The Language of Myth, Part 2: Tall Stories

True Adventures!Modern storytelling technology.  Art by Frank Cozzorelli


A story I have heard runs:

‘Once there was a people free of want, though at times the rain brought chill, and the winter, hunger.  They lived and told stories, and saw their hearts reflected in the face of the land, and when they died, they died knowing their spirits and ancestors attended them.  One day strange people came, who spoke with harsh voices and wore clothing like armor.  The strangers said, “what we desire we take, and what we take we ruin until we no longer desire it, and this is the Only True Way.  The world is made of nothing but things for us to take- you are all things, the mountains are things, the trees and all the animals, also.  We, too, are but things to one another, and this is the Only True Way.  Your spirits and your ancestors are lies you tell yourselves because, despite your smiles and welcoming gestures, despite your fitness and health, you are more miserable even than we.  You must worship a spirit as miserable as we know you to be (for we can never be mistaken) for this is the Only True Way.  The Names of this spirit are many, though you will know It by Its effect.  Some call our one true god Commerce, others Government.  Some know It as Technology, Church, Science, Literacy, Bureaucracy, Law, or Power, but all must accede that whatever the Name, it is the Only True Way.”  And the people looked at one another and said (for they were a courteous people) “what you speak of is difficult to understand, so far below your god-like magnificence are we.  Pray, tell us how you, in your wisdom, would have us live.”  The strangers looked at one another with lean and hungry faces, and the leanest and hungriest of them all then spoke, “you must submit to my will, for I am the loneliest, the fiercest, the vainest, the most callous of my people, so is status accorded among us.  What I decree, you must perform on pain of torture.  I desire the wood of the forests, that I might hide myself from the attention of the world; kill them all and build with their bodies a gilded cage.  I desire the comeliest of your maidens, that I might frighten them and destroy their self worth, for so do my people take our pleasure.  I desire that all should suffer as I suffer, for perhaps then I will not feel so lonely, so fierce, so vain, and so callous.  You must destroy your gardens and cease your conversation with the birds of the air and the plants of the wood, for we find this threatening though we do not know why.  You must dig up the earth and grow these weak and short-lived plants in the ruin, and you must never again eat of the fruits of the wild.  You must spend your days in pain and boredom, for this is the Only True Way.  You must learn to fear those who can harm you, and harm those who do not yet fear you, until all are fearful of all.  You must forget that it was ever otherwise, for there is only one true story, and we are so generous that we shall share it with you.”  A pregnant silence grew about the assembled crowd, and uncertain looks were exchanged.  “You ask much of us, strangers,” one of the people said, “you offer us a life of drudgery, forgetfulness, fear, agony, and confusion, yet you seem so certain that it is the only true way.  I wonder what great misfortune has disordered your thoughts so, and if we might aid you in your healing.”  The strangers then seized upon that one and tore her apart before setting her body aflame.  “She did not follow the Only True Way,” was all the strangers said in explanation.  The people were unnerved, but seeing the great potency of the strangers, they acceded, and submitted, and were drained of life and filled with the ravening emptiness of the Only True Way.  “Thou good and faithful servants,” the strangers declared, gimlet eyes gleaming, “you have served us well.  Though your toil has been long and difficult, and though you have endured much hardship, look what changes you have brought upon the face of the land:  Where once were lush forests and meadows are now amber waves of grain and whirring, dead, metropoleis.  Where once were rivers strong, free, and clear are now neatly caged reservoirs, teeming with contagion.  Where once the air was pure and the water sweet are now black clouds and poisonous sludge.  It is a small pity, perhaps, that our desire for the bodies of the earth have resulted in such ugliness, hazard, and ruination, but such is the inevitable price of the Only True Way.  Turn your sight away from these unpleasantnesses, look not at your brothers and sisters confined by chains to benches where they shed their lives in meaningless labor.  Gaze instead on such wonders as we have wrought!”  And the people looked and saw towers of metal and stone.  They saw forests hewn into books, where the Only True Way was said to dwell.  They saw acres of buzzing, whirring machines.  They felt their bellies always full, though of what they did not know.  Their eyes were dazzled by bright lights and their ears bombarded with new sounds.  And the people knew the glory that was Lady Gaga and High Speed Internet, and there was much rejoicing, for their every want was answered.  They had come to know the Only True Way, and the people became as strangers to themselves, forever.’

