The Mythological Us

I’ve been reading about the ancient Spartans and how research has determined they weren’t as ‘spartan’ as mythology would suggest, that, in fact, they were as unwilling to put themselves in life-threatening situations as anyone else and that they appreciated the arts of poetry and music.

This revelation has me thinking about what sort of mythology might evolve from our contemporary reality in, say, 2000 years’ time. Given that history is a narrative and stories are interpreted and change, one wonders how we’ll be seen. I’m thinking the images of our modern selves won’t be all that wonderful. There will be good things to think about us I suppose: our intellectual energy producing, as we have, wonders in medicine, science and communication technologies, but any overview of contemporary us by our future descendants will have to take into account the dubious ethical behaviors we’ve engaged in the fight to control the earth’s resources and claim the wealth as our own.

Whatever future mythology develops about us from the actions of our twenty-first century selves is pretty hard to guess; I’m just hoping there are folks still around to make an evaluation.

Upon Reflection

I’ve been reading about the history of the mirror: how the idea of ‘reflection’ took on new meaning over time.

Humankind has, of course, been aware of the reflected image since pre-historic man first gazed into a still pond. The dangers of such a discovery became apparent in Greek mythology when Narcissus, realizing his beauty, became obsessed with his reflection, fell into despair his love of self could never be requited, killed himself and was reborn as a flower (curious but fitting, I suppose).

By the Renaissance pretty much everyone had access to mirrors. It didn’t turn all Italians narcissistic but the focus on personal appearance brought about by the availability of the reflected image profoundly affected the way people everywhere thought about themselves. Gazing into a mirror makes the gazer aware of his (or her) unique oneness. Social relationships become more complex. The individual, aware of her (or his) physical attributes easily assumed an expectation of relative worth beyond the status assigned by other means such as social rank, wealth or useful contribution to society. Visual presentation: grooming habits, manner of dress hair styling became increasingly significant and for some cultures border(ed) on the ridiculous.

I must admit to remembering preening in my teen years. Now I purposely avoid mirrors whenever possible. But, as my physical appearance has become less photogenic I find my psychological well-being not as dependent on visual presentation. One of the advantages of ageing, I guess.

Seeking God-Master Carpenter

The rich mythology of the Northwest Pacific coast cultures identifies a number of characters that seem likely to have god-like potential. One of these, among the Haida, is Master Carpenter who taught the people how to carve and paint the meaningful imagery that appears on the clan houses.

The story goes that before the people knew very much about art Master Carpenter appeared in a halo of light. He told the Haida to go inside their houses and no matter what they might hear during the night, not to rise from their beds. Even though much pounding and scraping and other noises were heard the people did as they were told. In the morning they found their houses decorated with magnificent carved corner poles and the walls painted with beautiful clan totem designs. Then Master Carpenter told the people he would return each day to teach them the arts of carving and painting.

So, I’m wondering if the Haida people saw Master Carpenter as God. You’ve got the halo and the unreal amount of art produced in a very short time which is pretty potent if not omnipotent. It seems to pretty clearly place him into the realm of the supernatural at least.

I would think that, for the carvers and painters, he should carry a lot of weight-someone to appeal to for inspiration, thank for well-received work and blame for poor performance. I’m just not sure, after he did his initial teaching, how much he continues to hang around.

There’s no doubt he could be useful but I’m not sure he belongs on the short list.

mastercarpenter

 

 

Kinship

I was reading recently about the Tlingit people of the northwest Pacific coast. They have an incredibly rich mythology illustrated and enhanced by the beautifully crafted art they create.

Much of their mythology focuses on the close relationship of the people with their animal kin. At one time, it’s believed, all life was one until Raven released the sun. Then, in the light, the people scattered: some to the woods where they assumed four legs and heightened senses of smell and sight, some to the air where they became the birds and some to the sea becoming fish.

And still, the kinship remains a sacred connection with all sentient life, which is not to say these people are all vegetarians.

But, I don’t think they should be thought of as cannibals either. I think the animal in his self-sacrifice is offering himself for the good of the clan. And, I think the people recognize this.

Anyway, a lot of stories are told through the exquisitely carved poles these people continue to produce about the inter-relationships between clansmen and animals. In some cases, like the story of Kat and his bear wife unions are formed and progeny produced reinforcing the notion of kinship considerably.

I think the concept is a good one. Respect for all life forms and the knowledge of our mutual dependence upon one another bodes well for our extended existence.

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