How to do mythology properly

For the past fifteen years I’ve lived in locations haunted by herons. My character Old Crane Woman (who I wrote about in The Enchanted Life, and whose stories you can find under this blog in the posts labelled ‘Grey Heron Nights’) sprang from one of those haunted places: a river in Donegal which was home to a particularly fine heronry, on the banks of which I lived for three years.

Here in Connemara, our land is bordered on one side by a beautiful fast-flowing stream, a miniature of that Donegal river, which is also beloved of herons. I can sometimes catch them there if I creep down quietly enough; and sometimes, when I’m sitting at the old wooden table in the corner of our kitchen, I’ll catch a glimpse of one flying up from the water and away over the treetops.

To me, heron is more than the beautiful bird whose behaviour and life cycle I’ve studied – though for sure that in itself is more than enough. She’s a creature overlaid with stories – with the archetypal imagery which springs from her place in the unique mythology of the land of Ireland. I’ll stress that point again: which springs from her place in the unique mythology of the land of Ireland. Because, although many cultures have myths and folklore about herons, those myth and that folklore will spring from their own unique culture and the stories which are linked to their places. There will often be similarities (unsurprising, if you believe in the universality of archetypes) but there will also be as many local differences. It shouldn’t be assumed, for example, that because some Native American peoples see herons as symbols of good luck or vanity, that the same symbolism applies in Ireland. Quite the contrary; some Irish folklore suggests that a heron flying over your house is unlucky. But in our older mythology, heron is a liminal bird, and a guardian of the way to the Otherworld. She’s a bird associated with fierce hags, and with longevity.

So, heron: corr, in the Irish language. And corr is also the word for crane – and if you understand the context in which the myths and stories of heron exist in this particular country, you understand that actually, most of the old myths are not about herons at all, but about cranes. Because as the Eurasian crane died out in Ireland, the grey heron arrived to take its place in the ecosystem, and to take its place in the myths and folklore of the people.

 

 

The point about mythology is that every mythology is unique – a fact that’s often lost in the most common approach to the scholarly study of mythology these days, which is largely comparative. It’s lovely to find the same themes and motifs in different cultures around the world; it gives you a wider understanding of the nature of human beliefs, and the ways in which, ultimately, we all seem to be asking the same questions about the nature of the world. It astonishes you with the rich variety of the answers we find, of the stories we tell about ourselves and the nonhuman others we share this world with. But at the same time, I strongly believe that if you haven’t also studied one mythology in real depth, you shouldn’t consider yourself to be a mythologist at all.

My emphasis on the importance of really knowing one mythology – and not just the stories, but the context for those stories: linguistic, historical, psychological, even geological – comes from the richness and insight I’ve found in studying my own. And it’s always better, I believe, to study the mythology which belongs to the place where your feet are planted – where you actually live – because to extricate mythology from the land in which it arose, to study it in some ivory tower or on some distant continent – is sort of like trying to enter a paragraph written in a foreign language into Google Translate and expecting something intelligible to come out the other end. You can’t extricate a mythology from the ground which birthed it, from the language it was told in, from the worldview of the people who imagined it and the history which grounded them there in the first place.

Although I’ve read mythology all my life, from as early as I can remember, and worked with it professionally for decades – most recently as a practitioner of depth psychology with a decidedly narrative bent – my ‘proper’ academic study of the subject came with my decision to undertake a Master’s degree in Celtic Studies. I made that decision because I wanted to deepen my exploration of the particular mythology of the lands of my ancestors. And what that study has taught me (among many other things!) is to very carefully evaluate what is myth and what is saga; to judge the difference between the bardic oral traditions and oral folklore; to trace the ways in which we can (or, maybe, cannot) extract the elements of a ‘native’ pagan mythology from the Christian overlay which crept in when the old stories began to be written down. These are insights that you can’t get from simply reading the stories themselves. And no matter how fine a storyteller you are, you certainly can’t get them from just telling the stories – especially if this isn’t your tradition. You need to know the context. The people. The land. The unique worldview. Myth doesn’t happen in isolation, and myth can’t be understood in isolation.

