Mythos Week, Day 2
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.
Ritual is a diminishing feature of modern life, except for those who follow a religion. But in secular life, ritual is as good as gone. Is that a bad thing?
Ritual and myth are inseparable. Ritual formalises and displays community beliefs, often tied to the passing of the year – the Eight Stations in many European traditions for instance. Rituals are also enactments, required for the cohesion and continuance of the community. Seeing ritual brings a kind of permanence, essential for social long life. Doing is an even stronger version of the same thing.
Rituals also have the same summative function as myth, in that they symbolise modes of thinking and living. The May rituals of Cornwall for example codify an ancient agricultural way of life – perhaps not essential now as it was in earlier centuries, yet, in a world with vast inequality and expanding population, perhaps something that people could be thinking more about. (Dependence on huge, impersonal, international food corporations is hardly the best way to be doing things.)
So ritual plays a role in Woodland Revolution. Part way through the work, Houndie – a dog, i.e. descended from noble Wolf heritage – has to face a ritual of passage if he is to accompany Wolfy on their initial quest. His dog status – defiled by contact with human beings – means he must take the rite of “mental reorganisation” in order to unleash his inner wolf. He does this, but with unexpected consequences.
I also used ritual for two human characters, but I used it in a particular way. Many years ago I was a guest at a genre event at Exeter University, where amongst other things I saw Simon Ings perform a lengthy monologue entirely from memory. I remember asking him about how he managed such a feat, and he told me there were a few tricks of the trade which he had used.
Ancient storytellers used such tricks all the time. They memorised a vast amount of material – material essential for the survival of their community, since it represented the meaning framework in which everybody lived – but they did it by acting it out: physical components and emotional components, that is, ritual components which structured and codified what they were saying, and allowed them to remember it all.
My two human characters use such mythic rituals to remember the geography of the Wood. Australian Aboriginal mythologies are many things: meaningful fragments of a creed, a kind of oral manual of spirituality, a geography and a history “textbook” – also a manual of cosmography. All these vital components are remembered via the over-arching Dreamtime myths. In Woodland Revolution, my two forest-dwelling humans (feral, as we might say) have to recall and sing songs in order to know in which direction to lead Wolfy and Houndie.
We’ll stay here for three more days. We’ll feed ourselves up before making the long journey. We have thoughts to gather and memories to recapture, far-off memories of the time we took fire from the ashen land of the tall smoking flames. Those memories lie deep inside our minds, and only song and dance in the cold of the night will allow them to resurface. Ritual must be made to find the way.
Most paths are invisible to Wolfy and Houndie, composed of abstract patterns laid out in the geometry of the stars. Wolfy is attuned to the stars, but she has no star song; not one. But their guides can sing a whole evening of such songs.
We miss so much of the deeper human life in our modern world. We can access online maps and use GPS to find our way, but, although that brings accuracy and efficiency, it means much of the meaning of movement has been lost. I think we need to recover that meaning in order to find a sane, humane future.