New Scholarship?

A friend of mine recently sent me an e-mail that contained the following question:

I have been thinking a lot about this statement you made on your blog over the summer:

And, while I’m happy to be a book-thumping mythologist and an arm-chair psychologist, it’s time to get some new scholarship published that isn’t just reciting or repackaging the same old theories that have been tossed around for 100 years now. In other words, stop theorizing and start doing. I’m still working on my plan of action for this step.

Have you figured out a plan of action yet?

Since this is a very appropriate question, especially as I slough ever closer a conclusion (to my dissertation, that is), I took a moment to jot down and answer. And here it is:

I’m not sure I have a specific answer, especially since somehow suggesting an answer seems to me to be a major act of hubris. But, as I read the Tweets about the Occupy movement, I’m more convinced that something needs to happen. The Occupy movement is great in that the youth are finally doing, but it falls short in that they don’t have a unified front of what they are protesting, which is what I’m afraid is going to happen when all the mythologists start doing something. "Saving the world" is an awfully big challenge.

It seems to me that the best course of action is for each mythologist to identify a particular aspect of "the world" s/he wants to see fixed and utilize the tools available for them to move in a direction of healing. For example, I’ve become fascinated with the idea of the Cold War instigating a paradigm shift in American myth and how our response to it constructed the environment we’re currently living in, one based on Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality. So then, my question is whether we can break down the simulacra and restore groundedness in some sense of reality without totally shattering America’s idealistic, Romantic, utopian views. My current tool, since I’m not formally published in many places, is to blog my thoughts, but to also construct lectures in my classes that invite students to think about these very questions and consider plans of action. Granted, only a few students actually walk away with any semblance of a plan, but I hold to the ideal that if I can sink into a couple of them, then they will spread the word and so on. I’m not expecting a quick fix, which is definitely not what we need–though I do think we need a mythic Band-aid in the interim as we realign our thinking, and that’s what really great myths these days are providing, such as Harry Potter or LOTR or Star Wars or whatever. They make us think about good and evil, love and hate, and model for us how to handle those emotions.

I once saw a Pacifica dissertation defense for a project constructed around using myths to help children of soldiers cope with their parent’s injuries (physical and mental). This student constructed a puppet stage play with the container of children asking an old wounded vet about why Daddy acts weird or why he had to lose a leg, and the old vet would respond with an older myth that answered the question, but the myth was used in the context of getting the children to connect their own situation with the myth and figure out for themselves the solution they were asking for. This particular model works great for younger kids, but I wonder how well it would work for older kids and adults. My concern with this latter example is that it pulls myths out of time and place (which is the point, according to the laws of archetypes), and I find that mythologists who use this practice ignore/overlook America’s own mythology altogether. I know this is a matter of opinion (and possibly national pride?), but overlooking American myth (not the same as Native American) reinforces the hyperreality by constructing a false relationship to myth that ignore the fundamental aspects of American culture.

I’m not really sure yet what overlooking American myth means yet. In the majority of my readings, the idea of American myth is something relatively recent, so maybe this is also something that will turn around.

Mythologists who toe the line between technology and myth are in a unique position. I think there is a lot of promise for a fusion between the two, but I haven’t yet figured out what that end goal should be. Pacifica recently launched the Study of Myth, which is supposed to be a discussion forum for all things myth, with a preference for the same conversation within the already established (ruts) discussions happening at Pacifica, the Opus Archives and the JCF. But discussion forums only go so far. Somehow, I almost wonder if an "Occupy Myth" movement is the next way to go. Except, rather than occupy a park, we occupy liminal space and democratically vote on our list of demands from the Cosmos and develop ways to take myth out of the discussion/educational forum and make it practical to everyday life. And to move away from the "Hero’s Journey" formula, because that formula cannot apply to everyone’s personal experience.

This is as far as I’ve thought. What are your thoughts, Dear Reader?


