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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, December 07, 2006

our mythological heritage

Rolled out of bed just after 7:00 this morning, while it was yet dark. Kimmie is on her long vacation from work, spending all of December at home. (People often ask her, when they hear she's on a five-week vacation, "Are you going anywhere?" Her answer: "Yes: home." For her, being away from work is the vacation--and I agree. Of course, I'm always at home.)

Unsure of exactly what I'm doing or where I'm going at the moment, I've been keying notes, over my morning coffees, from Campbell's Primitive Mythology, the first in his four-part series The Masks of God. I picked up this Penguin Arkana copy new in 2001, not having acquired a copy of my own after reading the one that belonged to my roommate Keith in 1981. (I'm noticing lots of 20-year skips in my life right now. Example: for our power-walk in the quasi-drizzle today, I put on the blue polyester work pants that I bought in 1986 when Kimmie and I traveled to Europe. The good news: I can still get them on. The bad news: they almost cut me in half. "It's my punishment," I explained to Kimmie, "for becoming a fat slob.")

I am always energized and inspired by reading Joseph Campbell. This morning I was keying from chapter 10, "Mythological Thresholds of the Neolithic". This is a survey of the major shifts in mythological ideas and practice that occurred over the neolithic period, from about 7500 BC to 2500 BC. (Chapter 9 summarized the paleolithic, from 600,000 BC to 7500 BC.) It's fascinating, because Campbell, who was not an archaeologist, allowed himself more imaginative and deductive scope than what archaeologists usually seem to allow themselves. Also, he was bringing to bear a wider range of comparative knowledge than what most specialists can lay claim to. The result is a profound look into the mindset of ancient humanity--people who were not different from ourselves, except in their level of knowledge of abstract things, and the tools in their toolkit.

I was excited to read the material in chapter 9 about the paleolithic, the era of hunting and gathering. The paucity of evidence from that time might suggest that not much could be surmised about the lives and beliefs of the people and proto-people who lived then. But consider this extract about the cave as a mythological place:

Apparently the cave, as literal fact, evoked, in the way of a sign stimulus, the latent energies of that other cave, the unfathomed human heart, and what poured forth was the first creation of a temple in the history of the world. A shrine is a little place for magic, or for converse with a divinity. A temple is the projection into earthly space of a house of myth; these paleolithic temple-caves were the first realizations of this kind, the first manifestations of the fact that there is a readiness in man’s heart for the supernormal image, and in his mind and hand the capacity to create it. Here nature supplied the catalyst, a literal, actual presentation of the void. And when the sense of time and space was gone, the visionary journey of the seer began.

What is most exciting about Campbell, to me, is his vision of myth as a fount of profundity. To him, myth is not a primitive type of religious thinking; rather, religion--including all the most elaborate and developed faiths--are simply one branch of myth. Myth has always been the vehicle of our deepest thoughts, our keenest yearnings, and our strongest emotions. They represent our efforts to be adequate to the mystery of existence.

So, yes: a pleasure on a vacation morning to key highlights from one of his texts.

Did you know that the story of Eve and the snake in Eden is a variant of a universally distributed ancient tale about the maiden and the serpent? Learning these things changes my view of our mythological heritage.


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