Why should we be interested in the myths of long ago?
Mythology is still important because, although we talk about theses stories as ‘ancient’, we have not changed much over the millennia. The supernatural beings of the mythic world are larger than life. Their passions, desires and anger are much bigger than our everyday lives, and that is the point. These stories are not about the day to day life skills we need to manage our lives. They are about the really big stuff. They lie beyond the space where there is a simple choice between right and wrong. Rather than the world of goals and achievements we enter the world of fate and destiny. It can be messy but nobody can say that the old gods were unauthentic or halfhearted.
Some of this stuff doesn’t seem to make much sense.
Not in a normal way, no. It is a deeper and weirder way of being in the world. The chaotic and extreme nature of the stories are about the bits of ourselves that don’t get much attention in normal life. Myths only seem strange from the outside. Once you are inside them the mythic world is utterly believable with its own logic and patterns. Don’t go looking for lessons either. There are no rewards for being good and honourable intentions do not guarantee a good outcome.
Isn’t that a bit depressing?
Tough and realistic rather than depressing. There is an example of why mythology is still important in Hindu scripture. One of the greatest mythological cycles is the Hindu epic the Mahabarata from India. The hero Arjuna is about to face an army made up of his close relatives. His charioteer is the god Krishna (aka Vishnu, Rama etc) and Arjuna tells him that he cannot and will not fight. Krishna’s reply has come down to us as the scripture ‘The Bhagavad Gita’ and is summed up in the phrase “Plunge into the heat of battle and keep your heart at the lotus feet of the Lord.”
Gwydion – Welsh trickster
There is a character in the Welsh epic cycle the Mabinogion, called Gwydion. He is a magician and storyteller and the king’s nephew and is powerful and talented. He is also a terrible mischief maker and stirs up trouble wherever he goes. Gwydion has the gift of the gab and lets other people think his words mean one thing when, in fact, he is going to do another. He does not act out of a sense of greed or gain but just for the fun of doing it. In many ways he does good things. For example he goes to the Otherworld and brings back great and magical treasures. He also rescues Lleu (a kind of sun god) who has been stabbed with a spear and transformed into an eagle. Gwydion searches for him and eventually finds him sheltering, emaciated and near death, at the top of an oak tree. Gwydion sings a song, praising the tree that shelters Lleu, and slowly and painfully the eagle comes down to Gwydion’s arms.
This is a beautiful and touching moment but this is a character who also deliberately starts a war so that his brother can have his wicked way with one of the king’s most important maidservants. He is punished in ways that would make your eyes water but never seems to learn his lesson or mend his ways. He is a fascinating and compelling character and I am lucky enough to be telling his story in the show Dreaming the Night Field.
Mythology is still important – and for Grown-ups
Does this remind you of anything or anyone? Gwydion has great gifts and is capable of acts of humanity and bravery. On the other hand, he will willfully put the safety of himself and others in danger just for the pure joy of doing something that nobody else can. This complex mixing of good and evil is a very grown-up view of the world and another reason why mythology is still important.
Trickster Makes the World
These trickster characters appear in lots of world mythologies. Gwydion bears comparison with many Native American tricksters. They are talented and magical but unpredictable and dangerous. During their adventures they change sex and have children. They are culture heroes and bring great gifts to humanity. On the other hand, they are capable of terrible harm without feeling the slightest twinge of conscience. The other great trickster that springs to my mind is Loki in Norse Mythology. He makes life so miserable for the other gods that they sew his mouth shut. He escapes, of course, and his final act of chaotic trickery is to cause the end of the world when all the nine worlds are destroyed. It is called Ragnarok and the world is eaten by a huge serpent and the sun and moon is gobbled up by a wolf. These two terrifying creatures are Loki’s children.
If mythology is still important, how does this help us today?
It’s not for me to tell you how to respond to any kind of story, let alone a myth. However, if we just accept the story as a story on its own terms the doors of the imagination start to open. It is not a matter of ‘belief’, more a willing suspension of disbelief, to quote Coleridge. Making our way in the world with these stories inside us, we have more resilience against the chaos and cruelty of the world. The frame becomes much wider than our own well-being and what might happen tomorrow. It allows us to take things less personally. After all, the world owes us no favours so we just do what we can as best we can.
The gods may not all be great moral exemplars but there are some things we have in common with them. What is important to them is also important to us – good food, family and love. And that is why mythology is still important.