History, Myth and Reality
“Let us try, then, to set forth in
our statement what things these
are, and of what kind, and how
one should learn them. . . It is,
indeed, a rather strange thing to
hear; but the name that we, at
any rate, give it--one that people
would never suppose, from in-
experience in the matter is astron-
omy; people are, ignorant that he
who is truly an astronomer must
be wisest, not he who is an as-
tronomer in the sense understood
by Hesiod . . . ; but the man who
has studied the seven out of the
eight orbits, each travelling over
its own circuit in such a manner
as could not ever be easily ob-
served by any ordinary nature
that did not partake of a marvel-
Epinomis 989 E-990 B
THE STRANGE END of the Iranian tale, which concludes with an ascent to heaven like that of Elias, leaves the reader wondering. If this is the national epos (almost one half of it in content), where is the epic and the tragic element? In fact, there is a full measure of the Homeric narrative in Firdausi that had to be left aside, there are great battles as on the windy plains of Troy, challenges and duels, the incredible feats of heroes like Rustam and Zal, abductions and intrigues, infinite subplots to the tale, enough for a bard to entertain
his patrons for weeks and to ensure him a durable supply of haunches of venison. But the intervention of the gods in the tale is not so humanized as in the Iliad, although it shows through repeatedly in complicated symbolism and bizarre fairy tales. The conflict of will and fate is not to the measure of man. What has been traced above is a confusing story of dynastic succession under a shadowy Glory, a Glory without high events, keyed to a Hamlet situation and an unexplained melancholy. The essence is an unsubstantial pageant of ambiguous abstractions, an elusive ballet of wildly symbolic actions tied to ritual magic and religious doctrines, with motivations which bear no parallel to normal ones. The whole thing is a puzzle to be interpreted through hymns --very much as in the Rigveda.
But here at last there is given apertis verbis one key to the imagery: Khusrau's crowning words:
"The whole world is my kingdom: all is mine
From Pisces downward to the Bull's head."
If a hero of the western hemisphere were to proclaim: "All of this continent is mine, from Hatteras to Eastport," he would be considered afflicted with a one-dimensional fancy. Does that stretch of coast stand in his mind for a whole continent? Yet here the words make perfect sense because Kai Khusrau does not refer to the earth. He designates that section of the zodiac comprised between Pisces and Aldebaran, the thirty degrees which cover the constellation Aries. It means that his reign is not only of heaven, it is essentially of Time. The dimension of heaven is Time. Kai Khusrau comes in as a function of time, preordained by events in the zodiac.
"For from today new feasts and customs date. . ."
Why Aries, and what it all imports, is not relevant at this point. It turns out that "ruler of Aries" was the established title of supreme power in Iran, [n1 Persia "belongs" to Aries according to Paulus Alexandrinus. See Boll's Sphaera, pp. 296f., where it is stated that this was the oldest scheme. It is still to be found in the Apocalypse. Moses' ram's horns stand for the same world-age.]
and it may have meant as much or as little as "Holy Roman Emperor" in the West. What counts is that Rome is a place on earth, whose prestige is connected with a certain. historical period, whereas Aries is a zone of heaven, or rather, since heaven keeps moving, a certain time determined by heavenly motion in connection with that constellation. Rome is a historic fact, even "Eternal Rome," which was once and then is left only to memory. Aries is a labeled time, and is bound to come back within certain cycles.
Even if Kai Khusrau is conceived as a worldly ruler in an epos which prefaces history, it is clear that no modern historical or naturalistic imagination can provide the key to such minds as those of the Iranian bards out of whose rhapsodies the learned Firdausi organized the story. No basis in history can be found, no fertility or seasonal symbolism can be traced into it, and even the psychoanalysts have given up trying. This type of thought can be defined in one way: it is essentially cosmological. This is not to make things uselessly difficult, but to outline the real frame of mythical thought, such as is actually quite familiar and yet by now hardly recognized. It even appears in the mode of lyrical meditation, at least in the English of Fitzgerald:
Iram indeed is gone with all its Rose
And Jamshyd's Sev'n-ringed Cup where no one knows
But still the Vine her ancient Ruby yields
And still a Garden by the Water blows.
And look-a thousand Blossoms with the Day
Woke-and a thousand scatter'd into Clay
And the first Summer month that brings the Rose
Shall take Jamshyd and Kai Kubad away.
But come with old Khayyam, and leave the lot
Of Kai Kubad and Kai Khosrau forgot. . .
