Dumezil observed in Mitra-Varuna that one of the tricks with understanding the Roman relationship to broader Indo-European patterns was realizing that the Romans concealed most of their mythology in history. Instead of an account about the creation of the world, they would rather an account of the creation of the republic or the founding of a temple.
Maybe it was the result of their pragmatism, that they couldn’t stand high fantasy stories like the Greeks and needed something that had the ring of daily life. Maybe it was something more insidious, an effort to insert their mythology more absolutely by inserting it into history, removing it from the debates of theology and philosophy. A trend as big as that, it was probably a whole bunch of things.
Here in the United States, at least, we have our fair share of that attitude. We often don’t engage with it directly through the Roman material (though it’s there), but it can be seen in the intense Biblical literalism that winds its way through our history. That’s the funny thing we don’t talk about, either, that the Jewish people of antiquity were much like the Romans in their preference for history over myth.
The Tanakh has some genuinely mythic material in the first books of Genesis, but from there what myths remain are projected into the future, winding through the remaining books as eschatology. Christianity incorporates that attitude fully, intensified by its Roman sojourn. The Christian additions that compose the Bible are largely historical in tone, with the exception of Revelations, another bit of eschatology. Consider, too, the Roman Catholic Church’s decision to remove saints, like Christopher, who are found to be rooted in myth rather than historical fact.
Myth in the distant past, myth in the future as the end of things, but otherwise mostly history sandwiched between myth. Or, well, myth dressed as history between myth as myth.
This way of talking, of dividing myth and history, is itself an artifact of the preference for realism. The preference for history depends upon there being historical accounts to access and becomes most important where there are diverging and conflicting accounts. Those accounts are important because they are seen to establish claims, claims to wealth, land, rule. It depends, too, on the failure of (flexible) oral sources to manage this task, requiring something more permanent.
There is an old chestnut that “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it,” but, from another perspective, it is precisely the knowledge of history that dooms us to repeat it. As the collection of claims lodged against each other, history becomes the vehicle that preserves the conflicts, too. The lessons of history must be partially blasted free from the account of history before they can be be applied and it is in being torn free of that accounting that they acquire the sort of flexibility that makes them symbolically useful.
Here history can become myth proper, an amorphous domain where possibility manifests alongside necessity. It is from this connection, too, that myth acquires its punishing character, because the possibility that it opens easily collapses back into history, in part because myth itself is produced out of the stuff of history.
Thinking in these terms makes myth something akin to dreaming as Freud conceived it, the proximity and displacement of daily life. That opens up some useful avenues for thinking of myth as a form of shared dreaming, a dreaming in community, with all the fragility and opportunity that entails for working with mythology as a way to grasp more deeply our living situation, to come to terms more deeply with our living situation and change our orientation in it thereby.
If we expand that conception of the dream outward, to encompass mystical and occult conceptions of the dream as rooted in the world of spirit, this becomes more vital yet. Myth becomes one of the points of transmission between spirit and life, between the spark and the substance it enlivens. Its very existence becomes one piece of evidence for there being more to the world than what we see and recount.
Myth as blunt feelers extruded into the future.
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This is a detour, a slow loop around the Bible, considering what can be taken from it and put to use for dreaming and peering into a future that is something other than the eschaton. This is a winding road along the mountainside that offers glimpses of the valley below.