We live in a unique time when much of the world, the western world especially, looks at the universe around us in terms of the strictly concrete. We try to define the world in strictly empirical terms and as such are generally unable or unwilling to step outside of the picture to look at what lies beneath the gossamer constructs of image. We look at the world in neat little compartments labeling this ‘real’ or that ‘imagination’ with the notion that the two have very little if any kind of influence or control over one another. Conversely, within every ancient culture that I have been fortunate enough to have glimpsed seems to lay the notion that the intangible or higher/lower levels of reality/existence can be affected by and can/do affect what Euro-American culture and civilization tends to view as ‘historical reality.’ While Western minds often scoff at the mytho-historical oral traditions of ancient cultures, a growing body of evidence would indicate that these tales have a far higher level of historical accuracy than has ever been supposed.1 Not only do these ancient songs and poems give historical accounts, they also serve as tools for sharpening the mind, for passing on morals and values, and they impart the wisdom of the tellers through the use of symbols. But at the most basic level, myth provides a link between humanity and creation; a purpose for existence.
I have often considered that this may be the ultimate undoing of our nation. We have no history to link us to the beginning of creation and as such have lost our purpose in existence. We no longer have myth to link us to the divine, and have consequently lost our ability to see the spiritual side of the universe. I do not wish to suggest that there is no longer myth; however our culture views myth as a story that is patently false. When we hear of a cave in a story we envision it in very literal terms – a hole in the earth. When we read stories we want to read them and understand them in a literal nature. When we look at art and architecture we do not search for possibilities hidden away, we look for obvious signposts to direct what we see; we look at the surface of artwork rather than analyzing the symbolic components that tell a story directly to our subconscious mind.
Ancient people believed that these symbols embodied concepts and forms of thought capable of imbuing those who could understand them with the ability to control their own destiny in an insecure and chaotic world. It is not a far leap to imagine then that they would consider writing a sacred thing, for in the writing of the glyph one is able to assume power over the thing named, in fact “with written texts, scribes were able to speak the words of ancient heroes, kings, and scholars, thereby opening the threshold between the living and the dead.”2 Odin, of Norse mythology, impaled himself with his own spear, hanged himself from the world tree (Yggdrasil), and sacrificed an eye to gain the knowledge of the runes.3 Prometheus gave fire to mankind, but the gods chained and tormented him for much more that just this one deed; he also taught humans how to trick the Gods when they offered a sacrifice, and taught them “the calendar, numbers, writing…et al.”4 Aeneas ventured into the underworld and “all things were unfolded to him.”5
The belief in the power of symbols, even today, pervades every aspect of an individual’s culture and way of life. It is not, however, limited merely to names and writing. Invariably, abstract symbols representing cosmological truth seem to have the ability to invoke the most passionate (and sometimes the most degenerate) emotions available to humanity, (take for instance the cross, the swastika, and the circle). Through dance, humans may become living symbols and in this manner gain entrance to a sacred place to gain additional knowledge/power over the ‘natural world.’6 Architecture, extravagant mounds, and even entire groups of cities may also become enormous symbols upon the face of the earth.7 We may even consider the earth a symbol in itself, as we can its mountains and rivers, lakes, and caves.
In examining the nature of symbolic elements we are able to relearn the religio-spiritual nature of everyday things as opposed to viewing the rest of creation as unimportant, inanimate objects constrained by the laws of physics to behave the way we expect them to. This is the key the great teachers have used to step beyond the veil of the great illusion, to see the truth of life beyond and within what we perceive as reality. What we perceive is comprised of symbols waiting to be interpreted. Color has no existence outside of perception; it is symbolic. Shapes are symbolic. Numbers are symbolic. Even spoken and written words are symbols for our minds to interpret and find meaning in. Our minds are engines of interpretation. In order to understand life, we must learn to interpret the things we experience so that meaning and value can be derived. There is nothing which is and is yet without meaning—not even you.
This knowledge of the symbolic allows us to better understand the world by showing us the idiomatic nature of elements, be they objects, symbols, relationships, or events, in addition to their surface appearance. In order to understand these basic components, we must have a basic knowledge of the meaning behind the symbols. This, then, is perhaps the greatest value of the study of comparative mythology/comparative religious studies. In analysis of and exposure to the myths and legends we reach within ourselves and touch the universe behind the holodeck of our realities, our universes, our Mind.
1 This topic is discussed in more detail in Nabokov, A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History, in which he presents evidence of Native contact with mega-fauna just after the last ice age, and abandoned settlements located exactly where they were claimed to have been.
2 Karl Taube, Maws of Heaven and Hell: the Symbolism of the Serpent and Centipede in Classic Maya Religion, Pg. 9
3 Michael Jordan, The Encyclopedia of Gods, Pg. 196-7. Jordan actually spells it ‘Othin’ and lists Odin as a synonym.
4 Barry B. Powell, Classical Myth 3rd edition, Pg. 111
5 Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Pg. 30-31
6 Katherine Dowdy, “Apache Culture,” class lecture 16 April, 2003. ANT 325: North American Indian Cultures.
7 Here I refer to megalithic architecture such as ziggurats and pyramids, Hopewellian and Mississippian earth mounds, as well as the Chaco phenomenon which is made up of at least two dozens sites that served as a huge seasonal calendar for the Ancient Pueblo.