Whole Earth Review

Other Peoples’ Myths.

Other Peoples’ Myths. – book reviews

Adam Phillips

This fascinating and scholarly study examines two kinds of “other peoples’ myths”: both those they tell about each other and those they tell about what might be called the Other. Generally, myths about the Other are about strangers, animals, children, and — most Other of all — the gods. These archetypes comprise elements of the strange and the familiar, the known and the unknown. This netherworld is a main stomping ground of the mythic imagination.

The myths and stories that people concoct are often as beautiful (and almost as diverse) as anything else that nature offers us; this “travelogue” of other peoples’ myths is absorbing for that reason alone. The myths of others can also deepen our self-knowledge, because in them, according to O’Flaherty, “we see not] just what they think they are but what we think we are as distinct from them.” The need to construct narratives about life’s great unanswerables is itself an irreducible fact of life. Myths about stories, and especially the stories people tell about the stories of others, are this book’s special meta-theme.

We are left, then, sometimes with no myths, sometimes with myths emasculated of their rituals, sometimes with bad myths that trap us within the cybernetic cage of our own myths/rituals and lives; each giving rise to the other. But we may break out from all of these various prisons with the help of other peoples’ myths, which, coming from outside our own closed system, may provide an external influence, an anti-inertial force, to move us off our own treadmill, our own track, onto an entirely new path. New myths move us into new worlds where we can begin to think thoughts that not only were impossible to think within our old familiar world of ideas but that we could not even realize we had been unable to think in that world. In this way we are sometimes able to change both our myths and our lives — or at least to give new myths to our children.

In Sanskrit texts, the bard may recite a myth in a certain way, only to be interrupted by someone in the audience to whom the tale is being recited, who argues, “We heard it differently.” When the person in the audience tells that second version, the bard replies, “That is true, too, but your version happened in a different world era” — or, in some stories, “in a different rebirth.” That is, the same event happens over and over again, but it may not happen in exactly the same way each time and each happening is true. Moreover, what makes an event in India important is not that it happened at a particular time or place (which is what makes a historical event important in the West), but precisely the fact that it has multiplied, that it has happened many times in many places. Marx remarked that history repeats itself, and that the first time is tragedy, the second time farce. Myth repeats itself too, of course, but unlike history, it follows no evolutionary course; any of its countless retellings may be tragic or comic at random.

COPYRIGHT 1991 Point Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group