What Is the Power of Myth? -Part 2

Barriers to Entry

Greetings and salutations, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome back to another look at mythology as presented by this particular practitioner of all things tale-telling. Last time, we briefly looked over the notion of lessons conveyed in various forms of lore, and while that piece was written under white-knuckle, ‘Oh my God I’ve got to get these thoughts out of my head and written down before they vanish for all time because I’m in that perfect zone of caffeination that rarely balances itself on a razor’s edge before lapsing into either burnout or excess energy and I go tearing around the house with my kids like a complete lunatic’ sort of blitzes, this one will be assembled with a little less haste.

Most forms of folklore and mythology find themselves clustered into categories and sub-types, chiefly stemming from which part of the world and, as such, which cultures have historically been the keepers and tellers of these tales. In the days when many mythologies find their origins, there were certain barriers to entry in terms of hearing or reading these tales, and thus knowing of their contents or messages. For instance, the Norse panthic tales of Odin, Asgard, and the like, told in the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th centuries throughout Scandinavia were likely little known, if known at all, in the Chinese provinces of those times. Sure, perhaps some few far-flung traders or explorers of the day came across such tales, but if they did, then they didn’t do a very good job of conveying that to the rest of history that would follow after. No offense to those scholar-adventurers, just pointing out that, well, we don’t have any sort of indications these days that such sharing of lore took place.

But geography alone didn’t construct these shields against sharing of lore. Certainly, I don’t believe that physical location was even the most powerful protection against peoples other than a tale’s origin culture learning of those stories; no, that title belongs to the Language Barrier. If a story is written down, but is recorded in a language that you can’t read, it doesn’t really do you much good to just stare at the pages, now does it? And if a language is lost to the ages, well, then that leaves scholars of all stripes at something of a tremendous disadvantage. Outside of the written form, spoken languages suffer from differentiation as well, with some tongues requiring the barest shift of inflection or gestures combined with uttered sounds to indicate completely different concepts or ideas. Have you ever tried to listen to two people attempting to converse with one another when neither of them speaks the other’s language? It’s a sight to behold, to be sure.

Coupled in with the Language Barrier, but in its own category insofar as barriers are concerned, is the Value Barrier. This may tread into some sensitive territory for you, folks, and I have to preface it by stating very clearly that I, like any other mortal human being, bring my own personal biases to this part of the conversation. I’m a Christian man, an American born to Irish immigrants, and my own heritage and upbringing is going to inevitably colour some of my perceptions of value structures. You have been warned.

Some cultures, throughout history, have had a very different view on certain aspects of human behavior and the mysteries of the world around us. For instance, the pre-Christian Vikings who worshipped the Asgardian pantheon believed that they could curry the favor of the gods after a battle by hanging captured enemies from ash trees and stabbing them in the side with a spear. As they stabbed their victim, they would proclaim, ‘I offer this sacrifice in the name of Odin Allfather’. This sacrifice mirrored the very act that Odin undertook himself in order to attain knowledge of the ancient runes of magical power, and as such, the Vikings believed that this replay would please the highest of their deities, delivering good fortune to them. 

Other cultures would, even then, consider this a barbaric practice. By today’s modern standards, we would tend to see it as illogical, brutal, and horrific, especially given that numerous historians have surmised that some of the victims weren’t hung properly, and instead suffered death by means of lengthy exsanguination from their spear wounds, exposure, or dehydration. 

In Celtic customs and superstitious behavior born of myth, the spilling of salt or sugar requires that one scoop up the substance as quickly as possible, toss it over the left shoulder, and say a quick prayer to the spirits of the forests to keep the faery folk at bay. The spilled granules, per many myths, tended to attract the fae folken, and they would bring their mischief with them into the home without this protective little rite being performed. We would certainly consider this a quaint little practice by today’s standards, though, if one reads the less pleasant tales of the fae folk, one might be forgiven wanting to take every extra precaution to keep them out of one’s home. 

And need we really go over the whole Aztec/Mayan practice of turning the heads of children into soccer balls to be kicked about to please their gods? This in and of itself isn’t confirmed with one hundred percent certainty, either, so it lends itself to a bit of myth-on-myth, if you catch my drift. 

Personality traits are, as mentioned before, also not viewed universally throughout history. What one peoples consider a great trait to have, another might find less than ideal. Perhaps the best and clearest example of this would be ‘cunning’. In many animal myths, foxes and spiders are associated with this character trait, able to use wordplay to trick people into giving up their leverages, advantages, or outright victories due to some technicality put into play by the fox or spider. How the trait of ‘cunning’ is perceived is largely a matter of tone of the myth in question, and some cultures, tribes and clans view the actions of the fox or spider as either quite brilliant, given the circumstances, or outright dishonorable. Deception usually goes hand-in-hand with cunning, and outside of open warfare, there are very few peoples throughout history who have given a positive view of deception, Sun Tzu be damned.

Besides, in matters of war, things tend to get a whole lot more gray, morally speaking.

And even within a shared culture, these traits can carry different degrees of desirability. For instance, my father’s clan of Travelers found stealth and deception quite useful, and fruitful to their endeavors and way of life. However, there were several other clans who, having been the victims of some of their cons and thefts, view the whole thing a lot less favorably.

As a result of these differing values, many myths and folk tales of times gone by can be shared across several cultures, yet be conveyed with variables in both details and tone, the message completely different from one to the other, even if most of the key elements are shared across tellings. In our modern parlance, this would be referred to as ‘framing’, establishing the tone of perspective early and firmly, with very little room for misinterpretation.

Anyhow, I’ve rambled long enough, and these are just the primary three barriers to entry that I can quickly think of into the wonderful, weird and wordy world of mythology and folklore, folks. I do hope you’ll join me again next time, and until then, take care of yourselves, and as always-

Keep reading!