Omar Khayyam may speak as a weary skeptic or a mystical Sufi, but all he speaks of is understood as real. The heroes of the past are as real as the friends for whom he is writing, as the vine and the roses and the waters, as his own direct experience of flux and
impermanence in life. When he makes his earthenware pots to feel and think, it is no literary trope; it is the knowledge that all transient things are caught in the same transmutation, that all substance is one: the stuff that pots and men and dreams are made of.
This is what could be called living reality, and it is singularly different from ordinary or objective reality. When the poet thinks that this brick here may be the clay that was once Kai Khusrau, he rejoins Hamlet musing in the graveyard: "To what base uses we return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till'a find it stopping a bung-hole?" Here are already four characters, two of them unreal, two lost in the haze of time, yet all equally present in our game, whereas most concrete characters, say the Director of Internal Revenue, are not, however they may affect us otherwise. In that realm of "true existence" we shall find stars and vines and roses and water, the eternal forms, and it will include also the ideas of mathematics, another form of direct experience. The world of history is outside it as a whole. Khayyam does not, any more than Firdausi a generation later, mention the glories of Cyrus and Artaxerxes, but only mythical heroes, just as our own Middle Ages ignored history and spoke of Arthur and Gawain. It had been all "once upon a time," and if Dante brings back myth so powerfully to life, it is because his own contemporaries believed themselves truly descended from Dardanus and Troy, and wondered whether the Lord Ulysses might not still be alive; whereas Kaiser Barbarossa, asleep in his Kyffhauser mountain--that must surely be a fable like Snow White. Or is it? Fairy tales are easily dismissed for their familiar sound. But it might turn out that such great imperial figures turned into legend have a hidden life of their own, that they follow the laws of myth laid down long before them. Even as King Arthur did not really die but lives on in the depth of the mystic lake, according to Merlin's prophecy, so Godfrey of Viterbo (c. 1190), who had been in Barbarossa's service, alone brings the "true" version. It is the orthodox one. in strangely preserved archaic language: the Emperor sleeps on in the depth of the Watery Abyss (cf. chapter XI and appendix # 33) where the retired rulers of the world are.
Voire, ou sont de Constantinople
L' empereurs aux poings dorez . . .
A distinction begins to appear between myth an fable. Hamlet is showing himself in the aspect of a true myth, a universal one. He is still that now. And Khayyam was the greatest mathematician of his time, the author of a planned calendar reform which turned out to be even more precise than the one that was adopted later as the Gregorian calendar, an intellect in whom trenchant skepticism could coexist with profound Sufi intellection. He knew full well that Jamshyd's seven-ringed cup is not lost, since it stands for the seven planetary circles of which Jamshyd is the ruler, just as Jamshyd's magic mirror goes on reflecting the whole world, as it is the sky itself. But it is natural to let them retain their iridescent mystery, since they belong to the living reality, like Plato's whorls and his Spindle of Necessity. Or like Hamlet himself.
What then were Jamshyd or Kai Khusrau? To the simple, a magic image, a fable. To those who understood, a reflection of Time itself, obviously one of its major aspects. They could be recognized under many names in many places, even conflicting allusions. It was always the same myth, and that was enough. It expressed the laws of the universe, in that specific language, the language of Time. This was the way to talk about the cosmos.
All that is living reality, sub specie transeuntis, has a tale, as it appears in awesome, or appalling, or comforting aspects, in the "fearful symmetry" of tigers or theorems, or stars in their courses, but always alive to the soul. It is a play of transmutations which include us, ruled by Time, framed in the eternal forms. A thought ruled by Time can be expressed only in myth. When mythical languages were universal and self-explanatory, thought was also self-sufficient. It could seek no explanation of itself in other terms, for it was reality expressed as living. As Goethe said, "Alles Vergangliche ist nur ein Gleichnis."
Men today are trained to think in spatial terms to localize objects. After childhood, the first question is "where and when did it happen?" As science and history invade the whole landscape of thought, the events of myth recede into mere fable. They appear as escape fantasies: unlocated, hardly serious, their space ubiquitous, their time circular.
Yet some of those stories are so strong that they have lived on vividly. These are true myths. These personages are unmistakably identified, yet elusively fluid in outline. They tell of gigantic figures and superhuman events which seem to occupy the whole living space between heaven and earth. Those figures often lend their names to historical persons in passing and then vanish. Any attempt to tie them down to history, even to the tradition of great and catastrophic events, is invariably a sure way to a false trail. Historical happenings will never "explain" mythical events. Plutarch already knew as much. Instead, mythical figures have invaded history under counterfeit presentments, and subtly shaped it to their own ends. This is a working rule which was established long ago, and it has proved constantly valid, if one is dealing with true myth and not with ordinary, legends. to be sure, mythical figures are born and pass on, but not quite like mortals. There have to be characteristic styles for them like The Once and Future King. Were they once? Then they have been before, or will be again, in other names, under other aspects, even as the sky brings back forever its configurations. Surely, if one tried to pinpoint them as persons and things, they would melt before his eyes, like the products of sick fantasy. But if one respects their true nature, they will reveal that nature as functions.
