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Living in a Time of Myth

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Living in a Time of Myth

History as orchestra

Have you ever read “The Epic of Gilgamesh?” Most people are introduced to the poem at some point in school because, for now at least, it is mankind’s oldest known written story. Scratched (or impressed) into malleable clay at least 3,000 years ago, this tale from the dawn of civilization (Gilgamesh was the ruler of Uruk in Mesopotamia around 2700 B.C.E.—almost five thousand years ago!) is remarkable not just for its age and place in history, but because it paints for us a clear picture of a people who are not so very different from the people we are today.

In the story, Gilgamesh (whom historians believe was a real, flesh-and-blood ruler, listed as the fifth king of Uruk in the Sumerian king list) is depicted mythically, as “two-thirds god, one-third human.” He has prophetic dreams, overcomes a great demon, travels to the underworld, obtains and then loses immortality, and speaks with Utnapishtim (an earlier version of the character of Noah).

That we no longer see our rulers as part god does not mean we mythologize them any less, a point that’s clear with even a cursory look at the current presidential debates. To listen to the crop of people hoping to snag the ring as the Republican candidate, or to listen to those who support our current president (regardless of whether they are disappointed in his performance or not), an American president is half god in all but name. Listen to what the candidates say they will do. Listen to what Obama is castigated for not doing. And try to remember that most of these things, if not all of them, are powers not given under our constitution to the President of the United States.

Gil Beyer expands on this civics lesson in his column this issue (see “Nothing Done”), so let me offer just a brief reminder here: Congress drafts law; the President enforces the laws Congress drafts or can attempt to veto those laws; the judicial branch reviews those laws to determine if they fit within the framework of our constitution.

Therefore, if you want something done, or something changed, both the responsibility and the authority for that lies with the U.S. Congress. Yet somehow, we don’t mythologize our Congressional figures, and if I had to venture a guess, I would say that’s because it’s just too hard to narrow that many people down to fit as one entity in a mythological framework. Much easier to focus on our president, even if by so doing we have completely removed ourselves from the reality of the system we live under.

I googled the question of why we create myths and, quite appropriately, got a myriad of answers in return. (Did you know that a googal—pronounced the same as Google—is the number one followed by 100 zeroes?) 

Our propensity for myth-making is explained as an attempt to understand our world, a way to establish continuity and stability in a culture, and as a way to create role models and standards for living. These are all probably true, but at its heart I think we mythologize as an attempt to explain what we have no explanation for—either because it’s literally unexplainable, or because it’s so complex we have difficulty in understanding.

I was reminded of Gilgamesh a couple of weeks ago when I got a phone call from a reader up in Bonners Ferry whose purpose in calling was to harangue me about something one of our writers had said back in 2009. For forty minutes I listened as he spewed venom, mostly about wolves, the Endangered Species Act, forest commissioners and the like and at the end, I scribbled a note into my calendar that our local Fish and Game warden, Matt Haag, owes me a beer. 

All jokes aside (well, Matt does still owe me a beer), it was clear within a minute into this phone call that my caller was angry and within five minutes it was apparent he was very angry. At six minutes, it was palpable that his anger (like all anger) is driven by fear.

There is a lot of anger out there right now, driven by a lot of fear. We know beyond all doubt that things are just not right and while we don’t know why, we all have things we dislike that make perfectly good scapegoats. We all have our myths. But while it may be human to create stories for the things we don’t fully understand, I’m not sure that right now, in the year 2012 C.E., it’s beneficial.

I think most who read these words will agree that the American empire is on a downward trajectory, even if most of us will disagree on the reasons why that is so. The lure of myth in this situation is also our downfall—because myth-making takes power out of our own hands and places it firmly some place else. When people hide within myth, and that myth begins to fail, they are so accustomed to unreality that the only path they seem to see is one that leads to a new and different myth. And then things can get ugly.

These are myths that tell us one person, if he or she could just get elected, or had the ability to wrest away the reins of power, will be our salvation, or that true power can be found when my finger rests on a trigger—which is the same power, by the way, that certain dispossessed Saudis found behind the controls of a highjacked aircraft. 

Near the end of the Roman Empire, life had become so difficult for the average Roman that when the Goths appeared on their doorstep, they were welcomed with open arms. “Anything,” thought these Romans, “must be better than this.” As written by the priest Salvian around 440 C.E. (yes, I had to look the date up), “... yet they would rather endure a foreign civilization among the barbarians than cruel injustice among the Romans.” And thus began the Dark Ages.

History may not exactly repeat itself, but it does seem to follow certain themes, as if all of mankind’s experience is a musical production where the melody is repeated over and over, each time in a different key.

I suspect even Gilgamesh himself would recognize the tune we are playing today.

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Author info

Landon Otis

Tagged as:

Politics, anger, economy, Politically Incorrect, myth, Gilgamesh, Salvian

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