Tuesday, 24 September 2013

I Did Not See Deer Today

I see deer almost daily on my morning and evening walks.
Photo: Claire-Shauna Minett

There is something extraordinarily magical in the grace of deer movement, whether almost at rest or leaping at speed.
I have thought, for many years, that the typical representation of unicorns as resembling white horses with the addition of a spiralled horn does not do them justice and in my imagination unicorns are smaller than that, more deer-like in their bodies.
Photo: Claire-Shauna Minett
There is a dull placidity in the eyes of a horse (although I have offended some 'horsey' friends by saying it!)
In the eyes of a deer, there is a mixture of the alertness of the wild and the innocent wisdom of the ancient. 
There is a particular pasture near here where they can often be seen grazing in small herds on the sweet herbs growing along the border of the woods.
With patience I can get very close. 
Photo: Claire-Shauna Minett
Then there is sudden contact, eye-to-eye, the rhythm of breath, our body scents mingling in the same early morning air. They return peacefully to their grazing or turn and leap, laughing at the heavy notion of Newtonian gravity, transforming themselves, almost no longer corporeal, into flashes of green and golden light under the trees - then gone; the spell broken, the encounter only a memory.

Photo: Claire-Shauna Minett
I Did Not See Deer Today
I did not see deer today.
When I turned into the pasture
they'd gone already.
I walked to where their heat
still lingered, a warm memory
in the damp morning air.
They left me a poem
imprinted in the soft earth
at the edge of the wood.
A poem illustrated by
scent, punctuated by scat,
in a secret language
not only deer can understand.

Many thanks to Claire for permission to use her lovely photographs.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Remembering the Forest.

Ancient Forest. Credit: Notneb82 Permission: CC BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I plant these new trees,
remembering the forests
of their ancestors. 
Newly planted trees.
Credit: A Maxwell. CC BY-SA-3.0
via Wikimedia Commons
With love I guard them,
With life and blood I tend them.
They are my sisters,
they are my brothers.
We are of one family
rooted in one Earth. 
We reach to the sky.
Our members, our limbs,
of flesh or of wood
dance towards the sun.
From Earth we grow together,
in death remembered.
We are the forest.
From the same ancestral source
blood and sap both flow.
Who sharpens his axe
And lays the forest to waste,
he also hurts me.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Casting the Runes.

GNU Public License via Wikimedia Commons
Cast I this rune that futures tell?
That bright June in my heart shall dwell
With light of hope and fear combined,
And still read truth, though love be blind?

That this fair month in which love’s smile
Doth grace each moment free of guile
Shall last in thought 'til dark November
That sunlight, flowers and love remember?

Cast I this rune, that truth shall show
Her face unveiled and I shall know
How love in June shall fade or last
As summer’s hope to winter’s passed?

Oh,  love’s a summer child, for sure
That may in autumn's age endure
Or fade and wither - a ragged leaf
And prove itself a feign belief.

Cast I this rune that futures tell?
That bright June in my heart shall dwell
With light of hope and fear combined,
And still read truth, though love be blind?

Friday, 5 July 2013

A Night in Tuscany

Credit: Brett Jordan CC-BY-2.0
via Flickr
A summer night
in Tuscany; near the softly sloshing salt lagoons
north of La Buca delle Fate.
Fireflies – the glowing fairies of a billion years of evolution
 – skit their crazy dance
to moon music; intense and bright,
vibrating melodic darkness in tune
with a percussion section one thousand crickets strong.
Ghiri flute their haunted, tooting songs
in perfect sintonia
and call me away
over prickling needled notes,
tumbled from the stave of la pineta,
to the still-hot sand of the pebbly beach.
Not a soul in sight here –
a different darkness, quiet and full -
where the unseen Soul 
sings soft and sighs
in cool, sweet breaths from the sea.
I lift my hands, then;
pressing my fingers into darkness,
leaving my imprint among the ancient, uncreated stars;
forgetful of dawn and light and wakefulness:
forgetful, present
and at home in darkness. 
In the hot, Tuscan night. With moonlight. Starlight.
And the music of the spheres.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Understanding Myths and Mythology

As someone who reads and thinks about these things a good deal, I am aware that there are several different approaches to the understanding of myths and mythology. 
Book of Myths. Image: Public
Domain. Via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes these various ways of understanding and interpreting myths are complimentary; sometimes they seem to be contradictory.