Here in the Irish Gaeltacht, our old mythology is still very much alive. The Fionn stories,* for example, are a living tradition, told today in homes and pubs. They’re not the fossilised remains of a long-dead culture; they’re who we are, here, today. They deserve to be treated with respect; they deserve for tellers of those stories who come from other traditions to not just blunder in, plundering and picking the bits they like best, leaving behind the stuff that seems to make no sense, changing a heron to a swan, or an oak to an ash. And mythology is different from folklore, and that’s a distinction that’s not made nearly often enough. Folklore shifts over time and across cultures. It transforms itself, it adapts to local conditions, it’s eminently flexible. Myth is different. Myth comes from the land, from the interaction between people and the land.  As Canadian scholar Sean Kane pointed out in his fine book The Wisdom of the Mythtellers, myth is the power of place, speaking. I’d say that myth is an act of co-creation between the land and the people who live on it. It might be designed to shift over time, as the place changes, and the history, and the worldview of the people who live there – but it’s really not designed to travel. It makes no sense out of its place.

Studying myth in this way – deeply, devotedly, is an act of apprenticeship. Apprenticeship to story; apprenticeship to the mundus imaginalis – the imaginal world – in which these stories and the archetypal characters, creatures and places which inhabit them have an independent existence. I’ve written about the lost art of apprenticeship here before:  about the need to ‘understand what we don’t know, to do the proper research, to find the right teachers, to embody the necessary lived experience before we imagine that we’re ready to share our gift with the world. Apprenticeship requires humility: a little-valued quality in a world hell-bent on glory.’ Myth, above all, requires us to be apprenticed to it. To watch it carefully, to listen to all that it has to say, to learn from it – and only then to go out into the world and feel we’re ready, finally, to practice our craft.

 

 

* The ‘Fionn Cycle’ (an Fhiannaíocht) is a set of poems and prose texts dating from the seventh century onwards about the mythical hunter-warrior-sort-of-shaman Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his band of followers, the Fianna.

17 thoughts on “How to do mythology properly

  1. You’ve got me thinking about the lore and mythology behind Christianity and how we very much have extricated it from the ground where it was birthed. Perhaps that is one reason it has become such a sharp and bitter thorn to so many in these confusing times. I don’t have a point or a question, just a note of gratitude for always taking my thoughts deeper in whatever direction they choose to wander at the moment.

      1. you have found out where the hawk hides
        and that safe spot where the stork sits
        you can see clear where the cat stalked
        near the deer tracks and it all fits
        you will find fast where the bear slept
        and the footprint where the wolf went
        now you know well where coyote crept
        and the grass flat where some time spent
        you can hear now what the crow calls
        and believe all that the birds say
        you will dream deep when the night falls
        and will live full in the new day

        Patrick Brady. Vision 2000

  2. How does this affect people who are not native to the land they live in? How about people of mixed heritage who have emigrated away in a non native land? Do they need to learn the myths of a new land, and would that be a form of cultural appropriation?

    1. Good questions! I don’t think you have to be ‘native’ to the land you live in, in order to understand its stories. The land doesn’t discriminate; it wants everyone who is part of it to come to know it fully. And I think there is an obligation on us to be in relationship with the land our feet are planted in.

      Cultural appropriation is complex, and worthy of another blog post (or several!), but I’ll do my best here, briefly. I think cultural appropriation happens when you take the stories of a people who are native to a land, and try to own them for yourself, and interpret them and tell them with no understanding of the long history and cultural context which created those stories. Because, as I said, myth is a long act of co-creation between people and the land.

