Published on 22nd October, 2016, in Hindustan Times
Fact is everybody’s truth. Fiction is nobody’s truth. Myth is somebody’s truth. It’s a cultural truth, a religious truth, a nation’s truth, one that binds a community together by giving them a common worldview to function within.
Science can tell you how the world functions, but only myth can tell you why it functions the way it does. The idea of God, for example, is a cultural truth: it is not part of Buddhism, Jainism, or secularism. Likewise, the idea of prophets makes no sense in the Hindu worldview. The idea of hero, villain and victim is a Greek mythic idea, which was imposed by modern storytellers on mythologies around the world, leading to distortion of cultural ideas. Equality is not a rational concept. It is a subjective truth, a belief that comes to us from Abrahamic mythology. Likewise the idea of justice comes from Greek mythology. These two Western ideas are often at loggerheads.
Of course, followers of myth believe their truth is the truth. Outsiders disagree. This is the cause of all tribal, religious, and nation-state wars. Let us explore 10 mythological stories from around the world to appreciate how different people have tried to make sense of the world.
Cost of wisdom: The story of god-king Odin and his sacrifices for spiritual growth
Odin was the king of the Aesir tribe, simultaneously god of war and earth as well as god of sky, wisdom, poetry and magic. He was shamanic, a lover of ecstasy, and trance, and often ‘effeminate’, embarrassing the Viking warriors who preferred his masculine side. One of the most striking attributes of his appearance is his single, piercing eye. His other eye socket is empty – the eye it once held was sacrificed for wisdom. He gave it up so he could drink from the well of wisdom. On another occasion, Odin hung on the world-tree Yggdrasil for nine days and nights, receiving no form of nourishment from his companions, sacrificing himself to himself, so that in the end he perceived the runes, the magically-charged ancient Germanic alphabet that was held to contain many of the greatest secrets of existence.
Odin often appears as a leader of the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession of the dead through the winter sky. He rides a horse that has eight legs and travels with his raven and a wolf, who give him information about what is happening in every corner of the world.
From another name of Odin, Wotan, comes the name ‘Wednesday’, linked astrologically to the solid-liquid ambiguous Mercury, a planet that is somewhere in between the masculine Mars and the feminine Venus.
West African Mythology
The spider trickster: When a spirit tried to capture all the world’s wisdom
Anansi, in the form of spider, once decided to hoard the entire world’s wisdom in a pot for himself. When he succeeded, he attempted to hide the pot at the top of a tree where nobody could find it. He tied the pot in front of him and tried to climb the tree, but kept sliding and losing his grip. His son, who had followed him, suggested he tie the pot to his back so he could climb more easily. When Anansi tried to implement his son’s suggestion, the pot slipped and fell to the ground. The wisdom fell out and a sudden rainstorm washed it into the river and from there to the waters of the ocean, so that everyone in the world now owns a little bit of it.
Beauty contest that led to war: How feuding goddesses caused the Trojan War
All the Olympian gods were invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis except Eris, the goddess of discord. Angry, Eris decided to teach the assembled Olympians a lesson. She threw amongst them a golden apple on which was engraved the words, ‘For the most beautiful.’ Three goddesses – Hera, goddess of household, Athena, goddess of skills, and Aphrodite, goddess of beauty – claimed the apple and fought over it. No god, not even Zeus, dared judge who of the three goddesses was the most beautiful, and hence worthy of the apple. Finally, the goddesses were told to go to Paris, prince of Troy, known for his understanding of female beauty and his fair judgements. The three goddesses presented themselves to Paris and tried to impress him with their beauty. When he could not decide, each tried to bribe him secretly. Hera promised to make him ruler of the greatest kingdom in the world. Athena promised to make him the most admired warrior in the world. Aphrodite promised him the hand of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world.
Paris accepted Aphrodite’s offer. He gave her the apple and with that, he and the land of Troy earned the enmity of Hera and Athena forever. Thus, the cause of the Trojan War was not so much human folly as it was the pettiness of the gods.
