Living Without Myths & Legends

My fee for grocery shopping for my parents last week was Steve Martin’s Pure Drivel. Of all the books in the discount bin at the grocery store it seemed the most promising. That isn’t saying much, of course. Grocery stores aren’t known for their excellent book collections. Let’s be honest, it was an act of desperation. I’m desperate for a good story.

Sadly, Martin’s book has lived up to its title. It is nothing than pure drivel and not amusing enough, even for drivel, to read all of. It’s one of The New York Times Bestsellers so obvious there are a lot of people who disagree with me, but clearly our tastes differ. Possibly the problem is that I’m in a mood for more than amusement.

Thinking about this dilemma, as I sat at our kitchen table, chit chatting with my parents, I noticed a book my dad brought home for me the other day: Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and Sister Nivedita. The bland title had initially been a turn off but I started leafing through it tonight. The table of contents finally piqued my interest as I saw titles to works I’ve long wanted to read. Flipping through the pages I noticed sub-titles with names I haven’t yet heard of from their mythology. So, finally, I have another book to read. And this one I think I’ll finish.

Before sinking into it too deeply I’ve been caught by a comment on the back cover about the Mahābhārata (one of the oldest epic poems of India). It claims that the Mahābhārata is such a plentiful treasury of Indian culture and beliefs that it is said “whatever is not contained within it is not true of India.” It strikes me as sad that we have nothing like this in our culture.

America has no shortage of literature but we do have a shortage of cultural myths. Sure there are a few mythic American figures but no great legends. The native myths of this country are cramped in reservations. We are foreign to them and they are foreign to us. The rest of us only have remnants of tales from our ancestors’ home countries, many of us hardly have these. The American dream has always been about the present more than the past. Many of our parents or grandparents or great grandparents who immigrated here wanted to forget their old identities and create new ones. As an Enlightenment project, our nation has tried to put away such irrational things as myths and legends.

I think this is particularly true of white American culture. It is no wonder that we often feel as if we are culturally neutral. As a mixed race (and most of us whites here, especially outside the coasts, are very mixed) we have no particular stories to even go back to. So we borrow stories from around the world.

I wonder what it would be like to have grown up with native myths and legends. I think about my Vietnamese friend Long An who wrote, around their new year, “It’s very fitting that it’s finally the year of the Dragon, as it beckons all of us back to the sacred myth, and that no matter what our divisions and quarrels are, at the end of the day we’re all still from the same egg.” What would it be like to have a sacred myth that beckons all of us?

There is no shortage of American writers attempting in their own way to answer this question. I see this in our comic book industry, our literary fiction and especially in our films and tv shows. I don’t think it is something you can create retroactively. Still, I’m very much looking forward to these two adaptations of fairytales. It looks like these film makers are doing more than retelling European fables, it looks like they’re trying to create legends.

4 thoughts on “Living Without Myths & Legends

  1. Allow me a few somewhat random thoughts; I grew up on Pecos Bill, Mike Fink the river man, John Henry driving steel, Paul Bunyan and Babe the blue ox… Add the legends (the tall tales) about Davy Crockett, and even Hiawatha… All of them at one time American mythic legendary heroes… At least until we as a nation and culture got to sophisticated, or perhaps more accurately, pessimistic to have those kind of heroes. . Witness the collapse of optimism in the 20th century. The cultures that have the mythic stories, are more homogeneous cultures that had several hundreds of years to allow the stories to take focus. We have not had that time, but are also hindered by an increasing divisiveness that makes a common cultural defining mythology more difficult. And another question: How much is the lack of distinctive American myth and legend due to the dominance of the secular materialism that dominates American culture?

    Peace…

  2. In my politics course, my professor said something that struck me: “We’re one of the rare countries that has no need for a creation myth.” That our country is an anomaly because the world witnessed its birth.

    I liked this particular excerpt: “whatever is not contained within it is not true of India.”
    Kind of reminds me of food. Whatever does not taste like home will not land as true food in my belly. haha

  3. We are stuck with the unfortunate task of borrowing myths or attempting to create them. But I think it exists. The problem is that ours is a country who is uninterested in culture and myth. We are consumed by the “now”, and to some degree, abandon the myths that might be ever present.

    I recommend the late Joseph Campbell’s “Power of Myth”.

  4. Bill,
    I don’t think a progressive pessimism has much to do with the inevitable fading prominence of legendary heroes. I was born in 1990, but I too grew up reading and celebrating American legends like Paul Bunyan and the fictionalized Davy Crockett, so I think letting go of the reverence for such stories is just a part of growing up.

    Even if we as American people would retain such stories with sacredness in our adulthood, those stories don’t have any implications of a people’s origin, nor do they contain the classic problem/cure that most myths and religions proclaim (ex: for Christianity, the affliction is sin, the cure is salvation, in Buddhism, curing self-suffering through Enlightenment, or for the Jewish, the problem is exile, the solution is a return to God, etc.)

    Legendary heroes are for entertainment and usually shed some light on morality. Those are a dime a dozen, so I can sympathize why zealously holding onto them would be a challenge. Creation myths on the other hand aren’t made of the same didactic substance. They illumine a deeper inquiry into the human experience. Personally, the Viet creation myth implies that our main problem is division and the solution to be unity.

    I’ve personally seen an increased interest in these legends, such as remakes or retelling of classic fairy tales like the ones Lindsey mentioned (which speaks for the American people. they wouldn’t be made if we wouldn’t watch them). But overall, I think there’s no greater “hindrance” to our country’s affinity to myths and legends than its pedigree.

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