Mnemosyne, whose name means Memory, was the mother of the Muses, therefore the mother of all the ancient arts. It is now well accepted that the poetry attributed to Homer goes back to a time without writing. The gods and their stories come from this world, when all knowledge was held in memory and passed down orally. It is the ways of Mnemosyne, the constraints of memory and the adaptations used to minimize these constraints, that are at the heart of mythic religions. As Marshall McLuhan famously said, the “medium is the message.” Myth is often described by modern commentators as the first attempt by humans to provide causal explanations. The line of thought goes something like this: “Because ancient peoples did not have science, they did not understand the true cause of things; so they invented fanciful stories of gods, heroes and monsters to explain why things happened as they did.” I think this is a profound misunderstanding of myth. Myths are first and foremost stories. Stories require “causal agents”, characters that do things for reasons that make sense within the narrative. Otherwise the story won’t hold together, and it won’t get told again. But I think it is the “what” not the “why” that is of central importance to myth.
Although it is found in all cultures, narrative is in certain ways more widely functional in primary oral cultures than in others. First, in a primarily oral culture, as Havelock pointed out (1978a; cf. 1963), knowledge cannot be managed in elaborate, more or less scientifically abstract categories. Oral cultures cannot generate such categories, and so they use stories of human action to store, organize, and communicate much of what they know. (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word by Walter J. Ong, page 138).
I believe myths are rooted in the real life experiences of ancient people, experiences of nature, history and the human psyche told using the symbolic language of the mythic convention. According to Elizabeth Barber and Paul Barber in When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth to decipher myths we need to find the right “camera angle”, that is we need to figure out what the mythmakers were looking at from their point of view.
In mythology, to understand what, let’s say, the Egyptians talk about, you have to see what the Egyptians saw. We had to get into our viewfinder the Egyptian sources of their all-important mortuary supplies to see how Isis might find Osiris inside a tree at Byblos. To understand why Ptah’s creation of the universe takes place on a primeval mound of mud that differentiates itself from the waters of chaos, we have to focus on what Egyptians saw when the all-covering Nile floodwaters began to recede each year: the tip of a mound of mud here, then one there, growing in size until the whole land of Egypt gradually reappeared, completely refertilized and ready to bear new life-giving crops. Life, to the Egyptian, began each year with and on those mounds. (Barber and Barber, page 57)
Some of the most striking examples of this kind of in-situ interpretation deal with volcanoes. No doubt witnessing a volcanic eruption makes a big impression, and it is the kind of thing that people are likely to want to tell their descendants about. We can now thanks to modern science compare in-situ data from volcanic eruptions that occurred thousands of years ago with stories of explosively violent deities. Hesiod, who lived near the end of the time of primary orality, presents such deities in the battles between the Olympians and the Titans in his Theogony.
The earth crashed and rumbled, the vast sky groaned And quavered, and massive Olympos shook from its roots Under the Immortals’ onslaught. A deep tremor of feet Reached misty Tartaros, and a high whistling noise Of insuppressible tumult and heavy missiles That groaned and whined in flight. And the sound Of each side shouting rose to starry heaven, As they collided with a magnificent battle cry. And now Zeus no longer held back his strength. His lungs seethed with anger and he revealed All his power. He charged from the sky, hurtling Down from Olympos in a flurry of lightning, Hurling thunderbolts one after another, right on target, From his massive hand, a whirlwind of holy flame. And the earth that bears life roared as it burned, And the endless forests crackled in fire, The continents melted and the Ocean streams boiled, And the barren sea. The blast of heat enveloped The chthonian Titans, and the flame reached The bright stratosphere, and the incandescent rays Of the thunderbolts and lightning flashes Blinded their eyes, mighty as they were, Heat so terrible it engulfed deep Chaos. (Theogony by Hesiod as translated by Stanley Lombardo, lines 681-704)
Mott Greene, in Natural Knowledge in Preclassical Antiquity, provides a detailed comparison of this battle with the geologist’s reconstruction of the eruption of Thera that occurred in 1625 BCE and finds that the specific and unusual eruption pattern of Thera lines up precisely with the events told by Hesiod. The Barbers also relate many other stories of volcanic deities from other cultures such as the story of the Klamath Indians in Oregon. When a young soldier in 1865 asked why the native peoples never visited Crater Lake in Oregon he was told the story of the abduction of Loho and the subsequent battle between the chiefs of the Above World and the Below World, a story that matches up well with the details of the eruption that created Crater Lake. Here the descendants of those who witnessed this eruption were still following their traditional ways, living in the same area and could still connect the story with its place. The Klamath people did not know anything about the science of volcanism, but they still carried a lot of information about what happened at Crater Lake some 7,700 years ago and they knew their ancestor’s warning: “Look not upon the place. Look not upon the place, for it means death or everlasting sorrow” (Barber and Barber, page 7) Of course, not all myths are about volcanoes. Myths cover a wide range of subjects both terrestrial and celestial. What all myths share is that they personify that which is in reality not human-like. Personifying the world both made sense and was necessary for our oral ancestors.
