Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Mythology — part three: truth

Jules Joseph Lefebvre. 1870
Whenever you watch actors in a movie you know you are not watching reality, but if you focus too much on that fact, you won't enjoy the movie much. We suspend our disbelief and react as if we are seeing reality. Our enjoyment of the movie is enhanced if we can identify with any of the characters, or see familiar behavior or personalities. If we are watching a historical drama and see some anachronism, it annoys us not because it is a false detail, but because it takes us out of the imagined time. A drama is appreciated more if the problems of the characters would be problems for us, too; we like to see our own hopes portrayed on the screen; what would we do in that situation?. Yet, we also like to see what is alien to our experience in science fiction or movies set in distant cultures where people have values different from our own. Even here, though, there can be identification or comparison with ourselves.

Children can reach a stage where they can both believe and not believe in such things as Santa Claus at the same time, but they also have the idea that adults only indulge in a single reality and don't imagine that theatres can be full of adults "pretending" that what they are seeing is real, or that it is both real and unreal to them at the same time.

The good storyteller, in ancient societies, knew what their audience liked and believed and would include these things in their performance, just as Bob Hope would do when on tour: the audience would hear pithy comments about some local event they had heard talk of at the office that day. Even in literate societies, there were many people who could neither read nor write and the storyteller and priest, both, were the source of cultural knowledge for such people. The priest would also adapt to the congregation in the manner of the story teller. I am sure that societies have existed where we would have difficulties in deciding whether a particular person was a priest, elder, or a storyteller.

Syncretism is a term used by mythologists to describe how beliefs can undergo modifications to better fit into prior beliefs, and myths and stories pick up local flavors as they spread. In, largely, non-literate societies, religious belief never strayed far from the common experience and folk belief and it was thoroughly integrated into every aspect of daily life.

The Greek Mystery cults like Dionysianism, and Orphism, and related philosophies such as that of Pythagoras and the druids forbad the use of writing, not just for stated reasons such as that writing makes the mind lazy, or so that the mysteries can be preserved at increasingly more elite levels but also, I am sure, that beliefs or truths could continue to be current.

Whenever religious information is put into texts, this information becomes frozen in time and also becomes history. As such, it can then become treated as any historical text: some might say a particular text is accurate, others might disagree. The body of evidence is all texts. Some religions might restrict certain texts from their official canon according to prevailing beliefs at the time and label them as heresy. The historian compares these events and changes in texts relative to their time and place as recorded in other sorts of texts. The historian knows that history is not what happened, but what was written about what happened. Truth is relative to circumstances and the truth owes as much to the human question as is does to its answer.

So where did all of those people go who saw their story teller's work ripped from experience and pasted into a book? They had lost their mythological space where everything could be both right and wrong at the same time; the space where they could see their own lives, loves and aspirations projected into multiple futures; a place where higher, poetic, and metaphorical truths were all that mattered. I think we all went to the movies.

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