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One of our foremost interpreters of myth argues that it is essential to all culture: the factory reset of human consciousness

“Absolutely fascinating. I think you've touched on so many absorbing and important topics here that it will be wonderful to read the whole thing. I can hardly think of anything more valuable, and I salute you for having the ambition to take it on.” Philip Pullman

"Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”

In The Hidden Matrix, I will explore the world's mythology for answers to these perennial questions posed by Paul Gauguin. The Hidden Matrix is a very ambitious book, examining the nature, meaning, and importance of myth throughout the world and all through human history. And I want to link all that in with neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology, and anthropology, and religion. I want, in fact, to explain why myth has been and remains so crucially important to us.

I've been obsessed by myth since childhood. It seems to me that the need to create myths is a deeply rooted element of human consciousness. With one curious exception in the Amazon, every human culture that we know of has had its myths, its gods and goddesses, its superhuman heroes and heroines, and the richness of that mythology mirrors and expresses the essential nature and values of that culture.

To explore the great treasure chest of the world’s mythologies is to access a vast database of knowledge and creative thinking, and to unlock the secrets of our own minds. Myth is the name we give the metaphors through which we reconcile the world we see with the world we perceive. Myths are mental structures before they are narratives; concepts first, stories second. They are, in effect, tools, as real and as useful as a hand-axe or a computer. Myths offer us stories and metaphors of how the world was created, and how it will end, life and love and death and everything in between - good and evil, moral ambiguity, the relationship between the visible world and the world of the spirits, the nature of divinity, ecology and civilisation and the meaning of time. Essentially, each society’s myths are a pattern-book for every aspect of that society’s culture. If we were imaginative enough, we could recreate the culture from the myths.

Mythology is the hidden matrix of the human mind, a deep structure hard-wired into the human brain. I believe that language, mythology, and religion evolved together, necessarily intertwined, and that the metaphorical thinking that shapes both myth and speech is the ground of all human culture. The territory of myth is also the territory of the poetic imagination. In a sense, this is a book about the poetics of belief, and how that poetry has shaped and been shaped by the innate human need for stories and storytelling. Let me take you with me every step of the way on my journey into the mythworld.

Neil Philip's passion for mythology was kindled as a child and has remained key to his thinking throughout his life. He has published a number of books on the subject, including Mythology (with Philip Wilkinson), Annotated Myths and Legends, Eyewitness Mythology, and The Illustrated Book of Myths (all Dorling Kindersley), Mythology of the World (Kingfisher), Myths in Minutes (Quercus), The Great Mystery: Myths of Native America (Clarion), and Odin's Family: Myths of the Vikings (Orchard). Neil's first book, A Fine Anger: A Critical Introduction to the Work of Alan Garner, was published in 1981, and he is currently working on an updated edition of this. Other books include The Cinderella Story, The Penguin Book of English Folktales, The Penguin Book of Scottish Folktales, translations of Perrault, Andersen, and Grimm, the novel The Tale of Sir Gawain, and three books of poetry. He is also the editor of The New Oxford Book of Children's Verse. Among a number of awards and honours, Neil's book Horse Hooves and Chicken Feet: Mexican Folktales won the Aesop Award of the American Folklore Society. Neil is married to the artist Emma Bradford. They live in the Cotswolds with two cats. Outside myth, folklore, and poetry, Neil's chief interests lie in the visual arts and the pleasures of friendship.


Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Paul Gauguin

The beast’s massive ochre shoulders were hunched in readiness to charge. Its eye, limned with charcoal, still glimmered with inner life, after the passage of perhaps 25,000 years.

It was a bison. All around it, living, dying, were other creatures. Horses, red deer, boar. And the outline of a human hand upon the wall.

In that Ice Age bison in the caves of Altamira in northern Spain, I recognised an essential life force. It was the summer of 1969, and I was fourteen years old.

This was an experience of a different order to any other. One of those experiences you seal up inside yourself, against the day you might hope to understand them. I closed my eyes and let the images shimmer on the back of my lids.

In descending into the magically-charged atmosphere of Altamira, I trod in the footsteps of an Ice Age shaman on a vision quest, seeking in the stillness and darkness to merge into the spirit world.

When cave paintings such as those at Altamira and Lascaux were first discovered in the late nineteenth century, they were dismissed as obvious hoaxes. Clearly such potent works of art were beyond the mental or aesthetic capabilities of the primitive hunter-gatherers of the Upper Palaeolithic.

But they were not hoaxes. Instead, they offer us a direct link to the intellectual and spiritual world of our earliest ancestors. Partly through comparison with cultures such as that of the San Bushmen of the Kalahari, and partly through painstaking enquiry into the evolution of the mind, we can, with our twenty-first century minds, even begin to decode the meaning and importance of these extraordinary artworks.

The earliest rock art found, in the Chauvet Cave, dates back around 32,000 years. The modern humans of western Europe in the Upper Palaeolithic (who lived from about 45,000 to about 10,000 years ago, and created the paintings in the Chauvet Cave, Lascaux, and Altamira) demonstrate a command of abstract thinking, symbolic behaviour, and image-making that strongly suggest that what we think of as human consciousness (the sense of an “I” who is in control of an individual’s private mindspace) had already emerged in the period of the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition, between 45,000 and 35,000 years ago. This emerging consciousness was the crucible in which culture, art, language, and religion were alchemised into what we know as mythology.