A myth is a true story.  Let me explain what I mean:  The word ‘myth’ comes to us directly from the Greek mythos, meaning both a narrative story and any of its component words.  In this sense, a myth is holographic (i.e. every individual part contains the pattern of the whole) and indeed it would not be too far to guess that at one point in the history of the eastern Mediterranean the whole of the world was taken to be a sort of story, of which every narrative action or spoken word was an integral and defining part.  Mythos emerged through some process of migration and recombination from the very old Proto-Indo-European root mm (pronounced, ‘mu’) one of the most foundational of our onomatopoetic vocabulary.  Mm represents the first noises made by infants, the cooing, gurgling hum that forms the basis for every language thereafter learned.  ‘Myth’, then, refers to a story of primordial origin and impact that relates the teller and the audience in an integral way with the rest of the universe.  The folk-definition of  ‘myth’ as an obviously untrue story (usually valued highly by some foreign, unsophisticated nation of people) is quite recent, dating only to the 1840’s, though the barbarous practice of disparaging the stories of others is a firm standard of Western textual religions, shared by contemporary sects from Shia Islam to textbook science.

The word ‘true’ comes to us intact from the indigenous Germanic languages of the formerly dense Northern European woodlands.  The Proto-Germanic trewwjaz refers to one characterized by good faith, trustworthiness, or reliability.  Delve deeply enough, and eventually we get to the Proto-Indo-European root shared by so many of our good words: dru, or tree.  In the forests of old Europe, the gold-standards of reliability were the trees, especially the great oaks that once grew in glades across the continent.  To be compared to a tree was the ultimate compliment on one’s honesty, hence our modern word.  These roots appear to have been forgotten relatively recently.  The word ‘true’ was coopted by the Church in the 1200’s, its definition deliberately altered from ‘honest and reliable’ to ‘consistent with fact’ (i.e. orthodox interpretation of Biblical scripture).  By the 1500’s ‘true’ had been reinterpreted by the scholastic establishment to mean ‘agreement to a given standard’, which is the sense we frequently use it in today (a “true” story doesn’t contain anything smacking of mystery, spirit, numinosity, imagination, or anything else anomalous under the dominant paradigm).  Interestingly, the true/false dichotomy only emerged in 1923, as a type of question on tests given out as part of a move to mechanize education to a state of ‘agreement with a given standard’.  The increasing narrowness in meaning of this formerly quite beautiful word follows the trend in our culture’s history of increasing authoritarian and bureaucratic power, greater disassociation from wild nature, including the wild and irregular aspects of our selves, and rising faith in the written word and the say-so of distant authorities over local oral history and direct experience.  Every word tells a story; the ending is not yet written.

Myths, be they sagas of legendary heroes, trickster tales, esoteric metaphors for cosmic principles, teaching stories, comic stories, mysterious stories that begin in the middle and have no endings, mnemonic models of the creation of the universe, or any of a hundred other types are essential to the health of human communities.  The archetypal heroes, monsters (from the Latin monstrum: a sign, portent, or warning) guides, spirits, and antagonists of well-remembered myths are the strong threads that a human being weaves her unique life around.  When fear and uncertainty loom large, we can gain strength and understanding from these archetypes and progress through the trials of our lives undaunted.  Good myths warn us against taking actions that have led to disaster in the past, and encourage us to stretch our comfort zones to secure heroic feats.  By celebrating certain types of deeds and condemning others, myths play a role in the determination of a society’s values and the behavior of its members; there is something to be learned from the global distribution of the archetypes of antagonistic braggart and humble savior.

‘…In the darkest of his days, his family killed by the machinations of enemies, Hiawatha wandered vaguely south, his thoughts contorted by sorrow.  He trudged across many lands, unmindful of winter’s bite or spring’s caress, until he reached the edge of a wide reed-filled lake.  Uncaring, he continued to walk on, though he would meet his end submerged in the mud.  Ducks and geese, seeing the depths of his despair, took pity on the exile and stooped to bear the water away from his path, that he might cross to the other side.  As the water was carried away, Hiawatha looked down and noticed the bright white shells of freshwater clams glinting in the black mud of the lake bottom.  He collected these shells, and on the far back stopped to string them into patterns expressing his grief.  He stayed on the shore for many days, contemplating the condolences he had woven out of the fruits of the lake, before rising, his grief assuaged, to share his tale and resume his diplomatic mission…’

