The incredible power of myths and fairy-tales
One of the highlights of last year (which was a truly awful year in most respects) was having the chance to go on a workshop with Caitlín Matthews http://www.hallowquest.org.uk/ Held at Woodbrooke, the Quaker study centre in Birmingham https://www.woodbrooke.org.uk/ , “The Paths to the Grail” remains an island of calm, learning, fellowship and a deep sense of the numinous, and a shining, beautiful couple of days of my life. A true oasis, if you like. I had wanted to go on one of her courses before, but never so much as this one. In the hell of all the horrible, sad events, this gave me respite.
One of the things that was addressed is the big question: what IS myth? For most people, myth is synonymous with legend, with the proviso that myth is untrue, the events never happened, where legend may be based on real life, albeit at a distance. Yet this definition of myth is so far from accurate as to be painful. Myth was defined, neatly, in the workshop, as a narrative containing eternal truth; in a paraphrase of 4th century writer Sallustius, myth is something that has never happened but is happening all the time. “Now these things never happened, but always are. And mind sees all things at once, but reason (or speech) expresses some first and others after. Thus, as the myth is in accord with the cosmos, we for that reason keep a festival imitating the cosmos, for how could we attain higher order?
That the species of myth are five, with examples of each.
A number of sources paraphrase the first sentence (referring to the myth of Attis) as “Myths are things which never happened, but always are.” (see for example the introduction to Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden).”https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Sallustius
You can see from this that myth is something of much greater power and importance than merely a story to entertain children. Myths would not endure had they not something to say to each new generation. It’s my belief also that in the last hundred or so years, many fairy-tales are basically myths that have been cut down to size to fit adults’ perception of what was fit for children. Disney (other film makers are available) have continued to do this, bowdlerising noble stories, cutting out the bits that don’t fit their ethos (which is basically happy ever after, regardless), and repackaging them endlessly for new consumers. Yet if you look closely at the tales behind the modernised versions, and if you study them linguistically, there are extraordinary discoveries. Some fairy-tales have been dated as over 6000 years old, taking them back to the Bronze Age. “Beauty and the Beast”, that source of both animated, live action and theatre, and musical performances is thought to be around 4000 years old.
My most recent book “Méchant Loup-Modern Fables for Sensible Grown-ups” https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1091667012/
is the first book I have included a bibliography, a list of books for further reading, and many of the books I listed are on the topic of fairy tales. Many volumes by first generation Jungian Marie-Louise von Franz, which analyse the deep meaning of many, many fairy-tales, some by Robert A Johnson, one by Marion Woodman, as well as the iconic “Women Who Run With The Wolves” by Dr Clarissa Pinkola-Estes are included in my list of must-reads. One of the stories in the new collection has its roots in the classic tale of Little Red Riding Hood, but with a twist that the #Metoo movement would approve of, I hope.
But myth (and fairy-tales) are important for human beings. They are part of our narrative as a species. Many great writers have tapped into their power, to inspire and inform their writing. I cannot claim to be a great writer (at least not without a nod and a wink to show I am jesting) but those ancient stories that run narratives throughout human history do inspire and restore my place within that history. I am a link in that chain, I believe. I may be, at present, a pretty weak link, but I’m still clinging on for dear life. There’s a story in that, I suspect.