If myth is poetry, and the purpose of myth is to explain, as directly and as potently as the myth-maker can, the origins of the world as we experience it, then what we often see in myths at first are strange and faceless forces at work, inhuman, vast and almost incomprehensible. In the creation myth most familiar to us, for example, things begin from first principles:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
Things here are ‘without form and void’; not only is there darkness, but it is ‘upon the face of the deep’, whatever ‘the deep’ might be, other than simply the concept of ‘depth’. Even when ‘the waters’ appear, as something not quite so abstract, the Spirit of God moves upon the face of those waters with poetic and inscrutable majesty. This is not human territory; a listener centuries ago and a listener coming freshly to these passages today has no real anchoring point or image at this point through which to feel much affinity or understanding of what is being described. It’s not until the next chapter that some familiarity enters the picture:
And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
With ‘the first day’ we enter into something which has some kind of relationship to the world in which we sit listening to these words, albeit still a distant one. ‘Day’ is something of which we have intimate knowledge, whether we were born recently or millennia ago: Time has made an appearance. But we can’t get too comfortable because the next lines bring more strangeness:
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
Even if we understand the word ‘firmament’ to be something to do with dry land, coming as it does from Latin firmamentum, from firmare ‘fix, settle’, it is not clear what is involved in dividing ‘waters from waters’, especially when some are under the firmament while some are above. But there is a progression through this first section of Genesis which can be viewed as a ‘painting in’ of elements familiar to the listener or reader: God gathers the waters together and calls them Seas, while the dry lands are called Earth, then brings forth grass and trees, stars and the sun and moon, moving creatures in the sea, in the air and on land, effectively setting the stage for the entry of the protagonist, with whom, naturally, comes the viewpoint taken by the listener and reader. Prior to the creation of Man and Woman, we are excluded from the picture; when the ‘male and female’ appear, so do we. But our approach is gradual - things with which we have some association are gradiently introduced, so that by the time we arrive, a bridge has been built for us poetically. In other words, we do not suddenly appear on Day One, when all is still ‘without form and void’ - the world has been assembled so that our appearance in it is like that of the final piece of a jigsaw.
In this way, it’s possible to draw an inference about creating anything, and especially about creating a work of fiction. Broad, formless generalities, swimming darkly upon the face of the deep, are brought forward into some kind of timeline comparable to our own; then, piece by piece, a story reveals elements which bear some kind of relationship with the world of the reader. Finally, in this case at least, a viewpoint appears through which the reader can participate in the created world.
The modern tendency, examined in earlier articles in this series, to place ‘mythology’ as a subject at the beginning of a process of evolution which culminates in our ‘superior’ scientific understanding of things can, I hope, now be viewed as just that: a tendency. A myth - any myth, though the one from Genesis above is perhaps the most familiar one to us - isn’t so much about the beginning of things according to ‘primitive’ imaginations, but is about the fundamentals of things according to the power of the Imagination as a basic component of the human psyche. In other words, the more we keep assigning myths to some distant and ignorant past, the more we miss what they are trying to reveal to us now, today, as we read or hear them newly.
Genesis might or might not be about how the world was actually formed before Time began: what it is definitely about right now is how things are formed, imaginatively, full stop. From the darkness comes light, and with light comes everything else with which we are familiar, including, eventually, ourselves.
As another example, let’s take a further journey into Norse mythology, looked at earlier. After the immense and unfathomable darkness of the Ginnungagap and the mysterious rise of the frost giants, accompanied by all kinds of strangeness, we progress slowly towards a world which responds more to our own senses and apprehensions. The realm of the Norse gods, the Æsir, is called Asgard (meaning the ‘Court of the Ás’ or ‘Æsir’) and is built in the likeness of a human dwelling place. Odin's hall, Válaskjálf, is roofed in silver. Though opulent, it is recognisable as a place in which we can sit, with walls and a roof - the fact that Odin can sit within it and view all the worlds at once means that we have not yet quite arrived in the mortal world in which we listen to this tale.
Righteous men go after death not to some deep, featureless void but to Gimli, a hall roofed with gold, which also lies somewhere in Asgard. Most famously, Valhalla, the hall of the slain, is the feast hall of Odin: here, those who died in battle are raised in the evening to indulge themselves there. Heimdallr, the gods' warden, dwells beside Bifröst, the rainbow bridge, over which the gods ride to their meeting place at the Urðarbrunnr. Halls, feasts, bridges, riding - these are features we can grasp, even though the halls are roofed with treasures and the bridges made of coloured light.
There is a modern tendency, born of our fascination with the material world (and our scientific progression from what we can observe under a microscope incrementally mounting up to what we can infer about our own psychology) to think of myth, and the world of mediaeval romance and legend - the hinterlands of which we are now approaching - as a projection of what we are familiar with onto a larger screen. The Norse people, so the argument goes, took those things of which they had a daily appreciation - halls, fighting, feasting, riding, voyaging and so on - and imaginatively made them bigger, extending them outwards and backwards in Time to ‘explain’ where humanity came from and how the world was created. But it’s possible to turn this on its head and see myth as a progression from the unknown, from the void, into more and more specific and concrete forms, until what cannot be comprehended emerges finally into the lighted world we know. And this progression mirrors and encapsulates the making of anything, especially stories.
As we will see, myth bridges over (on a bridge made of coloured light) into a world of legends; legends unfold into tales of greatness; and those tales metamorphose into stories of ordinary, recognisable people. As a single story evolves, so do Stories evolve. The process by which familiarity develops from unfamiliarity is universal - and omnipotent.
Stay tuned for more in this series.