Functions of what? Of the general order of things as it could be conceived. These figures express the behavior of that vast complex of variables once called the cosmos. They combine in themselves variety, eternity, and recurrence, for such is the nature of the cosmos itself. That the cosmos might be infinite seems to have remained beyond the threshold of awareness of humankind up to the time of Lucretius, of Bruno and Galileo. And Galileo himself, who had serious doubts on the matter, agreed with all his predecessors that surely the universe is eternal, and that hence all its changes come under the law of periodicity and recurrence. "What is eternal," Aristotle said, "is circular, and what is circular is eternal."
That was the mature conclusion of human thought over millennia. It was, as has been said, an obsession with circularity. There is nothing new under the sun, but all things come back in ever-varying recurrence. Even the hateful word "revolution" referred once only to those of the celestial orbs. The cosmos was one vast system full of gears within gears, enormously intricate in its connections, which could be likened to a many-dialed clock. Its functions appeared and disappeared all over the system, like strange cuckoos in the clock, and wonderful tales were woven around them t describe their behavior; but just as in an engine, one cannot understand each part until one has understood the way all the parts interconnect in the system.
Similarly, Rudyard Kipling in a droll allegory, "The Ship That Found Herself," once explained what happens on a new ship in her shakedown voyage. All the parts spring into clamorous being as each plays its role for the first time, the plunging pistons, the groaning cylinders, the robust propeller shaft, the straining bulkheads, the chattering rivets, each feeling at the center of the stage, each telling the steam about its own unique and incomparable feats, until at last they subside into silence as a new deep voice is heard, that of the ship, who has found her identity at last.
This is exactly what happens with the great array of myths. All the myths presented tales, some of them weird, incoherent or outlandish, and some epic and tragic. At last it is possible to understand them as partial representations of a system, as functions of a whole. The vastness and complexity of the system is only beginning to take shape, as the parts fall into place. The only thing to do is proceed inductively, step by step, avoiding preconceptions and letting the argument lead toward its own conclusions.
In the simple story of Kai Khusrau, the Hamlet-like features are curiously preordained, although it is not clear to what end. The King's power is explicitly linked, in time and space, with the moving configurations of the heavens. It is common knowledge that heaven in its motion does provide coordinates for time and place on earth: The navigator's business is to operate on this connection between above and below. But in the early centuries, the connection
was infinitely richer in meaning. No historical monarch, however convinced of his charisma, could have said: "The whole world is my kingdom, all is mine from Pisces to Aldebaran." Earthly concepts seem to have been transferred to heaven, and inversely. In fact, this world of myth imbricates uranography and geography into a whole which is really one cosmography, and the "geographical" features referred to can be mystifying, as they may imply either of these domains or both.
For instance, when the "rivers" Okeanos or Eridanos are mentioned, are they not conceived as being first in heaven and then eventually on earth, too? It is as if any region beyond ancient man's direct ken were to be found simply "upwards." True events, even in an official epic like the Shahnama, are not "earth-directed." They tend to move "upwards." This is the original form of astrology, which is both vaster and less defined than the later classic form which Ptolemy set forth. Even as the cosmos is one, so cosmography is made up of inextricably intertwined data. To say that events on earth reflect those in heaven is a misleading simplification to begin with. In Aristotelian language, form is said to be metaphysically prior to matter, but both go together. It is still necessary to discover which is the focus of "true" events in heaven.
To recapitulate for clarity, whatever is true myth has no historical basis, however tempting the reduction, however massive and well armed the impact of a good deal of modern criticism on that belief. The attempt to reduce myth to history is the so-called "euhemerist" trend, from the name of Euhemeros, the first debunker. It was a wave of fashion which is now receding, for it was too simpleminded to last. Myth is essentially cosmological. As heaven in the cosmos is so vastly more important than our earth, it should not be surprising to find the main functions deriving from heaven. To identify them under a variety of appearances is a matter of mythological judgment, of the capacity to recognize essential forms through patient sifting of the immense amount of material.
