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Adventures in Mythography Parts 1-4 Nicholas of Hitchin Part 1

Euhemerus and History in Disguise Part 2

Hermes Trismegistus and Euhemerism in Action Part 3

The Euhemerus Experiment (Trismegistrix Rising) Part 4

Synthesis Privately published in 2012 by Nicholas of Hitchin Š Nicholas of Hitchin 2012 The moral rights of the author have been asserted. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electrical, mechanical or otherwise, without first seeking the written permission of the copyright owners and the publisher. A catalogue record for this book is available from the Central St. Martins library. www.nicholasofhitchin.com


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Adventures in Mythography

Adventures in Mythography Part One Euhemerus and History in Disguise ‘As regards the gods, men of ancient times have handed down to later generations two different conceptions: Certain of the gods, they say, are eternal and imperishable, such as the sun and the moon and the other stars of the heavens, and the winds as well and whatever else possesses a nature similar to theirs; for each of these the genesis and duration are from everlasting to everlasting. But the other gods were terrestrial beings who attained immortal honour and fame through their benefactions to man...’ — Diodorus Siculus

Euhemerus

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History Book VI Ch. 56-61, in which Diodorus purports to give the account of the Atlantians regarding the origin of the gods. http://www.theoi.com/Text/DiodorusSiculus6.html#n1


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Part One: Euhemerus and History in Disguise

Euhemerus Euhemerus was a fourth-century bce Greek mythographer: a student and compiler of myths. His thesis was that all myths are echoes of historical events, and that their transition into myth is the result of re-shaping by the process of re-telling — a kind of Chinese whispers through the ages. For example, Euhemerus proposed that the Greek gods had originally been kings, heroes or benefactors to men who had earned the veneration of their subjects, and through the phenomenon of apotheosis became gods. He called mythology ‘history in disguise’. The logic of his thesis remains sound: considering that such stories are the result of a succession of oral presentations, partial texts, cross-cultural translations and the changing desires of the compilers to create resonant and contemporary versions — across hundreds of generations — it is inevitable that with each turn in the telling is added a new layer of elaboration or, indeed, reduction. But what is most interesting about the story of Euhemerus is how his thoughts on his gods came to play a central role in the development of Christianity. Hostility to paganism is one of monotheism’s prerequisites; no system in which there is only one god can tolerate another god, let alone multiple gods. Such hostility leads to three great ironies — ironies that in concert, like a triad, bear out Euhemerus’ thesis.

Modern trail map of Mount Olympus


Adventures in Mythography

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A Triad of Ironies

Terracotta statue of Zeus and Ganymede, Olympia Archaeological Museum

Christianity has historically found inventive ways to subvert or divert paganism, and by 300 ce Euhemerism was a timely gift to the faith. With Christianity strengthening its position in the world, Euhemerus’ ideas were revisited and enthusiastically embraced. Of these the pithiest was Clement of Alexandria’s triumphant cry in Cohortatio ad gentes: ‘Those to whom you bow were once men like yourselves.’1 Euhemerus, a pagan, had acknowledged himself that his gods were false. The first irony is the fact that only a small handful of fragments of Euhemerus’ Sacred History remain. The ancient Roman writer Quintus Ennius (c. 239 bce — c. 169 bce) first translated Euhemerus’ work into Latin, but this translation is lost. Diodorus Siculus (writing c. 60 bce— 30 bce) included fragments from Euhemerus’ writings in his Bibilotheca (Library of History). Various other fragments of importance are also found in the later literature of the Christian Augustine of Hippo (354 ce — 430 ce). From these few extant fragments and references, modern scholars have been able to ‘compile what is presumably a fairly complete picture of Euhemerus’ work’ — and there lies no better illustration of Euhemerus’ own thesis of ‘history in disguise’. This inconvenient irony for the Christian apologists— that everyone of record, including Euhemerus himself, would be subject to his thesis — was disregarded. So too was the second of the ironies — that if Euhemerus’ views were to be taken up, and that ‘Those to whom you bow were once men like yourselves’, then Christian mythology might also be subject to the same review. If the Holy Roman Empire was to cement its position in the world then it needed to formally settle such queries. This was achieved by Emperor Constantine I and his convening of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 ce. Top of the Council’s agenda was to resolve disagreements arising from within the Church of Alexandria over the nature of the Son in relationship to the Father; in particular, whether Jesus was the literal Son of God or a figurative son, like the other ‘sons of God’ in the Bible. The result of the debate defined Christianity forever: Christ was The Son of God and thus not subject to any human mythologies. 1 — Clement of Alexandria in the Cohortatio ad Gentes, the Pedagogus, and the Stromata exposes the extravagances and absurdities of paganism, and undertakes a systematic arrangement and defense of the moral and dogmatic teachings of the Church. Following Justin, he maintains on the one hand that whatever is true in Greek philosophy is to be traced to the Divine Logos, who “enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world,” and on the other hand that whatever errors are found in Greek philosophy must be attributed to man’s weak and erring nature. The true gnosis is not the alleged esoteric doctrine of Christ, but the teaching of the Gospels and of the Church which Christ founded. He who assents to the teaching of Christ and the Church, without striving, by the aid of philosophy, to give an intellectual basis to his assent, possesses faith, but he does not possess the gnosis, which is to faith what the full-grown man is to the child. Just as the Stoics idealized the “wise man,” so did Clement set up the Christian Gnostic as the idealized Christian. http://maritain.nd.edu/jmc/etext/hop22.htm


