Thursday, July 7, 2016

Mythology as a Gateway to History, by Michele Hathaway

Large Blue Horses by Franz Marc (1880-1916), 1911.
(Public Domain in country of origin and areas where the
 copyright term is author's life plus 90  years or less.)
We usually begin history with the earliest known facts: geographical origins, language families, and artifacts such as tools, pottery, and structures. It's fascinating stuff, and I love it. But what if we enter history through the gateway of mythology?

If the goal is to understand a people group at their most central level, how they perceive their world and their place in it, mythology is a logical beginning.

Peter Iverson in Diné: A History of the Navajos writes
"Navajo history does not start in Alaska or northwestern Canada or along the Rocky Mountains or in the Great Basin. It does not transpire in isolation or in separation. It begins with Changing Woman, with the Hero Twins, with monsters, and with blue horses. It begins with the sacred mountains." 
Iverson is stating that Navajo mythology rather than the trickle of migratory groups is a natural starting point for Navajo history. I agree wholeheartedly. Although origins and prehistoric evidence of Navajo habitation is interesting, it is in mythology that the Navajo themselves identify their beginnings. Their mythology defines who they are and the world they inhabit. It makes sense of their world, expresses the complexities of life, and what it means to be Diné--The People.

Is Mythology Historical Fiction?

Mythology is not historical fiction, in part because it is so much more. However, I believe it may be the earliest form of the genre.

One of the essential defining characteristics of historical fiction is that it is true. It is true because it is an accurate retelling of a person or persons who lived or an event that occurred. Even if the characters are fictional, they are people who might have lived, and the story could have taken place in that time and context.

Mythology is populated with characters who previous generations believed to exist and current generations may still believe exist. It is rife with the super-natural and a universe where the impossible can and does happen.

So how can mythology be true?

Mythology reveals the world as the people understood it, and still may understand it. In this sense, mythology is true. Many cultures, for instance, express the danger and uncertainty of life in the context of their myths where humans are at the mercy of the capricious activities of their gods. For example, the Greek god Zeus could bestow favor or suddenly turn and cast a brother off Mt. Olympus, as the unfortunate Hephaestus found out. And no woman, mortal or immortal, wanted to get on the wrong side of Hera: Io, who spent the rest of her days as a cow, attests to that.

Mythology for Middle Grade

About now you may be thinking, Yes, Michele, but is this middle grade material? And I will answer Yes!  Myth is designed for the subconscious. At the middle-grade level we are not dissecting cultural constructs and looking for deep psychological structures. The beauty of mythology is that it can be digested by the young where it lies dormant for the years ahead when young adult and adult minds can rediscover it at a deeper level.

For now, parents and teachers can sow seeds while having a lot of fun. Although, there is no reason the analysis can't begin in middle grade with basic questions: Would you want Coyote as your friend? Would you have liked to be a god or mortal in Greek times? Why or why not?

Mythology is Not Going Away

The idea that myth is irrelevant to modern life has never been more false. Can any of us forget Wyle E. Coyote, after all? In numerous mythologies Coyote appears as a fool or a trickster who breaks and flaunts the rules. He gets away with things no one else can and teaches the importance of living within the established norms of the culture. On the other hand, the trickster Coyote although untrustworthy, is clever. And lets face it, we all admire that. 

In other mythologies, Coyote is powerful and dangerous. In the Marvel Universe, Loki is my favorite character: completely untrustworthy, but complex and irresistibly compelling. We want to believe him and he consistently disappoints us--which is, paradoxically, just what we want. The trickster is a reflection of our own humanity.

These are concepts that I believe upper middle-grade students can grasp. Of course, function is only a part of myth, so be sure to focus mainly on having fun, and think about entering history through this marvelous gateway.

Michele Hathaway is a writer and freelance editor. She has an M. A. in Social Anthropology and has worked in libraries in California, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. She writes stories set in culturally diverse, historical and contemporary periods.

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