Myth and Story

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

This continues Chapter One. The discussion of Greek historians will only interest those who already have some familiarity with them. The discussion which follows concerning landscape may be of wider interest, as it affects everybody. The discussion of a section of the Iliad is important because it shows how story works. Without some understanding of the first and greatest story of the West, it is impossible to understand anything which follows.

Chapter 2 (v.1) - Chapter One- continued

Submitted: March 18, 2013

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Submitted: March 18, 2013



* * **

A new form of story-telling appears about 430 BC with Herodatos' histories. These stories assume a reader with curiosity about real people and events. One may argue that the Trojan War was (in some sense) a real event, as was the reign of Sesotris. But with Herodatos the time and place in which the story transpires is directly connected to the audience. The story-teller's oral tradition of distancing the tale from the audience ("once upon a time" - "there was, there was not") is deliberately eschewed by Herodatos. In doing this, his stories must be secular stories. Gods do not figure in them, nor does he claim to have written under divine inspiration. (The division of his work into nine books named after the Muses occurred in Roman times.)

Herodatos describes his work as istoria - research. But he says the work is made up of logoi - stories. This is the first step on the road to monotheism. En arche en o logos. In the beginning was the story. The all-purpose Greek word logos means word, oath, proverb, saying, story, Christ. All are logos.

In Herodatos we see a consistent theme extended in the narrative over great expanses of time and space. But the dimension of depth (present in the earlier quasi-religious narratives of Homer and the Gilgamesh epic, as well as in the god-infused world of Aeschylos and Sophocles) does not enter secular story-telling until Thucydides.

Consider these two authors and you will see a fundamental difference in the presentation of the "reason why" of their stories.

Herodatos gives his "reason why" at the outset. His history is devoted to the great conflict between Europe and Asia - terms which seem to have scarcely any intellectual meaning before him.

Worth noting is that Herodatos' geographic nomenclature is very different from ours. His "Asia" extends into our Africa; its border being either the Nile or the Libyan Desert. Herodatos prefers the latter, as it places Egypt within the Asiatic world. (When Harold Macmillan called Gamal Nasser an “Asiatic Hitler,” the British PM was perhaps having a flashback to his public school days of learning Classical Greek under a headmaster’s rod.) Herodatos’ "Europe" includes all of our Europe but does not stop at the Urals (of which he apparently does not know). The "Europe" of Herodatos includes all the land north of civilized Asia - in other words, the steppe lands of what we call Central Asia, and the whole of Siberia. Herodatos' Europe is not the smallest but the biggest continent! But it is also the land of freedom, whether the barbaric freedom of the steppe nomads or the freedom of the Greek polis. Thus Herodatos dwells upon four great defeats of the Persians: that of Cyrus in his (perhaps legendary) war against he Massagetae; Darius in his abortive expedition against the Scythians; Darius again (this time by proxy) in the defeat of his landing force at Marathon; all leading up to the center piece of the narrative: Xerxes' great invasion of Europe and subsequent retreat.

The lesson is that between free Europe and enslaved Asia there can be no peace. The hybris of the Asiatic tyrants - displeasing to the gods, although they make no personal appearance in the narrative - contrasts with the simple humility of the Greeks, who fight to preserve their poverty simply because it is their poverty. That the Greeks might have been better off submitting to the Persians and becoming part of a great economic commonwealth never enters into discussion. Nor could it. Our concept of "economics" did not exist in Classical times. Although the etymology of the word is Greek, its antecedent meaning went no farther than the running of a household. The Persians in coming to Europe were trying to tell the Greeks how to run their households - an idea as repellent as a state agent coming between a man and his wife. (Although the Persians would have been equally repelled by the latter.)

A formidable number of ideas appear in Herodatos for the first time. The idea of property as something sacred and essential to man being a man. (You do not let others simply take your property, regardless of how mean the property is.) The idea of fighting for "principle." (Even if the principle is never articulated.) The idea of peoples divided into "nations." (Even if the definition of your nation is up for grabs.) The idea of freedom itself (which for Herodatos does not mean license to do as you please - but freedom to do as you must, because your way of life is at stake.)

And yet Herodatos' narrative never explains any of these ideas. The author takes them for granted even as they flavor the story like condiments flavoring a dish.

With Thucydides we see something very different. His entire story of the Peloponnesian War is a "reason why." Herodatos would agree with Jefferson's phrase, "We hold these truths to be self evident." But the purpose of Thucydides narrative is to show that nothing is self evident. To find out why the Greeks are slaughtering each other, why cities are raised to the ground and their populations sold into slavery, why battles are won and lost, why revolutions occur, why leaders are thrust into power only to be later dragged down by the same people who once supported them - to find all this out we have to read the whole story. And even then we might not know the answers. (Bear in mind that Thucydides died with his history incomplete. Did death cut him short? Or did he give up on what had become the 13th Labor of Hercules?)