Underworld: Gang wars are older than you think
There were two sisters who hated each other: Inanna who ruled the world, land of the living, and Ereshkigal who ruled the underworld, land of the dead. Inanna decided to visit the underworld. She told the gatekeeper of the underworld that she wanted to attend her brother-in-law’s funeral rites. But perhaps she actually wanted to conquer the underworld. Before she left, Inanna instructed her minister Ninshubur to plead with the gods Enlil, Nanna, and Enki to save her if anything went wrong, and dressed elaborately for the visit. Her garments, unsuitable for a funeral, along with her haughty behaviour, made the queen of the underworld suspicious.
Following Ereshkigal’s instructions, the gatekeeper told Inanna she could enter the first gate of the underworld, but she had to hand over a piece of clothing. She asked why and was told, ‘It is just the way of the Underworld’. She obliged.
Inanna passed through a total of seven gates, each time removing a piece of clothing or jewellery she had been wearing at the start of her journey. When she arrived in front of her sister, she was stark naked and vulnerable. Ereshkigal turned Inanna into a corpse and hung her on a hook.
Three days and three nights passed and Ninshubur, following instructions, went to Enlil, Nanna, and Enki’s temples and demanded they save the goddess of life, love and living. The first two gods refused, saying it was her own mess, but Enki was deeply troubled and agreed to help. He created two sexless figures (neither male nor female). He instructed them to appease Ereshkigal and, when she asked what they wanted, ask for Inanna’s corpse and sprinkle it with the food and water of life.
Things went as Enki said and the two sexless beings were able to revive Inanna. But Ereshkigal’s demons followed Inanna out of the underworld and said she wasn’t free to go until someone took her place. They first came upon Ninshubur and asked her to take Inanna’s place. Inanna refused, saying she had helped her as she had asked. They next came upon Dumuzi, Inanna’s husband. He was enjoying himself though his wife was supposedly still missing in the underworld. Inanna wasn’t happy and said the demons could take him. Dumuzi tried to escape his fate but a fly told Inanna and the demons where he was. It was then decreed that Dumuzi would spend half the year with Ereshkigal in the underworld, and the rest of the year with Inanna.
The first couple: When a lovelorn husband followed his wife to the land of the death
The primal human couple, Izanagi, the man, and Izanami, the woman, were responsible for churning out islands from the sea which they populated with their children, the many deities who populate the Japanese countryside. Izanami died while bearing the fire-god and Izanagi was so distraught that he was determined to bring her back. So he went to Yomi, the shadowy land of death, to fetch his wife. Unfortunately, Izanami had eaten the food of Yomi and so could never return.
Izanagi lit a torch, desperate to see his wife. To his horror, he found that her once beautiful body had decayed and was covered with maggots. He ran out of the underworld in fear, chased by Izanami who missed her husband and wanted him to stay. Izanagi finally reached earth and covered the entrance of the underworld with a huge boulder. His angry wife yelled, “I will kill a thousand living creatures each day.” Izanagi yelled back, “Then I will create 1,500 new lives each day.” So the story ends in eternal separation and bitterness.
Original Sin: Of Adam, Eve, an apple and a slithery snake
God created the world out of nothingness in six days and rested on the seventh day. He created the first man, Adam, in his own image, and the first woman, Eve, from Adam’s rib. He told Adam and Eve to enjoy the wonderful Garden of Eden, but not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. That was the Forbidden Fruit! Adam and Eve obeyed God, but the Devil, in the form of a serpent, enchanted Eve and got her to take a bite of the Forbidden Fruit. She then convinced Adam to eat it too. Suddenly, innocence was gone. The humans became aware of their nakedness and tried to cover themselves. God was disappointed with his creations and cast them out of Eden for this original sin, the first act of disobedience. He also decreed that woman would be answerable to man, and that the children of Adam and Eve – all of humanity – would pay for this sin.
Various schools of Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought disagree on details of this story. Jewish folklore describes the fruit as a pomegranate. Christian folklore describes it as an apple. In Arabic folklore, it is the banana, for they equated India with its silks and spices as the land of Eden.
While Original Sin is a key theme in Christian mythology, in Islamic mythology, Allah forgives Adam and Eve and there is no concept of original sin or carrying forward of sins to the next generation.
Creation: Why big brother is always right
Maui was the fifth child of Taranga. Some say he was born dead, others say since he was born prematurely, he was said to be a carrier of bad luck. So his mother threw him into the sea, wrapped in a tress of hair from her top-knot.
