Myth in the 21st Century
Myths help the human race explain the universe and their place in it. Every race in history has had a collection of myths of creation, of God, the Goddess or of Gods and Goddesses, or of their own origins (like the Romulus and Remus myth) and most of these have shared a degree of scientific truth, as Santillana and von Dechend showed in their 1969 work Hamlet’s Mill. We need myths and seem unable as humans to conceptualise the world around us without them.
It is very common today both among those of several major religions, as well as among scientists, to regard the word ‘myth’ as pejorative. We tend to look down on myth as something primitive and untrue that we have grown beyond, and we give credit to anyone who dispels a ‘myth’. Wickipedia, the online encyclopaedia suggests the same thing:
It might not be going too far to say that modern man wants his religion to be historically ‘true’ and rejects the idea that it is any way dependant on myth. James Hilton remarks on the point in ‘Lost Horizons’ (The Shangri-la story), when Chang asks Miss Brinklow (a missionary): “Must we hold that because one religion is true, all others must be false?” There can be eternal truths in the myths of all religions, as the neophyte ritual of the Golden Dawn suggests. Or as Hilton put it:
“The jewel has facets,’ said Chang, ‘and it is possible that many religions are moderately true.” <2>
A myth is a story to explain the sacred and/or our place in creation, and the world generally, and it usually contains at its core a truthful and accurate way of interpreting the world. Santillana & von Dechend showed, for example, that significant and important scientific numbers, such as 72 occur too frequently and too widely in the myths of different cultures to be there by coincidence. The 72 murderers who chopped Osiris into pieces, mirrors the 72 names of God in the Shem-Hamphorash and the 72 angels on the rungs of the ladder of Jacob, the number of statues on the approaches to the temple complex at Angkor Watt (Cambodia) and the number of soldiers flooding out from Valhalla in the last battle against the wolf Fenir. (Actually, if you do math regarding the number of soldiers and the number of gates, there are 432,000 which is 72 times 600). Even the number of syllables in the Rig Veda is another exact multiple of 72. (Exact multiple of 4320 as a matter of fact.)
>Jane Sellers, an astronomer now studying the stars as they were in times past as an archeo-astonomer, points out that 72 is a vitally important figure in the sums of precession, well known to every astronomer. 72 is the number of years taken by precession to move through 1 degree of the ecliptic (or zodiac.) Most students of astrology (as well as astronomy) are aware that, due to a ‘wobble’ of the earth’s axis, it appears to move steadily backwards through the signs of the zodiac rising at the Spring Equinox: we are in the last days of Pisces, with Aquarius rising. Around two thousand years ago Aries was rising at the Equinox and two thousand years before that it was Taurus. Any day of the year say the winter solstice moves backwards 1 day every 72 years. In our grandparent’s time the shortest day of the year was December 22nd, today it is December 21st and in our grandchildren’s time it will be December 20th. The key numbers of precession are:
1 degree = 72 years
1 sign of the zodiac 72 x 30 = 2160 year
2 signs of the zodac 72 x 60 = 4320 years
Full Circle 72 x 360 = 25,920 years
Can it be said that such significant information about our world appears in myth ‘by accident’ or ‘by coincidence’? Jane Sellers remarks, somewhat derisively, that because Egyptologists know almost nothing about precession they assume the ancient Egyptians didn’t either, but the same is true of archaeologists generally they are prone to imposing their own limitations on the far past.
Myth is neither ‘untrue’ nor unscientific, as Santillana and von Dechend have pointed out. It is a different way of interpreting the universe: ‘ascientific’, perhaps, in the way amoral or ‘amythia’ are used. Famous European explorers like Magellan and Cook several times allowed Polynesians to navigate their ships because they were uncertain of courses and Polynesians owed their great skill in navigating the vast Pacific to oral ‘myths’ describing the movements of planets and stars. <4>
It is not true either that we lack myths or have outgrown them: we have simply replaced the once widely held myths of Christianity and Judaism, and those myths of earlier periods they in turn replaced, with other, more pervasive and pernicious ones.