Part One: Euhemerus and History in Disguise

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Eastern Orthodox icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea

The third irony is that these orthodox Christians believed that, if gods were ever once men, then this fundamentally diminished their supernatural status. To put it another way, Christ cannot be both a man and the Son of God; Zeus cannot be both a man and the ruler of Olympus. There are gods and there are men: they are born, not made, and transition between the two states is impossible. Yet this narrow reading of a larger idea was unlikely to have found Euhemerus’ approval. Today Euhemerus is celebrated by atheists as a forefather of rationalism, yet his writings make more nuanced arguments. From Euhemerus’ simple but cogent thesis emerge two key ideas: firstly, that history could not be erased, only disguised; and that any attempt to formally revise a story — as with the Council of Nicaea — was ultimately futile as it could only be seen in the context of a greater canon of myth. And secondly, that this does not necessarily diminish the power of the man behind such myths. Rather, Euhemerus exhorts us to ask: what kind of man can become a god, or live in such a way as to be understood as the manifestation of one? His questions suggest the inclination and power of humanity to commune with God, not to rival him, and would throw light and shade across our understanding of religious activity and hero worship throughout the history of the world.

Book-burning in the Opernplatz (now the Bebelplatz) Berlin, 1933


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Adventures in Mythography

Adventures in Mythography Part Two Hermes Trismegistus and Euhemerism in Action ‘Imagine yourself in any foreign land, and quick as your intention, you will be there! Imagine the ocean, and there you are. You have not moved as these things move, but you have travelled nonetheless... Can you sense what power you possess?’ — Hermes Trismegistus

Birth Diligence Dissemination Echoes The Hermetica, Ch. 3: The Being of Atum, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, Tarcher Cornerstone Editions 1999


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Part Two: Hermes Trismegistus and Euhemerism in Action

α) Birth One of the great examples of myth-making in action can be found in the story of Hermes Trismegistus, whose works and myth remain despite centuries of erosion. The Hermetica is a collection of writings attributed to Thoth, a mythical Egyptian sage from c. 3000 bce whose wisdom is said to have turned him into a god. He is supposed to have revealed to the Egyptians all knowledge of astronomy, architecture, geometry, medicine and religion, and is credited with the invention of hieroglyphic writing. The ancient Greeks believed him to be the architect of the pyramids, and were so in awe of him that they identified him with their own god Hermes. In order to distinguish the two they gave him the title ‘Trismegistus’, meaning thrice-great. The Hermetica is a profoundly beautiful text, though largely impenetrable if read without a contemporary translation. At the heart of Hermes’ writings is one simple idea: God is a big mind, and that everything that exists is a thought in the mind of God. Hermes’ revelation was to connect the mind of God — which he called Atum — with the mind of man: it is something we can more readily understand as we too have the direct experience of having a mind. To put it another way, God is as much ‘in here’ as he is ‘out there’. The philosophical truth that everything you experience is

