I discovered mythology as a girl and was enthralled. I read Greek myths mostly, devouring mythology books almost as voraciously as I did ones on astronomy. When I wasn’t inviting friends over to look through my telescope, I was trying desperately to get them excited about Greek gods and goddesses. I can hear my 13-year old self:
Oh my god, I was reading about this guy? And he has to push this really huge boulder up a really huge hill? And they’re both really huge? And he keeps pushing and pushing, but when he gets to the top, it rolls back down so he has to do it again? And the same thing just keeps happening? I mean, it happens forever.
So this guy thinks it’d be really cool to sit on this king’s throne because he’s way poor so the king finally lets him but then he sees that there’s this sword hanging over the throne by this skinny tiny thin little thread and any minute the thread could break and he’d be, like, killed, and he’s all, “Get me out of here.”
Little wonder I was not the most popular girl in my class.
I was fascinated by these tales not just because of the groovy creatures, the gods’ rock-hard abs, or even those classy one-shouldered gowns the goddesses got to wear, but because, through the swirling haze of adolescence, I saw in mythology something true and something eternal.
I understood intuitively that myths were parables that I could learn and grow from. Already I knew knew that achieving a hard-won goal just meant a new one lay before me, like Sisyphus and his boulder. And that at any moment, the things I loved could be taken away, like Damocles and his sword. These were simple interpretations, but honest ones, and they were ones I saw—and, I believe most children see—with great clarity.
In the West, we lose this intuition about folkore, fairytale, and myth once the iron gate of adulthood slams shut behind us. But for thousands of years, human beings in other cultures have used mythical stories as moral lessons, cautionary tales, and guides for better living. When we Westerners lost that, we broke our connection not just with a rich spiritual tradition, but with a tool that can be used on a very practical, concrete level in our daily lives.
What we are coming to rediscover is that the deities and heroes of mythology aren’t just colorful characters, but archetypes: examplars of human experiences, emotions, and behavior. Like humans, they have weaknesses as well as strengths—Sisyphus was cruel and crafty, Damocles was obsequious and pandering. They often make very human-like mistakes, and they frequently suffer the consequences. They also sometimes have terrible things happen to them that they don’t deserve—just as humans do. They are representations of human life elaborated and enlarged to fit the grand stage of the cosmos.
If we let them, myths and the beings who inhabit them can serve as guides along our human journey. They shine a light on both the resources we bring with us, and the landmines that lie on our paths. They provide insights into our own feelings and reactions, help us figure out why things are or aren’t working in our lives, and provide strategies for improvement.
For the next few weeks, I’m going to be blogging about the practical power of myth—in particular, what it can teach us about the writing life. In the posts to come, I’ll draw from the mythology of ancient Egypt and Greece, India, China, Africa, and North America, using archetypes to explore different aspects of what it means to be a writer.
The Hindu goddess Saraswati will teach us about knowledge, research, and reason. From the Winnebago trickster god, Wakjungkaga, we’ll learn the value of breaking the rules and playing the fool. From the Afro-Caribbean goddess Oshun, we’ll discover how to bring joy and abundance to the writing life. And the Chinese goddess Kuan Yin will provide us a model for lovingkindness and compassion. But tomorrow, we’ll begin with Osiris, the Egyptian God of the Underworld: a guide to all things dark and hidden. The perfect starting point for the writer's journey.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...