Knowing and Not Knowing
Historian and author Kenneth C. Davis has been called the “king of knowing” by amazon.com His many books both for children and adults on the subject of history and man could attest to the fact that he does indeed know many things. He explains our fascination with myths and the supernatural spirits that were the focus of them as this: “Myths were a very human way to explain everything.” In his book “Don’t Know Much about Mythology”, he states: “Myths explained how the Earth was created, where life came from, why the stars shine at night and the seasons change.”
Davis likens the mythologies of the world and mankind to a car wreck on the side of the road. He explains that we have all passed by such an event. Whether one is traveling in India, Zimbabwe, Turkey, Monte Carlo, or Ohio, accidents happen. As we slow down and then carefully continue pass, it is human nature to begin to wonder how the accident occurred. We do not simply accept that there is an accident on the side of the roadway. We begin to create a story about how it might have happened. “The driver was going too fast for the conditions.” Perhaps the driver was distracted by the road construction across the way on the other side.” “I wonder if the driver was drunk or maybe texting and driving.”
Humans seem to have an innate need to create a story about what we see, experience, or have felt. Davis says that “Myths may have begun, in the oldest sense, as a way for humans to explain the “car wrecks” of their world – the world that could see as well as the world they could not see…. Long before we could know the age of a rock and before men walked on the moon, there were myths.”
We are all connected in that instant that we become a long line of traffic waiting to pass the car wreck on the road. Suddenly, in our busy lives going many different directions, we become as one, all affected by one event that probably had nothing to do with us, an event created by total strangers we will never meet. With that one occurrence in one moment of time, we are connected; we are the same.
I have been asked again why a series on myths when the purpose of this blog is to create conversation about real things, real people, and real solutions. Myths began as real truths. They were the stories that explained life, which spoke to the souls of mankind about the spirit of life. They were what made the world evolve for our ancestors and what gave them the impetus to go about their daily living. In this season which is named for both fifty days after the Easter of the Christian faith and to celebrate the believed coming of what is called the Holy Spirit, we are discussing the spirits of the world, those ancient beliefs that propelled mankind forward and celebrated its being. We are celebrating the stories of man and those stories are what we now call mythology.
Gather a group of people in a circle and whisper one word in another’s ear. Then ask that person to whisper it in the ear of the person to their left and so on until the whispered word gets back to the first person. Usually the word has undergone transition. What started as People often becomes purple; what was whispered as Gorgeous can be heard at the end as justice. I remember speaking as a ten year old to an older relative who had a hearing problem that the older person vehemently denied. The conversation went something like this: Me: “I like your new stove.” Relative: “Really? What it terrible?” My older relative thought I had said “There is a storm in Georgia.”
The mythologies we know today have undergone similar transitions. The story told to illustrate the honesty of the first president of the United States of America is one about a cherry tree innocently chopped down. It is a good story and easily remembered by children. The story is told to encourage them to always tell the truth, even if you know you will receive a punishment because you are confessing doing something that was in error or wrong. Historians doubt the farm on which George Washington lived as a child ever had any cherry trees. Perhaps the story was first told over dinner where a cherry pie was served. We may never know. The purpose of the story, however, is as valid today as when first told.
Plato coined the term myth to describe stories that were about imaginary figures, invented characters. He wanted to create an authorized version of stories for mothers to tell children which would be considered good allegories. He felt the “tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts.” The mythologies of mankind have become more than just elaborate fiction, however. Homer once said “All men have need of the gods.” Myths became the victims of elaborations and use as allegories. Plato may not have wanted this purpose but he himself made great use of the allegory, a story told to Illustrate something in a different way, to convey a greater and universal truth that would stand for all eternity.
Perhaps the story of Cronus castrating his father and then becoming the father of Zeus is too far-fetched for you. Maybe Zeus swallowing his own children seems absurd. In a world that frowns on cannibalism, it is my hope that no child is ever actually eaten by a parent … or anyone else, for that matter. Perhaps then the story of Zeus later spitting back out those same children is the stuff of nightmares for you. It is a gruesome picture to imagine, one best left in the pages of a Stephen King novel.
However, children do grow up with parents who are overbearing and who try to make the child live a life the parent desires, not the life the child wants. Such parents override the needs and talents of the child to create the life they dream of and desire for their child without listening to the child. They take over the child’s life instead of guiding them and providing for them in a healthy manner. They justify their actions by saying the child is happy when, in reality, the child has never been given the chance to experience anything else. Sometimes, especially if the child turns to drugs and/or alcohol to escape such a life, the parent will back off and become the loving guiding individual a parent is meant to be. The child may not have literally been eaten alive and then spit back out but figurately, one could say that has happened.
“In my opinion mortals have created their gods with the dress and voice and appearance of mortals.” Xenophanes recognized our need to have recognizable deities in the Fifth century BCE. We need the same today, although, if they are deities, we expect them to be larger than our mortal life. We elaborate to emphasize and in doing so, these characters of ancient myths have become impossible to ever really have lived. Their lessons, though, remain as valid today as when first told.
We will never know the true original stories just as we will never know what tomorrow will actually bring. American writer and humorist James Thurber said it best: “It is best to know some of the questions than all of the answers.” Thank you for your comments. I do read them and appreciate them. They create a conversation that, by its being, illustrates the known and directs our paths to the unknown, in search of tomorrow’s knowledge.