Monday, 9 February 2009

Personal Mythology

Myths and legends have been around since the ancient world. One could possibly argue that it even goes further back than that with cave paintings possibly depicting miniature epics of the trials and tribulations of Neanderthal heroes, but that would be an unconvincing argument. Regardless, we’ve had mythology for as long as we can remember and it is a cornerstone of the human experience. When you say the word “mythology”, most people will instantly think of Hercules and Perseus and the Pegasus and the Minotaur and what have you, but it stretches far beyond that. Not only are there as many sets of mythology as there are ancient cultures, but we still create our own mythology on a daily basis.

From what I can see, myths appear to be created in two different ways. On the one hand you get an organic development, like you see in Ancient Greek mythology, or any ancient world mythology, where all of the events and stories are firmly grounded in a collection of local beliefs that have some sort of common ground. Although there are massive discrepancies between different areas, there is still some sort of common narrative throughout and this eventually gets chronicled after it’s done the rounds at all of the campfires.

The second way in which mythology springs into being is through an artificial creation. Things like the Marvel or DC universe, Middle Earth or even the Star Trek or Star Wars universes are fantastic examples of artificial mythology, although these have grown in ways similar to the organic creation once they’ve been unleashed on the rabid fans. If you disagree with me on this one, you just try spending some time talking to a truly dedicated comic book fan about their favourite universe, and I don’t mean someone like myself that occasionally scares himself with just how much he knows about the X-Men, I mean somebody who eats sleeps breaths and regurgitates the stuff. Regardless, the popularity of these franchises and their expansive and expanding universes is a testament to our reliance on mythology. Clearly not everyone gets into these geeky worlds to the same extent, but it still shows through with other people in a more modern mythology, a mythology that is personal to any group of friends or general collective of people.

Personal myths are classed somewhere in between the organic and the artificial mythologies. Individuals can transcend to the equivalent of a modern day mythological hero through some sort of achievement that later gets embellished and trips out can become enshrined in a fantastical setting of epic bravery and excitement with the right story telling behind it. I attained some sort of legendary status among certain circles at school because an RE teacher repeated some throwaway comment from someone who vaguely knew me stating that I had a photographic memory. My memory is good, I admit, but from that moment on, with certain parts of the school I basically had a heroic memory that could be made into a ballad, if anyone sang ballads any more. The truth is we can’t help but attribute elements of the fantastical to the mundane. Whether it’s personal or collective embellishment, we all create our own little stories that get retold on a regular basis, and the best ones of those go on and circulate in different social groups until you can get a full blown urban myth.

The whole realization of how dependant we are on stories and how much we love to exaggerate things to make them more dramatic makes me wonder how many people actually completely create their personal legends artificially. Matt and I have always joked about there being a god of pool, called Liam, who clearly has granted you favour when you have made a fantastic shot, but is quick to rescind it as evidenced by following shots that are awful or dangerous to those in the immediate area. Liam also always favours the colour red: the colour of winners. All of this is clearly very silly, ridiculous and a joke that has become a running joke for no apparent reason. It also only seems to be Matt and I that find it funny. The point that I’m trying to make is that I’m sure that there are people out there that can take a stupid joke like this and keep it as their own story. With slightly different subject matter, maybe people wholly invent things that have happened to them or things that they have done in a desperate attempt to participate and be involved in something, contributing to the human tapestry of stories that are told.

Everyone loves a good story, but I think it’s more than that. We need our stories and running myths and legends. In hundreds of years from now the best of our bar room bragging may transcend to being recorded in academic debate. The legend of El Stevos who stole a traffic cone doesn’t sound like much now, but who knows how embellished it will become in four hundred years time?

Additional Notes:

Personally I find Greek mythology fascinating. As a comprehensive guide to the whole pantheon of Gods and Goddesses and pretty much all of the stories associated with all the prominent and obscure Greek myths, I would strongly recommend “The Greek Myths” by Robert Graves. It’s fairly easy to read, really quite absorbing and it has a vast amount of academic discussion attached to each of the sections. Also, just to stop you from making an idiot of yourself like I did, Heracles is Hercules. Apparently Hercules is the Romanised way of saying Heracles. If you’re a student of Ancient History little mistakes like that can easily haunt you.

Honestly, RE teachers will believe anything won’t they?

The favour granted and immediately taken away by the god of pool is also known in a different circle of friends as “Gareth Syndrome”, named so after my friend Gareth who frequently suffered from this. This consists of one exceptional and inspirational shot followed by one that breaches even the most lax of health and safety laws. I must admit that the word I find myself saying the most during pool is “sorry”, usually to people that I have just bruised with the cue ball.

Having just re-read this post before throwing it up onto the internet, I realise that the subject matter of this is similar to the theme in a film called “Big Fish”, which is all about personal stories and myths that have become embellished. I would strongly recommend the film, which only occasionally gets a little sappy.

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