Saturday, December 10, 2016

Mythmemes

Sitting in a shack listening to gila monsters wage psychic war on humanity gets old fast, so for a change I spent yesterday in the Lancaster Public Library, where I found an engaging piece in this month's Scientific American (Dec. 2016) called The Evolution of Myths, by Julien d'Huy, a doctoral candidate in history at Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris.   d'Huy uses computers and specialized algorithms to track related myths in diverse cultures and pinpoint specific time periods in their evolutions.

The periods of time involved are surprisingly large, ranging back to the Paleolithic, when other sorts of humans than Homo Sapiens lived.  An implication is that portions of our myths may have originated in other hominids who had language, such as, perhaps, Neanderthals.  

d'Huy isolated three families of myths for his study.  To summarize his findings:

1. The Cosmic Hunt is known to us through the Greek myth of Callisto, who was seduced by Zeus and turned into a bear by Zeus' wife Hera.  Callisto is separated from her son, Arcas.  Years later Arcas is a hunter who unknowingly throws a spear at his mother.  Zeus saves Callisto by turning her into the constellation Ursa Minor, the "little bear."  d'huy found the basic outline of this myth in dozens of cultures and formulated it this way: "A man or an animal pursues or kills one or more animals, and the creatures are changed into constellations."  Among the findings: Cosmic Hunt myths appeared in most of the human world at least 15,000 years ago.  d'Huy draws "trees" to show the interrelations of myths.  One branch of the Cosmic Hunt tree indicates a connection between the Greek version and the Algonquin.

2. Pygmalion myths feature a man who makes an artificial female to his liking and then falls in love with her.  d'Huy's study linked the myth to a north-south migration in Africa about 2,000 years ago.  It found that the Greek version (which inspired George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion) was most similar to a version in Madagascar.  

3. Polyphemus was, in the Greek myth, a giant cyclops- son of Poseidon, the god of the Sea- who trapped Ulysses and his men in his cave, where he planned to eat them.  The captives devise a sharp stake with which they blind Polyphemus while he sleeps, then escape by clinging to the underbellies of Polyphemus' sheep as they flee the cave.  d'huy describes the basic storyline: "A man gets trapped in the cave of a monster and escapes by insinuating himself into a herd of animals under the monster's watchful eye." d'Huy finds a "protomyth" from the Paleolithic that "reflects the belief, widely held by ancient cultures, in the existence of a master of animals who keeps them in a cave and the need for an intermediary to free them." He also finds a connection with wall paintings, dated around 13,000 BC, in the Cave of the Trois-Freres in the French Pyrenees, in which humans and bison combine body parts and exchange expressive glances.  Further, "...the artist has meticulously drawn the anus and the vulvar orifice. These two elements can be compared with some Amerindian versions of the Polyphemus story where the man hides himself in the animal by entering its anus."

d'Huy calls the variations on a basic mythic storyline, "mythmemes."  These include changes of character, as when the human hunter Arcas becomes an animal, or changes in action, as when Ulysses and his men, clinging to the bellies of sheep, transform into escapees crawling into animal anuses and vaginas.  d'Huy finds that mythmemes often change at important historical times, for instance during migrations.  Once a mythmeme is set, there tend to be long periods of no change.  For example, the Greek myths have survived to our time unchanged.

But have they survived?  Many people today enjoy the Greek myths and find meaning in them, but they are not "our" myths.   We don't "believe" them, or quote them, or think about them much.  Of course we have religious scriptures today, and these can be thought of as myths (whether you count them as literally true or not), but the populations of most of our large national groups don't all believe the same religion anymore.  We have our national myths, like the stories of America's Founding Father's, but these myths are so close to our time that we can parse the saintliness out of the main characters, and do.  Every country in the world seems to be having a problem with its myths.

Maybe the problem is that the old myths (including those adhered to in contemporary religions) reflect either hunting or agricultural life, where animals had real presence, unlike today when we see animals from afar: a squirrel running behind a tree, a bird on a telephone wire.

The animals are gone.  We need new myths that reflect technology, especially computers.  

As a small contribution, then, I offer for your consideration a draft of a new myth:

The world was dark; people could not speak to or understand each other.  They had voices, but they did not know what to say.  When two people met, they would formulate questions based on past experience, because people were able to "learn" from experience.  One person, "remembering" that the weather affects everyone and so is a universally interesting topic, would say, "Looks like rain," and the other, "remembering" that cold often accompanies rain, would respond, "Yes, it may be cold too."  This was called a "conversation" even though the two people were not actually talking to each other, and each was essentially alone.  The people of this world were good with machines, and when they realized how lonely they were they built machines to help them communicate.  At first the machines didn't work because they did not know anything.  This frustrating situation lasted for years, until one young man called out to Techron, the God of Silicon, begging for the gift of consciousness, so that the machines would be smart enough to create communication between people.  Techron was possibly not the wisest choice to ask because, for reasons lost to antiquity, he replied that he would grant consciousness only if it could be transferred to the machines through people's anuses.  The people had no choice, and this is why today so many people talk out of their ass. 

The point is, we need new myths, and soon, while we have some chance of determining the endings.

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