Our biggest error, and the source of much trouble in the twentieth and twenty-first century is to believe a new myth to be an established and scientific ‘fact’ and to base our world view on that myth. (And many of you may believe this myth so strongly that you rebel and claim it is indeed fact not a myth.) The myth, I would argue, is the idea that life is an upward spiral and that progress is somehow inevitable: that we lead ‘better’ lives than our grandparents and our grandchildren will live ‘better’ lives than us, just as a matter of course.
To examine the ‘truth’ of this ‘fact’ you need only consider life in Europe at around 1500 CE, about the time Columbus was ‘discovering’ the Americas and before the discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels. Life then was for the ordinary person little different than it had been for the thousands of years since the development of agriculture. A more sophisticated society in England had developed free hospitals in the monasteries, and free accommodation was offered to the traveller and the pilgrim, but that was about to disappear in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, otherwise life was much as it had been. Advances in Engineering and medicine were helping at least the wealthy in formerly Moslem Spain to a better life but better irrigation meant more agriculture and thus deforestation and erosion. Some buildings in Western Europe soared inspirationally, but most people lived in very basic homes, much as they had done for thousands of years and without the clean water and drainage common in Roman towns. In fact the water supplies and drainage of early 19th Century London were far inferior to those of Roman Londonium 1500 years earlier.
Of course there were some ups and some downs in the ten or twelve thousand years or more of civilisation. In the Americas the Incas had a system of government providing a fairer and more secure living than anything the Spanish had in store for them, and the ancient Egyptians developed a system of work for food while they waited for the Nile floods that’s how the pyramids and temples were built, but essentially life was unchanged for the long period of pre and early history.
What happened in the last 500 years was that we (Europeans) discovered coal, oil, gas, the Americas, New Zealand and Australia. We in the ‘developed’ world simply exploited a series of lucky accidents (and a lot of indigenous peoples, who rapidly became worse off!) The idea that we can expand and get richer forever is just not true. The world is finite and its natural resources are finite too. We are living on ancient sunlight, trapped as fossil fuels millennia ago, and when those fuels run out they run out, and we go back to living on current sunlight like the rest of the natural world.
Another aspect of the myth of progress: the discovery of antibiotics seemed to have taken medicine forward in leaps and bounds, but overuse of those wonder drugs has led to the emergence of drug resistant strains of bacteria and viruses, while the drugs bill in the UK Health Service climbs inexorably as the drugs industry trumpets every new drug as a breakthrough and everyone clamours for it. Medicine in terms of operations, on the other hand did not change much over centuries: the Moors of Moslem Spain made some advances but some Egyptian remains show that they too practiced quite sophisticated surgery, but if we exclude the boom years of the last 2 centuries, progress was not great and very far from continuous.
No, the concept of unstoppable progress is only partly a truth (and not a very big part at that): to a greater degree it is a perception of our place in creation: in short - a myth, and we cannot blame Christianity, Judaism or Islam for this new myth, though they did allow their own myths to change so that exploitation of the world and its people was acceptable. After all, they were around for 1000, 1500 or 2500 years (depending on which myth you consider) when the progress myth was still unknown. It is the all-pervading 19th, 20th and 21st century myth, created by science, science fiction and our own arrogance, which now has a hold, and the religious traditions of recent centuries have not stood in the way. People would just rather believe the new myth. They would rather use energy profligately, drive their cars and support a throwaway society regardless of the CO2 they churn out and for that they need the new myth to tell them that it’s OK and can go on forever.
An ancient Sumarian farmer with a wooden plough and a stone sickle could feed a family on his own physical work, with a bit over for taxes he was energy positive. A modern farmer can feed hugely more people, but he needs vast inputs of energy to plough the fields, build, maintain and operate the tractor; irrigate, fertilise and harvest the crops, ship them to market, process and deliver them. Farmers today are efficient food producers, but they are energy negative … and we are about to run out of energy not people.
