What Is the Power of Myth? -Part 1
Part 1- Lessons Conveyed, Maybe Learned
I have been spending a great deal of time in recent months diving headlong into mythologies from various cultures, customs and origins, seeking to broaden my own personal familiarity with these tales as well as to search for underlying meanings within them. Most scholars of folklore and mythology over the years have rightly pointed out that most such tales were utilized not only as forms of entertainment for the peoples who told them, but also often served to try and impart some sort of wisdom, knowledge, or proscription against specific sorts of behavior within the community.
One of the simplest and most universal of these folk tales is ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’. The majority of academic sources cite this tale as having an Austrio-Hungarian origin, and its message is pretty brutal and straightforward- don’t lie. Specifically, if you lie too much, you’re going to get your ass killed, possibly eaten by a feral wolf terrorizing the outskirts of your village, but that spot’s sort of specific to the tale itself, ennit?
Myths and folktales are easily the most basic forms of fiction that we as human beings indulge in. Throughout most of them, be they passed on in the oral tradition or in written form, one can find certain hard-won truths of the day codified within. Some pose questions of the listener/reader as opposed to browbeating them with specific messages or warnings, and still others, though this seems fairly rare from what I’ve read so far over the last six months or so, have no real underlying message at all, and are merely there for the purposes of entertainment and distraction.
When there are in fact lessons to be taken away from these myths, fables and legends, they usually aren’t very subtle, as I indicated before with ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’. But some few do have a greater capacity for interpretation, and these tend to be the more complicated, longer tales of yore. For instance, when reading the tale of Gunnlaug Wyrmtongue in regards to the eddas of the Norsemen, there is a certain amount of ambiguity surrounding even the meaning of his name. Modern folk might immediately think of Grimma Wormtongue, the advisor/spy in the court of Rohan in J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ saga, that malcontent and trickster who was used as a means of weakening that realm’s ruler and thus the realm’s response to the forces of Sauron. But the term ‘wyrm’ is not the same as ‘worm’, and should be paid closer attention to; among etymologists, it is accepted that ‘wyrm’ tends to refer to “a great lizard”, or, to put it simply, a dragon. Dragons were revered creatures of legend among many cultures throughout history, and a man holding the title of ‘Wyrmtongue’ might have such a title interpreted in several ways.
‘Wyrm’ referred to all sorts of dragons or serpents at the time, ranging from well-known venomous snakes that lived in the real world, capable of felling even the mightiest warriors with a single strike, all the way to noble guardian-beasts who protected the realms of the gods in the panthic tales of Norse mythos.
When one thinks of dragons, one cannot help but also think of the infamous breath weapons of these creatures. Tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons and their associated materials, as well as video games, cartoons and films helped build this idea up over the years as well, especially in recent history (I’m looking at you, Skyrim). The tie-in here to a Norse poet-warrior might feel thin or far off, but stay with me here:
If a dragon’s greatest weapon issues forth from their mouth, does it not make perfect sense that a poet be granted such a title? Is not his spoken or sung poetry his ‘weapon’ in such a case? And as regards Grimma, were not his enchanted whispers and false advisements the source of the slow-acting poison that corrupted Theoden, turning him into a feckless, weakened figurehead?
What lesson can we take away from this sort of imagery and allusion? Well, one that I personally take away is that words are powerful, potent in ways that no weapon ever could be. Charms and curses in Celtic folklore almost always required a little poem be recited to enact their power; songs of force are littered throughout African tribal lore; the recitation of the names of the saints in Catholicism and the Lord’s Prayer confer protection and blessing in most forms of Christianity; recitation of select portions of the Torah push children at bar-and-bat-mitzvahs through the threshold between childhood and adulthood. Words of power can be found throughout all of mythology, regardless of source, it would seem.
What other lessons cross cultures and source mythos? In time, I hope to find more than a few. For now, I’ll be content to know that there seem to have always been lessons to learn from these bits of lore, and hope that I might be able to glean what those lessons were supposed to be.