Ocean spirits found the child, revived him, wrapped him in sea weed and gave him to the care of Rangi, the sky-father, who took the child to the celestial realms and nourished him to adolescence.
One day Maui found the hair of his mother and, recognising it, decided to descend from the celestial world of his foster father and search for her in the world of humans. But he was always out of place both in the world of his mother, Taranga, and in the realm of his adoptive father, Rangi. Maui realised the days on earth are too short to get the work done. With the help of his brothers, he caught the sun in a noose and beat him severely with a jaw-bone club until he promised to go slower in future.
Maui then hauled up a great island that lurked below the sea in the form of a fish, using blood from his nose as bait. When it emerged from the water, Maui went to find a priest to perform the appropriate ceremonies and prayers, leaving his brothers in charge of the fish. They did not wait for Maui to return and began to cut up the fish, which immediately began to writhe in agony, causing it to break up into mountains, cliffs, and valleys. If the brothers had listened to Maui, the island would have been a level plain and people would have been able to travel with ease on its surface.
The true heir: An ancient tale of sibling jealousy and betrayal
In the beginning there was nothing but waters of Nu in the world from which emerged the first pyramid-like mound, just like the earth that appears when the waters of the Nile recede. On this mound stood Atum who produced the god of air Shu and the goddess of moisture Tefnut, who in turn produced Geb, the earth-god, and Nut, the sky-goddess, who produced Isis and Osiris, the first queen and king of human civilisation. Atum is sometimes described as masculine, for he masturbates to create his male and female children. But he is also referred to as ‘the Great He-She’, acknowledging the androgynous nature of life before the arrival of the two genders.
Osiris became first king of the Nile valley and he established a great kingdom, but his brother, lord of the desert, became jealous of him and invited him to a meal and then showed him a box. ‘Is the box smaller or bigger than you?’ Seth asked innocently. Osiris was not sure, so Seth asked him to lie in the box and check. Osiris got into the box without suspecting a thing. Seth immediately sealed the box and buried Osiris alive. He then cut his body into tiny pieces and threw them in the Nile.
Isis searched the lands for various parts of her husband, and put them together. She then used her magic powers to resurrect her husband long enough to give her a child and this child was named Horus who was Osiris’ true heir. But Horus had to fight many battles to establish his supremacy over Seth.
Creatures of the sea: The gory story of how life was created in the oceans
Sedna was a beautiful young woman whose father, a widower, was constantly trying to marry her off, but she would have none of it. She kept rejecting her numerous suitors. One fateful day, a sea bird promised to take her away to his “comfortable, luxurious” home. The impulsive young girl eloped with the bird but the “comfortable, luxurious” home turned out to be a filthy, smelly nest. And, to make matters worse, her new husband treated her like a slave. Sedna begged her father to come and take her back home, and he agreed. But as they headed across the waters, a flock of sea birds surrounded the boat. The incessant flapping of their wings caused a tremendous storm to arise and their small vessel was tossed from side to side. Fearing for his own safety, Sedna’s father threw her into the ocean to appease the angry birds. When Sedna tried to climb back into the boat, he cut off her fingers. As she struggled to use her mutilated hands to try again, he cut off her hands and threw her and her appendages into the water. As she sank to the bottom of the ocean, her dismembered limbs grew into fish, seals, whales, and all of the other sea mammals.
Killing the mother: When generations went blood-thirsty in a bid to create the earth, sky and humankind
Tiamat was the great mother of all gods; in her body resided all her children. All was well until the children made so much noise that the old gods demanded the destruction of the new gods. The first time this happened, Tiamat warned her children. The second time this happened, Tiamat ordered her consort to destroy the new gods. The new gods rallied around Marduk who, after a furious fight, defeated Tiamat and her consort and all the old gods who sided with them. From the body of Tiamat, Marduk created the earth below and the sky above. Tiamat’s tears became the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The blood of her consort was mixed with the red earth and from this was created humankind. As the spawn of the old gods, humanity was forced to serve the new gods forever. Failure to serve the new gods led to floods and storms. This tale is told in the Enuma Elish.