Myths and fairytales have fascinated me since childhood. Perhaps, I understood instinctively that they were doorways into other realms and not just those of the imagination. Reading transported me instantly into a thousand worlds full of adventure, color and excitement, which my own hum-drum life rarely provided, but there were other realities of well – realities of the psyche and spirit for which I had no names or road maps. The doorways to these places were the symbols embedded within the stories, links to those other places I only intuited. Basically a symbol is a material thing that stands for something invisible or abstract. Some people call this balderdash (Ernest Hemingway among others). Gertrude Stein is quoted as saying, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” But that saying comes from a longer sentence, “Do we suppose that all she knows is that a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose?”
If all you know is that a rose is a rose than myth and metaphor are not for you. The word metaphor comes from two Greek words; meta – between and phore – to carry, thus to carry between. The raven for example is known as a bird of ill-omen in western European culture (Poe’s poem The Raven) but elsewhere it’s known for its far-seeing eye. Native American Crows consider the crow the primeval hero who ‘made the world.’ To Norseman, ravens represented memory and mind. Whatever the context, the raven is known as a creature that flies between worlds, often as psychopomp – one who guides spirits through the veil separating life and death. But, you don’t have to know what a rose or a raven mean or even that they have any meaning to be affected by them in a way that transcends their existence as ‘just’ bird or flower. Whoever you are, these two symbols are likely to evoke dread or delight or both. To add to the confusion, you might repulse the rose and welcome the raven.
A mythic story differs from a fairytale in that tales are stories about people and their doings. Fairy tales are guides to the human personality- psychological road maps. Myths describe the origins of things i.e. worlds, cultures, nations, humankind and their institutions. They are basically creation stories. They come into being when something happens to fundamentally change things. For example, to me the Garden of Eden story, along with many other creation stories about the beginning of humans, describes the evolution of the bi-cameral mind and the double-edged blessing/curse of human (that is to say self) consciousness.
So who creates the myth? Who tells it as story for the first time? Usually such authors are lost in the mists of time. But now movie director Ang Lee has taken Yann Martel’s amazing work, The Life of Pi, and shown us exactly how mythmaking happens. The movie is thrilling on many levels. For sheer breathtaking beauty few images can exceed that of sunrise reflected off the still surface of the ocean. A small boat floats in between sea and sky as if floating between worlds. And it does literally float between life and death as Pi fights for the survival of himself and his tiger. Is the tiger real? Is the boy with the impossible name real? If the tiger is a metaphor for the boy, which part of the boy- his animal nature or his soul? Levels upon levels of meaning play out here and no matter how jaded or indifferent one may be the stakes are clearly as high as they get; on any level you care to choose, be it body, mind, soul or heart.
In my mind, it was the ability to transform ‘reality’ into ‘story’ that saved Pi. It began with the written word, with the life-saving manual he found and the notebook and pencil with which he wrote. But until he lost the written word and the means to write, did he didn’t really have to engage (to get into the boat with) the tiger Richard Parker. When the storm swept away every means to maintain his distance, Pi crossed into the realm of psyche and spirit and lived his adventure simultaneously in three realms. He returned with a myth. The myth became the touchstone of his life, the thing that defined him as a man. It marked the demarcation between his life before and his life after the shipwreck in which his family drowned.
A story has a plot, an order to things. It creates a pattern that conveys meaning. We are all storytellers, turning the events of our lives into metaphors that let us access whatever wisdom we acquired from the unfolding of those events. Even though we can get stuck in story, reliving things over and over, for most of us these personal stories (detailing normal circumstances) and myths (events that made us who we are or changed us into something else) let us move on with our lives while still remembering what we learned. Our myths and stories allow us to understand ourselves. They allow us to record the events we witness in a way that makes sense.
This is why storytelling fascinates me and why I study symbols. Symbols are shortcuts that cut through description and give direct access to emotion and feeling. They multiply the vibration of my words allowing them to resonate through spirit as well as flesh and bone. That’s important to me because ultimately, all the stories are my story. All carry some wisdom, some fundamental truth that will enhance my knowledge of both world and self. As Ernest Hemingway says in For Whom the Bell Tolls, “And who understands? Not me, because if I did I would forgive it all.”
I want to be able to forgive it all.