Myths and Our Place in Our Environments

To make the point I want to make here, I am going to approach myths from a different direction than I normally would. Normally, in analyzing a myth, I would start with the myth and try to figure out what led to it, what lay behind it, to work backward from the myth. For this article, I think it is more useful to start with the myth and to speculate how it might develop in the future if certain things were to happen to the people whose myth it is.

The Navajo Creation Story

In one version of the Navajo Indian creation myth, pre-cursors of the Navajo people emerged from under the earth. The earth had four directions (North, East, South, and West) and each direction had a mountain and a wind. The mountains of the myth are the mountains of the land of the Navajo, and, in the land of the Navajo, there are winds that do come from the four directions. The myth is very complex and lengthy and has many variations that depend on the informant. However, for our purposes, we do not need to have any more in front of us than what I have already mentioned. The main point is that the natural features of the myth are the features of the actual Navajo landscape and environment.  

Archaeology has the Navajo arriving in the Southwest of the United States around 1400 Christian Era or about six hundred years ago. Apparently, the Navajo themselves have a migration story, though it does not seem to intersect with the creation myth.

Now, let's try to imagine what would happen to this myth, this myth that is central to the Navajo world view, if the Navajo, like so many peoples throughout history, would be forced to move from their homeland of at least 600 years. The uprooting of the people would obviously affect them on all levels of their lives, but I only want to make a few points about how the move would affect this particular myth.

We can not figure out exactly what would happen to the story, but we can know a few things for sure. Most clearly and most important, the four mountains and the four winds would no longer refer to anything in the living landscape and environment of the people in their new surroundings. Where they used to live, when teaching the story to their children, they could take them outside and point to the mountain of the North and say, "North Wind comes from there. It is what brings you thoughts. ...." and so on. In the new surroundings, they would have to tell their children, something completely different. They wouldn't have to go outside at all. there would be no point. They could stay inside and say, "Far, far away, there is a mountain. A wind comes from it, but it does not reach us here. It causes people there to think certain thoughts. ...." But the story would probably not be told at all, as it wouldn't make geographical sense. It would not be surprising to find that, in the new surroundings, after a time, new stories would emerge that would incorporate the features of the new environment. I do not mean these stories would be made up. Rather, one day, someone would wake up and tell a dream they had about the river by which the tribe was now living, or something like this. The myth that would arise, would arise as naturally as anything else in the environment.

Now suppose the tribe lived here for another hundred years but was then forced to move again. And lets say, after another ten years, they were made to move again, and that, every few years or so after that, they had to move again. In short, imagine that these people, or any people, are forced to keep moving from place to place. The question is, how would this affect their mythology.

One function of myths

Based on the above line of thinking, it seems reasonable to think of myths, or, at least certain myths, as rising in specific environments, not to explain the environments, but to explain ourselves. In the ongoing attempt to understand ourselves and our place in the world, the mind thinks many thoughts, dreams many dreams, and creates many stories and myths. 

If this idea is correct, we would expect a different type of creation myth to develop in peoples who have been uprooted over and over again than in people who have been settled in an area for centuries. Myths, I think, are responses to our ever-changing environments and part of our adaptation to it. It is part of our orientation response. When we are crushed, it may not be the first part of us to respond, but, until it responds and absorbs the new situation and digests it — a process we can not force to happen but can only wait patiently and hopefully for it to happen — we will never feel truly hopeful. At best we will be able to put on a cheerful mask.

Another creation story: that of the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Ben Solomon Luria

Everyone knows that the Jews are known as a wandering people. The self-concept of Jewish people itself was, until the 1940's, of a people who had been uprooted over and over again. On the other hand, the Jewish people always maintained a story, a myth, about their exile from their land, about Israel and Jerusalem, along with the belief that, one day, they would return. And they did. So the story of the Jewish people and their beliefs about place are very complex and not altogether that of a rootless people, even though they often appeared this way to the people in the lands they wound up living in.

Isaac Luria was born in Jerusalem in 1534 and lived to the age of 38. He was first generation in Jerusalem. His parents were from Germany. During his life he moved at least three times. He lived in two separate places in Egypt before settling in Safed in Israel. Apparently he moved to Safed because of an order he received in a visionary state from the prophet Elijah. 

The Ari (the Lion), as he was and is called by his followers, had a number of visions which he reported to his student Chaim Vital who wrote them down. These ideas are the source of the largest kabbalistic movement in modern Judaism. Students all over the world study at centers devoted to the Lurianic view of creation, the Lurianic myth if you want to use that word. For many Jews, Luria's ideas of how the world came into existence co-exists with the biblical account and seems to be more in the center focus of their minds. For the purposes of this article, I will call it the Lurianic Creation Story or Myth.

This story, in an extremely simplified form, has the Lord, before He created, withdrawing into himself and creating a vacuum. Into this container with its vacuum, a great light came in, and then the container broke. The container had not been able to hold the powerful light. The eventual containment of the light allowed some of it to filter down into lower levels and into lower containers. The light eventually worked its way down and created all that is around us, that which we call the World. It also created our bodies. It also, in the form of winds, created our souls. We have different kinds of soul corresponding to different winds. For example, some winds come out of our noses, and others come out of our mouths.

