The birth of myths

It may be hard to imagine how hostile the world must have appeared for the first human beings.  With no natural defences such as claws or teeth against predators and no fur to protect from the cold and wet, humans seem to be indeed the forgotten animal specie of the gods, as told in Plato’s Protagoras. In that dialogue, Protagoras gives us a version of the tale of Prometheus: Epimetheus and his brother Prometheus were assigned to prepare the animals for their arrival on Earth and give them the assets for survival but Epimetheus forgot about the humans (that is why Prometheus stole the arts and fire from the gods (Athena and Hephaestus) and gave them to man).

Humans are left harmless against predators but must survive. It was probably during the end of the Pliocene epoch that the homnids began to eat meat, possibly first from scavenging and then hunting. Scavenging would prove that eating meat was vital to humans because they coudn’t find their ealrier prefered food (fruits, vegetables and nuts) in sufficient amount after leaving Africa but were not yet prepared to and never thought before of  killing other animals.

Killing animals, living surrounded by predators, often in the cold and in the dark must have led humans to believe that, as Micrea Eliade tells us in number of his books, the world was created with murder. Killing gave humans life, so they extrapolated that to their idea of the gods and the creation. They had no choice but to accept murder as part of their life.  Embracing violence was a means of fighting the hostility of the world.

Therefore, the rites of most traditional societies glorify the first act of killing made by the gods, as if to justify their own acts of murder. More so, the rites of passage, as described by Arnold van Gennep and Hutton Webster to name just a few, were incredibly horrendus in order to prepare young men to a life were they have to kill and be strong.

However, the genuine gentleness and desire of good of mankind is proved by the fact that almost every (if not all) traditional soctiety cultivates what Eliade called the “nostalgia for origins”, where there was no time, where everything was sacred and where the primordial murder did not yet occur. And this primordial murder was seen as their decline, because humans had to come to life and be determined by time. The rites were a way to stop time and stay in the sacred instead of the profane. We find traces of this nostalgia for origins in modern religions and their descriptions of Heaven. As for instance, in Isaiah 11:6: “In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion…”.

With the coming of civilisation and of more safety and protection against natural dangers, man had no use of such violence and rites became more symbolic. In The Historical Roots of the Wonder Tale, Vladimir Propp  notices that fairy tales, which are in some ways secularized myths, often tell stories that glorify a now good behavior – saving the princess from the dragon – against an earlier necessity  – human sacrifice as a plea to the gods.

Myths were made to understand the world and to define what we should do in that world, give us examples to imitate.  What kind of myths, if any, do we need in our world today? What is the good example of today? What is good? That’s a very simple question to which Charles Darwin gives the perfect answer in The Descent of Man: good and evil are social instincts. Social instincts are directed towards ‘the good of others’ (within the group). Humans as well as animals have social instincts. Darwin observed that higher social animals are inclined to aid their fellows. He reasons that animals exhibit qualities which in us would be called moral. In humans the ‘general good’ may be defined as the means by which the greatest possible number of individuals can be reared in full vigor and health.

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Published in: on January 12, 2011 at 6:26 pm  Leave a Comment