To a certain extent all thought is metaphorical. We think via a series of analogies. To us the mind is like a computer that receives, processes, and stores data. Of course, we know the mind is not a computer, but we find it useful to speak as if it were. In fact, it is very difficult to speak of the mind without using language derived from computer technology. Not having these elaborate mechanical systems to relate to, it just wouldn’t have made sense for the ancients to talk about the world as if it were a machine. For the ancients, the basic metaphor was the person. They knew that a mountain was not a person like a human, but yet it did have a personality, a way of being in the world, a temperament, and a history that could be told in story. Unless one is high on the autistic spectrum, most people find people more interesting in general then non-humans and inanimate things, and stories about people and person-like characters are much more memorable to almost everyone than an analytic discourse (especially one without any metaphorical analogies). Stories with big characters doing grand and impossible deeds are just more memorable and entertaining and that is precisely what is found in myth. Of course our oral ancestors didn’t just tell stories they told stories in meter, full of formulaic expressions and repetition, and often accompanied by music, all of which aids memory.
Oral memory works effectively with ‘heavy’ characters, persons whose deeds are monumental, memorable and commonly public. Thus the noetic economy of its nature generates outsize figures, that is, heroic figures, not for romantic reasons or reflectively didactic reasons, but for much more basic reasons: to organize experience in some sort of permanently memorable form. Colorless personalities cannot survive oral mnemonics. To assure weight and memorability, heroic figures tend to be type figures: wise Nestor, furious Achilles, clever Odysseus, omnicompetent Mwindo (‘Little-One- Just-Born-He-Walked’, Kabutwa-kenda, his common epithet). The same mnemonic or poetic economy enforces itself still where oral settings persist in literate cultures, as in the telling of fairy stories to children: the overpoweringly innocent Little Red Riding Hood, the unfathomably wicked wolf, the incredibly tall beanstalk that Jack has to climb—for non-human figures acquire heroic dimensions too. Bizarre figures here add another mnemonic aid: it is easier to remember the Cyclops than a two-eyed monster, or Cerberus than an ordinary one-headed dog (see Yates 1966, pp. 9–11, 65–7). Formulary number groupings are likewise mnemonically helpful: the Seven Against Thebes, the Three Graces, the Three Fates, and so on. All this is not to deny that other forces besides mere mnemonic serviceability produce heroic figures and groupings. Psychoanalytic theory can explain a great many of these forces. But in an oral poetic economy, mnemonic serviceability is a sine qua non, and, no matter what the other forces, without proper mnemonic shaping of verbalization the figures will not survive. (Ong, page 68)
Of all the activities of humans, religion is one of the most resistant to change and, therefore, it is here where we would expect the old oral ways to linger longest. Ancient polytheism is deeply rooted in orality, not just the stories but the way of being reflected in these cultures (See Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy). The ancients had many deities because it was necessary. They had as many as were needed to tell their stories, and the characters that were most sacred, most vital to the wellbeing of the people, were honored with religious rites. To me ancient polytheisms are religions embedded in sacred stories, and the gods are a language of sacred symbols that point to an ineffable reality.
It is easy to see the connection between myth and orality, but does myth have any place in our world of high literacy? I think it should. While for our ancestors living in primary oral cultures the problem was how to hold on to what knowledge they had, we have a different dilemma. We have so much information that we have trouble sorting out what is important from what is trivial, what is true from what is false. We are becoming a people without a story to hold us together and to make sense of our experiences in the world. We have more and more information, but we know less and less. That which tells us who we are, where we come from, how we fit together, and how we should relate to all of this needs to be written not just in books or computer databases but in the heart. These stories need to be told and retold and celebrated with feast days in spaces full of art and song. I don’t think we should try to put on the myths of the ancients like an old coat, but rather we should seek to learn from Mnemosyne so that the Muses might visit us and bring forth from us new mythic stories for our time and place.