Joseph Campbell's Mythical Soup
Campbell reminded us how important myths are in shaping human culture and our
own individual world-views. Of course, mythology cannot be truly understood in
the narrow way it is commonly (mis)used today. In contemporary popular lingo a
myth is an unnecessary falsification of reality.
myths are much more than that. The psychologist and scholar Clyde Ford - in his
fascinating book "The Hero with an African Face: Mythic Wisdom of
Traditional Africa" - astutely observes that myths are actually narratives
that attempt to communicate "unceasing truths."
are, in fact, the 'social stories' that heal. For myths supply more than the
moral tag lines we learned early on to associate with nursery rhymes and fairy
tales. Properly read, myths bring us into accord with the eternal mysteries of
being, help us manage the inevitable passages of our lives, and give us
templates for our relationship with the societies in which we live, and for the
relationship of these societies to the earth we share with all life," Ford
add a further distinction - that between life-sustaining myths and life-negating
myths. And apart from "the myth of the market," to borrow a phrase
from British journalist and social critic Jeremy Seabrook, the most pernicious
myth lurking in American culture today is the myth of white supremacy.
recent racially-charged incidents come to mind: the acquittal of the New York
City police officers who killed Amadou Diallo in a hail of 41 bullets; the
shooting death of Providence, RI police officer Cornel Young Jr. (killed by
fellow officers who thought the off-duty black officer was a suspect); and a
frightening episode in Wellfleet, Mass., where a smiling Senegal native and Cape
Cod Community College student, Mamadou Sow - taking a walk wearing walkman
headphones - was thought to be a possible burglary suspect. He was ordered to
the ground at gun-point before being arrested. What myths were operating in
that scene in Malcolm X (or maybe you read the account in his autobiography)
where Malcolm is in prison and begins to study the dictionary? The emerging
black leader discovered how the English dictionary defines black and white in
terms of racial polarity and struggle; black being associated with fear,
uncleanliness, and evil, while white being defined as the essence of purity and
a people's language points to the myths and values that they regard as
representative of eternal truths.
the modern western usage of black and white can be traced to the Middle East of
the sixth century BCE. In Persia (now called Iran), Zoroastrianism put black and
white at the center of a combative mythology. I was astonished to find out,
however, that Webster's Dictionary finds no derivation for the word black that
goes beyond the Old High German word blah. Webster's does suggest there is a
relationship to the Latin word flagare and the Greek word phlegein - both
meaning "to burn." But linguists have traced the word for the color of
black to the Greek root word melan, which is where we get melanin from. Melanin,
of course, is the skin pigment dominant in people of color. Interestingly, the
Greek Goddess Melantho is identified with the blackness of the fertile earth.
scholarship uncovered something else. The Greek word melan is a derivative of an
older Egyptian word spelled M3nw, which means "the Mountain in the
West." The sun sets in the west behind the western mountains, sinking
into the mythic darkness of Egypt's underworld. And this idea is not limited to
Egyptian mythology. The Buddha of Immeasurable Radiance is also associated with
the setting sun, and is believed to radiate infinite compassion toward all life,
incarnated as the Dalai Lama.
Egyptian mythology, black originates with the Egyptian Goddess Nut, who swallows
the sun in the west every day, bears it as a child through the night, and gives
birth to the morning in the east. Niger, is another root word meaning black (a
Latin; not Greek derivative) from which the word Negro was born. Niger refers to
the Nigretai, a Libyan tribe of charioteers who were admired for their beautiful
black skins, Ford reports.
origin of all these words is a vowel-less Semitic root, Ngr, which is a poetic
way of saying water flowing into the sand; specifically the waters of the Niger
River, "whose strange U-shaped course must have convinced early travelers
that the river simply terminated in the desert sands."
was it that Solomon proclaimed in I Kings 8:12? "The Lord said he would
dwell in the thick darkness." And in Genesis 1:2, the spirit of God is
linked to "the darkness (that) was upon the face of the deep" - the
primordial soup from which our universe big banged into existence.
Carl Jung was fond of asking: What is the myth you are living?