Some Thoughts on Myths

The angels are two days and two nights older than we: the Lord created them on the fourth day, and from their high balcony between the recently invented sun and the first moon they scanned the infant earth, barely more than a few wheat fields and some orchards beside the waters. These primitive angels were stars. For the Hebrews, the concepts of angel and star merged effortlessly: I will select, from among many, the passage of the Book of Job (38:7) in which the Lord spoke out of the whirlwind and recalled the beginning of the world, “When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” Quite apparently, these sons of God and singing stars are the same as the angels. Isaiah, too (14:12), calls the fallen angel “the morning star.”

Borges incorporated countless myths into his writing: knowing old stories, and retrieving and reworking them, brought about conclusions radically different from rational inquiry. By that I mean there is nothing logically necessary about stars, Semitic myths and the Hebrew Bible in particular that creates his story. In that sense he is similar to Joyce rather than Kafka–he was the ultimate synthesizer. His labyrinths are borrowed from history. Kafka produced the motifs for our new age, Borges loved the last era’s. Our point of departure requires a few caveats. Myths are not lies or delusions: they are, in that glittering phrase of Roland Barthes’, inflections. Myths still exist all around us, and while many are antiquated the vast majority still have a vitality.

Yes, dear reader, we still have myths and we still have our cathedrals. I think that social media is almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals; I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object. In those cathedrals instead of celebrating a child’s hand that does not know how to die or is forced to live (e.g. A Hand Grows from the Grave by A. Kuhn and W. Schwartz, A Hand Grows from the Grave: Three Legends from Mecklenburg  by Karl Bartsch ect) but something equally informative. Say, that if you are (1) unattractive, (2) stubborn, (3) egotistical and (4) nerdy you are automatically intelligent.

Look at how Steve Wozniak was fat and stubborn in his youth and how the casting in the Jobs movie was perfectly accurate for a computer nerd, which was sarcasm dear reader. Look at the chubby Bill Gates jumping over a chair, our contemporary construction of ‘nerd:’ . Then there is this familiar television host. I cannot help but notice, especially in the case of Wozniak, how reality is bent to our myth. Wozniak, somehow, gains thirty pounds. Myths are still all around us. The only thing that has changed is that they are incorporated into shiny new cathedrals that are publicly traded.

What, then, does this say about our society? What did the living/dead hand say about Germany/Switzerland? Who knows? But it is something to think about as you go through your day. Myths are all around you and the point is not to apply some sort of reductive system to them. Myths can’t be analyzed in a lab. What you can do, however, is see them and understand them and love them.

My parting shot will be “Die Hand auf dem Grabe,” by J. D. H. Temme from Die Volkssagen der Altmark, mit einem Anhange von Sagen aus den übrigen Marken und aus dem Magdeburgischen.

In the village church at Groß-Redensleben, one hour from Seehausen, immediately inside the entrance, on the left side of the door hanging on a stone pillar there is a wooden tablet, painted black, and with the following inscription:

Exodus XX

Behold, thou wicked child
What is here displayed:
A hand that does not decay,
For he, whose hand it was,
Was a wayward child,
Such as exist even today.
This son struck his father,
And he has as a reward,
That his hand is hanging here.
Guard thyself from such shame.On the tablet’s edge, encircling the inscription, are the words:

Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.Beneath the tablet there is an iron chain, about a half yard long, from which is hanging a human hand, which was cut off at its root. Its color is ashen gray; its skin and flesh are totally dry. The following legend is told about it:

Before the Thirty Years’ War there lived in Groß-Rebensleben a pious man who had a very wayward son. This son not only ridiculed his father’s admonitions, but his belligerence went so far that he abused his own father. Once he even lifted his hand against him as the father was praying to God for his repentance.

And it came to pass that the wayward son suddenly fell dead to the earth, as a visible sign that Heaven would not allow his wickedness to go unpunished.

He was buried the next day, and then an even greater miracle occurred. Suddenly a hand appeared from the grave, the same hand with which he had struck his father, as if it could find no rest beneath the earth.

All who saw this happen fled in terror, and no one dared return to the churchyard, for the hand did not return to beneath the earth. It was a gruesome sight, the way it extended from the grave, stiff, pale, cold, and silent, but still an articulate witness as to how the Lord punishes sin.

At last the authorities ordered that the hand be whipped with switches, in the belief that such a punishment would suffice and would lead to redemption. The order was carried out, and the hand bled until the earth turned red, but it would not return to the grave.

Then they had it chopped off and hung it in the church with the tablet described above so that it could serve as a lesson for future generations.

2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Myths

  1. Wonderful post. I especially like the following line:

    “Myths are all around you and the point is not to apply some sort of reductive system to them. Myths can’t be analyzed in a lab. What you can do, however, is see them and understand them and love them.”

    I would take it one step further and say that part of the problem with contemporary Western society is that we have largely lost our understanding of the power of the Myth, especially its ability to unity people through common experiences and story.

    W. Ockham

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