      But the thing is, the stories of the land, and acts of co-creation between the land and the people who live on it (native, incomer, or just passing through) don’t ever end. Everyone gets to participate in those acts of co-creation. New stories should be forming all the time, and over time (because you need more time to create authentic myths) so should myths. But we’ve forgotten how to do that – how to be co-creators with the land. How to ‘fall into the land’s dreaming’, as I’ve called it. So that’s why this is the focus of my work: to lead people to discover how to do that for themselves. What I usually suggest, in the case when people have emigrated to a land they’re not native to, is that they learn and respect the stories of the people who have lived there in the past. That they bring some of their own heritage with them – the wisdom contained in the stories of their heritage (and all of our heritage is mixed in some way) which will show them deep and connected ways of being in the world, and use that old wisdom to ‘feel’ their way into a deep connection to this new land. And then see what new stories may come from the wonderful diversity at work here.

      I hope that makes some sense. Usually, it take an entire weekend workshop to convey all that 🙂

      1. First off, it still feels profoundly strange to converse this way without the face to face, the sound of the voice and the scent in the air that is yours or mine here in San Francisco. Not bad, but oddly intimate and intellectually challenging while being disembodied. Myth as co-creation is not disembodied at all. Now I have to calm down so I don’t write a book here but only share an experience of telling a Selkie story again yesterday and one I heard from Patrick Ball in 1984 but it has changed somewhat coming through me the mother of three. Anyway, I told it for years before I ever went to Ireland. When I did go to the west of Ireland 18 years ago I nearly fell to my knees and wept because I had visualized that place, as it actually is, through telling the story. And, Irish way back in my genetic self, I felt the pull of the land in my feet. I had it again in Denmark. Once. Literally feeling the magnetic energy in my bones. What was funny was seeing the Danish people and recognizing my three very American children in coloring and bone structure and height too. That is so very long ago. What we carry inside remains a mystery to me, but one that deserves attention.

        1. Indeed. And the mystery that lies beyond us deserves even more 🙂 Once, while living in America, I imagined in a dream-story-scape a house in Scotland which I ended up living in. The world wants to talk to us. The trick is to find the ways of listening. Myth and story is one of those ways, for sure!

  3. Oh, I visited the beautiful Connemara years ago and never wanted to leave. An enchanting place. The heron is one of my favorite birds. It always reminds me of The Hermit in Tarot.

  4. Dear Sharon, in my case, reading about celtic mythology has drawn a bridge towards the mythology of my native land. A land I am living in now. This conversation between mythologies has brought light and sense to the mythology of my land. As a colombian anthropologist and a writer everything has started to integrate after reading your work. And I am really grateful I found you in the virtual space.

  5. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we’ve lost so many of our cultural ties to nature after reading Terri Windling’s blog about it back in February titled Wild Neighbors. I sense there’s a resonance between the lack of deep connection with the landscape, the disconnected perception of myth and the the failure to appreciate that the journey is the point. It’s something more than ‘busyness’ and maybe tied to a lack of roots as so much of culture has been fractured through rapid change.
    Also, I play traditional Irish music and your points about the intrinsic life or value of myth tie really strongly into an ongoing conversation with a friend about what our values are around the music and helped me articulate the whys of discomfort around some behaviors I want to avoid where the tradition or the music is no longer the point. Seeing clearly, or more so, is valuable. Thank you for sharing your vision as it always seems to help me sharpen my perception.

    1. Indeed – as for myth, so for music. To be valued and courted and treasured for their own intrinsic qualities. And yes to the fractured cultures; so much brokenness in the world. But we have the mending skills deep in our bones, I think.

  6. I see you will be in California on the 19 of this month. Five hours from me. Oh My. Dare I?
    I would love to meet you.

    1. Unfortunately the Point Reyes events are all sold out, so there’s the only the Pacifica Graduate Institute lecture, which will be quite brief. There’ll be other chances on the west coast, maybe next year!

  7. Thank you for your post. Now to figure out how to find and learn the mythology of where I live, a land whose number of native people was grossly reduced in just years, 1800’s. The language barely survives.

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