Sandra Massey, Research Program Coordinator

Living Heritage and the Power of Words, Part 1

It is interesting to think about the power of words; some words have more than one meaning, some words sound the same but have different meanings and sometimes the meaning of a word changes over time. How to say what I really want to communicate in the simplest, most concise way is a daily challenge for me. My father was by all accounts, believed a person should say what they mean and mean what they say. He valued honesty above all else.

As the novelist, Barbara Kingsolver wrote, “memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth but not its twin.” Some things are undeniably true; they are called facts. Facts tell us what, when and where but they seldom reveal why. Answering the why question adds another layer to the truth of an event as experienced by individuals and groups. In his book Truth: A History and a Guide for the Perplexed, Felipe Fernández-Armesto discusses, ‘the truth you feel,’ ‘the truth you are told,’ ‘the truth you think for yourself,’ and the ‘truth you perceive through your senses.’ It is worth considering the nature of truth since we live in a world where the boundaries between truth and falsehood have become so permeable it is hard to know where the truth lies. You see what I mean; the English language can be very confusing at times.

Phil Cousineau, in Once and Future Myths, tells us “myths are lies that tell the truth.” The word, itself comes from ancient Greek, meaning ‘word’,’ tale ‘or ‘story.’ Mythological stories, regardless of their country of origin, include stories that tell us about ourselves, where we come from, how we got here, and how we should live. There are origin myths, creation myths, myths of heroic quests; myths to explain the natural world, and foundation myths that explain a collective identity. Several scholars have demonstrated the parallel themes of mythological stories whether they originate in Greece or India, Asia or Africa, Scandinavia or Europe.

Based on my reading about the role of mythology in a contemporary context, I have come to the conclusion that myths are stories that reveal universal truths about human nature and the human condition. We use myth in much the same way as we use fairy tales, legends and folklore; they allow us to explore our options; they provide a point of departure or a sense of continuity, as we strive to create a meaningful life.  Karen Armstrong in her book, A Short History of Myth, explains, “Mythology is not an early attempt at history, and does not claim that its tales are objective fact. Like a novel, an opera or a ballet, myth is make-believe; it is a game that transfigures our fragmented, tragic world, and helps us to glimpse new possibilities by asking ‘what if?’ -  a question which has also provoked some of our most important discoveries in philosophy, science and technology.” Armstrong like other scholars of mythology believe myths can still guide human behaviour when and if they are applied to contemporary circumstances. We are living in a time of fundamental changes in the ways we communicate and share our lives with others. In order to meet the challenges of living in such a diverse society there is an urgent need for a new mythology or a new story to nurture our collective human identity and ensure the future of the global village. 

Cousineau also suggests “Memory is the Mother of Myth.” Without the capacity to remember individuals would be unable to function or survive from day to day. This has been demonstrated through methodical observations of people who have experienced brain damage as well as those who suffer various forms of dementia. In John Kotre’s book, White Gloves: How We Create Ourselves Through Memory, the author discusses how he uses his memories of his father, and his grandfather, the latter a man he knew only through the stories of others, to define himself as an individual and as a father. He relates how his memories have changed over the years to meet his needs at various times in his life. In other words, human memory is selective, providing us with information that will meet the needs of the present; similar to the role of myth in our lives as both influence our sense of identity, belonging and place in the world. Kotre suggests that as we age, the need for ‘positive illusions’ becomes essential to our mental health. “In old age, the keeper of the archives seems to relax its grip on reality. No longer are memories needed, as they were at the beginning of life, to create maps to find one’s way in the world . . .  No longer is it necessary to strip away illusions in order to cope, . . . at the end of life, when memory is not needed to deal with reality, it can become the stuff that dreams are made of.” Kotre’s reflections on the changing nature of memory to meet present needs explains how individual experience is shaped by past experiences as well as our view of how the world works; in other words the stories we have inherited from previous generations. This Living Heritage in turn shapes the way individuals respond to present circumstances and the choices they make for the future.

Truth, myth, and memory: three words that encompass a world of diverse meanings. Think about them, talk about them, and keep an open mind for new interpretations. The strength of diversity is in the options it presents as we negotiate a shared future in the global village. Words have the power to shape the world; put together into a narrative they can inspire us to be better, to do more, to ask questions and imagine the world other than it is as we create the future we want.

References:

Armstrong, Karen, A Short History of Myth. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2003.

Cousineau, Phil, Once and Future Myths. Berkeley, California: Conari Press, 2001.

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe, Truth: A History and a Guide for the Perplexed. London: A Black Swan Book, 1998.

Kotre, John, White Gloves How We Create Ourselves Through Memory. New York: The Free Press, Simon & Schuster Inc., 1995.