Well known American Druid, John Michael Greer asks, in an internet essay and ‘work in progress’:
Does a permanent end to progress nonetheless make the long history of human existence meanigless? For many people it does. If you are among them ... you will have felt the power of progress as a living myth. <5>
Greer argues that, over millennia, steady small advances in the tools available were offset by small environmental degradations such as the trade off between irrigation and deforestation in Spain, which I mentioned. I would point out that the sides and corners of the Pyramid of Cheops are better aligned than those of Canary Wharf. We know modern surveyors use infra-red surveying instruments, but using the stars to fix north and south is as accurate in careful hands and doesn’t take batteries in the equipment or produce CO2 making it, though it does take a little more time and a little more effort the old way. Progress? Even after the 500-year boom, it’s relative surely.
I began by suggesting that myths help us understand the world, but it is more than that. We can only understand the world through myth. Of course I don’t mean that astrophysics cannot describe what it sees, catalogue stars and galaxies and so on, but to describe something is no more to understand it than naming it and science often makes the mistake of confusing the two, as in the ‘scientific’ medical reaction to the placebo effect: we can name it and list some of the things which influence it, but we cannot explain or understand it.
If we examine the myth of Christian Rosenkreuz from the very beginning of the 17th century you may understand better what I am driving at. The Fama Fraternitatis the first of the Rosicrucian ‘manifestos’ - was published in 1614 (and had been circulating in manuscript form for a few years before that.) It told of the life of brother C R, of noble (German) family fallen on hard times, brought up in a monastery, but not a monk, who travelled via Damascus (Syria) to Fez (Morocco), learning as he went. He crossed to Spain, went on to Italy and died in Germany in 1450 after setting up the Rosicrucian brotherhood. His body was found by the brotherhood 120 years later in a secret vault.
Academics cannot agree whether the documents are wholly an invention (and, if so, for what purpose), wholly or largely historical or an allegory for the passage of learning. Greek writings were entirely lost to the west during the so-called ‘dark ages’ but were translated into Arabic. The Arabs overran most of Spain. The public library in 11th century Moorish Córdoba had 32,000 volumes open to study by any scholar regardless of race or religion. In Spain many Greek works were translated from Arabic into Latin and the Jews wrote down the oral wisdom of their Kabbalah. When Spain became Christian again and expelled Jews and Moslems, those writings became available in Italy and triggered the Renaissance. The question of how historical the myth actually is conceals the fact that it explains something important to the understanding of where Rosicrucians fit into the world. The Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia drinks to the memory of Christian Rosenkreutz as a ‘real’ person; the many Rosicrucian bodies claim direct descent from this mythical body and the ‘Western Mystery Tradition’, which spawned the Golden Dawn and other magickal orders, rests partly on these writings and oral traditions from Spain and partly on the Hermetic writings from Ptolomaic Egypt, which arrived in Italy via Byzantium at about the same time.
Is the story myth or history? I suggest the two are not in conflict. One part is a historical account of learning, the other is a description of our place in relation to that learning, Paul Foster Case, who left the Golden Dawn to found Builders of the Adytum, wrote a lengthy book ‘The True and Invisible Rosicrucian Order’, arguing that Rosicrucianism was a body of learning not an organisation:
One may not join it [the Rosicrucian Fraternity] by making an application for membership, paying entrance fees and dues, and passing through an initiation ceremony … one becomes a Rosicrucian: one does not join the Rosicrucians … To say this is, of course, to repudiate any and all pretensions of societies claiming to be direct historical successors to the authors of the original Rosicrucian Manifestos …” <6>
Case goes on to suggest that most Rosicrucian societies have members who join that society to further the real aims of Rosicruciansm:
Having learned from the manifestos the distinguishing marks of a Rosicrucian, these people know that insofar as they exhibit these marks they are links in the chain of the invisible order … just as there are other persons in various parts of the world who merit this designation even though they may never have heard of the Order.” <6>
There is here a recognition of the importance of the myth, regardless of historical truth (whatever that is history is always a myth written by the victors) The Fama may, of course, be historically true, but its importance does rest on its historical truth.