Herodatos stands to Thucydides as Aeschylos stands to Sophocles: the one, confident and as well rounded as a circle; the other, questioning and pointing to an open-ended vision with a horizon that always recedes from us. Herodatos says, "this is what I know!" Thucydides says, "this is what I would like to know!" The tenor of your time shows in the prevalence of one over the other. Confident ages prefer Herodatos. Times filled with doubt and anxiety turn to Thucydides.

And yet both men lived in a polytheistic world. Even the Jews of their age believed in the existence of many gods. Monotheism was first put forward as an intellectual, not a popular, concept. Plato is the first man to write of one God. But he made no claim for originality in the idea. The Indian Upanishads tell us of Brahman, the all-God. From the Aryan peoples of both the East and West (at least from amongst their elites) the idea of the one God began to spread.

* * * *

Something we overlook when we consider ancient times is that the surface of the earth was very different then. Our image of nature is largely artificial. We see landscapes neatly divided between dry and wet, soil and water. It was not always so. Vast areas which now consist of cities, suburbs, farms and forests were once a chaos of swamp, bog and fen. Patches of dry earth were islands set in these waterlogged stretches, or peninsulas, or land bridges. Human communities were more cut off from each other because of this, each one being in effect a little world.

Nature was far more sinister than we imagine. The “deserts” were not just dry places but wet places. Rivers periodically overran their banks. Dry depressions became raging torrents overnight. Boundaries shifted at random as water chronically found new courses. It was a world designed for mosquitoes.

A river having a fixed course is a recent idea. Not until the 20th Century was the concept so established in the West that people are astonished when a river changes course, as if it had no right to do so! But throughout most human existence, people were astonished if a river did not change its course, and do so repeatedly in their lifetime. Rivers were gods or goddesses precisely because they acted with a will of their own and their actions were mightier by far than the hand of man. The Seven Hills of Rome were seven places of refuge on high ground when the Tiber flooded. Water more than fire was the element people feared; fire could be mischievous, but water was literally overwhelming.

In Chinese and Japanese paintings we often see figures that rise up out of mist, and mountains which look like islands in the clouds. Even experts in East Asian art do not realize that these are all based on actual depictions of ancient landscapes. The most thickly inhabited areas of China, Japan and Korea were wetlands or interspersed with wetlands well into civilized times. These are created countries, and it was the hand of man which created them.

But the same is true of most densely settled areas of the planet. Historians are fascinated by the struggle of man against man – less concerned with the greater struggle of man against nature. The latter struggle was the main business of government from pre-dynastic Egypt until the last half of the 19th Century. Frederick the Great believed that his work draining the marshlands of eastern Germany was more important than his victories on the battlefield. German consciousness of “the East” was of a barbarous landscape extending indefinitely, untamed and unconquered by man, with land and water indiscriminately mixed. It followed that peoples living in this chaos were less than human. The natives were simply part of the landscape; both had to be conquered and ordered.

European colonists throughout the Western and Southern Hemispheres had the same philosophy. Rivers would be straightened and confined to predetermined channels, marshes drained, bogs filled in. Look at a map of the city of Boston in the 18th Century and you see a peninsula with the old city connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. Later the hills were excavated and dumped into the fens creating the urban topography of today. This is only one example of many which can be found all over the globe, and many of the great “Third World” cities of our time were nothing but tiny villages set in swamps until European engineers went to work.

We cannot begin to understand the old myths until we put them in their geographic setting. Chaos was not a theory of the origin of the universe; it was a visible fact. The creation of an ordered landscape was the work of gods or those who acted under the direction of gods. These views were not bizarre but sensible. Mythic thought is always set against a background of chaos. The rise of new myths in our time (or any time) invariably begins with wide spread assumption that order has either broken down or is shortly about to. The important point is that myths are never for fun. They are deadly serious because they arise out of perception of deadly serious necessity. Sometimes this necessity is real, sometimes not. But it is the perception which grounds the myth.

What made a landscape of intermixed land and water dangerous was human population increase. One can live advantageously in such a natural landscape – provided that human numbers are kept small and stable. When those numbers increase, the landscape must be ordered so as to make it subservient to the needs of man. But this physical ordering must keep pace with a mental ordering. In his myths, man maps out a world which favors his expansion. For this reason, myth is as vital to man as claws to a tiger or horns to a ram. We are myth-bearing creatures.

Stories do not arise from chaos, but rather from pre-existing order. The landscape must be civilized before people have leisure to tell stories. But more importantly, story has its own landscape. Everything in it is manmade. People exposed only to a natural environment cannot conceive of stories. The idea of creating an artificial world by stringing words together is impossibly farfetched until you have been exposed for long periods to an artificial physical world. First man domesticates nature, then man domesticates the inside of his own head.

