I’ve been silent here since I started my MFA program, largely because the moũsai (muses) and my work ethic have given me little rest. But I was deeply moved to return when I came upon the stories of a modern writer. I just can’t wait to share this! Let me introduce him:
Eric Burns of Banter Latte described why and (perhaps more importantly) how we need to create our own mythology in a way that it can live in harmony with science (or at least not contradict it too badly) and reflect the world today. At risk of obscuring his message, I’ll simply quote his first article on the subject “Mythology of the Modern World: Introduction and Coffee” in its entirety below. I recommend starting there, and then checking out all of his modern myths. Also check out the comments – they’re both amusing and enlightening – he often explains his choice of names for particular gods and loci. My only regret is that he seems to have stopped writing in 2007, which leaves me both unsatisfied but also compelled to carry this on further. You can find more of his stories and essays on modern mythology in the side panel there under the Blogroll or under the Must Read! header, but I’ll probably repost my favorites here too.
When you’ve read this appeal, consider your role in modernizing mythology. What myths would you tell to explain modern mysteries? How would you retell the old myths in a way that’s relevant today?
This is the first post in the Mythology of the Modern World: an encyclopedia of things unseen in modern day society.
Or “look, in today’s society, the nymphs and sirens who once wielded allure and song to draw sailors to their doom have cell phones and the internet like all the rest of us do. What makes you think the old ways apply.”
Today, we discuss the fundamental underpinnings of the universe. Also, we discuss coffee.
The world is a reflection of the people who live in it.
This has always been true, of course. It is a function of the conscious mind. Absent the conscious mind, the world exists as a combination of potential and backstage politics. The old canard about trees making sounds when they fall in the woods, ultimately, asks the wrong question. The real question is, is there a tree or the woods if there’s no one around to perceive them.
On the one hand, the answer is no. Without a mind, connected to eyes, the tree, the woods, all the little animals and plants and that damned poison ivy your girlfriend got all over her (and we do mean all over her) when you two were doing things in the woods that you shouldn’t do which made the camp counselor restrict you two to your campsites for a weekend just don’t exist. If you somehow managed to visit without your brain or your perceptions, you’d see a cleanup crew and a few sprites smoking cigarettes.
But on the other hand, the answer is yes. The answer is yes because our world demands the answer be yes. If the woods vanishes in a puff of smoke (or, more rationally, is disassembled by a stage crew who needs to redress it for another scene) when you’re not there, then the world makes no sense. If the world makes no sense, then it can’t possibly exist, because the world only exists to make sense of existence. So, by definition, if the world disappears when we can’t perceive it, then we’re careening through the void and our house of cards wouldn’t possibly have gotten built in the first place, much less sustain our illusions of desks, jobs, New York and all the rest.
So. To have a proper understanding of the world, you must simultaneously understand that the world only exists because we can see, hear, touch, smell and taste it, and yet the world must forever endure outside the range of our perceptions so that it doesn’t collapse and take us with it.
That mutual contradiction is the cornerstone of reality. And that means that there’s terrific potential in the universe that we’re stubbornly not taking advantage of. After all, if our perceptions shape the universe, and if the universe must persist where we can’t perceive it directly… we get to decide what’s in the bits we can’t see.
We used to do this as a matter of course. When lightning rained down on us from the Heavens, it scared us and made us defecate in our rather primitive garments. To distract the other folks in our tribe from our little ‘accident,’ we explained that the lightning came from Zeus, or Thor, or maybe Zeus and Thor having beers and watching bowling on television. I’m not really clear on the details. We couldn’t see Zeus or Thor, mind, but we knew they were there.
And so, they were.
Over time, every phenomenon on the planet was explained by mythological figures and processes in the world unseen. Some enterprising oracles and seers even bridged the gap between the seen world they could look at and the unseen world they could only intuit through the use of fungi, the goo on the backs of toads, or breathing in whatever fumes were naturally coming out of holes in the caves they set up their office in.
The amazing thing is, these things worked. They could in fact see Thor and Zeus and Raven and all the rest of those figures using these processes. Unfortunately, they were tripping so hard that anything the mythological entities would tell them would inevitably be garbled. Just because you can see Osiris and he seems to have the head of a bird doesn’t mean he does. It means the mushrooms are screwing with you, son.
Which isn’t to say that Osiris didn’t have the head of a bird. Though he didn’t — you’re thinking of Horus, a bird headed guy that Osiris sired after he was dead. Now, that there was a player. I’m just saying. Wilt Chamberlain may have had sex with twenty thousand women, but he didn’t get any after interment.
That I know of.
If you know differently, please for the love of God don’t tell me.
Anyway, the point is, the oracles who used psychedelics or huffed glue to get their visions did get authentic visions, but their testimony couldn’t exactly be consideredsolid, if you get my meaning. And I assume you do.
There were other oracles and seers, of course. Diviners who used water, or playing cards, or dice, or went into trances and walked other worlds. They had a better time of it, since their journey wasn’t complicated by that distracting Jimi Hendrix music wherever they went. But for the most part, those seers learned to refine their intuition, which was the same sense that told that guy with the dirty loincloth that Zeus was shelling the camp with lightning. Which didn’t make them wrong, since the point is they can’t be wrong. The world reflects our impressions of it, remember.
Eventually, most of these things fell out of favor. This was largely thanks to a combination of organized religion, which had its moments but wasn’t great for encouraging individual intuition, and science — which was far more prosaic but was also far more directly useful. Yeah, it was great to call upon Ares to come down and drive your enemies before you, but the method was unreliable. Ares might show up, or might not, or might answer your enemies’ call, all depending on factors like what goats were sacrificed and how and his mood and whether or not he was going to get royalties from Sony’s God of War franchise.