Legends like this one, part of the Haudenosaunee epic cycle of the Peacemaker, act as bridges between events and experiences of the present generation and those of the ancestors’ times.  In cultures where history isn’t just a collection of names and dates, the lessons taught by past events are recalled significantly, with relatively little loss of meaning over time.  The traumas of the Five Nations War were remembered ever afterward for the next 2,000 years, and indeed the member nations of the Haudenosaunee confederacy never again made war on one another.  Imagine if the stories we told about wars between nations had a human-scale focus, rather than looking at the largely meaningless flow of abstracted violence on sketchily-imagined battlefields.  What would we feel should we recall the experience of even one child orphaned by the Battle of New Orleans?  How might we act if we kept such a felt understanding close to heart?

Mythic archetypes provide a unique framework to make sense of the shifting passions and conflicted experiences of even the healthiest of lives.  Who has not felt the pangs of alienation endured by the Tzutujil Raggedy Boy, the comfort of the Lydian Bellerophon in his partnership with Pegasus, the exultation of the Indian Hanuman as he crested the parapets of Ravana’s fortress, or the sense of mystery and doom endured by the Thracian Orpheus in his descent into the Underworld?  But these are not the stories of our peoples.

Complementary to the good work of healing neglected wildlands, ailing urban and agricultural ecosystems, and communities removed by cultural illusion from their home lands, we permaculturalists must also pay some attention to the sphere of our communications.  A story told with thin heart and inconstant intention could lead to the collapse of a carefully designed garden though the ground be vibrant for a time.  I argue that those oral technologies we characterize as mythic are of great utility to us in this “work that reconnects”.  Here are some ways we might reintegrate myth into every-day communication, and begin to cultivate meaning in the ground of our exchanges:

1.  Learn stories by heart, and tell them frequently.

Many people have a born knack for telling tales.  Sometimes we say they have ‘the gift of the gab’, or we call them orators or writers.  Nurture these people, and goad them into loosening their word-hoards, that they might practice and excel, and that the audience might learn and be amused.  If you are one of these people with a latent storytelling ability, exercise it!  Learn stories by ear and by book, but where possible tell them from memory or by heart.  A story told from a book isn’t quite a story; there’s something incomplete about a tale held in rigid words formed by a personally unknown other.  Stories must be given the freedom to tell themselves through the body and voice of the skald.  Other people’s stories are good to know, better if they’ve been given to you directly by another story-teller.  The benefit of stories, and the point where entertainment becomes education and stories become myth, lies in the ability of the storyteller to bring them to wild life.  Tell dramatized versions of important dreams, tales of feats and mighty deeds by fellow community members or ancestors, characterized stories of the nonhumans in your neighborhood.  The timing and purpose of storytelling also affects the growing future of the local culture.  No matter how evocatively you tell them, stories told exclusively as entertainment lose some of their latent power.  Powerful myths must be treated as such, so as to properly impress their importance on the malleable minds of young audience-members, though this does not always mean a grave countenance is required for a strong tale.  Some stories gain power from their location at certain points in the geography of the landscape or the chonology of the year.  Most of the world’s oral traditions mix storytelling with song- something to keep in mind…  When we tell mythic stories we bring a little of the healing magic called ‘imagination’ into the world.

2.  Learn and draw upon the deep poetry of your own language.

I hope the point I’ve been trying to make with my endless lexicographical rambling has by now sunk in a bit: every word tells a story.  Learn a handful of Latin or Greek roots and watch in amazement as the world of scientific terminology opens up like a flower.  Dig deeper and familiarize yourself with some Indo-European phonemes, and the patterns that connect diverse branches on the tree of meaning shift into focus.  Research into wood roots has the added benefit of bringing your own cultural history to life, as questions emerge like, ‘why did this word change meanings at this time?’  Teach this richer form of the language to kids as an antidote to the acronym-ridden nonsense of the contemporary vernacular.  Biology teachers, environmental educators, coyote mentors, and other feral adults:  Ignore the advice of the otherwise excellent Coyote’s Guide; don’t trivialize binomial nomenclature.  Introduce ‘scientific names’ as mystical, magical, secret words that summon up the essence of the creature (Heliomaster constantii, the one mighty by the lord of the sun and constant in his ways, is way cooler than ‘plain-capped starthroat’).  Or, when you’re dealing with something inane like Toxostoma lecontei (LeConte’s arrow-mouth, or ‘LeConte’s thrasher’, as though the fact that entomologist John LeConte once saw one is the most memorable thing about these birds) you can always collectively come up with something more evocative for one or both portions of the name.  Just because a name is written one way in a book doesn’t mean that’s the only name worth using.

