I found an amazing book in my classroom recently–”The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology.” Despite the cheesy name, it really is a fairly comprehensive collection of mythologies from all around the world, and it has beautiful pictures to boot. My imagination was sparked when, beside a snapshot of an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph, I read the following caption: “Apep, the great serpent, lay in wait in the Egyptian underworld to ambush the sun god, who had to voyage through it each night ready to rise again. Night was a time of uncertainty and danger for the god, as it was for humans on earth. The return of the sun in the morning represented the triumph of life over death.”
Before going any further, I should probably clarify what I mean by the term ‘myth,’ as I will be using it frequently. There is a generally negative association in many people’s minds with this word, as if a myth is something inherently false. But the term as I will be using it is not intended to be evaluative at all; I will be using ‘myth’ as a particular kind of story–a story that describes how things began and why things are the way they are. Which myths are true and which are false in a literal sense is not at all of interest to me here. What is important to agree upon is that we all have myths that we believe in, and which myths we believe in will shape the rest of what we believe to a large degree, since myth provides the form by which to interpret and understand the world. Myths are foundational to us as humans.
Many Christians (myself in particular) have unconsciously assimilated aspects of the materialistic myth that is currently so popular, which causes us to view the world–in spite of our faith in God as creator–as primarily understandable in scientific terms. And while this seems perfectly rational and normal–understanding the physical world that we see through a scientific lens–I find myself increasingly mourning the way this sort of understanding often strangles and kills the wonder that is standard fare in the ancient myths.
I feel very much like the poet in “The World Is Too Much With Us,” who laments the increasingly naturalistic way of relating to the world, a path which inevitably leads to a sense of isolation from that world. I struggle to see myself as moving through a world teeming with magic and mystery, a world where the divine could lay hidden in wait behind any bush. I see the sun rising in the morning as I drive to work, and instead of seeing like the Egyptians the victory and triumph of good over evil, I see only a burning ball of gas illuminating particles in the atmosphere. I can appreciate the beauty of it, of course–but there is very little mystery, very little wonder–because there is very little about it that is spiritual in the way that I see it. I don’t believe that life is causally determined by genetics, physics, and biology–and yet that is precisely all that I can see when I look at the world around me. “For this, for everything, we are out of tune; / it moves us not. –Great God! I’d rather be / a pagan suckled in a creed outworn; / so might I, standing on this pleasant lea, / have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; / have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; / or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.”
I never thought I would say this, but I want to be more like the painter/poet William Blake. Someone once asked him if, when he looked at the sun, he saw “a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea?” and he replied (with sincere vehemence, I imagine), “Oh, no, no! I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty!”
My wife tells me I should delete this whole post and just use the William Blake quote. She’s probably right.
What is the way forward from here? Is there a way to “re-mythologize” the world, having been so influenced by the modern myths that have effectively cut man off from nature? How do we train up our children to see the world as infused with the presence of the living God?
Let me close with someone who articulates all this much better. This is from a poem written from J.R.R. Tolkien to C.S. Lewis before Lewis’ conversion. Lewis had said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though they were lies ‘breathed through silver.’ This is part of Tolkien’s response:
He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.
The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.