Myth Collection as Consumption

A recent bee started buzzing in my bonnet. Something about people who just collect myths and spit them out to prove a point has gotten under my skin, and this has been festering for awhile and it’s part of my current disillusionment with Joseph Campbell. On one hand, it’s a very superficial way to win an argument. But on the other, it does a disservice to the myth. Each myth has a context, and it’s important to recognize this context. I sort of addressed this in a previous post. What was once a learning tool for young Greek boys is probably not a learning tool for young American women. Sure, it can work if you force it into a new context, even revising the story to fit. But have you ever tried forcing a puzzle piece into a place where it doesn’t go? It’s the same with a myth. If you pound it enough, it’ll fit wherever you want it to, but that doesn’t mean it belongs there.

In my dissertation research, I’ve been recently captivated by the idea of consumption as an inherent part of the American psyche. In fact, I have boldly come to the decision that consumption is the driving force behind Manifest Destiny, which itself is the core of the American psyche. We have been consumers since the pilgrims came to this country; since the Revolution made it our own; since the Frontiersmen, women, and settlers claimed the land; and since we started mass producing “stuff.” Unlike our Old World forefathers, it’s not enough for us to consume food, shelter, clothing and other basic necessities. It’s not enough to consume art, religion or ideas. We want to consume everything and in increasing amounts. George Ritzer terms this “hyperconsumption.”

Since consumption is the core of our psyche and since I’m a self-declared cultural relativist (a remnant of my early Anthropology training), I don’t find fault with the fact that we consume. But we’ve made consumption an addiction. We don’t just consume for the sake of consuming, but somewhere along the way we started forming the core of our identity with the things we consume: by the clothes we wear, or the brands we choose to advertise, the car we drive, etc. We consciously project to the world what we want the world to think of us based on the items we are consuming.

But there’s a neurosis in hyperconsumption. We call them “collectors,” “hoarders,” or even “pack rats.” Chances are we all either know a number of friends who we would tag with those descriptions, or maybe we have certain aspects in our own lives that others would label as such. At various stages of my life, I’ve had things I’ve consciously collected, and I’ve held onto them in the classic pack-rat mentality until one move too many and they lost any and all meaning. As of right now, if I had to claim any conscious act of collecting and/or hoarding, it would be books. But the danger to collecting depends on what you do with it.

And this is where myth collecting comes into play. It’s good to know the various myths of the world. I say it many times that myths are some of the best artifacts we have from all times and cultures. They reveal so much about a culture’s beliefs, behaviors and psychology more so than many of the artifacts that do survive the times. This is one reason why I hold a very broad definition of what constitutes a “myth.” But so what? So what if you can recite a passage from Homer for me to prove a point in an argument? Or so what, Professor Campbell, that you can find three examples from world myth that supports your claim? What do you want me to do with it?

The academic realm of mythological studies threatens to become a myth collection. More importantly, choose a few mythologists, follow their work, and regurgitate their findings and sound very smart at a cocktail party.  People turn to myth when they are seeking answers. I’ve heard many people tell me that they found the answers they were looking for to a particular crisis in the works of Joseph Campbell. But while they may find the answers, do they actually put them to action? This is isn’t easy.

This is where  my dissertation has taken me. It’s become important to me to be able to read a myth and cull from it not only a culture-specific understanding of the myth’s context but also gain an understanding of the tools of mythology so that they can be applied to the current myth spectrum. It is only through this that we can begin to unlock the hidden mysteries of American mythology, long ignored as “too popular for serious scholarship.” It is through this that we can begin to understand the phenomenon of fanatic behavior that has helped define so many modes in the past 50 years. And I firmly believe that this will help us gain a better framework to create those myths that might actually initiate the healing process this country so desperately needs.