Hermes, Greek god of transitions and boundaries

Hermes Trismegistus


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Adventures in Mythography

really an experience of the mind is expanded to accommodate the nature of God. God’s mind is the one-ness that unifies everything, and man is at the very centre of God’s creation, a marvel being, his mind the very tool with which to access God. What this boils down to, and is the reason for much religious controversy, is that Hermes proposes a unifying religious and scientific mode that requires no orthodoxy, only the will to connect your imagination to the mind of God. To do so is to see the greater cosmic picture, which will lead to quantum advances in physics, communications and spirituality, as it did with him: Imagine yourself in any foreign land, and quick as your intention, you will be there! Imagine the ocean — and there you are. You have not moved as these things move, but you have travelled nonetheless... Can you sense what power you possess? That the dogma of orthodox religion could only be a diversion from this potential was an extraordinarily advanced idea: five thousand years later, Stephen Hawking is understood to be a de facto atheist while describing his work as ‘understanding the mind of God’.2 But perhaps the neatest modern expression of this is the physicist Niels Bohr’s comment that ‘A physicist is just an atom’s way of looking at itself.’

‘A physicist is just an atom’s way of looking at itself.’ Niels Bohr

Niels Bohr with Albert Einstein, December 11, 1925 (Paul Ehrenfest)

From Il Penseroso by John Milton (The Poems of Mr. John Milton, both English and Latin) 1645

2 — “However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we should know the mind of God.” Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, Bantam 1990, p.193


Part Two: Hermes Trismegistus and Euhemerism in Action

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β) Diligence

Ptolemy I coin, c. 300 bce

When considering the ideal conditions in which a complex myth may evolve around a person, the story of Hermes Trismegistus is a good place to start. None of the writings of Hermes exist in their original hieroglyphs; rather, they are all in the Greek, Latin and Coptic of the third century ce. This separates the man from his writings by 3000 years; that his writings and indeed the myth exist in any form is due to the diligence of the Alexandrians. Alexandria was the first ‘universal city’, into which poured learned men of every race and nationality. Under the Greek ruler Ptolemy I (c. 323 bce – c. 283 bce) the great library of Alexandria was built which, at its height, contained over half a million scrolls including the works of Euclid, Archimedes, Aristarchus and Eratosthenes. It also contained extensive texts on Pythagorism, Chaldean oracles, Greek myths, Platonic and Stoic philosophy, Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, astrology, Buddhism and, of course, the ancient Egyptian religions. All men of faith and learning were welcome, and they came to digest, study, practise, compare and discuss in what must have been an atmosphere of religious and intellectual electricity. The works of Hermes were a treasured part of these pursuits, and it was these international scholars who collated, translated and commented upon all the remaining texts.

The Great Library of Alexandria (O. Von Corven)


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That the great library of Alexandria was destroyed is well known, and its very existence is part of a wider mythology. Ancient and modern sources identify four possible occasions for the partial or complete destruction of the library, but it is safe to say that by the time of Pope Theophilus’ decree against paganism in 391 ce the library was, if not destroyed, then mostly so and widely scattered. In a final blow Hypatia, one of the last great scientist-philosophers connected to the library, was seized by a mob of Christians who flayed and murdered her.3 The Holy Roman Empire then set about closing all the pagan temples across their territories and began the previously unknown phenomenon of book-burning, ushering in what would come to be appropriately known as the Dark Ages.

γ) Dissemination Hypatia

The execution of Mansur al-Hallj, Baghdad 922 ce

Hypatia (1885 ) by Charles William Mitchell. The oft-cited ‘Reserve your right to think, even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all! Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fantasies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be relieved of them.’ quotation is itself a myth generated in 1908 by soap salesman Elbert Hubbard.

