formulae if he would called by his true name. ‘They not only called the god by name,’ says M. Maury, ‘but if he refused to appear they threatened him.’

In the terrible ritual of the Taigherm (described in Chapter XVI) we may see the fruit of such impiety; probably the same doctrine underlay many of the feline scarifies called for in the practice of Black Magic. But when considering the motives of these it must always be borne in mind that the gods and angles of an earlier religion are the demons of the creed that supersedes it, and suffer a progressive degradation in the popular conception which finally results in the formation of a third variation of magic, frankly diabolical. The magician, reared in the prejudiced outlook of the new creed, sees devils in the ancient gods; but evokes them by means of the ritual of the old religion and sells his soul to obtain occult power form them. An example of such magic is provided in the religion of Yezidis, or ‘Worshippers of Satan.’ Though fully recognising the Magian dualisms, the sect pays homage only to the principle of evil.

Probably much of the magic of the Middle Ages was of this origin, and my be traced to an impious abuse of older theogonies. We propose to follow these decade developments in he chapter dealing with the position of the Cat in witchcraft.

The wonderful religion of the ancient Egyptians, like other creeds, was evolved from crude commencements. Originally this people had no conception of a soul. Life was a breath, a fluidic motive power which vanished suddenly when its possessor fell into that state which we call death, characterized by the absence of breath and movement, the cessation of consciousness, the corruption of the flesh, and final destruction for the body. The three first mentioned phenomena constantly occurred without bringing about the state of death, as in sleep, hypnotism, catalepsy, swooning, etc., in which, after a varying lapse of time the individual returned to life.

The only apparent difference between deep unconsciousness and death is that when the latter takes place decomposition follows. It was therefore an obvious inference from observed facts that if tit was possible to prevent decomposition, life would return tot he body, as it did when the sleeper awoke from his dreams.

Thus the Egyptians reasoned that death ought to be considered as a merely temporary suspension of life which might be remedied by the resources of magic, if these were applied before decomposition commenced. Hence their practice of mummifying and embalming the corpse, and employing magic ritual or Mysteries.

Although we are accustomed to-day to think of the moon, when personified, as feminine in gender, in many ancient religions it was represented by a masculine or hermaphrodite deity, and its association with a goddess was a development from the older idea.

We have already noted that the cat-headed goddess Bast is the feminine aspect of the creator-demiurge Ptah, the most ancient of all the gods. ‘The divine and primordial intelligence and wisdom,’ ‘He who is self-existent,’ the ‘Giver of Life.’ Ptah, as the primitive Egyptian conception of the personified sun, is said to have generated The Sacred Bull, Apis, the symbol of fecundity in Nature, by a ray of light. His name signifies ‘He who opens,’ and is suggestive of his dual functions as God of Life, and God of Death, the Opener of the dark prisons of the womb and of the tomb. Not only as the representative of the Sun, but also because of tis connection with Bast the cat was a secondary symbol of Ptah. In later Egyptian allegory, Osiris usurped the place of Ptah as the god of Life and reproduction, and, though a sun-god, was said to inhabit the Moon. Plutarch describes and Egyptian festival, entitled ‘The Ingress of Osiris into the Moon,’ which has a phallic significance. And in a Louvre papyrus referring to the supposed influence of the Moon on generation, we read: ‘Couplings and conceptions abound when he (Osiris-Lunus) is seen in Heaven on that day.'”

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