Primitive Myth vs. Modern Science

On the one hand, there is the viewpoint of myth that it has no literal interpretation. On the other, there is the viewpoint that there is a literal interpretation of science. Bridging between the two is philosophy, which is open to both the non-literal and literal interpretations. Robert Segal’s article, "Myth as primitive philosophy: The case of E. B. Tylor" questions not only the relationships between myth, philosophy and science, but also the relationship between the primitive versus modern mentality. Segal provides the positions of various theorists to build the case for or against Tylor’s assertion that primitive myth is separate from modern science.

Tylor, like many of his colleagues, assumes that there is a distinction between myth, science and philosophy. He assumes that "primitive philosophy is identical with primitive religion" (18), and that there is no science in the primitive world. Primitive religion in this model is the counterpart for science "because both are explanations of the physical world" (19). The role of myth, according to Tylor, is to explain why the gods do what they do, whereas religion states that they do it (19). Furthermore, this assumes that the primitive mind is no less interested in manipulating the physical world than moderns, and that science belongs only to the realm of the theoretical. In the primitive realm, there is no conscious need to separate science from myth, religion and philosophy. Primitive science teaches the community how to survive within the environment. Primitive "scientists" could better understand the rhythms of the world, a perspective from which Tylor seems divorced.

If primitive religion functions in order to make sense of the physical world, then it would follow that the purpose of primitive religion is linked to that of survival. In contrast, modern thought is influenced by new discoveries in science and technology, and religion is not linked with survival but with coping. The ethnocentrism that plagues Western thought has traditionally recognized primitives as lesser beings: interesting for study but in no way related to "civilized" beings. Segal seems to support the argument that the primitives are of a different developmental caliber than moderns, and are crucial for understanding the core of archetypal and metaphorical thought. An understanding of primitive myth from this perspective yields an understanding of human myth. Because of Tylor’s ethnocentrism, he fails to see the relationship between primitives and moderns. Perhaps the modern generation is so concerned with preserving primitive myth because these populations are dying out or were greatly altered as a result of colonialism.

As the theoretical paradigm shifts out of the post-modern era, more and more students attempt to shed the old ways and embrace perspectives better suited for the shrinking global market, one digitally linked with more cultural exchange than imagined following the World Wars. As food shortages and natural disasters top the world news, the need for myth grows stronger as communities need explanations for why god or gods do what they do. Science has tried being the voice of reason, but it lacks a universal audience, because it can only explain so much.

The post-Enlightenment eras have focused on finding a universal truth, and this fever is still strong through the modern and post-modern eras. Segal’s article demonstrates that there are as many answers as there are thinkers, who are as varied as snowflakes. What Tylor’s claim is not prepared for is the post-modern, holistic thinking that believes that there are many answers for every question and no universal perspective, but, rather, many perspectives for the same thing.

Works cited

  • Segal, Robert A. "Myth as primitive philosophy: The case of E. B. Tylor." Rpt. in Thinking Through Myths: Philosophical Perspectives. Ed. Kevin Shilbrack. New York & London: Routledge, 2002. 18-45.

Re-Visioning Dionysus: A Modern Spin on a Ancient Diety

l recently rediscovered my youthful love for Greek mythology. It came on suddenly while I was lecturing on Hellenic Greek culture for my community college students, and was reminded of the many legacies of Greek civilization and how they inspired all areas of literature, art, and philosophy to some extent in subsequent generations. The textbook I am using, which released its 6th edition early in 2008, stresses the follies of corrupted absolute power for the downfall of most ancient civilizations, especially Egypt, Greece and Rome. The book’s latent claim is that through a study of the humanities, one can understand the dangers of hubris and how it cannot be successfully sustained. The gods played archetypal central roles in maintaining the boundaries between human and Olympian power. For example, one Hellenic ideal was to balance Apollo with Dionysus, or order with chaos. In Greek literature, this dichotomy is demonstrated by the consequences a character suffers if he or she operates under the guise of hubris and absolute power in decision-making, or Apollo, and how he or she will be put back into one’s place by Dionysus. Unfortunately, the death of theater at the end of the Hellenic era also brought a sort of death of Dionysus. He is still around, but has had to take on a new guise, forcing us in American society to learn a new way of experiencing the archetype.