That the writings of Hermes Trismegistus survived Alexandria is largely due to a small group of Arab scholars. By the ninth century ce a new university had been established in Baghdad known as the ‘House of Wisdom’, and the Hermetica found a home there. It became the inspiration for an important mystical strand of Islam which runs through its philosophy to this day, most evidently in Sufism. By the twelfth century the Sufis regarded the Hermetica as a sacred text. The Iranian Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi made it his life’s work to formally link Hermeticism, ‘the original oriental religion’, with Islam — not to dilute its orthodoxy, but to strengthen it. Suhrawardi identified Hermes with the Koranic prophet Idris and the Jewish Enoch, and claimed that the philosophies of Hermes were handed down through generations of enlightened ones of every religious order, including the 9th century Sufi mystic Mansur al-Hallaj. Al-Hallaj had been executed for his heresy; Suhrawardi would suffer the same fate. As Euhemerus states, a myth may not be destroyed, only augmented. And so the Hermetica, despite the best efforts of the major orthodoxies, reappears throughout history, the people it touching reading like a who’s who of enlightened thinkers. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Thomas Linacre, Paracelsus, Brunelleshi, Toscanelli, Copernicus, Donne, Marlowe, Shakespeare, John Dee and Francis Bacon were all acquainted with the texts. One in particular, the sixteenth-century friar-philosopher Giordano Bruno, 3 — “And, in those days, there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes, and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through Satanic wiles . . . A multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the Magistrate . . . and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the Prefect through her enchantments. And when they learnt the place where she was, they proceeded to her and found her . . . they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesareum. Now this was in the days of the fast. And they tore off her clothing and dragged her . . . through the streets of the city till she died. And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire.” John, Bishop of Nikiu, from his Chronicle 84.87-103 http://www.cosmopolis.com/alexandria/hypatia-bio-john.html;


Part Two: Hermes Trismegistus and Euhemerism in Action

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Giordano Bruno

‘Or let my lamp at midnight hour/ Be seen in some high lonely tower,/ Where I may oft outwatch the Bear/ With Thrice-Great Hermes, or unsphere/ The spirit of Plato, to unfold/ What worlds, or what vast regions hold/ The immortal Mind that hath forsook/ Her mansion in this fleshy nook.’ John Milton

Giordano Bruno by James S. Arthur From Il Penseroso by John Milton (The Poems of Mr. John Milton, both English and Latin) 1645

took the texts to Bohemia and proposed it as the religion of the new age, a code which would unite Christians, humanists, Jews and Muslims. On his return to Rome he was arrested, tortured for eight years, and finally burned alive in the Square of Flowers. After his death Bruno gained considerable fame, particularly among nineteenth- and early twentieth-century commentators. He certainly fascinated Newton4 and Kepler, who became devotees of Hermes and quoted him extensively in their writings. The poet John Milton was similarly enchanted and celebrated Hermes in his poem Il Penseroso (see sidebar). Around the same time that Milton was writing Il Penseroso, another scholar, Isaac Casaubon, would publish a formal analysis of the Hermetica debunking it as cobbled-together collection of antiquated and unsubstantiated myths.5

δ) Echoes While the Hermetica was believed to be of extreme antiquity, the fact that no original texts survived was not in its favour. Casaubon quite correctly evidenced that the grammar, form, vocabulary and content of the text dated it to no earlier than the second century ce. He determined that it was a forgery at best, and at worst a fake. Casaubon had the weight of the now mighty Catholic church behind him, and this is where we find the Hermetica today, buried under a mound of orthodoxy. Euhemerus allows for all such blows in his thesis. The re-working of a text, the attempts to destroy it, the geographical and cultural transplantations, the uptakes and denials, the promotion and secretion: all are merely further augmentations to the story, an echo in action. Consider that, in this new age of the absolute dispersal of information — sometimes referred to as ‘steam culture’ — you are reading about him here, now; and that his story and works are still available, in a contemporary language, to anyone with the desire to read it. We might ask — what next for the Hermetica in another 5000 years?

4 — See Newton’s Commentary on the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus in Merkel, I. and Debus, A. G., Hermeticism and the Renaissance. Folger, Washington 1988 5 — See Anthony Grafton, Defenders of the Text: The Traditions of Scholarship in an Age of Science, Ch. 5: Protestant Versus Prophet: Isaac Casaubon on Hermes Trismegistus. Harvard University Press 1994


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Adventures in Mythography

Adventures in Mythography Part Three The Euhemerus Experiment (Trismegistrix Rising)

Let’s Make a Myth


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Part Three: The Euhemerus Experiment (Trismegistrix Rising)