3.  Communicate with poetic excellence.

Use beautiful words frequently.  Pay some attention to rhyme and meter, especially in storytelling, teaching, writing, and any other activity that involves a few people speaking and many people listening.  Listening to expert storytellers and orators is a good way to gain some insight into what sorts of constructions work well.  Everyone has their own style though, so don’t get too hung up on imitating the greats.  Descriptive epithets, like the Norse and Old English kennings, are a great way to enrich communication and strengthen the bonds of community.  Calling an automobile ‘road-treader’ rather than ‘the white Subaru’ is a bit more meaningful, just as ‘Sally Frog-Catcher of the house of Martha Pie-Baker’ both sounds fantastic and evokes pride and good feeling, unlike the neutral ‘Sally Jenkins of 32 North Pine Street.’  Machines are anonymous and interchangeable, but we are living human creatures with lives rich in legendary experience- so, speak as though it were so!

4.  Make new words.

Once you have a familiarity with the basic structure of your language, you can mess about a bit, and fill in holes in your vocabulary.  Start from the roots up, so your new words have some connotative link to the rest of the language, and prefer onomatopoetic sounds to arbitrary ones, again for a stronger connotatively meaningful content.  Lewis Carroll was brilliant at this, though many of his ‘portmanteau words’ were regarded, by himself as much as by his contemporaries, as little more than nonsensical amusements.  As always, enthusiasm is no replacement for diligence, and an old word often remains, forgotten at the edge of the vernacular, that will do the job best.  As with honorifics, kennings can serve the purpose of neologisms quite well.  Play around with it, the more people playing the better.  Local food, local markets, and local currencies are all coming into vogue these days, why not local language?

5.  Speak from the heart.

Language loses meaning when lies are common.  Be quite clear about what you mean before you say it, even if that internal awareness is of a lack of personal clarity on the matter at hand.  I was once accused by a student of speaking “like a White Man- with forked tongue” after some rambling introduction in which I inflicted some idiotic standardized test on the class after vehemently protesting my dislike of such educational obstacles.  This would be an example of not meaning what one says; had I genuinely felt the test was not worth the time of my students, I would have found a way around it, or would have invited them to help in brainstorming some lateral solution to the dilemma of departmental authority.  In any event, we make our own realities through language, and its up to us whether or not to accept the realities of others, no matter what hierarchy they may belong to.  Words have power, and we steal away a little of that magic every time we use them inaccurately.  Much of the language we hear in the Westernized world carries intentions of strife and woe.  We live in a culture of euphemism and dysphemism, where the purpose of press releases, news ‘events’, advertising, and scholarly papers is more often than not to delude and dominate.  If we desire to live in a place where people communicate to enlighten, educate, empower, and aid, we must change our way of talking, and be more critical and less tolerant of untrue speech.

This last tenet, of speaking with intention, is far and away the most powerfully transformative of the lot, as it is the one every one of us can do.  It is also the most difficult, as it require us to know ourselves deeply, sometimes uncomfortably so, and to act from those deep places.  Attend to this deed of self-knowing, though, and your own mythology will coalesce even as the illusions of the dominating culture disperse.