To understand Dionysus as a god, it helps to first understand his three births as a god. In the first, he is taken from Semele by Zeus to protect him from Hera’s wrath after Semele is killed by Zeus’s divine presence. This birth is a mortal birth and ties Dionysus to the mortal tension of humanity. From Semele, the infant is placed in Zeus’s thigh to bring him to full gestation. When he is ready, he emerges from Zeus’ thigh, a divine birth. Walter Otto remarks that this “is the reason why he is, in a great and complete sense, a god—the god of duality, as the myth of his birth expresses it so beautifully and truly. As a true god he symbolizes an entire world whose spirit reappears in ever new forms and unites in an eternal unity the sublime with the simple, the human with the animal, the vegetative and the elemental” (Otto 202). During his childhood, he is dismembered, cut up, stirred into a stew and fed to the gods. He is rescued by Athena and reconstructed, an alchemical birth. Unlike the other gods, Dionysus is a transcendent deity, with ties not only to the human realm and the divine realm, but to another realm entirety that transcends human conception and divinity. The alchemical realm is one of mystery, due to the nature of the transformation that takes place–one rarely resembles its original state after the process is complete.

As a god, he is identified as the god of wine, festival, and theater, all of which induce uncivilized behavior within individuals, removing their sense of self-control and inciting chaotic behavior in Dionysian followers. Because of the frenzied behavior not conducive to Hellenic culture, Dionysus was honored and confined within the theater and any festivals surrounding it, such as the Dionysia in which new tragedies were performed. Dionysus is a primal god, connected with the uncivilized aspects of human behavior. There have not been too many incarnations of this archetype in modern times. He is associated with Christ and similar messianic figures. Joseph Campbell notes that in Orphic cults, the “ever-dying, ever-living god, who is the reality of all beings” is recognized as “the god whose symbol is the vine … known as Dionysus-Orpheus-Bacchus” (25-6). This recognition ties Dionysus to the earth and his presence in the plants. His death and resurrection is linked to the passing of the seasons and rites and sacrifices to this god were meant to encourage the crops to grow. This purpose for Dionysus faded when the Greek civilization started to prefer the Olympian deities under Zeus over the chthonic deities of the earth, especially Dionysus and Demeter.

One way to understand Dionysus, according to Ginette Paris, is to realize that he is not simply an actor in theater, but that he is the mask and the theater in and of themselves (49). That he cannot be confined to a polis shrine is a testament to the primal nature in this god: one needs to let one’s hair down, one has to drink or somehow release one’s sorrows or connect with one’s primal nature. The flip side is one weighted down by looming depression or a disconnect between mind and body.

The disconnect between mind and body is the fundamental basis between the argument of Apollo versus Dionysus. This is further relevant to Hellenic life and its quest for beauty and balanced harmony in all aspects of life, as demonstrated in the remaining artistic canon. This line of thought pits the two gods, Apollo and Dionysus, against each other:

In Apollo all of the splendor of the Olympic converges and confronts the realms of eternal becoming and eternal passing. Apollo and Dionysus, the intoxicated leader of the choral dance of the terrestrial sphere—that would give the total world dimension. In this union the Dionysiac earthly duality would be elevated into a new and higher duality, the eternal contrast between the restless, whirling life and a still, far-seeing spirit. (Otto 208)

Dionysus, as stated, is the god of wine who often induces his followers into a frenzied state, especially women, who often tore animals apart in their blindness. This should not be confused with hysteria, which is a medical condition. Apollo, by contrast, is the god of truth and wisdom, and his oracle at Delphi was held in a high, unquestioning regard, though open to human misinterpretations. The ideal balanced life would allow both gods equal footing in an individual’s life and in the greater society. If one is given more dominance over the other, then the resulting imbalance creates an unhealthy environment. For example, too much Dionysus leads to anarchy and nothing can be accomplished, and an unhealthy society quickly develops. Similarly, too much Apollo disconnects one from an earthy connection and roots a person in an ethereal quest for an intangible ideology. I suggest that the Western world is so tipped towards Apollo, that we have become an “air” society, and a reconnection with Dionysus would literally bring us back down to earth.

