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Rediscovering The Magic Of Myths: Retelling Our Personal Narratives

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  • Pages: 6
  • Word count: 1434
  • Category: Myths

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Somewhere between the Enlightenment criticism of myth as the ‘sick delirium of imagination’ and the 20th century use of myths as propaganda by the Nazis, lies the true place of myth in people’s lives. Rather than banish myths as childish preoccupations, we must first ask ourselves why they persist. We would not be far from the truth if we chose a simple answer: myths exist because we find pleasure in telling them. As Professor Marina Warner writes, in Introduction to World Myths, “It seems that myth making marks out human beings in the same way language does: we are a speculative species and our consciousness and storytelling are bound up together in a defining cognitive process…

There is no need to make excuses for the sheer enjoyability of myths: the fascination of the stories is reason enough for exploring them. (Warner, 2003). However, as pleasurable as it is to retell myths, they have also been recognized as having the potential to disrupt order. The poet Ovid is said to have been banished ‘to a distant edge of the empire’ for one of his tales. “Ovid’s aesthetic approach, however, does not prevent him from using the myth as a disguised political statement against Emperor Augustus. Ovid’s comedy of Apollo, the Emperor’s favorite deity, betrays his disdain for Augustan religious ideology and moral doctrine.” (Barnard, 1987) Warner suggests another value of myths—that of preserving our memory of events, the ‘private memory palaces of individuals’ in contrast to the official version of events.

It is also the case that the split between official worship and mythology places mythic stories in the private memory palaces of individuals, rather than in the archives of a state priesthood. (Warner, 2003) Yet what is it, exactly, that rulers and governments find so threatening about myths? It is, undoubtedly, the prospect of change itself. Ovid’s Metamorphoses presents us with the ultimate in anthropometamorphosis. In this poem the human body is not simply modified, but unrecognisably transformed into animal, plant or tree, sometimes disappearing altogether like Echo, who becomes merely an incorporeal voice (see frontispiece). This is a world in which all conventional boundaries are dissolved: at any point you might find your hair sprouting horns, your feet rooted to the spot or curving into claws, your arms bristling with coarse black hair, bark surrounding your thighs; you might find you were growing leaves instead of hair, or had hideous gaping jaws instead of a once beautiful face.

What happens to a human being when his or her body undergoes such drastic modification? How important is the body to our understanding of what it is to be human? (Montserrat, 1998) The notion of a human transforming into an animal to escape a pursuing god was a suitable subject for entertainment, but not if it contained political undertones. On the other extreme, we have the 20th century Nazi movement, which took the mythology and symbol systems of the Norse Gods to cast themselves as a superior race. The case of Nazi movement is an example of myth-making used to oppress and dominate. The use of myth by state leaders to cast themselves as gods, as unquestionable gods, and by contrast to describe other people as lesser beings no doubt led to the horrors of the Nazi camps. The true value of myth rests somewhere between the simple use of myth for storytelling and its use by state leaders for propaganda. People have always had a need to situate their lives.

What is the value of the story of Ulysses, set upon the seas and trying to find his way home? It is just a story, floating in the wind. But when it is found by someone who has had a similar experience of wandering, and someone who has hoped (like Odysseus) to return to his wife, then it acquires new meaning. The ability to take one’s own experiences and find in them the myths that are operating, or the myths that others are using to dominate one’s life—-is one of the most liberating abilities of all Myths are protean in meaning; they change form the minute that you try to pin them down. Hence the enlightenment criticism that they are of little value, since a purely scientific perspective on life demands that events be repeatable, measurable, and subject to verification by others. The true value of myths- it must be reiterated, lies in the realm of the personal. For in this realm one can discern people who, like Loki, have been trying to deceive him in financial transactions; or women, for instance, can find similarities between suitors who have been pursuing them, and the myth of Hades. From this point of realization, the imaginative force of myths takes its place in our lives.

If we take the case of Blixen, we find an artist who understands the power of myth, how ‘one story leads to another.’ As in several other Blixen’s works, one story leads to another. The Danish edition published in 1935, Syv fantastiske fortællinger, received mixed reviews: the author was accused of elitism and especially Blixen’s characters annoyed critics. The stories were set in the era of Romanticism and dealt with cosmopolite Bohemians, artists, and aristocracy. After a rebellious youth they often understand the value of traditional roles and cultural heritage. We can, by understanding the myths that are operating in our lives, retell them to a significant audience, and in that retelling, change their power to oppress. The suitor who has been pursuing a woman relentlessly, like Hades (in her view) becomes little more than a stag torn to pieces by the dogs of Artemis (if she takes an active role and identifies with the power of Artemis). In another instance, we can find uncles who, like the Cyclops in the cave, have been lurking in a corner of our lives, waiting for a sacrifice (of money, or time, as the case may be). As described by the related literature, Karen Blixen is one writer who has found a way to transcend the conditions of her life ( she grew up under the shadow of the Holocaust) and draw on myths to reshape the events in her life.

“A Danish writer, who mixed in her work supernatural elements, aestheticism, and erotic undertones with an aristocratic view of life. Blixen always emphasized that she was a storyteller (fortaellerske) in the traditional, oral sense of the word. She drew her inspiration from the Bible, the Arabian Nights, the works of Homer, the Icelandic sagas, and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, her great countryman. Blixen’s stories have inspired such film makers as Orson Welles and Sydney Pollack. She wrote in English and in Danish.” The transformative power of myths can be found operating in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In the figure of Prospero, Shakespeare draws on an ancient archetype, the sorcerer or magi, who can also be found in more ancient tales such as Homer’s description of Circe. From the shape-shifting tales of Ovid, to Shakespeare’s sorcerer Prospero, to Blixen’s ‘Anecdotes of Destiny,’ we find the skillful use of myths in reshaping people’s lives. ANECDOTES OF DESTINY (1958) contained five tales.

“I first began to tell tales to delight the world and make it wiser…” The most famous is ‘Babette’s Feast’, about an old cook, who has not been able to show her true skills. Babette, a famous French chef, finally has her opportunity at a memorial celebration. The inherent power of myths is that they are everywhere if we would only take the time to find them; they are an inexhaustible resource. We can go one step further and take the magic of myths into our own hands. For Ovid, Shakespeare, and Blixen by no means suggest that the reader is reduced to the role of spectator, for whom the story ends once the play is finished. We are storytellers in our own right, participants in the great play of life. We only need to find the myths that locate our recurring difficulties in life, and by retelling our story to a significant audience, we can transform the situation.


Warner,Marina. Introduction to World of Myths. 2003 http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/excerpts/exwarwor.html http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/blixen.htm Neilson, Francis and Smith, Richard. (1956) Shakespeare and the Tempest. Rindge, N.H. 4 Montserrat, Dominic. (1998) Changing Bodies, Changing Meanings: Studies on the Human Body in Antiquity Routledge, 1998. 234 pgs. Knapp, Bettina. (1987) Women in Twentieth-Century Literature: A Jungian View Pennsylvania State University Press, 1987. 249 pgs. Barnard, Mary. 1987. The Myth of Apollo and Daphne. Duke University Press.

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