Hamlet "is" here Kullervo, there Brutus or Kai Khusrau, but always recognizably the same. Jamshyd reappears as Yama among the Indo-Aryans, as Huang-ti, the Yellow Emperor, in China, and
under many other names. There was always the tacit understanding, for those who spoke the archaic language, who were involved in the archaic cosmos, that he is everywhere the same function. And who is the Demiurge? He has many names indeed. Plato does not care to explain in our terms. Is this personage a semi-scientific fiction, the manufacturer of a planetarium, just as the Lost Continent of Atlantis is a semi-historical fiction? The author himself says only that such stories are "not quite serious." Yet they are surely not a spoof. Plato, who shaped what is called philosophy and its language, who was the master of its penetrating distinction, reverts to the language of myth when he feels he has to; and he uses that ancient language as if to the manner born. [n2 In his Seventh Letter (341C-344D) he denies strongly that scientific "names" and "sentences" (onomata, remata) could assist in obtaining essential insight. Cf. also Clemens Alexandrinus, Stromata 5-9-58.]
In this accounting for past myths, the heart of the problem remains elusive. Kipling was a writer still marvelously attuned to the juvenile mind that lives in most of us. But the fact is that myth itself, as a whole, is a lost world. The last forms--or rehearsals--of a true myth took place in medieval culture: the Romance of Alexander, and the Arthurian myth as it is found in Malory. [n* Still, there have been modern attempts deserving the name of myth. One, of course, is Sir Thomas More's Utopia, which has taken on so much meaning through the centuries. We realize today that it, too, was partly oracular. And we should not forget Alice in Wonderland, the perfect nonsense myth, as significant and as nonsensical as the Kalevala, itself. This parallel will appear relevant at the end of the appendices. Today, there is Austin Wright's Islandia, which appeared in 1942, and its present sequel, The lslar, by Mark Saxton, to be published in the autumn of 1969.]
There are other stories--we call them history--of man's conquest over nature, the telling of the great adventure of mankind as a whole. But here it is only faceless social man who is winning man's victories. It is not the history of technology; it is, if anything, science fiction that can bring in the adventures of the future. Science fiction, when it is good, is a wholly valid attempt at restoring a mythical element, with its adventures and tragedies, its meditations on man's errors and man's fate. For true tragedy is an essential component or outcome of myth. Possibly, history can be given a minute
of timeliness and then dismissed with its load of interpretations and apprehensions that last as long as the reading--but the real present, the only thing that counts, is the eternal Sphinx.
Today's children, that impassive posterity to whom all reverence is due, know where to look for myths: in animal life, in the Jungle Books, in the stories of Lassie and Flipper, where innocence is unassailable, in Western adventures suitably arranged by grownups for the protection of law and order. Much of the rest sedulously built up by mass media is modern prejudice and delusion, like the glamor of royalty, or the perfection of super-detergents and cosmetics: super-stitio, leftovers. So one might feel tempted to say actually, however, no particle of myth today is left over, and we have to do only with a deliberate lie about the human condition. Tolkien's efforts at reviving the genre, whatever the talent employed, carry as much conviction as the traditional three-dollar bill. The assumed curious child would have been pleased only if he had been told the "story" of the engine just as Kipling tells it, which is hardly the style of a mechanical engineer. But suppose now the child had been confronted with the "story" of a planet as it emerges from the textbooks of celestial mechanics, and had been asked to calculate its orbits and perturbations. This would be a task for a joyless grownup, and a professional one at that. Who else could face the pages bristling with partial differential equations, with long series of approximations, with integrals contrived from pointless quadratures? Truly a world of reserved knowledge. But if, on the other hand, a person living several thousand years ago had been confronted with cunningly built tales of Saturn's reign, and of his exorbitant building and modeling activities-after he had separated Heaven and Earth by means of that fateful sickle, that is, after he had established the obliquity of the ecliptic. If he had heard of Jupiter's ways of command and his innumerable escapades, populating the earth with gentle nymphs forever crossed in their quest for happiness, escapades that were invariably successful in spite of the constant watchfulness of his jealous "ox-eyed" or sometimes "dog-eyed" spouse. . . If this person also learned of the fierce adventures of Mars, and the complex mutual involvement of gods
and heroes expressing themselves in terms of action and unvarying numbers, he would have been a participant in the process of mythical knowledge. This knowledge would have been transmitted by his elders, confirmed by holy commands, rehearsed by symbolic experiences in the form of musical rites and performances involving his whole people. He would have found it easier to respect than comprehend, but it would have led to an idea of the overall texture of the cosmos. In his own person, he would have been part of a genuine theory of cosmology, one he had absorbed by heart, that was responsive to his emotions, and one that could act on his aspirations and dreams. This kind of participation in ultimate things, now extremely difficult for anyone who has not graduated in astrophysics, was then possible to some degree for everyone, and nowhere could it be vulgarized.