Looking at Apollo and Dionysus as archetypes, we get another perspective of their significance. Apollo is the rigid control of the psyche and Dionysus is the lack thereof. Apollo can be viewed as ego and Dionysus as id, or the shadow, the unconscious counterpart or opposition to the ego. Of course, there are those for whom Dionysus is ego and Apollo is the shadow. Jung would suggest that part of the individuation process includes striking a balance between both energies because, otherwise, one becomes rooted in neurosis, psychosis, and pathology. To own one’s shadow is the process by which one reconciles these two forces. For example, allowing Dionysus to drive one into a bit of frenzy from time to time, and taking a break from Apollo. The consequences of not doing this can be tragic. Dionysus will not be denied and can surface when least expected, causing something uncharacteristic to occur. Similarly, owning an Apollonian shadow involves introducing order and reason into one’s life. A healthy balance is resembled by a successful working professional who hosts a backyard barbecue regularly.

Since American society is Apollonian and this is a paper on Dionysus, I would like to now compare some ancient, Classical manifestations of Dionysus with some modern. The image of Dionysus has changed, but he still finds a way to leak into the mainstream.

Euripides’ play, The Bacchae, sets Dionysus against Theban king, Pentheus, who represents an Apollonian character. Dionysus comes to Thebes and induces his usual frenzy and chaos. Pentheus, as king, wants to rid the polis of the unruly god and restore control and calm. To do this would mean cutting short the festival going on in Dionysus’ honor, but Pentheus is determined, especially after learning that his own mother has joined the ranks of the Maenads, or frenzied women who follow Dionysus. Since Dionysus is not going to have that, he confronts Pentheus in disguise and convinces him to visit the Maenads in disguise and see for himself what is really occurring amongst them. The Maenads realize Pentheus is not a woman, and thus unworthy of their ranks, but in their frenzy they fail to recognize who he is. They tear him to pieces. After being freed from Dionysus’ spell, Pentheus’ mother realizes her part in killing her son and is exiled. The overall theme of the play stresses that it is a fatal mistake to try to suppress Dionysus.

Just before Thanksgiving 2008, the drama department of the community college I teach at staged a production of The Bacchae. It was directed and adapted by an adjunct faculty "artist in residence," but it was otherwise a student production. What started out as an excellent version of the play became a comic play at the end, when the image manager would interrupt the scene to inform the audience that which parts of the play have been lost over time, such as Agave’s lament. The production effectively made The Bacchae into a tragic farce, with all of the tension lost.

Catharsis is “a purification of whatever is ‘filthy’ or ‘polluted’ in the pathos, the tragic act” (Else 98). This cleansing action, as described in Aristotle’s Poetics, is one of evoking feelings of fear and pity for the character (Aristotle 40). A successful tragedy will have a character that experiences a terrible situation, often an act of fate out of control, yet the audience feels sympathy for the outcome. Part of a successful staging is the spectacle, the extent to which one’s experience is enhanced, not detracted from catharsis. One cannot be expected to sympathize with Agave if one is being told that her part is missing, even if the purpose of such a discourse is as a teaching tool.

In contrast to the tragedy, comedy is, according to Aristotle, “ an imitation of persons who are inferior; not, however, going all the way to full villainy, but imitating the ugly, of which the ludicrous is one part” (23). Not only does comedy imitate the ugliness, but the beauty as well, in order to draw attention to them. Comedy highlights aspects of one’s character, physically or personality, that the audience would recognize. In some cases, the emphasis helps identify a well-known character. In others, it ensures that the audience will be aware of the trait. The Frogs does both. Aristophanes plays up the pompousness of Euripides and Aeschylus while also raising awareness of the looming end of the Hellenic age.