This is important: the truth of a myth is not same as its validity. As Karen Armstrong argues:
“By treating myth as though it were rational, modern scientists, critics and philosophers had made it incredible. In 1882 Freidrich Nietzsche proclaimed that God was dead. In a sense he was right. Without myth, cult, ritual and ethical living, the sense of the sacred dies. By making ‘God’ a wholly notional truth, reached by the critical intellect alone, modern men and women had killed it for themselves.” <7>
Ms Armstrong is wrong one point, however: it is not that we do not have myths, it is that too often today we do not recognise them.
>Another and possibly better example of myth is the myth of democracy. The US has an absolute belief in the myth (in the non-pejorative sense of the word) of democracy. In the same way China believes its own myth of local democracy. The US belief ignores the fact that vast sums of money are invested by a variety of interests trying to ensure their own advantage, to the detriment of the common good, while the Chinese myth ignores the fact that a one party state controls access to the democratic process, which it sees as keeping people content with their position in life. The difficulty here arises because the two peoples passionately believe contradictory myths which both contain an element of truth.
The lack of myths is referred to among anthropologists and sociologists as ‘amythia’ and they go on to describe it as a feature of our society, but I have shown that we do not lack myths in the modern world we just like to think we have somehow outgrown them, and refer to the predominant myth as ‘fact’ when it is merely a perception of facts. The solution for the problems we face is to develop new and better myths, which describe the world as it is, rather than as science fiction would like it to be, to replace the failing myth.
Environmentalists look towards the myths of indigenous peoples. We know in Britain that the Druids worshipped nature in groves of trees and many of our ancestors saw nature as peopled by elemental Spirits. (Some of us still see the world in that way!) Many communities of our ancestors met in the outdoors in stone circles. All were nearer to nature, the cosmos and the world around them and all recognised their place within nature.
We urgently need and must develop the new myths and no one seems anxious to create them. Lest I am accused of being negative, I will draw attention to the nature of the myths we need in the 21st century. Karen Armstrong has set them out beautifully in ‘A Short History of Myth’. I take issue with her over our lack of myths she maintains there are now no real myths and need new ones, but I agree about their nature:
We need myths that will help us identify with all our fellow beings, not simply with those who belong to our ethnic, national or ideological tribe. We need myths that help us to realise the importance of compassion, which is not always regarded as sufficiently productive in a pragmatic, rational world. We need myths that help us create a spiritual attitude, to see beyond our immediate requirements, and able us to experience a transcendent value that challenges out solipsistic selfishness. We need myths that help us to venerate the earth as sacred once again, instead of merely using it as a ‘resource’. This is crucial, because unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technical genius, we will not save the planet” <8>
This is true, and possibly our best hope lies in Professor James Lovelock’s theory that the earth is a sentient being he calls Gaia the ancient Greek name for the Mother Goddess.
It is necessary to both love the world and the people in it (even the unlovable ones) and to recognise our own place in it and it doesn’t seem possible to leave it to Scientists, Economists or Politicians or even religious leaders to do that. As Karen Armstrong says:
If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and add fresh insight to our lost and damag ed world.”9>
Such a driving and desperate need for myth lies behind the almost incomprehensible success of ‘The Da Vinci Code’, but we need more than an exciting thriller to complete our lives.
<2> James Hilton; Lost Horizons; Summerdale, UK; (First Published 1933, Macmillan); Page 105.
<3> Jane Sellers; The Death of Gods in Ancient Egypt; Penguin, London; 1992; page193.
<4> Santillana & von Dechend; Hamlet’s Mill: An essay on myth and the frame of time; Macmillan, London; 1970; p viii of the introduction.
<5> John Michael Greer: Progress as Modern Mythology; internet (from a work in progress and copyrighted)
<6> Paul Foster Case; The True and Invisible Rosicrucian Order; Samuel Weiser Inc, Maine; 1989. (Quotes are from page 5, but the whole of Chapter 1 is relevant)
<7> Karen Armstrong; A short Hisy of Myth; Canongate, Edinburgh; 2005; Page138
<8> Ibid, page 142 143
<9> Ibid, page 155
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