The world of machines and endless highways, lit by bright halogen bulbs, the garbage dumps, clearcuts, sweatshops, and slums always somehow hidden in shadow, is undergirded by its own mythology.  On compulsion of a story are forests leveled and children enslaved; on the fragile strings of narrative does one man dance his life to the tune of another.  Our sacred wound, as a people, is a broken story somewhere at the core of what we have come to call the world.  It is a thin myth though, which tells of a man, always a man, pulling himself up by his own bootstraps to lie and steal and hurt without censure.  It’s the story that introduced this essay, but there are others…

‘And so it came to pass in the dark days of the strangers, that there arose among the people those who chafed beneath the yoke.  Within their hearts they felt not the hollowness of the Only True Way, but an echoing richness that seemed to emanate from the ruined forests and blasted hills.  Some remembered that they were not always strangers, but once had been people themselves.  These people were called Witch and Heretic, Kook and Unscientific, Pinko, Hippie, Punk, and Idealist.  Though they were sorely persecuted by the followers of the Only True Way, they persevered, living on in the house of the enemy.  They came to doubt the stories of the coming of the Only True Way, and began to remember a different history:

The strangers did indeed come to the land of the people in olden days, and they bore many strange gifts and veiled threats, but the people were not so easily swayed.  After much council, the fateful words were uttered, “You People Are Nuts.  Go Live Over There And Leave Us Alone.”  And for a time the strangers kept to their allotted lands, nursing their madness and building their strength in secret.  From time to time lone strangers would cross the land, remembering in their hearts that they were people once too.  They were welcomed by the people, and the snakes were combed from the hair of the exiles, and their backs were straightened.  It was whispered that the strangers reserved their direst tortures for those who turned their backs on the Only True Way, and many of the people-who-were-once-strangers were stolen away in the night, never to be heard from again.  As the strangers waxed strong they made terrible war on the people, taking what they desired and ruining what they took.  The people fought bravely, but the strangers were so fierce, their weapons so terrible that eventually all but the hardest hearted of warriors lay down their arms.  Better to risk the wages of bondage, to grieve for the dead and pay proper homage, than to lose oneself in battle-rage and be polluted by the madness of the enemy.  The people bowed their heads and wept for the loss of their finest, for the banishment of their guiding spirits, for their exile from their most-loved lands, for the gathering silence of the world around them.  The wisest and most gifted among them were dispatched in the cruelest ways imaginable by their conquerors.  Without their guidance, the youth of the people came to see the strangers as role models.  The children of the people aged, their minds and hearts twisted until they confused cruelty for justice, greed for virtue, brutality for love, and ignorance for wisdom.  Their hearts were scoured by unnamed sorrow, and in the vacuum where love for the world once dwelt unfurled a desperate faith in the Only True Way.

And the people who remembered shivered and shed tears for their waylaid ancestors.  They steeled their eyes and sharpened the blades of their tongues, and girt their voices in potent beauty.  The hardest hearted of them marched again to war, singing old bravery songs and visiting destruction on the machines of the strangers.  Others sang healing songs and combed the snakes from the hair of their fellows, and reminded them that they, too, were once people.  Some sang songs of earth and wood, renewing long-forgotten pacts with the spirits and creatures of the land.  Those most sensitive sang grieving songs to feed the hungry shades of too many generations lost to emptiness.  Some sang beauty songs, teaching songs, guiding songs, songs to light fires and songs to break steel, songs to welcome in the spring and songs to wake the mountains.  Many of the singers were cut down where they stood by strangers with stoppered ears and hearts in conflict, but where one song died, ten others rose in volume in its place.  The singing of the people grew in strength, joined now by harmonizing voices from sea and forest, rock and wind.  Building and building, resonating in the hearts of every people, the songs were streaming out across the land, and what they touched burst into life.  It was a dark time for strangers, one of hunger and chill; scarce were the flashing lights and buzzing machines, and loud were the songs of the world.  The songlines of the Only True Way fractured and unraveled, spinning melodious harmonies of reason and pragmatism, caution and care.  Where once were dead cities bloomed fragrant gardens.  From the ashen soil where grain lay in serried ranks grew verdant prairies, lush savannas.  Rivers loosed their bonds and rose in rich tumult over floodplains and deltas, waxing proud and wild.  The black clouds fled from the skies, and the springs again rose clear and sweet.  Where once was emptiness, the hearts of the people were filled with the life of the world.  The grandchildren of the people and the grandchildren of the strangers looked on the world, and on each other, and could not tell where one ended and the other began.  And they all lived happily ever after…’

Now we make it happen.


One Response to “The Language of Myth, Part 2: Tall Stories”

  1. Patricia Says:

    My favorite two sentences are, “Use beautiful words frequently.” and, “Language loses meaning when lies are common.”
    You can engage students in structuring assessment…they are always more then happy to come up with questions, exercises and or problems to solve. Trust them.

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