Dionysus’ role in The Frogs, is that of a judge for the perfect tragedian, choosing between Euripides and Aeschylus. Sophocles is recognized as immensely popular and successful, so he is not considered, which may influenced by Aristophanes’ own opinion of him as a lower poet than the other two. Whoever won was permitted to return to Athens with Dionysus. This is demonstrated by a verbal tennis match, with each delivering lines from his work and lambasting the other. Dionysus decides by weighing the lyric and chooses Aeschylus.

At the time of Aristophanes’ play, tragedy was a dying form. The tragic playwrights following Euripides were either unable or unwilling to create genuine, good plays. The glory of Athens was in decline, and through Dionysus, “[he] seeks to bring back good writing to Athens, and with it the public wisdom which, as Aristophanes maintains against Sokrates, will always be found in the highest poetry” (Arrowsmith et al., 474). While it is not possible to actually resurrect the dead, the hope Aristophanes instills of resurrecting the glory and splendor of the Hellenic period, offers another type of catharsis: one that releasing the audience from is own emotional vacuum. The audience is cleaned through h the release of the filth that is associated with the bad news and downtrodden society.

Dionysus is integral with catharsis because through the chaos he invites, one can release emotions that otherwise have to remain contained. Frenzy is well-noted to be the opposition to productivity, which, in an Apollonian environment, is held to a higher esteem than creativity. Indeed, the creative spirit caught in the Hellenic age and in tragedy fell silent after a slow decline at the end of the era and remained in this manner until the Renaissance, with a few exceptions along the way in Medieval literature.

Ginette Paris in the Dionysus chapter of her book, Pagan Grace, stresses a need for celebrations to Dionysus and suggests that there are not enough in modern, monotheistic society. Maybe this seeming lack is due to the extreme nature of Dionysian celebration. I can think of three sanctioned holidays: New Year’s Eve, Mardi Gras, and Halloween. New Year’s is a one night celebration, full of parties, drinking, and sometimes a feast. It is a restrained event, focused on counting down until midnight, not absolute frenzy.

Halloween, similarly, is a one night event, except many people prepare for weeks. For children, Halloween involves finding and dressing in the perfect costume and seeking candy from neighbors and businesses. For them, Dionysus is found in the masks, but especially in the candy. For adults, Halloween is a night of misbehaving in or out of costume. Adult Halloween parties include candy, alcohol, and other vices. People who attend these parties are allowed one night of frenzy with the comfort of anonymity.

Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, on the other hand refers to the last Tuesday before the Lent season, a period of fasting and austerity leading to the Easter celebration. Traditionally, it is the last day before the season of abstinence that one may eat animal fats, such as butter or lard. This festival has grown, in some places, to a month-long celebration of costume (masks), parades, drinking (vine) and lots of people behaving badly (frenzy). The festivities of Mardi Gras are among the few sanctioned by the Church to allow people the opportunity to lose control without consequences, except for those outlined by the community’s law.

After a month of preparation for a single event, is there still energy for continued Dionysia? According to Paris’ position, not only is there no energy, but there is no other sanctioned environment to honor Dionysus. I offer that there is one such place that is overlooked to its nature, as noted by several critics, as a commercial, consumerist, environment: Disneyland and the other Disney theme parks. If a tribute to Dionysus includes excess and letting one’s hair down, then Disneyland represents daily doses of Dionysus. No alcohol is served in the Magic Kingdom, but similar excesses, such as candy, can be attributed to Dionysus. The Disneyland experience from start to finish is one of the most extreme theatrical experiences, and one fabricated for people to experience happiness. The park is cut off from the outside world, not affected by news of war, recession, or unemployment. The food is all Disney themed, especially the Mickey Mouse-shaped desserts, and outside corporate influences are limited. Dionysus is invoked in the ongoing celebrations: the parades, the cheering fans, and the overall happiness of the place. Some families prepare for years for their pilgrimage to Disneyland, and others go regularly.