Although the cave paintings are stunningly beautiful (Picasso observed simply, “After Altamira, all is decadence”), the motive for creating them was primarily religious rather than aesthetic. That is, they were painted not to be admired, but to be used, in shamanic rituals of transformation and ecstasy. The paintings themselves, representing either spirit animals or shamans transformed into animals, appear to be at least in part attempts to interpret the involuntary “back-of-the-retina” patterns known as entoptic phenomena, such as dots, grids, zigzags, and meanders. These patterns are as familiar now as they were in the Ice Age. Asserting themselves in the twilight zone between wakefulness and sleep, or between vision and hallucination, they may be the wellspring of mankind’s earliest art.

In the altered states of consciousness sought by the shaman, and the mind’s capacity for hallucination, lie the origins of all religious experience. In caves such as Altamira, the shamans of the Ice Age penetrated into the realm of the spirits.

My own descent into the caves of Altamira affected me deeply. It was, I know now, a sense of the sacred that lit the flame within me.

I am writing these words on a limestone ridge in the Cotswolds, England, looking down the Wychwood valley; a valley that itself was once at the bottom of the ocean. A spring that rises in my garden is streaming down to join the river Evenlode, and eventually the Thames. Dotted through the landscape are fragmentary patches of ancient woodland, part of the original Wychwood Forest.

This landscape—its streams, its rivers, its groves, its valleys, its hills—was once sacred to the Dobunni, the British tribe who built their hillfort on this ridge in the Iron Age, and who were later known as the Hwicce. The name Wychwood comes from Hwicce, and it means “forest of the sacred vessel”; the earlier name Dobunni means something like “the people of the goddess of the sacred vessel”.

That sacred vessel was simultaneously the valley itself, a Grail-like cauldron of plenty, and the womb of the Great Goddess.

The myth world surrounds and supports me, just as it did in Altamira.


A Cultural Revolution in Ancient Egypt

Thursday, 10 May 2018

The social function of myth is to bind a society together, to act as a charter for its laws and customs, and to embed a culture in its environment. The advantage of myth in performing this role lies in its innate flexibility. Societies and cultures develop and change, sometimes slowly, sometimes in precipitous leaps. Myth is supple enough to accommodate even calamitous change and gloss it over with…

The Father of All Trees

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

One of the most interesting aspects of living mythological systems is how flexible and adaptable they are, easily able to accomodate new realities. I've just come across a charming example of this in The Faith of a Coast Salish Indian by Diamond Jenness. Published in 1955 as Anthropology in British Columbia Memoir no. 3, this monograph was based on interviews in 1936 with "Old Pierre, a Katzie man…

Belief Systems

Thursday, 29 March 2018

I think it fair to describe mythologies as belief systems. They are flexible and subject to change both over time and between communities and even individuals, but they contain within themselves a whole world view, coherent and complete in itself.

            But are different mythologies incompatible with each other? The answer, surprisingly, is no. One mythology can simply swallow another whole…

Scoundrel of the Sun

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

 Actions that breach a society's sense of morality may cause outrage or amusement; actions that undermine a society's sense of mythology may cause it to doubt its own validity. When the Emperor Caligula fell in love with his horse Incitatus, it was seen as an eccentric joke; distasteful, but nothing to get worried about. But when in CE220, the Emperor born Varius Avitus Bassianus married the Vestal…


Monday, 19 February 2018

Because we mostly encounter myths as written texts, we are inclined to regard them as essentially narratives made out of words. But of course the printed text on the page radically misrepresents the essential nature of mythtelling. Even if a myth is delivered as an oral narrative, it is a spoken text, and dependent on all kinds of variables to do with audience, context, purpose, and the teller themselves…

Greek city-states and emplaced myth

Sunday, 11 February 2018

The foundation myths of city-states were crucial to the morale of the citizens, binding patriotism and common interest with a thread of divine authority. When we think of the mythology of the ancient Greeks, we think of a pantheon of gods and a sequence of stories about them. But to the Greeks themselves, myth was intensely local. Pausanias's Guide to Greece chronicles all kinds of local cults, from…


Wednesday, 7 February 2018

In 1734, in his Principles of a New Science, Giambattista Vico launched the search for a universal “language of the mind”. This quest was pursued in the 20th century by scholars of linguistics, such as Noam Chomsky. When I conceived this book, my idea of myth as “the hidden matrix” of the human mind was consciously modelled on Chomsky’s notion of universal grammar, an inbuilt linguistic instinct shared…

Myth and the Blues

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

To define myth in a single sentence is as foolhardy as to attempt to define poetry—which doesn’t, of course, stop people trying. The definition of myth that has always rung truest for me is that of the filmmaker and anthropologist Maya Deren.

In the 1940s, Maya Deren plunged headfirst into the whirlpool of Haitian voodoo, in an attempt to understand myth from the inside. When she re-emerged—having…

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