* * * *

In the second book of the Iliad, Agamemnon receives a dream promising easy victory over Troy after nine years of failure. When he recounts the dream to the Greek elders, they all agree to a purely mythic interpretation: the dream is god-sent and means exactly what it says. On this totally irrational basis they intend to continue the war. But Agamemnon shrewdly understands that after nine years of fruitless hardship the common soldiers may not be mythically swayed with the same blind faith as their lords. He gathers the troops (Homer compares them to swarming bees) and, in a surprising move, tells them the exact opposite of the message in the dream. Agamemnon announces that the cause is hopeless and nothing remains but to return home in shame. Homer makes explicit Agamemnon's intention to "first make trial of them in speech, as is right" (prota d' egon epesin peiresomai, e themis esti); but the result exceeds anticipation as the rank and file rush to the ships. This is a greater crisis than the desertion of Achilles. Agamemnon cannot eat his own words, and his army is disintegrating because of them!

What occurs next is a crucial transition in world history. The mythic world view which motivated and sustained the Greeks has become insufficient. (Even Homer does not believe in it - for he tells us that the dream of easy victory sent by Zeus was a false dream.) Agamemnon temporarily passes his staff of command to Odysseus - the wiliest of the Greek generals - who tells the Greek commanders one by one that Agamemnon was not serious and meant to speak further - or as our politicians would say, "place his words in proper context." When Odysseus meets a common soldier determined to take Agamemnon's words at face value, he uses the staff to hit him. Now Homer has made special note of this staff, reciting its provenance from the gods: it was made by Hephaestos, given to Zeus, who gave it to Agreiphontes, who gave it to Hermes, who gave it to Pelops "driver of horses" who gave it to Atreus "shepherd of the host" who left it to Thyestes "rich in flocks" who left it to Agamemnon. But whatever mystical import attaches to the divine staff has vanished, as Odysseus can do no more with it than beat people over the head.

Finally in extremis, Odysseus uses something more compelling than the staff; he uses a story. He tells the rank and file that when they were sailing to Troy nine years earlier, an omen occurred: a sacred snake climbed a sacred tree and ate nine sacred birds, or something to that effect. And only now do we realize that the nine birds were nine years; and how long have we been at Troy - nine years! And with the nine years up that means we will take the city! Homer says that the common men "praised the words of the godlike Odysseus" (mython epainesantes Odysseos theoio). The same men who minutes earlier were eager to give up the fight are now just as eager to continue it.

Homer has presented a perfect example of an effective story. Note how Odysseus' account of the snake and the birds mimics the format of myth, but it is not a myth. In two significant ways it departs from a mythic account. First, because the omen is nine years old, and apparently in all those nine years no one took any note of it; in myths omens announce themselves as soon as they occur. Second, because mythically it is a woefully incomplete omen. Even if the nine birds mean nine years of hardship, so what? In a proper omen some dramatic sign would signal that after the nine years Troy must fall.

Odysseus uses mythic elements because his audience is familiar with those elements. But he recasts them as a story both disarmingly simple and amazingly complex. The beginning of the story is rooted in the past: the bird incident of nine years ago which no one remembers - and which because no one remembers it can be presented by the story-teller in any way that suits his purpose. The ending of the story is in the future: the fall of Troy - which the audience cheers as if it has just happened even though it hasn't. The middle of the story is where the audience finds itself at that moment. They are like men on a bridge; the pylons supporting the bridge are in the past and the future. Because the audience is already on the bridge it has only one way to go.

Here we may ask why Odysseus did not add some detail to the omen to include the fall of Troy. But this was the most brilliant move of all! A good story-teller knows what to say; a great story-teller knows what not to say. Completion by omission is the most difficult move in telling a tale, but employed correctly it is the acme of narrative skill. Using an ending which does not logically follow from anything earlier in the story - a non sequitur the audience is asked to believe precisely because it does not follow from what went before - Odysseus the master story-teller insures that his audience will complete the story for him.

Why did the little birds die? To tell men after nine years of hardship that it was all for nothing? What kind of a story would that be? No, the only narrative ending which fits is the payoff: it was all for the best and now their fondest dreams will come true! No one has to suspend disbelief to embrace this ending. Rather the audience need only suspend belief in reality. And the fact that most people don't want to believe in reality, that they would vastly prefer to believe in fantasy and then believe that their belief has nothing to do with their own wishes - that is the most powerful weapon in the armory of the story-teller.

In the interceding three thousand some odd years, audiences have become more credulous for narrative payoffs - certainly not less so. No one wants to be told their sacrifices are not part of a glorious story. Still less do we wish to learn they may all be part of someone else’s glorious story. No, the stories which inspire our enemies are blatant falsehoods. Anyone can see that! We give zero credulity to those stories. Meanwhile, the intellectual watchdogs of our lords and masters sniff out anything hinting at “moral equivalency” between the black lies of the other side’s story and the white truths which make up ours.

After all we’ve been through we’ve got to have a happy ending. Even if that means we must go through a little bit more … and a little bit more… and a little bit more….

© Copyright 2017 Ian Hargreaves. All rights reserved.


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