Animals that become human, humans that become animals
Monday, 24 February 2020
We are used to thinking of humans and other animals as two mutually exclusive categories. The idea that the human-animal barrier can be breached, and that one category of being can transform into the other, survives only in the idea of the werewolf, and the idea of the werewolf is a literary and filmic device rather than a living belief.
Yet in many mythologies, especially those of peoples…
The Afterlife Journey
Wednesday, 18 September 2019
Making preparations this week for the funeral of my father-in-law, who has passed away at the age of 99, I’ve naturally been thinking about ideas of death and the afterlife in other cultures. Not just the great texts such as the Bardo Thodol or the Book of Coming Forth By Day, respectively known as the Tibetan and Egyptian Books of the Dead, but also mysterious items such as the gold plates buried…
Thoughts about the Muggletonians
Friday, 16 August 2019
When the philosophical or religious foundation of a mythology is under severe stress, either from reform or attack from within, from the pressures of war, famine, or plague, or from usurpation by a rival mythology, that mythology can either implode or explode. Myth erupts into everyday life with powerful forces of creation and destruction.
This is what happened in the Amarna period in Ancient…
Tuesday, 2 July 2019
It’s very easy when writing about a mythology to present it as a coherent monolithic belief system. I try to be constantly alert to the flexibility of myth, the way it mutates and transforms, not just over time but in the perception of different groups and different individuals.
A new book, Myth, Materiality and Lived Religion in Merovingian and Viking Scandinavia (ed. Wikström af Edholm et.…
A Man of Two Mythologies
Monday, 15 April 2019
In the summers of 1890 and 1891, anthropologist Franz Boas was researching the Salishan peoples of Washington and Oregon. Among “the once powerful tribes of the Clatsop and Chinook”, he could find only three people who partially remembered the Clatsop language and none who remembered the myths, and only two people, Charles Cultee (Q¡Eltē’) and Catherine, who could still speak Chinook. Even they in…
Tuesday, 15 January 2019
Happy New Year, everyone. Here are a few thoughts about Navajo rugs and their mythological significance, indebted to an excellent book Navajo Weaving Way by Noël Bennett and Tiana Bighorse.
Diné (Navajo) life is founded on a simple philosophical principle: sa’ah naagháí bik’eh hózhóón; in English, “the beauty of life created by the application of teachings that work.” In action, this principle…
The Ritual Year
Wednesday, 12 December 2018
Myth establishes ties of mutual obligation between mankind and the gods, establishes cultural cohesion, and shapes the cycle of the year.
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 ritual year is not an abstraction, but an armature on which our lives are sculpted. Even the days of our week…
Some Thoughts on Myth and Science
Thursday, 15 November 2018
Sorry for the long delay between Unbound updates - I've been working so hard on the book, and the tweets and what-have-you, I realise I have been short-changing my long-suffering subscribers. So here are some thoughts on myth and science. I expect the section on Isaac Luria's mythological "big bang" will evolve, as a new book on his kabbalistic thought arrived just this morning, and a translation…
Christianity and Paganism
Sunday, 12 August 2018
While it has proved possible for Christianity in a few cases to absorb the energies and mould itself to the mental patterns of existing belief-structures, as with the Zinacantecs in Mexico or the Nuxalk in British Columbia, more usually Christianization has required a complete break with the previous “pagan” religion. The anthropologist Raymond Firth was able to observe this process up close with…
Maps of Meaning?
Wednesday, 20 June 2018
A controversial book by psychologist Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, has brought back into vogue the ideas about mythology as embodying universal mental archetypes first put forward by Carl Jung, and promulgated by Joseph Campbell. Now, I don’t want to get into a whole review of Maps of Meaning, except to say that I fundamentally disagree with this approach, and any…
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…
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…
THE HIDDEN MATRIX?
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…