The Two Chairs This experiment is an attempt to test and illustrate Euhemerus’ ideas by examining the process of myth-making in miniature. It is designed to discover, using a process of ‘blind’ iteration, just how a myth changes in the re-telling across multiple cultures and within the confines of the descriptive powers of the participants. A pair of chairs face each other. One chair is for a volunteer who will be a Storyteller. The other is for a volunteer who will be a Listener. Both may be from any cultural background and speak any first language. The first Storyteller is given a card, an illustration of a complex and unusual being with an equally unusual name. The Storyteller’s job is to describe in detail, as accurately as possible and with words alone, the being they see on the card. Sitting opposite them is the Listener. As the Storyteller makes their description, the Listener’s job is to draw as accurately as possible what they understand the being to look like. The Storyteller must also tell the Listener the name of the being without spelling it, and they must write down their understanding of it. When the Storyteller and the Listener have completed their task, two new volunteers take the chairs. The new Storyteller uses the last made drawing from which to describe the being. This process then continues with as many volunteers as are available. We may then assess how our understanding of the being has changed in the journey of its re-telling.

St. John dictating the gospel to the scribe Prochorus

The Euhemerus Experiment: Storyteller and Listener


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Trismegistrix

Adventures in Mythography


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Part Three: The Euhemerus Experiment (Trismegistrix Rising)

1: Trismajistrix Storyteller: Vishwas Byrappa Age: 28 Country of Origin: India First Language: Hindi Listener: Lina Adnani Age: 21 Country of Origin: Jordan First Language: English

— The circular rainbow halo has become more pointed; — The ruby in the headpiece has become more triangular; — The neck feathers have been interpreted as a necklace; — The spear is more paddle-like;

— The bird in hand is no longer in flight; — The many-leaved shoulder pads are now single items; — The being’s name is now Trismajistrix.


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Adventures in Mythography

2: Trismajistris Storyteller: Wing-Ting Tung Age: 26 Country of Origin: Hong Kong First Language: Cantonese Listener: Rima Musa Age: 24 Country of Origin: Lebanon First Language: Arabic

— The more pointed rainbow halo has become a complex headpiece, replacing the jewelled headpiece. The halo is now green; — The more triangular ruby is closer to a red all-seeing eye; — Wings have appeared at the sides of the head; — The necklace interpretation has been reinforced; — The star-shaped gold collar is now circular; — The ruby at the centre of the collar now seems to be a

source of power, the repositioned hands supporting this; — The spear is now distinctly paddle-like, its twine more bow-like; — The bird in hand is more chicken-like; — The shoulder pads are now sleeves; — The leopard-skin robe is now studded; — The decorations on the robe have moved down; — The being is less owl-like; — The being’s name is now Trizmagistris.


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Part Three: The Euhemerus Experiment (Trismegistrix Rising)

3: Trismajistrix Storyteller: Christine Anserlian Age: 22 Country of Origin: UK First Language: Armenian Listener: AJ Vallée Age: 37 Country of Origin: Canada First Language: French

— The ruby / all-seeing eye has become a crown; — The wings at the sides of the head have become larger and more realistic; — The necklace interpretation has been reinforced; — The ruby at the centre of the collar has been given even greater importance; — The being’s left hand has become more claw-like; — The spear, now more club-like, appears to be in two pieces and no longer straight, and the bow motif has been reinforced;

— The bird in hand has been further simplified; — The rough colouring of the red part of the robe has been interpreted as significant, as have the pencil marks to the left; — The yellow part of the robe is now more subtly patterned; — The decorations on the robe remain toward the feet, with more ‘W’-like details and additional pendants; — The being is less owl-like, and closer to a polar bear. — The being’s name is unchanged.


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Adventures in Mythography

4) Trismegeesiz Storyteller: Jordie Burton Age: 28 Country of Origin: Canada First Language: English Listener: Lucy Wills Age: 42 Country of Origin: UK First Language: English

— The crown has reverted back to an all-seeing eye, with the peaks of the crown becoming cat ears; — The wings at the sides of the head have become still larger and more stylised; — The necklace interpretation has been returned to being more feather-like; — The ruby at the centre of the collar has moved to the waist and become a hand-held sceptre; — The being’s left hand has become still more claw-like; — The spear / paddle/ club has gone; — The bird in hand has become more realistic;

— The rough colouring of the red part of the robe has again been interpreted as significant,while the pencil marks have gone; — The decorations on the robe remain toward the feet, with the more ‘W’-like details now more ‘3’-shaped; — The being is now much more feline; — The feet are more duck-like; — The Listener declared some left-right perception issues. The Storyteller mitigated for this but the result is a mirrorimage, with all details and anatomy reversed; — The being’s name is now Trismegeesiz.