A fictional personification of Dionysus can be found in Willy Wonka from Roald Dahl’s book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Like Dionysus, Wonka was chased away from public view and isolated himself in his chocolate factory. His presence was still felt through his chocolate, but he was otherwise a private, isolated figure. Wonka decides to return to the public and opens up his chocolate factory for a select few, who can be "initiated" into some of the secrets of his chocolate factory. The world as a whole launches into a Dionysian-frenzy trying to find the Golden Ticket that would let them into the inner circle. Chocolate does not generate the same reaction as wine, but it nonetheless does inspire people to launch into another state. Some people react amorously, which is the realm of Aphrodite, but others, notably small children, become hyper and excited under the sugary influence, and thus enter a Dionysian state of mind.

Two historical periods represented by Dionysus are the Sixties Counterculture, known for its excesses in San Francisco, and the Club Kids phenomenon in Eighties New York. Both are marked with abuses of various substances, especially psychedelics and other drugs that not only put one into another state of mind, but also altered perceptions and experiences. In both cases, the participants were trying to avoid the rigor and control of the established society and live entirely by the rules of Dionysus. Many were young teenagers or in their early to mid twenties, and some were trapped in the puer stage of development and never wanted to grow up. Drugs provided an excuse to put off the responsibilities of adulthood, or Apollo, for a little while longer. Some were able to recover and start a new life, and others were forever stuck the cycle of addiction.

Dionysus does have a presence in modern life, even if it is not the one expected. He is no longer worshipped as a god of the vine, to whom one must sacrifice in order for the crops to go, nor is he simply the god of the theater. Those conceptions of Dionysus passed with the Ancient world. Sadly, so did the wealth of source material. Only a relatively small number of plays, stories, other texts, and works of art at extant. The rest have been lost with time or human destruction. The legacy of Dionysus lives on, however, as an archetype of excessive behavior and lack of control. Historically, this has been demonstrated through cultural movements that prefer the life of hedonism to the life of stoicism. Within popular culture, Dionysian energies surface in unlikely places that would not typically be associated with the god.

It is the task of modern mythological studies, I suggest, to recognize these changes. It is easy to conclude that myth, God, or any similar sacred or divine presence is dead in the modern, Western post-Scientific Revolution world, because the polytheistic gods of yore are no longer worshipped. But then, those gods are those of another era and fulfilled different cultural needs. The archetypal approach keeps the myths alive, but almost to the point of idealizing these myths to the exclusion of the myths currently floating around culture. Recognizing the myths, such as Dionysus in Disneyland, allows one to recognize the mythic quality of a facet of culture that could easily be overlooked. The Hellenic playwrights did something similar, personifying Dionysus as a character in their plays, which lowers him from a level of divinity to a level of human understanding. As the story of Semele’s death and Dionysus’s birth demonstrates, it is not possible to know the gods fully, because their divine radiance is too powerful for humans. They can only be understood through human constructs, which vary and change from person to person.

Works cited

  • Aristophanes. “The Frogs.” Four Plays by Aristophanes: The Birds, The Clouds, The Frogs, Lysistrata. Trans. William Arrowsmith, Richmond Lattimore, and Douglas Parker. New York: Meridian, 1994.
  • Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Gerald Else. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1967.
  • Arrowsmith, William. Notes. “The Frogs.” Four Plays by Aristophanes: The Birds, The Clouds, The Frogs, Lysistrata. by Aristophanes. New York: Meridian, 1994.
  • Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Creative Mythology. New York: Penguin Compass, 1968.
  • Else, Gerald. Notes. Poetics. By Aristotle. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1967.
  • Euripides. The Bacchae. Trans. C.K. Williams. New York: Noonday P, 1990.
  • Otto, Walter F. Dionysus: Myth and Cult. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1995.
  • Paris, Ginette. Pagan Grace: Dionysus, Hermes, and Goddess Memory in Daily Life. Putnam: Spring, 1990.

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.