On Reading, Writing, and Mythological Tales
By Donna Jo Napoli
We tell and retell events in the lives of Athena and Zeus, Freyja and Thor, Aset and Ra, and so many other Greek, Norse, and Egyptian gods, and we call these tellings a story. One of the interesting things about mythology, though, is that it is classified as nonfiction by the Dewey Decimal System, that system that organizes the materials in our libraries. So, books about the mythologies of the world are right there beside books on the religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Shintoism, Zoroastrianism, and so many others.
It makes sense: we tend to call religions of the past mythologies and treat them as though they are clearly fictitious. Who today believes that the Cyclops gave Hades a helmet that would make him invisible? Perhaps no one. But what about the Ancient Greeks? Did they believe that? Really? Those Ancient Greeks are the people credited with coming up with the democratic system of government. Their discussions of philosophy are still studied today. And the Ancient Egyptians – what about them and their god stories, full of transformations from one body form to another? They had copper plumbing over 4,500 years ago; they knew a thing or two. The Chinese invented mechanical clocks around 1,300 years ago. The Babylonians devised multiplication tables. And on and on. The ancients around the globe were sophisticated thinkers. So, did they really believe their own fantastical stories?
And while you’re speculating about that, you might want to ask: what about people believing that Moses parted the waters of the Reed Sea (today’s Red Sea)? That story is one of the most beloved among members of the Abrahamic religions. Some would argue that, indeed, there was a man named Moses who held his staff over the waters, and they opened gradually, as the wind blew all night long, until the sea bed was dry and the Children of Israel passed between the two walls of water to the land on the other side. Others would argue that it’s not a matter of believing the literal story; it’s a matter of understanding that faith can save people, even in the face of tremendous odds. So, people who believe the literal story and people who don’t believe it at all can agree to value the story and pass it on, from one generation to the next.
That to my mind is what traditional stories are all about: passing on a wisdom that can help us move through our daily lives. We all know that this thing we walk around in, this flesh that clings to bones, will end. It will disintegrate. And we know that the amount of time we live in these bodies is a blip, instantaneous and ephemeral, in the long passing of eternity. Given that, what makes life worth living? Particularly since our lives can have periods of extreme pain and terror. Why, oh why, go through it all? The answer – well, you find your own answer, and you might find it in those traditional stories. You might find it in the devotion that Ruth felt for her mother-in-law Naomi – devotion so strong that Ruth gave up her homeland, her people, and her religion, in order to maintain that bond. And you might find it in the passionate
love that Aset felt for Usir, a passion that resulted in her being left wondrously with child after Usir passed from this world to the underworld of Duat.
But the traditional stories aren’t just filled with love. In fact, from what I can see, there’s at least as much investigation of evil as of love. And those stories, too, can offer balm. If you’ve ever done a horrible deed, or even if you haven’t done one, but you’ve thought of doing one – if you’ve suffered from envy or sibling rivalry – you can listen to tales about Loki, that most miserable of creatures, who tricked Hod into killing his own dear and beloved brother Bald, and you can feel good that at least you didn’t do that! At least you didn’t make one innocent soul kill another innocent soul. At least you didn’t disrupt the cosmos.
That might be the heart of it: the cosmos. The enormity of it. That’s what these traditional tales remind us: we are small, and the only path to grace is through recognizing that insignificance and accepting it, allowing ourselves to blink at the glory of light refracted through a dewdrop, of every ordinary thing in the world.
Thus, traditional stories are a support for the individual that should not be lost to future generations. But they are also a support to the societies individuals form. The wisdom of traditional stories has served as a foundation for much of the development of civilizations around the world, from our political constructs to our artistic constructs. Buddhist stories of reincarnation aid us in understanding not just our own enlightenment, but the enlightenment of a community under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. Catholic stories aid us in understanding what personal and communal faith means as we read T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” The traditions of humor, toasting, and signifying in some African oral tales aid us in understanding the spiritual freedom that the rap of R. Kelly offers. If we are to understand in any comprehensive way the course of a civilization over time, we need to delve into the full range of traditional stories that nourished that civilization. And we need to delve into them if we are to make sense of our present civilizations and to have any chance at forming a future that coherently sifts through our past values. This process allows us to hold onto those values that support and sustain us while discarding those that don’t in favor of new values that are coherent with contemporary developing vicissitudes of daily life. Traditional tales have the power to aid each new generation as it defines and redefines itself; in my eyes, we impoverish ourselves not just as individuals, but as societies, if we fail to avail ourselves of that power.
I write traditional tales of so many types. Many are mythological; many, religious; many, folkloric. I search for the part of the tale that causes an emotional reaction within me, in the hopes that my reaction is not unique to me, but will be shared by others more generally. But even when I’m writing in other genres – historical fiction, contemporary fiction, magical realism – I write with the same coherence. My hope is that my stories will do for others what stories do for me; they will transport my readers to other places, other times, and allow them to climb into other bodies, so that they can reach a different understanding, one that carries them beyond the limits of their own lives and offers them a perspective that has a drop of charity in it, a drop of understanding of the complexity of it all, a drop of consolation.
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Donna Jo Napoli grew up in a poor family, and Harvard University gave her a full ride to college — essentially picking her up from one life and plopping her down in another. She went on to get a Ph.D. and has taught linguistics at many colleges and universities since 1973. She loves beautiful systems (her undergraduate degree is in mathematics), and she loves examining problems faced by those on the fringes of the majority society — culturally, biologically, psychologically – and advocating for their needs both as an academic (she works with an advocacy team for the language rights of deaf children) and as a fiction writer. As a child, her actual world was extremely limited, but her virtual world was as varied as the books she read (voraciously). One of her goals as a writer is to offer her readers the freedom and expansion that books offered her growing up. Visit Donna at http://www. donnajonapoli.com. She says, “If you are lucky enough to have a local bookstore, I encourage you to buy my books there. But they are easily available online, as well.”