Mythology as a Living and Lively Oral Tradition

I’ve gotten hooked on Robert Bringhurst’s book, A Story as Sharp as a Knife: the Classical Haida Mythtellers and their World. He attained some measure of fluency in Haida in order to study their spoken artistic traditions; in the book he translates extensive sections of 10 hour oral narrative epic poems, to prove the point that a handful of recorded Haida mythtellers (the Haida poets Ghandl and Skaay among them) number among the great poets of North America, of this or any other age.

In fact, he makes the case that myths never enter this world as a communal expression, but rather as an expression of an individual voice. An excerpt:

Swanton’s hope, as he has told us, was to transcribe every story, or every mythic episode, told in Haida Gwaii. but you can no more record all the stories in a mythology than you can write down all the sentences in a language. A mythology is not a fixed body of stories; it is an open set. It is a narrative ecology: a watershed, a forest, a community of stories that are born and die and breed with one another and with stories from outside.

What a brilliant little summation; if you think of your dreaming life, writing down all the myths of a culture essentially means writing down all the dreams ever dreamed by a people. A neverending task! Your dreams speak your personal native tongue in the same sense that your culture’s myths provide a communal mythic tongue. Your dream language creates stories, much like your myth language does. And both feed into and aliven each other. The term “animism” seeks to make such “aliveness” and relevance to the present moment more clear; dogma means the death of aliveness. In our culture, we define religions as possessing dogma. Mythologies (as natively stewarded) have no dogma, only a language that they provide to tell stories in, refreshed by the community of dreamers. Anthropologists tend to turn mythologies into dogmas, and thus you have books that purport to tell all the stories of Norse, Hindu, or Greek “mythologies”. But only a dogma could offer such a finite set of story; a true mythology never stops speaking. More good stuff:

The mythteller’s calling differs little from the scientist’s. It is to elucidate the structure and the workings of the world. Myths are stories that investigate the nature of the world (whereas novels, for example, more often look at questions of proprietary interest to human beings alone). A genuine mythology is a systematically elaborated, extended, interconnected and adaptable set of myths. It is a kind of science in narrative from.

Science too is an ecology of ideas. Science, in fact, is a kind of mythology in computational form. Where science is in fashion and mythology is not, it is widely claimed that science is “true” and mythology is “false.” This claim proves, on close inspection, less a theorem in science’s defense than a partisan slogan. Both science and mythology aspire to be true, and both for that reason are perpetually under revision for as long as they are alive. Both lapse into dogma when these revisions stop. Where they are healthy, both mythology and science are as faithful to the real as their practitioners can make them, though it seems to be an axiom that neither ever perfectly succeeds.

Any persistent reader of the College of Mythic Cartography will know how close this lands to my heart; this resonant understanding of both science and myth by the author really surprises me. I would only clarify that whether or not Science aspires to “truth”, I would say more accurately that Mythology aspires to talk about the world in a useful way, to reflect it so that we can interact with it in a more effective way. It inextricably weaves both waking and dreaming reason together into a seamless tapestry of useful story, that affirms and increases life.

Written by Willem