Mythos Week, Day 1
What are myths? The great author on religion Karen Armstrong said that (i) they’re concerned with death, (ii) they’re accompanied by ritual, (iii) they’re concerned with extreme experiences and the unknown, (iv) they tell us how to behave ethically, and (v) they’re concerned with non-earthly realms. In Mythos Week – preparing for the publication of Woodland Revolution on 31st March – I’m going to write about these five aspects.
As J.R.R. Tolkien observed, all human stories are about one thing – death. In my forthcoming prose poem Woodland Revolution I wanted to tackle the theme from the mythic point of view, partly because that form – mythos, as the Ancient Greeks called it – interests me, but also because in turning to the word, logos, five thousand years ago, humanity lost an awful lot.
In my 2017 blog post ‘You’d Better Free Your Mind Instead’ I wrote:
(I) was inspired by seeing a dead fox on the side of the road on my way to work one morning. The fox had been hit by a car: roadkill. Half of its body was mangled and flattened, but the other half, brilliant orange-red in the morning light, remained pristine. This tiny event had an enormous impact upon me. It led to the title of my tenth novel No Grave For A Fox – a phrase which dropped into my mind seconds after driving past the fox – but it also led to the gelling in my mind of a work I’d wanted to write about animals, life and death, and revolution…
In Woodland Revolution, a wolf and a dog see wolf roadkill at the side of a road. The wolf discoverer is very young and has no grasp of the meaning of death (for this section Sylvia Anthony’s book The Discovery Of Death In Childhood And After was useful), whereas the dog, a little older, does grasp the basic meaning. Through the work, which uses a mythic structure over the notional duration of the wolf’s life (and through one notional year), a couple of “revolutions” occur, one from an ancient social system and one from the new system to one newer still.
I’ve only been to two funerals, my grandfather’s and my grandmother’s some decades ago. But more recently I’ve lost a treasured pet, so, all in all, I do know what grief is. Ancient cultures though did not live with my atheism. They were convinced that there was a spirit or soul, and they believed in an afterlife and/or spiritual realms – and some even believed in a pre-life. But believing in such things, whilst helpful to early societies, and an entirely understandable cultural institution, is only helpful if you’re not prepared to face reality: there’s only one life and nobody has a spirit or soul.
Of course, it’s more difficult to act as we speak, so some may accuse me of hypocrisy here. Nevertheless, the meaning framework of Woodland Revolution is a mythic structure in which the nonexistence of spirit and the lack of an afterlife is the truth. As Penny Spikins wrote for the final line of her brilliant book How Compassion Made Us Human: ‘Perhaps now is the time for a new story.’
Death is everywhere in the Wood, as it is in our lives: the roadkill of cars, attacks by carnivores on herbivores or on other carnivores, a suicide. We all, in the end, have to come to our own conclusion about the problem of death. Do we embrace fantasy and pretend we’re going to live on, or do we embrace humanity and accept that, though we’re mortal, that mortality does provide fuel for some of our most incredible achievements as a species? It was J.R.R. Tolkien – that brilliant author of alternate myth – who had the mortality of Men described as a gift, not as a burden.
Some of the cheapness of human life as envisaged by patriarchal organised religion devolves from their insistence that there is an afterlife – that life itself is a preparation for what follows. But that is an egregious lie, created by the juvenile few, exploited by the narcissistic and violent for their own selfish ends. The ease with which such men end the lives of so many is a testament to the lie they believe, though that lie is forced into them by their own cultures.
In Woodland Revolution, Wolfy comes to her own conclusion at the end of her life, which she promulgates to all the animals of the Wood. What will that conclusion be?