What I would like to do here, is give an overview of the main schools of thought regarding the interpretation of myth.

The words mythical and mythology have been in currency in the English language since at least the 1600s.

However, the word myth is a much later introduction, not appearing in the language until nearly the middle of the nineteenth century.

So what is a myth? What is this object of study that we apparently had no need even to name until recently?

The OED gives us this:
"a purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions or events, and embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena"
This definition strikes me as insufficiently precise to be of any real use.

At the same time, I would not care to attempt a short-form definition of the meaning of the word myth that needed to encompass all of its possible breadth, depth and nuanced significance.

So, perhaps, this attempt to take an overview of the many approaches to the interpretation of myths - this study of mythology and meaning - will bring us closer to an understanding of what myth actually is.

Seven Schools of Thought 

I have defined seven schools of thought  amongst the literature of those who make attempt to understand and interpret the meaning of myth.

The first of these is perhaps less popular today than ever it was since it was first proposed. 

This is the school of thought pioneered by the likes of Sir James Frazer. Fundamentally it sees myths as stories which are primitive and misguided attempts to explain natural phenomena or embody sociological changes. Myths are simply the poor forerunners of better science and better history.

This school seeks to interpret myths as simple factual errors in the early stages of human enquiry and they are now superseded by scientific understanding. 

Professor Richard Dawkins is a contemporary exponent of this kind of interpretation of myth.

In the following video, you can hear Professor Dawkins, interviewed by Jeremy Paxman, explaining his understanding of myth. I apologise that the sound is not quite synchronised with the image but I trust it will not prove a barrier to understanding.

The second approach sees myths as a form of symbolic language - never intended in any sense as having literal meaning. 
Ernst Cassirer.  Image: Public Domain
via wikimedia commons.

This school sees myth as a way of thinking. As its primary proponent, Ernst Cassirer, wrote in The Logic of the Humanities (1961)
"mythical thinking is a mode of symbolically structuring the world."
This idea brings us closer to many of the more modern ways of interpreting the meaning of myth - indeed the idea that myth has any meaning at all - but it remains somewhat vague and one-dimensional, in my opinion, missing many of the other important facets of mythic reality.

The third school of thought is the psychoanalytic interpretation.

It agrees to some extent with Cassirer but views the symbolic system as directly analogous to the structures and complexes of the psychoanalytic theory of the subconscious and unconscious mind.

The earliest and most influential champions of this method of mythology were the likes of Sigmund Freud and his follower, Otto Rank. 
Sigmund Freud. Image: Ceasar Blanco
CC BY-SA-2.0 via wikimedia commons

Carl Jung took these ideas and developed them into a whole school of psychology which viewed the human mind as structured on fundamentally mythic and ancestral lines.

Joseph Campbell - although his ideas about myth and meaning evolved during his life and study - certainly started out and remained at the end very much aligned to this school of thought.

Watch this video, in which Joseph Campbell outlines the psychoanalytic perspective.

There is much usefulness to be had from it, it seems to me - but I would caution against embracing this method with too much uncritical enthusiasm as it has a tendency to be essentially reductive and has led to some spurious attempts to squeeze myths into the somewhat confining pigeon-holes of psychoanalytic theory.

The fourth way of interpreting myth is very much the antithesis of the last.

It is most fully developed in the work of Emile Durkheim and takes a strictly sociological approach to the interpretation of myth.

In the following video, Dr. Dan Krier gives a good introduction to the ideas of Emile Durkheim in relation to myth and consciousness.

It is primarily mechanistic in viewing myths as serving the functional purpose of promoting and sustaining the integrity of social structures and hierarchies.

The anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, also belongs here as he saw myths as being attempts to position the institutions necessary for social cohesion in a sacred realm outside the sphere of human invention and thus beyond question.

The fifth approach sees myth as being the formula of ritual - both religious and secular. It proposes that myths can only be interpreted in so far as they were intended to be enacted as rites. 
Front Cover of Robert Graves'
'The White Goddess.'

Robert Graves favored this notion and wrote in The Greek Myths (1955)
"true myth may be defined as the reduction to narrative shorthand of ritual mime performed on public festivals."
Both Graves and the anthropologist Edmund Leach, also agree that these myths-as-rituals can also be understood to express significant societal changes in real historical time. For example, the marriage between a deity from one pantheon to the deity of another, or the conquering of one by the other, may reflect actual political events.