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Part Three: The Euhemerus Experiment (Trismegistrix Rising)

5: Trismejisus Storyteller: Jane Dee Age: Not given Country of Origin: UK First Language: English Listener: Barbara Moura Age: 23 Country of Origin: Portugal First Language: Portuguese

— The crown is more geometric, a triangle with a circle at the centre; — The wings at the sides of the head have retained their size with a more butterfly-like appearance; — The necklace interpretation has become even more feather-like, similar to the original image; — The ruby at the centre of the collar has gone; — The being’s left hand has become still more claw-like; — The bird in hand has become much larger;

— The colours of the robe are flattened and more uniform; — The being remains more feline; — The previous Listener declared some left-right perception issues. The Storyteller mitigated for this but the result was a mirror-image, with all details and anatomy reversed. Somehow the same process has happened again, without explanation but taking the anatomy back to its original state; — The being’s name is now Trismejisus.


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Adventures in Mythography

Overheard

‘Like what kind of bird?’ ‘Like angel wings or eagle wings?’ ‘Shiny like a diamond, not like a mirror.’ ‘What are epaulettes?’ ‘I think he’s a she.’ ‘With a claw for a hand, like a lobster.’ ‘Powerful-looking.’ ‘Eyes like a cat, but bigger.’ ‘She’s radiating energy from her head in waves.’ ‘A golden breastplate with a red button in the centre.’


Part Three: The Euhemerus Experiment (Trismegistrix Rising)

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Reflection

Artemis, Hellenic goddess of the hunt and wild animals...

With the set of drawings complete and displayed in sequence we can consider how our understanding of the being has changed in the re-telling, and what this may mean. Research in advance of the experiment anticipated the idea that myths evolve by the processes of elaboration and reduction; understanding and misunderstanding; convenience and inconvenience. How storytellers describe and convey colour, shape, surface, pattern, and the lesser-defined elements of the being’s aspects are described will depend on the participants’ visual vocabulary, verbal fluency and personal and cultural reference points. The imaginative and intellectual skills of listeners will also play a large part They may or may not clearly understand the description given to them, but they will nonetheless convey what they understood to the next listener. In short, a myth, once underway is effectively rudderless: it moves with the tides and currents of people and history in progress. The results of the experiment support this idea, illustrating it with unexpected moments of almost arbitrary invention.

...and Diana, her Roman equivalent

The Gossips (1948) by Norman Rockwell, Ken and Katharine Stuart Collection


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Adventures in Mythography Part Four Synthesis ‘Dandelions are a very widespread flower. Though not native to the United States, they are now found in all 50 of them, as well as most other countries around the world. They spread quickly across any ground if left unchecked. They can be difficult to eradicate in part because they have more than one method of reproducing themselves. This gives them multiple ways to spread. ‘When the seeds detach from the head of the dandelion, the wind catches the fluff and carries it away, often over great distances. The seed is then able to begin life in a new location.’

Jason Thompson, How Does a Dandelion Reproduce? http://www.ehow.com/info_8514565_dandelion-reproduce.html


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Part Four: Synthesis

Cycles A myth could be said to follow a natural cycle. If it can be born, it can reproduce: if it can reproduce, it can bear a descendant. It begins, as much as anything has a beginning, with a seed of truth. For the myth to build the seed must have potential – it must have the power to ‘speak’ to humanity at large in some way. For the myth to flourish there must be uptake – fertile ground. For uptake the myth must be preserved with diligence, and disseminated. Once successfully disseminated it becomes part of a wider vista and settles on new fertile ground, where it may reproduce. If successful it will integrate with other myths, fields of stories, each element seemingly original but resolutely connected to its ancestor. The myth crop may flourish exponentially, as with the major monotheistic religions, and overtake the others. It may flourish within the geographical boundaries of its origins, as with Australian aboriginal Dreaming. Or it may just barely survive harsh conditions, like the Kurdish Yazidi,6 constantly subject to the attacks by stronger myths determined to expand their territory.

