Saturday, April 29, 2006

"Mythos" or the importance of living culture

Living Memory
Culture is a thing slow grown. It is passed down generation by generation in thoughts, music and stories, the traditions of a people. A mother sings a lullaby that her grandmother knew as a child, an adage is told from age to youth, births celebrated, partings mourned in ways that have always been. They endure because they give comfort and strength through continuity, giving people a sense of place and purpose in time. These rituals, the everyday, and the rare, bring a sacred presence with them, which tie people who share these life rhythms together in a common view. Culture is a thing centuries in growing, and that can be lost in a single generation.
Of all the threats to the cultural memory, apathy is the greatest. Outlaw a custom, it will be practiced in secret, publicly admonish it and it becomes politicized. Ignore it and it dies quietly, taking its richness with it.
Without custom, there is no rock to hold to in time of trouble. No comfort that echoes the love of those lost through the years. No guidance to those who must find a way in the world. They are adrift on a sea of time and place and only find shelter in temporary harbors.
This is not to say that all customs are good or even useful. In order to be a source of strength, people must view them in light of their own lives, drawing their own conclusions as to which traditions help them, which are relevant to them, and which do not apply.
It is by this process that cultures grow, taking into themselves the shape of their surroundings.

The storytellers
Everyone has in their extended family, at least one person who loves to tell, and retell stories of what has happened to them, or people they knew. The stories, sometimes funny, sometimes brave, or sad, or frightening reinforce certain morals and shared memories that subtly shape peoples outlook on the world.
Storytellers are caretakers of tradition, weather or not they know it, and some stories are the beginnings of legends.
When a person or event is remembered through the words of the storyteller, they take on a metaphoric reality. The nature of icons is that of lives or actions becoming the vehicle of morals. If in times of troubles, that story is recalled and fills a need of those who hear it, then the truth of its’ metaphor supersedes the facts of its vehicle. In short the story of the person or event is changed to accommodate the needs of the culture. Thus legends are born.
When it becomes a legend, a tale of a person or action takes on a life of its own. Sublime truth has taken over mundane fact. Through the sublimation of character or event the nature of the divine is shown. This is true of all cultures; Truth and Divinity know no boundaries of land or faith. It is the nature of culture to show them to us dressed in everyday clothes. And it is because of this that we are able to recognize Divinity and Truth. Emily Dickenson once wrote
"Tell all truths,
but tell them slant,
success in circuit lies.
Too bright for our infirm delight
the truths superb surprise.
As lighting to the child eased
with explanation kind
so truth must dazzle gradually
else every man be blind.
A language of legends strengthens a culture. It forms a bond between people who come from a shared landscape of images and expectations. Cultures communicate through legends. The more legends a culture has, the broader its vocabulary, and the richer the metaphoric truths it reveals. Without these bonds, a culture can fragment and leave people without the guidance of myths.
The fragmentation of cultures is common in modern time, but not new to it. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the peoples of Europe, already removed from their original mythos by roman rule, descended into the dark ages; a time of conflict and chaos. It wasn't until the recovery of older traditions, preserved in the monasteries of Ireland and spread throughout Europe by Irish monks during the middle ages, that the Renaissance was born and a semblance of stability returned. Other cultures across the world have suffered the effects of the interruption of culture as well. Whether from natural disaster, disease, invasion, apathy, or what have you, the end result is always similar. People feel lost or distanced, antagonistic toward others. The sense of community is fragmented. A community with out a rich language of legends to account for the different experiences of humanity, may turn on its own members; either forcing them to conform to a smaller range of metaphors or else cast them out entirely.
Modern cultures have access to a host of traditions from which to draw on. As the world grows smaller, peoples ability to communicate, to share stories and rituals, increases. The sea of legends available to people deepens and their horizons broaden. Many people are not actively aware of the legends they take into their daily lives. They weave them seamlessly into their own culture, unaware of the origins of their traditions. Other people actively seek out ways of thought, of ritual, and pick and choose which best help them in their own lives. By consciously looking for legends, they ensure for themselves a richer cultural vocabulary. Both are forms of culture adapting to ever changing needs, but those who are active in their pursuit of Truths keep alive cultural memory for generations to come.

Faith is the vehicle by which dreams manifest into reality. A thing must first be believed before it can be seen, or as in the Grail quest of Arthurian legend, before it can sought for. In all cultures, the quest is the story of following faith beyond that which is comfortable, familiar and known into the chaos of unformed possibility, and returning to the world bearing the fruit of new found wisdom.
No accomplishment of worth was ever achieved without faith.

(except for Quote by Emily Dickenson) copyright Peggy von Burkleo