Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Myth and History

Scholars like to classify things. Genre is a big deal in a lot of academia. My own discipline, folklore, began with genres, and it thrived in the early twentieth century based on that. The relationship between myth and folktales still gets some attention, and when people ask what I study, I usually list genres for them: myth, legend, folktale, festival...So it's always good to be reminded that in everyday practice, people don't care about these distinctions a whole lot. Here's Dennis Tedlock, writing about the Mayan text called the Popol Vuh:

We tend to think of myth and history as being in conflict with each other, but the authors of the transcriptions at Palenque and the alphabetic text of the Popol Vuh treated the mythic and historical parts of their narratives as belonging to a single, balanced whole. By their sense of proportion, the Egyptian Book of the Dead would need a second half devoted to human deeds in the land of the living, and the Hebrew Testament would need a first half devoted to events that took place before the fall of Adam and Eve. In the case of ancient Chinese literature, the Book of Changes, which is like the Popol Vuh in being subject to divinatory interpretation, would have to be combined with the Book of History in a single volume.

To this day the Quiche Maya think of dualities in general as complementary rather than opposed, interpenetrating rather than mutually exclusive. Instead of being in logical opposition to one another, the realms of divine and human act9ions are joined by a mutual attraction. If we had an English word that fully expressed the Mayan sense of narrative time, it would have to embrace the duality of the divine and the human in the same way the Quiche term kajulew or "sky-earth" preserves the duality of what we call the "world." In fact, we already have a word that comes close to doing the job: mythistory, taken into English from Greek by way of Latin. For the ancient Greeks, who set about driving a wedge between the divine and the human, this term became a negative one, designating narratives that should have been properly historical but contained mythic impurities. For Mayans, the presence of a divine dimension in narratives of human affairs is not an imperfection but a necessity, and it is balanced by a necessary human dimension in narratives of divine affairs. At one end of the Popol Vuh the gods are preoccupied with the difficult task of making humans, and at the other humans are preoccupied with the equally difficult task of finding the traces of divine movements in their own deeds.

Myths are often about patterns (Eliade's Myth of the Eternal Return foregrounds this aspect). Think of patterns as not merely something observed, but more like a set of instructions: myth as a sewing pattern, used to cut out and stitch together the future. N.K. Jemesin, in an essay I want to be able to find easily, writes,

Myths tell us what those like us have done, can do, should do. Without myths to lead the way, we hesitate to leap forward. Listen to the wrong myths, and we might even go back a few steps.

I wish I would have written that, and written it that well.

There's a lot to say about this topic. I used to enjoy rereading mythologies just to pinpoint the precise moment when myth became history. Expulsion from Eden, Wangetsmuna blowing the horn that freezes all the animals in their present forms, stuff like that. I stopped doing that, in part because I think I realized that the dividing lines by which scholarship thrives don't always apply in the quotidian world. There are numerous worldviews present in the world today, and in many of them, that line between myth and history simply doesn't exist.

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