6 — Yazidi on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yazidi


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It may be concluded, then, that religion is the very zenith of mythology. Correspondingly, any storyteller consciously or subconsciously wishes his works to aspire to this religious condition. This may be achieved in a limited way – a text that touches few people, but deeply. Or it may be in a grander way – a text that becomes a moral model for a large number of people. Either way, a story, like a seed requiring elemental support, relies on dissemination, be it by word of mouth, a zeitgeist, formal record, or indeed ingenious and well-funded marketing campaigns.

Deconstructing Myths When deconstructing myths we might consider the Kabbalah, an esoteric method, discipline and school of thought with its foundations in scholarly Judaism. According to the Zohar, a primary text for kabbalistic thought, Torah study can proceed along four levels of interpretation. These four levels are called pardes from their initial letters (PRDS Hebrew: ‫סדרפ‬‎, ‘orchard’). They are: 1) Peshat (Hebrew: ‫טשפ‬‎ lit. ‘simple’) The direct interpretations of meaning. Example: Recognising an image of a dove. 2) Remez (Hebrew: ‫זמר‬‎ lit. ‘hint[s]’) Allegorical meanings (through allusion). Example: The dove may symbolise innocence, peace, a message.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai

3) Derash (Hebrew: ‫שרד‬‎ from Hebrew. darash: ‘inquire’) Rabbinic meanings, often with imaginative comparisons with similar words or verses. Example: Scholarship. Where else does the dove appear in historical artefacts, and might there be connection between them? 4) Sod (Hebrew: ‫דוס‬‎ lit. ‘secret’ or ‘mystery’) The inner, metaphysical meanings, expressed in Kabbalah. Example: From where and why might the use of the dove as a symbol have emerged? Does it have a mystical impetus of its own? This method is a useful tool to apply to all myths when attempting to understand and deconstruct them. It is logical, formal and scholarly in the first instance; only when these understandings are complete can a mystical inquiry begin.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and the first printing of the Zohar. www.kabbalahsanfrancisco.com/kabbalistic-authors


Part Four: Synthesis

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Constructing Myths

Tom Hanks and mystical cryptex in the The Da Vinci Code, 2006

Matthew the Levite

Rembrandt: The Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel, 1661, The Louvre

When an artist is attempting to construct a myth that aspires to a religious condition, it may be useful to observe the Kabbalistic pardes in reverse. First, there must be a mystical element – a MacGuffin, as Alfred Hitchcock had it: a plot device that exists solely to drive the narrative forward. The more mystical the MacGuffin, the more effective the myth: perhaps a holy object; stolen papers; an incriminating secret; or a rare jewel. Secondly, there must be scholarship – evidence that backs up the existence and value of the MacGuffin. The more detail provided, the more convincing and enticing the myth becomes. Thirdly, the MacGuffin must connect with people in some way. If it has the potential to give meaning to emerging thoughts or suspicions, then it can be taken as a mutable symbol ready for widespread discourse. Finally, the product must be an artefact in itself: a book, an exhibition, a photograph – something that can be experienced at first hand and act as an entry point into the myth. To provide a contemporary example, consider Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code: a work of modern fiction with a mystical MacGuffin, salted with ‘evidence’, and genesis of a millions-strong mania to reconsider the nature of Christ, and his place in unorthodox modern lives. What the future holds for a myth is unknowable. Time is the great tester, sustainer, and abrader of myths. No artist can predict the uptake of a story, but merely try to create the primary conditions that will give it the best chances of success. Consider Matthew the Levite: when he wrote his Gospel, did he have any notion as to the potential of what he was writing? It may be so; but the distribution of his Gospel, and its unprecedented uptake, occurred long after his death, and was due to the diligence and augmentation of others. Nonetheless, it had all the right qualities to start with, and has re-emerged – improbably, unpredictably, uncannily – in modern popular culture including The Da Vinci Code. Whether we are talking about real life or fiction, there are as many ways for the artist aspiring to the religious condition as there are religious conditions. But whether a story is a truth, a deceit or a conceit matters less than the fact that it is a good story.


If it is not true, it is well founded


Adventures in Mythography