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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