One definition of the presence of life is the ability to grow, reproduce, have function and change. Stories fit that definition, and we humans use stories to understand the world. There’s an increasing call to spurn the stories claiming to give humans domination over the earth. To abandon these myths leaves us with land simply as land, not property. It means the authoritative voice of much nature writing is laid aside. It lets us see animals and plants without the dense layers of ownership and control that cast their deadening pall over our senses. It opens the way to the belonging that the poet Thoreau sought, an intimate belonging in the realm of nature. It would be a great gift to younger readers.
My urge to investigate this topic in my sixth book has brought me up hard against other prominent dominator myths, particularly those of Greek mythology where the ancients made their gods in their own male image with barely a nod to Nature. Goddesses invented by those writers were parodies of real women, either eternal virgins (Athena, Artemis, Hestia) or prey for lustful gods to molest. Authors from Shakespeare to Henry James have taken these myths as permission to perpetuate the trope, in writing often abhorrent to modern readers. Even toned down for children, the unpleasant basics remain.
As a storyteller, I’m taking up a project to restore more ancient myths, myths that arise from life and not from vanity, myths of thanks to Nature for the mystery of being alive. New stories can’t arise while we cling to the old and we can change them. But below is some of the mythology we’re up against.
Women in Greek literature routinely had their tongues cut out, particularly after rape so they could not testify against men and Shakespeare is one who re-used the idea. Aristophanes wrote a long-running comedy about women taking over the state, comedy because Greek men ‘knew’ that women cannot and do not publicly speak. In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope is disturbed by a poet entertaining her hordes of suitors. When she intervenes, her young son Telemachus orders her to leave. Speech is the business of men, he says, using the Greek word for public speech. In the story, Penelope obediently leaves. It’s a pernicious message repeated by Paul of Tarsus and certain clergy even today.
Mary Beard in her book Women & Power writes that Henry James described women’s voices as polluting, contagious and socially destructive, a “slobber, snarl or whine like the moo of the cow, the bray of the ass.” Henry James is celebrated by some as one of the greatest novelists in the English language.
Lysistrata is a Greek play where women withhold sex from their husbands. In Greek theatre, the women’s roles were played, or rather parodied by men, apart from the naked woman paraded before the randy warriors of both Athens and Sparta. It’s hardly a feminists’ dream.
Today’s misogynists silence women by inserting the head of female politicians like Angela Merkle and Hilary Clinton within the snakes of the beheaded Medusa.
Women in stories from the brothers’ Grimm are, almost without exception, oppressed. When they aren’t the victims of violent crimes or destructive acts of nature, the women in Grimm’s’ stories are largely silent. In Hansel and Gretel, Hansel’s first words to her are, “Quiet, Gretel.” Women who speak infrequently, or don’t speak at all are seen as desirable and favoured by suitors.
Another disturbing trope in fairy tales is the motherless girl, by definition a vulnerable virgin. She’s invariably placed in danger where the man’s reward for saving her is possession of her body. It’s romanticised domination. Like much of mythology, it’s a toxic diet for children.
In spite of a lifetime’s practice and study of storytelling, I can no longer give any credence to Jungian, Freudian and other psychological interpretations that sanctify or at least try to rescue many of these stories. To me they’ve been warped so far from the original telling they’re past saving. Otherwise why the need for so much explanation? And how kids many know Jung?
For all of us who love stories, I want to restore unifying myths instead, like praise myths discovered during my extensive research. And in the process, I have the fun of creating a book!