For the record? No. And he’s pissed. But I digress.
Anyway, Ares was fantastic when you could convince him to join your team, but Science could offer you automatic weapons and missile launchers. And they just worked. Every time. Assuming you didn’t screw up or forget to do regular maintenance.
This extended through all of life. A mythologist might intuit that the spirits of the angry waters that separated you from the mainland would need to be appeased and your body would need to be conditioned through trials of strength, speed, courage and wit before you could swim across and be regarded a hero on the other side, but a scientist could say “screw that — let’s build a bridge.”
Given a choice, most people took the bridge option. And when Science explained that lightning was static electricity in the person of an old Revolutionary with a penchant for kite flying and a mistress-total that Wilt Chamberlain could only dream of, it made sense to people and was somehow more comforting than Zeus taking potshots at their barn. And then Science turned around and harnessed that lightning to light and heat homes, interconnect us with communication, gave us television sets and the internets and provided a hair removal method that had longer term results than other depilatories? Zeus couldn’t really compete with that.
He did try. Hell, he got Charlton Heston to play him in a movie. If that doesn’t impress you, you do it.
And so, crushed beneath the heels of scientific achievement and mind-numbingly boring Episcopalian Masses, humanity slowly stopped intuiting the unseen world, letting it fade into disrepair and disuse.
This is problematic.
Oh, I know, it’s easy to say that it’s problematic because there was once magic and mystery and comfort in the world, faces in every rock and life in every tree beyond the process of photosynthesis. Yeah yeah yeah. That’s not what I mean. Honestly, compared to indoor plumbing, microwaves and seven cent packages of Ramen Noodles? I can live without the trees making fun of me behind my back, thank you very much.
No, the problem is this. Intuition is a part of the human condition. It is something we cultivated from the first days we started to conceptualize beyond “fire bad for hand” and “sex more fun than sticking hand in fire.” Belief in the unseen is going to be a part of who we are, and if we don’t have some kind of organization around it, bad things are going to happen.
Oh, you don’t believe me?
Look. Right now there is a dedicated group of human beings who regularly look up to the stars and dream. They dream of a better world. A world without poverty. A world without racism. A world without fear or hunger or war. They dream of a galaxy that teems with life, with potential, with untold adventure and untold providence.
The world is a reflection of our impressions of it. Which means if these morons are the ones controlling our impressions of the unseen, sooner or later we’re going to be attacked by a Klingon warfleet. And you can’t tell me that’ll be good.
So. We need modern seers and oracles, preferably ones not dropping acid to get there. We need modern mythologists who can embrace the scientific and work around it. Science just plain works, but it’s verifiable in the lab or it’s not science, and if it’s verifiable, then it’s something we can directly perceive. Intuition needs to work with what we can’t perceive, without contradicting it. Or not contradicting it too badly.
Fortunately, we have coffee.
Coffee is a remarkable thing, if you think about it. It’s largely made of various oils, but it blends perfectly with water without separation, which is utterly unlike any oil I’ve ever used in the kitchen or poured onto the surface of a lake.
Don’t ask about the lake thing.
Anyway. It stimulates us and gives us energy, but it contains essentially no calories when drunk black. It works well with cream, with milk, with soy milks, with “non-dairy creamer,” with sugar, with artificial sweeteners, and tastes good when made into ice cream. It is the basis of espresso, of lattes, of mochas, of frappucinos, of coolatas, and of most Swedish social gatherings. It is one of the top three liquids drunk in the world, and one of the other two is water for Christ’s sake. It is an economic powerhouse, often a religious sacrement, the object of early morning worship by a majority of the people reading these words right now, and an economic powerhouse that so vastly beats out hamburger on the worldwide market it’s not even funny. What’s more, you can addanything to it and it just plain works. Roasters add nuts, add vanilla, add chocolate, add cinnamon, add dried blueberries — look, I have a K-Cup for my Keurig right here in my office that’s called “German Chocolate Cake,” and I swear to Christ they’re not kidding! That’s what it is! Except it’s also completely, perfectly coffee.
I’ve seen recipes that call for coffee to be added to casseroles and used as part of a marinade for meat.
And the spent beans and grounds? Are ideal fertilizer.
You can’t tell me you believe this stuff doesn’t have some kind of spiritual or mystical connotations. You might not believe in magic. You might not believe in anything beyond what your eyes can see. But you know damn well that coffee doesn’t make a lick of sense if we think about it rationally.
Within coffee’s sweet, sweet bitterness can be found insight into our world. It is a social lubricant. It is a pipeline to the muse. Drink the right amount of coffee and you work faster, with more confidence. Drink too much and you vibrate into another plane of existence and become convinced you can fly.
When you sit down with friends, what do you do? You drink coffee and talk.
When the date has gone well and that girl you’re really, really into doesn’t want the night to end? She invites you in for coffee.
When Rockstar Games “accidentially” puts a playtested sex minigame into Grand Theft Auto? They call it Hot Coffee.
We don’t need unhealthy gases from the wall or mescaline to intuit the unseen world. We just need coffee.
And coffee is something I have in abundance.
See you next time.
- Should You Teach Your Kids Mythology? (homeschoolinghelicoptermama.wordpress.com)
- What is an Oracle and why would a person want to vist one (wiki.answers.com)