Mythos Week, Day 3

by stephenpalmersf

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.


Extreme experiences aren’t part of our day-to-day lives, so they require a special approach in story-telling. Great deeds like Prometheus stealing fire count as such experiences, or Gilgamesh killing the Bull Of Heaven. We all wonder about the extremes of our world: the edge of the universe, the beginning of time, the origin of the oceans, the surface of the sun. The same applies to our own lives. Gilgamesh became aware of his mortality through mythic adventure – and death is a major topic of myth.

In most cases, we presume a spirit or soul, and then an afterlife for such a thing to exist in. These are understandable inventions, answering questions which, 40,000 years ago, maybe even 100,000 years ago, demanded a reply. Such questioning led to the imaginative answer.

Extreme experiences often lead to the most extraordinary stories – that of Orpheus for instance, or Persephone. In Woodland Revolution there are two such extremes: the Sky-hill and the depthless Lake. Wolfy and Houndie have not only to find the Sky-hill (which they do by questioning Ancients in caves – creatures of the Ice Age), but to enter it and find Death too. Later, a similar, yet wholly different experience awaits them beneath the depthless Lake…

These places are special; mandated, spelated.
They are unique in the Wood.
That making entrance into them is difficult becomes part of their meaning.
They are real and imaginary in the same moment. Their damp, cold, crystal-covered
walls are both hard and permeable. A wall is a surface, and a region below.
These tunnels are long, with sharp extrusions. Stalactites and stalagmites form
obstacles invisible in the dark.
Calcite coverings deposited over tens of thousands of years are cold to the touch,
sucking away blood heat from paws.
But not all is dark.
From riven rocks above, no wider than a root, some small light descends.
On a smooth, tall, pale and curvaceous wall they see an image in black and red.
It is a Woolly Mammoth.
The image has been created in harmony with the curves of the wall, its trunk wrapped
around a bump, its rear quarters set so that it seems to emerge from a shallow fold in
the rock. It is at once of the surface and of the deeper rock. It sits on the boundary
between the two, as does a sign between worlds.

Just as Palaeolithic people in David Lewis-Williams’ brilliant book The Mind In The Cave experience cave walls acting as a liminal environment, so Wolfy and Houndie take their hallucinatory journey into a cave wall, to hear what the Woolly Mammoth has to say about Death and the Sky-hill.

But what would a Woolly Mammoth say…?

WoodRev 150 cover