The Importance of Cultural Context

After my last inspired post, I went semi-consciously offline for awhile – literally and figuratively. I’ve spent the last couple weeks delving into the core research for three dissertation chapters, and have come to the conclusion that too much reading is not conducive to either writing or blogging. But every now and then a question pops up that I feel a need to address, in large part because it ties in so nicely with my dissertation. That said, I’m really looking forward to being able to someday not blog about my dissertation…

Today’s thought was inspired by a post over at Mythic Musings. The author posed the relevant question, Is mythology dangerous? This particular question was raised in response to the author’s exploration of the Pandora and Eve myths. Both of these stories suggest that women are to blame for the hardships of the world, and suggestions have been made by many mythologists that myths such as these are used as tools of oppression, leading to the argument that mythology shouldn’t be taken literally. A very, very valid point.

But I think there’s more to the argument than that. The mythological studies scholarship holds that myth is inspired by something greater than humans. Indeed, the early myth-makers were the great poets, seers, priests, etc., of a particular society. Yet, the scholarship does not hold that modern myth-makers are likewise inspired; rather, they command a really good use of their myth tools (language, music, images, etc.). This disconnect is a matter of perception. Once upon a time, the priests and poets (etc.) were revered by their people as being the voice of the deity. However, in this new-fangled structure of civilization, we’ve separated the deity from the everyday and placed a lot of responsibility upon the individual for their talents. Yet the end result is the same.

It all boils down to cultural context. What I mean by this is that mythologists should take culture into account. On one level, there is the culture that gave birth to the myth. For example, with Eve and Pandora, both emerged from early civilizations that saw women as both inferior and potentially as a danger to men. Myths such as these furthered the cultural mores. And there is the other level: modern mythologists are reading these old myths from their own cultural framework. Thus, it is very easy in our pro-feminist western world to read the myths of Eve and Pandora as “repressive.” As a woman, sure, I don’t appreciate being blamed for all of the ills in the world. But I hesitate to call ancient Greece and the ancient Hebrew world “repressive” in the Feminist sense. Different, definitely.

Myths are some of the best artifacts of a culture we have, because they give us a view into the psychology of the culture. We can glean more from myths and legends than we can, in many cases, from material remains.

The real danger comes when myths are taken out of their context and used to control. For example, ancient Greek myths are ancient Greek myths. They are not modern American (or whatever your home culture is) myths, and should not be used in the same way (and herein, for anyone paying attention, lies my distaste for the works of James Hillman). This is when mythology turns into propaganda, and this is when readers of myth get disillusioned and discouraged (as is happening in America today), or the cultural shadow threatens to destroy a society (as happened in Nazi Germany).

In my own research, also known as “the Scottish Paper on Disneyland,” I’ve had to reconcile the fact that Disneyland is a Cold War era myth, and this has completely reshaped my reading of the lands. It is nonetheless American, and it has been constantly updated such that the Cold War myths are slowly being altered to the new era or are being phased out (and I’m leaving California Adventure out of this consideration). The values that are expressed through Cold War myths are still relevant today, which is why Disneyland is still a potent myth-motif for today’s world; though, the love and praise for America that Walt Disney bled into Disneyland has become less important, which – I will say it honestly – is a damn shame.

Someday, post-doc, I’d love to travel to Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai to compare their Disneylands. I have a suspicion that the removal of the American mythos from the park compromises the potency of the experience. Eventually (i.e., as a graduation present), I’ll make it to the Magic Kingdom at Disney World, but knowing that this was designed as Disneyland, part deux, I suspect that I’ll find the richness of the myth alive and well in Florida. After all, Ridley Pearson’s Kingdom Keepers series is based in Disney World, not Disneyland.

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