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Joseph Campbell’s Mythical Soup


Sean Gonsalves

Joseph

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.

But

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."

"Myths

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

says.

I

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.

Three

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

these situations?

Remember

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

goodness.

Undoubtedly,

a people’s language points to the myths and values that they regard as

representative of eternal truths.

Now,

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.

Ford’s

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.

In

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.

The

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."

What

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.

As

Carl Jung was fond of asking: What is the myth you are living?

 

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