Modern Myth Makers
I was fascinated by this documentary about the social habits of the Sperm Whale. Not so much because of the relationship of the whales with each other (although that in itself was inspiring), but because of the relationship of man to whale.
It was only three decades ago, when our only relationship with the whales was to harpoon them, and use their body parts for food, cosmetics and other purposes. Now, the cameraman was swimming amidst the pod for over an hour, while the whales were frolicking and playfully caressing each other under the sun.
The narrator was talking about how over the past few decades, the image of the whale has changed from the Moby Dick -like creature of the deep to the playful gentle giant that it is.
The myth changed. In the old myths, the whales were presented as the dragons of the sea - the dark giants who could smash a wooden boat to pieces, by merely flicking their giant tails. Yet a few decades ago, we found that these were helpless creatures that stood no chance against the iron ships of modern man, and were rapidly approaching extinction.
So we changed the myth. Moby Dick became an impotent gentle giant facing extinction. Perhaps more importantly, the whale, being the largest living creature on earth, took on the mythical symbolism of man's unchecked exploitation of the resources of our planet. That the whale's extinction would signify a death of a larger magnitude on earth. Warnings of Atlantis revisited.
And so we are still shooting the whales, but we traded our harpoons for underwater video cameras.
A myth is so much more than a mere story. And it has more far-reaching effects than we are wont to recognizing.
A myth is not just about the dragons and mermaids, or the Greek Gods and the Garden of Eden, or the Epic of the Kings, and impossible love stories.
A myth is the undercurrent of our worldview and perspective. The myth defines the boundaries of our lives.
So long as we looked at the whale as the ferocious creature of the deep, we could only allow ourselves to pick up harpoons. Anybody even thinking of befriending the whales must have had ties to the underworld, and been a collaborator of the dark powers.
So long as we have the Garden of Eden story, we can only consider ourselves to be handicapped, trying to prove our worthiness to be loved by the Divine, and not surprisingly by ourselves. And anybody who is capable of loving us just the way we are, with all our failures and frailties, can only be a collaborator of the Snake.
A whole range of financial industries, including the pension and insurance industries have emerged from the myth of "the fat cows and the lean cows" in the dream of the Pharaoh. Anybody who is not planning for a rainy day is considered as imprudent and unwise.
Descartes' myth of Clockwork Universe gave rise to a materialistic point of view that permeates every aspect of our lives today. Anybody considering the existence of the spirit or soul, at least in the rational circles, was considered to be either a crook or a cuckoo.
So just as the myths define our perspective and boundaries, they become a two-edged sword. They define our possibilities and limitations.
Pharaoh's dream made it possible to plan for the future, but also intrinsically implanted the need for control. The creature of the deep brought the heroic quest of conquering the dragon and providing plenty of food, but also brought the fear and worship of power.
Garden of Eden brought the possibility of growth, but also the implied unworthiness with it. Clockwork Universe paved the way for technological advancement of the magnitudes we have achieved, but with it, banished the spirit.
Yet we find new myths emerging all the time. They present themselves as alternatives to the old, and open up new possibilities for us. The symbolic representation of the endangered species opened up new opportunities for understanding our environment, and the inherent interdependence that it contains.
On the political scene, Gandhi created the myth of non-violent non-cooperation and showed the world that this myth can be lived as a possibility. It was this myth that paved the way for American Civil Rights movement and the peaceful attainment of freedom in South Africa.
On the cultural scene, the myth of LSD created the possibility for the re-emergence of the spirit.
Man's landing on the moon, and the myth of the Gaia and the Global Village made it possible for the coming together of the East and West, of various political ideologies, and economic states - the creation of economic pacts such as the European Community - and much more.
Life is being limited through our old mythologies, and we are finding that these limitations are being challenged all the time. We are constantly creating new myths, and pushing the envelope of life as we know it.
The real challenge is not in creating new stories, but in having the courage to follow through with them and apply them to life. To embrace the myth whole-heartedly, in spite of all the collective beliefs that oppose us. To be the heroes who are willing to take on life head-on, and to forge the path, where there is none.
I can only imagine the bravery of the first under-water cameraman who had to overcome the ferocity of the creature of the deep, by going face-to-face with the whale. Because the creature of the deep does not live in the ocean, but in the myths that we carry in our individual and collective sub-conscious.
© Shahriar Shahriari
Los Angeles, CA
July 11, 2001
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