Humanity has created a huge volume of stories over the last few millennia… some truer than others. We pass down these tales through the generations, for a variety of reasons: to entertain, of course, but mostly to build culture and indoctrinate others into our moral systems. We do it to share history, to teach about what has come before so that we can make the best choices possible about what is to come.
With so many possibilities to choose from, it was always hard for me to choose my favorite myths. Still, I have some winners I’d like to share.
The Persephone and Hades myth is a favorite because of all of its different permutations. Sometimes Hades as the aggressor a terrible man clearly engaging in kidnapping and rape. At other times he’s a hero rescuing Persephone from a life of a child and making her into a woman but she absolutely does won’t she knows perfectly well what she’s doing when she eats those pomegranate seeds. Persephone and Hades were my first exposure to the idea that myths could be different and still be “true” — or rather, that there was no one “true” version of history — because different groups in Greece, at different times, in different cities… tell different stories.
Stories are more than just exaggerated history. They’re also the measure of a society. The way we tell stories to our children the way we pass them down says something fundamental about us as a people.
There are other interesting myths, of course. I’ve talked about some of them on this blog before: Bluebeard and Cupid and mermaids featured prominently in my article about folklore and marriage. That article focused on what folklore can tell us about modern marriage. This week, I’d like to focus on modern folklore.
The more I learn about mythology, the more I love unusual myths, myths no one has ever heard of… myths people might not think of as myths. Folklore really, and sometimes not even that. I’m talking about the stories that might one day become folklore… and then one day become the myths our descendants associate with this era.
Stories that no one today (other than small children, perhaps) think are real, and monsters that no one thinks exist, make me wonder how people two thousand years ago really thought about the stories that have been passed down.
With no disrespect intended to those who are religious… how many of the stories we learn about religions, ancient and active, have grown and grown and become tradition even though contemporaries from the time would have viewed them with as much distrust as we do the narratives of politicians and movie stars?
How many times has something like Santa Claus, an exaggerated tale of generosity, a story told to children because it’s no fun to explain the truth, become something that archaeologists claim an entire society believed. I know that in the 1500s, most people didn’t actually think the Earth was flat… but the myth persists. The Greeks, among others, figured out the geometry of the horizon centuries before.
It’s these modern myths that interest me more than ancient stories ever could, because I think they provide insight into both the past and the future. The stories of our era aren’t codified well, and aren’t something we think of very often.
The first I ever heard of gremlins was in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Growing up, I wasn’t particularly interested in the historical antecedents of cartoon characters, but now I think it’s fascinating. WWII flight crews blamed gremlins for otherwise inexplicable accidents, as happened pretty often during that era of incredibly unsafe aircraft. Apparently, this helped morale by giving pilots something to blame — though it probably helped morale even more that enemy pilots had the same problems with their planes.
Following Disney was the Gremlins movie of course, but I think my favorite pop culture gremlin reference is the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs. In it, Siebold Adelbertsmiter (“Zee”) is an ancient fae, once known as the The Dark Smith of Drontheim aka Loan Maclibuin, a legendary Norwegian smith. When forced to register himself with the American government, he declares himself to be a gremlin, because he’s one of the few fae who can work metal.
A few weeks ago I learned about asphalt lizards. It’s apparently a term truckers use for the blown out tire treads that accumulate on Midwestern highways. The treads look like the loops of a sea serpent when they land the right way, don’t they?
I haven’t been able to find a lot of information about this on the internet… just an advertisement about “road gators” sunning themselves on the side of the road. I guess that’s the more southeastern term. Honestly, the dearth of information makes me even more excited. Somehow, it feels more real that I heard it secondhand from someone who overheard truckers talking about these in a truck stop diner.
I do not think that truckers actually think the treads are monsters, of course. The silly stories we make up to explain natural phenomena are not told because we believe them, but because they make good stories. They’re a quick shorthand to explain things we don’t have the science or understanding to explain any other way. No one thinks those explanations are serious.
No one honestly thinks that there’s a gremlin in my car or computer when that’s my explanation for why it won’t start. It’s just a quick, convenient way to complain with a smile. The fact that we do that tells me a lot about our society… and even more about ancient societies.
I’ve read a lot of articles where archaeologists speculate on the oh-so-serious religious and ceremonial importance of objects that might very well have been trash, or art, or a toy… or anything really.
Take the Venus figurines, for example. For many years, academics believed they were objects of worship in paleolithic times. Then some smart ladies came along and suggested that maybe it was just art. A cigar is just a cigar. Somehow, the idea that the sculptor might have herself been female, and not worshiping some amorphous “goddess of beauty” with exaggerated secondary sex characteristics, didn’t ever occur to people.
But maybe ancient humans were just like us. Still normal humans. It seems plausible to me. Oh, sure, they worshiped Lady Justice relied upon the God of Borders to help them make decisions… but don’t we talk about Uncle Sam needing us, and standing up for Lady Liberty? What will people a thousand years from now say about America’s gods?
When our civilization falls, will those who come later think we worshiped the legends of our time? Will Paul Bunyan become America’s Heracles? Or will they know that they were used as hyperbole, as metaphor — as personification. That no one really believes in Lady Liberty — simply in what she stands for?
Why is it so hard to believe our ancestors might have felt the same way about their folklore?