That is what is meant here by mythical knowledge. It was understood only by a very few, it appealed to many, and it is forever intractable for those who approach it through "mathematics for the million" or by speculations on the unconscious. In other words, this is a selective and difficult approach, employing the means at hand and much thought, limited surely, but resistant to falsification.
How, in former times, essential knowledge was transmitted on two or more intellectual levels can be learned from Germaine Dieterlen's Introduction to, Marcel Griaule's Conversations with Ogotemméli, which deals with Dogon education and with the personal experience of the members of La Mission Griaule, who had to wait sixteen years before the sage old men of the tribe decided to "open the door." [n3 M. Griaule, Conversations with Ogote11zmeli (1965), pp. xiv- vii.] The description is revealing enough to be quoted in full:
In African societies which have preserved their traditional organization the number of persons who are trained in this knowledge is quite considerable. This they call "deep knowledge" in contrast with "simple knowledge" which is regarded as "only a beginning in the understanding of beliefs and customs" that people who are not fully instructed in the cosmogony possess. There are various reasons for the silence that is generally observed on this subject. To a natural
reserve before strangers who, even when sympathetic, remain unconsciously imbued with a feeling of superiority, one must add the present situation of rapid change in African societies through contact with mechanization and the influence of school teaching. But among groups where tradition is still vigorous, this knowledge, which is expressly characterized as esoteric, is only secret in the following sense: it is in fact open to all who show a will to understand so long as, by their social position and moral conduct, they are judged worthy of. It. Thus every family head, every priest, every grown-up person responsible for some small fraction of social life can, as part of the social group, acquire knowledge on condition that he has the patience and, as the African phrase has it, "he comes to sit by the side of the competent elders" over the period and in the state of mind necessary. Then he will receive answers to all his questions, but it will take years. Instruction begun in childhood during assemblies and rituals of the age-sets continues in fact throughout life.
These various aspects of African civilization gradually became clear in the course of intensive studies undertaken among several of the peoples of Mali and Upper Volta over more than a decade. In the case of the Dogon, concerning whom there have already been numerous publications, these studies have made possible the elaboration of a synthesis covering the greater part of their activities.
We should now record the important occurrence during the field expedition of 1947 which led to the writing of this particular study. From 1931 the Dogon had answered questions and commented on observations made during previous field trips on the basis of the interpretation of facts which they call "la parole de face"; this is the "simple knowledge" which they give in the first instance to all enquirers. Publications of information obtained before the studies in 1948 relate to this first level of interpretation,
But the Dogon came to recognize the great perseverance of Marcel Griaule and his team in their enquiries, and that it was becoming increasingly difficult to answer the multiplicity of questions without moving on to a different level. They appreciated our eagerness for an understanding which earlier explanations had certainly not satisfied, and which was clearly more important to us than anything else. Griaule had also shown a constant interest in the daily life of the Dogon, appreciating their efforts to exploit a difficult country where there was a serious lack of water in the dry season, and our relationships, which had thus extended beyond those of ethnographical enquiry, became more and more trusting and affectionate. In the light of all this, the Dogon took their own decision, of which we learned only later when they told us themselves. The elders of the lineages
of the double village of Ogol and the most important totemic priests of the region of Sanga met together and. decided that the more esoteric aspects of their religion should be fully revealed to Professor Griaule. To begin this they chose one of their best informed members, Ogotomméli, who, as will be seen in the introduction, arranged the first interview. This first exposition lasted exactly the number of days recorded in Dieu d' Eau, in which the meandering flow of information is faithfully reported. Although we knew nothing of it at the time, the progress of this instruction by Ogotémmeli was being reported on daily to the council of elders and priests.
The seriousness and importance of providing this exposé of Dogon belief was all the greater because the Dogon elders knew perfectly well that in doing so they were opening the door, not merely to these thirty days of information, but to later and more intensive work which was to extend over months and years. They never withdrew from this decision, and we should like to express here our grateful thanks to them. After Ogotémmeli's death, other carried on the work. And since Professor Griaule's death they have continued with the same patience and eagerness to complete the task. they had undertaken. These later enquiries have made possible the publication of the many further studies cited in the bibliography, and the preparation of a detailed treatise entitled Le Renard Pale, the first part of which is now in press. And in 1963, as this is written, the investigation still continues.