Thursday, October 18, 2012

Myths: Things Need Not Have Happened To Be True

"Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot."
(Neil Gaiman, The Sandman)

I say that quotation a lot. But it's so true. Look at myths, for example. It doesn't really matter if there was ever a man named Odysseus who married a woman named Penelope and fathered a son named Telemachus and sailed off to have grand adventures involving gods and goddesses and a Cyclops and sirens. The story is the important thing.

There are lessons to be learned, emotions to be experienced, and information to be remembered through stories and myths like these. The details of the facts are entirely secondary.

Let's use Odysseus as our example. At one point in his adventures, Odysseus and his men encountered the giant Cyclops, Polyphemus. They were poking around in his cave, trying to figure out who lived there, when he came back with his sheep and blocked them into the cave with a giant rock. Polyphemus then proceeds to eat two of Odysseus's men for each meal until Odysseus hatches a plan. He gets Polyphemus particularly drunk, tells him his name is "no one" and Polyphemus (in a display of terrible rudeness) says he will eat "no one" last. When Polyphemus passes out, Odysseus blinds his with a flaming stake. (Polyphemus cries out to his fellow cyclopes that "no one" has blinded him, and they think he's a drunk idiot.) Odysseus and his remaining men tie themselves to the undersides of Polyphemus's sheep, and escape when he lets them out to graze. (To his credit, Polyphemus did feel the sheeps' backs, to be sure the men weren't riding out on them.) Odysseus's mistake was, when they got safely to the ship, calling back and announcing that he was not "no one" and was, in fact, Odysseus, the King of Ithaca. This is how Poseidon (Polyphemus's father and god of the sea) knew who to punish, and Odysseus had a heck of a time getting home.

Penelope indirectly suggests, in The Penelopiad, that perhaps instead of a giant Cyclops, her husband had in fact brawled with and/or tricked a one-eyed innkeeper, and the story-tellers who sang his praises exaggerated the encounter in order to flatter Penelope and suggest that she is better by association with such a brave and clever man as Odysseus. The truth is unimportant; the implications are why the story is still being told two thousand years later.

But who really cares whether Odysseus tricked a cyclops or an innkeeper? The point is that the story is interesting, the solution was clever, and the moral is one that the wise will heed. (Something about modesty or keeping your mouth shut at the right times or something like that.)

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