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I was thinking about myths this week, by which I mean stories, legends or fables (not the other meaning of a widely held, but false, belief or story).
Every culture has its myths, the stories that are handed down through the generations, in some cases for thousands of years. Many of those myths concern where we came from, why we are are, and lessons on how we should live our lives. Many of us will have grown up with the Norse myths of Odin, Loki and Thor, or with the Greek and Roman myths that live on and are retold or re-created in literature, film and television programmes today.
Human beings sometimes tell stories to explain something in a way that can be more easily understood. We tell our children stories to help them understand birth and death, happiness and sorrow, kindness and cruelty. We tell stories to help each other make good choices in life. Some of those stories are true, in the sense of based on something which actually happened. Others are entirely fictional in terms of the facts, but not necessarily in terms of the truths they can impart to us.
I finally watched the film Bridge of Spies recently. The bridge in question is the Glienicke Bridge between Berlin and Potsdam, where spies were exchanged during the Cold War. I missed the part at the beginning which indicated that it was based on a true story, and so was surprised at the end when we found out what happened to the real people who had been portrayed in the film. So it was based on a true story, but I’m fairly sure the dialogue was not what the “real” people had said, and they got some things wrong, like how elaborate the Berlin Wall was portrayed as having been in 1961 – they were out by quite a bit. But that portrayal of the Wall is how we have it in our minds now. The desolated death strip with mines, anti-tank structures, spotlights, high towers with guards and guns, dogs barking. Not in 1961 though. Does it matter? I don’t think so. The film was telling a story, and the story is about two men on opposite sides of the Cold War who got to know each other. They tried to understand each other, learned to see that they shared similar principles, even though those same principles were applied in the service of different causes. Stories are not about the bald facts. Sometimes the facts can even get in the way of what the point of a story is. So we embellish, edit and elaborate to tell the story that matters, the story beyond the facts.
I grew up surrounded by Bible stories. And Dick Turpin. And Jack London books. And a whole lot of other stories. I can’t think of a better way to grow up, a childhood of stories. I remember being cross when I was required to get out of bed on a Saturday morning when I had decided to read an entire Dick Turpin book before setting a foot on the floor. I might have forgiven my mum for that, but I haven’t forgotten. Maybe I didn’t learn the proper lesson there.
I don’t know that I distinguished in any great degree between the stories in the sense of which were true and which were made up. I don’t think it mattered to me. I liked the story of Noah and his ark – what child doesn’t? – but I didn’t stop to say ‘wait a minute, that can’t actually have happened,’ because it never occurred to me that it mattered if it was a factually correct story. Likewise an army marching around the walls of Jericho, which promptly fell down when trumpets were blown on the seventh time round. I didn’t stop to think ‘wait, these people were told to go in and kill everybody in the city, that’s terrible, who would tell them to do something like that.’ Because it was a story. And Daniel’s friends wandering into a furnace and him being literally thrown to the lions? – great stories. It doesn’t matter if it didn’t actually happened. I learned about standing up for something, that it’s OK to have a different point of view, that things don’t always go to plan.
From these myths have come a treasury of literature and thought. I personally have no need to believe that they are an account of factual events that happened thousands of years ago. If they are, it might be the first time a people have willingly written down accounts of the genocide they carried out.
Those are just a few of the stories I grew up with, and have undoubtedly influenced how I view the world today. As an adult, I am able to understand both that I would have different stories if I had grown up in a different culture and that these stories are not all exemplars of how I should behave today. Lessons, certainly, sometimes of what not to do. But taking it all literally – I don’t think so.
We haven’t stopped creating myths. They are different now, but they continue to be stories that seek to bring some truth to life through the medium of story. Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is a modern day myth, and there is a reason this simple story has sold so well. It teaches us something about the human condition. Here’s a short story he also shared:
‘I was talking to a Catholic priest and a young Muslim man over lunch. When the waiter came by with a tray, we all helped ourselves, except the Muslim, who was keeping the annual fast prescribed by the Koran.
‘When lunch was over, and people were leaving, one of the other guests couldn’t resist saying: “You see how fanatical these Muslims are! I’m glad to see you Catholics aren’t like them.”
‘“But we are,” said the priest. “He is trying to serve God just as I am. We merely follow different laws.” And he concluded: “It’s a shame that people see only the differences that separate them. If you were to look with more love, you would mainly see what we have in common, then half the world’s problems would be solved.”’
Stories should bring us together, show us how much we are alike, and how our differences can create diversity rather than division.
Some days, I think the world’s problems started when we decided that the stories we grew up hearing were true. And that the different stories other people grew up hearing must be false. As for me, I don’t think woman was created from a man’s rib any more than I think lakes and rivers were formed when a Rainbow Serpent tickled the bellies of frogs which were heavy with water, making them laugh and the water gush out. But I love the stories. All of them. And they are all true in their own way.