An Analysis

Like the Navajo creation myth, this story is incredibly complex and intricate and lengthy. Analyzing the whole myth would be interesting and useful but would take months or even years. To show how it interweaves with biblical and other Jewish stories would take decades. I am only making one point, and this is a psychological rather than a religious point. I am, as it were, merging the Navajo story and the Lurianic story, and seeing them, in my own imagination, as two stages in the overall human myth.

What I mean by this is that I am seeing the Lurianic story as how the Navajo story might look if the Navajo had been uprooted from their homeland for a few thousand years. Going from land to land over a long period of time, all references to particular geographical and environmental features would disappear. Even the directions would disappear. People who move to a new country may not learn where North and South and East and West is for their new place of residence for years. Orientation to the environment is lost and a new orientation eventually develops. In the mean time, orientation to the direction is replaced by an orientation in relation to the sky, the sun, a non-directional wind as it is experienced directly by and in one own body, and to the ground below. The idea is no longer that we emerge from the ground below, because the particular ground on which we stand is forever changing, unlike the ground of a people who have lived on it for centuries. If we emerge at all, we emerge from the Heavens. The light we see is not the lights of the four directions of the Navajo, but just, The Light. It is no longer the land that gives us our orientation, but our own bodies. Instead of ourselves being a point within a vast but known and familiar landscape with our ground below and our sky above, it is the verticality of our own bodies in relation to the sky that is who we are.

Even though this is "only" a mythological experience of our bodies — giving us our bodies, ourselves, in the imagery of the imagination — it is natural and real experience. Our thoughts emerge from it towards the age-old end of adaptation.

In order to survive in the meanderings, our understanding of ourselves changes. Our imaginations, which gives us our first and deepest pictures of ourselves, responds to the new conditions with new images of the self. This leads to new thoughts and theories and new ideas of what is real and what is important. Jews will experience themselves differently than the Navajo. It is not a better or worse way of seeing. It is a way of seeing that comes out of and is, in part, a response to new environments and new situations.

Myths are responses to the worlds we live in. There are personal mythologies, family mythologies, neighborhood mythologies, town mythologies, region mythologies, and country mythologies. Perhaps, one day, there will be a world mythology. A person confined to a prison cell will find an upsurge of his own dreams that are like amoeba, engulfing his situation, and trying to absorb it and understand it and adapt to it. Imagination is part of the urge to adapt, an urge that includes our sensations and our thinking and our valuations. New times lead to new mythologies (and sensations and thoughts and values), and personal mythologies, if they are relevant, can catch on and become the mythology of a people.

Application to the Tibetan Religion

The Tibetan religion, as far as I understand it, had been in place for roughly a thousand years until the 1950's when the Chinese invaded Tibet, occupied it, and tried to eradicate the internal and external aspects of the religion. The Dalai Lama and many other Tibetans, monks and laity have escaped and have been living in countries that have welcomed them such as the United States. My contact with these emigrants to America has been only here and there and mostly through friends who go to classes or retreats and who have been learning the religion in some form and to various depths and with various degrees of devotion. In Brattleboro, Vermont, about twelve miles from where I live, Tibetans came a few years ago and demonstrated an elaborate Tibetan ritual involving the drawing of a mandala in sand. Local Vermonters interested in the ritual were invited to participate and to be initiated in some of the ideas and mythology of the Tibetans. However, by applying the thinking given in this article, it is my view that the Tibetan religion must be in a certain amount of disarray. To give only one example, there is a Tibetan mountain that is considered sacred within the religion and is the center of numerous rituals and probably of numerous stories and myths. But the Tibetans are no longer in Tibet near the mountain, Mt. Kailas. They are in exile, just as the Jews had been in exile from Israel and Mt. Zion for many centuries. The ideas of this article suggest that the Tibetan religion, in its current form, can no longer work for the Tibetans who have been displaced. This does not mean it is, or will become, a dead religion. What it does mean — and this is only an hypothesis — is that the Tibetan religion will need to undergo a radical inward change. This is not a question of modifying names and places and relationships to reflect the present physical position of the people. Rather it is a matter of having a deep modification (through dreams or visions or other deep experiences) right in the heart of the mythology that comes from a genuine and living interaction with the present geographical position of the people. It will involve places and names and relationships, but this can not be a simple transposition. It is not enough to change the word "West" to "East" in some text to reflect the new geography in which the people now find themselves embedded. It means some spontaneous work of the imagination that starts with the people where they are, with where they are taken as their new center, and with Tibet being at some distant place in space and time, no longer the center of the universe of the people, but now just one step in an ongoing story that is continuing in the present and is the story of a migration with all the meanings attendant to it. This is similar to the Exodus story in Jewish tradition that is now part of the mythology and religion of every Jew, no matter where he or she is located in the world. The Tibetans must adapt or assimilate or perish, and the leading edge of a people's adaptation, as it were, is their ability to dream new dreams, see new visions, and to re-understand their past. Mythology is the first part of the deeper adaptation of a people to the world they find themselves in and their situation in it.

Of course, this is an hypothesis.