The sixth school of thought emphasises the essential structural similarity of many myths and sees them more as philosophical attempts to find answers to the collective experience of primitive peoples.

Perhaps Levi-Strauss is the most significant example of someone thinking along these lines.

And finally, the seventh way of understanding myths - and one which has had a curious and noticeable renaissance in the 21st century - is the literary interpretation of myth as poetic metaphor.

This is a highly romanticised view of myth that can take on the trappings of almost religious sensibility and seeks to apprehend meaning in myth without reference to the discoveries of modern science and academia.

There is a tendency here towards nostalgia - towards viewing myth as representative of any number of lost and more desirable times gone by; the yearning for a golden age.

There may be yet other ways of viewing the interpretation of myths and mythology but I think these more or less encapsulate the main trends that we have seen since the invention of the word.

What myths were before we named them so is part of the problem.

What myths mean to us now is another.

Personally, my approach is eclectic and largely compatibilist. I see these various approaches rather as the varying facets of a single diamond, to overuse a tired but apposite metaphor.

I think they may all be true.

It may be that myth - however elusive its meaning - is the one thing that is distinctively human about us and truly distinguishes us from the other primates in our phylogenetic group. 

And it may not.

After all we once thought it was tool-making that set us apart and that proved not to be true; then we thought it was language and that proved false; recently the beginnings of religious responses to the numinous have been indicated in wild chimpanzees.

However, myth is clearly important to us and there are arguments to suggest that it is also a matter of real contemporary interest as we continue to create new myths and remold old ones; and that some of this mythography is intentional and deliberate and some is perhaps unconscious and organic.

It may prove hard, in the end, to 'nail down' a single, universal interpretation of myth - it would seem to be such a fundamental and therefore continually evolving and self-expressing - aspect of what we are.

If you are interested in reading more, have a look at some of the titles below:

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Dog Training

This is a light-hearted rhyme about the way that a good dog can train his man to lead a better life, dragging him from his desk and away into the great outdoors. 
Bobbi.  (Austin Hackney, author)

Here is the video version, starring me and Bobbi, my dog.

The text is given below.

It was inspired by one of Terri Windling's posts in her The Dog's Tale series on her marvelous blog, Myth & Moor.

Bobbi and I both hope you enjoy it!

Dog Training

His back to the window, intent on the screen -
The most marvelous wildlife program he’s seen:
Lions and elephants, eagles and more;
Doesn’t  notice the fox who steals by his door.

His back to the window, lost in his book –
He reads of his hero, the journeys he took:
Katmandu, Rajasthan, the Fjords and Svalbard;
Yet he never steps foot in his own backyard.

His back to the window, writing a letter –
Doing his bit to make the world better:
Petitions, campaigns, he makes his voice heard;
Deaf to the song of the garden bird.

His back to the window, his mind on the job –
He’s annoyed by a sudden yelp from his dog:
Scratching, fawning, eyes full of hope;
He heaves a sigh and grabs the dog’s rope.

The computer’s on standby; the book on the floor –
As the dog drags his man out through the door:
To the sights and the smells of the wood and the meadow;
To the sunlit glade and riverbank’s shadow.

So they ramble and roam, then rest on a rock –
And it comes to him then as a kind of a shock:
“I thought I should train you,” he pats the dog’s head;
“But I see that it’s you who should train me instead!”

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The Gilded Cage

Credit: Tanakawho
 Permission: CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr
"There was once a bright yellow canary preening herself before the mirror that dangled from a pretty chain in her gilded cage.

There came a little brown sparrow and perched on a branch outside the open window where the cage hung. "I am sorry to see you caged," said the sparrow. "I wish you could be free."

"Oh but I am free," said the canary.

"You are?" said the sparrow, eyeing the cage door suspiciously. "Then why do you stay?"

"Poor, ignorant sparrow!" said the canary, her feathers a little ruffled. "Don't you know they feed me and tell me how beautiful I am and praise me when I sing for them?"

Much saddened to hear this, the little sparrow flew away."

Naomi Wolfe on The Beauty Myth

"Beauty is no longer an aesthetic issue, it is a political issue."

"Taught from infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison...Women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, men are insultingly supporting their own superiority."

- Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759 - 1797.

How long before we get this?

Amy Macdonald with one of her most popular songs ever, "This Pretty Face" live from The Royal Albert Hall