A few years ago, not long after my thirtieth birthday, I was sitting with a good friend in the corner of a huge barn adapted for a common room. It was shared by climbers renting beds and bungalows at Bushman's Cave, huddling in the evenings by the biggest fireplace I’d ever seen; one that burnt not logs but entire tree trunks.
The owner of this farm-turned-tourist-accommodation was on the other side of the barn, surrounded by a small international crowd. A few long tables were set up for him to treat everybody to the local specialty: a baked sheep’s head. The evening opened up with a fascinating presentation on how to crack its skull.
We were sufficiently far away for me not to feel nauseous, and I was proud of my vegan friend who only very discreetly turned her own head away. I couldn’t help it but the idea of decapitating an animal and eating its brains increased the sense of despondency that had been looming within me for some time.*
I didn’t know it at the time but I had been a few months into the worst depressive episode of my life — something I learned years later, when it was finally over. What I knew is that I had been feeling shit for a while, and incidentally the friend with whom I travelled to South Africa had not been doing great either.
“So, how do they do it?” I asked, “All those people who also believe in no god, external force, or any special order of the universe — how do they not give in to the pointlessness of it all?” We had discussed religion and both of us had firmly dismissed it as a potential antidote against our feelings of gloom and doom.
Sandra mulled over the question for a moment while trying to ignore the cracking and smacking sounds reaching us from the sheep’s head corner of the barn.
“They make babies,” she proclaimed finally.
I cursed under my breath, realising she was right. We were both at the age when many non-climbers already had children, and even some of our climbing friends were starting to give in to the natural rhythm of things, compelled to procreate. But neither Sandra or myself could see ourselves finding purpose by becoming a parent.**
“We have no choice but to become religious,” I joked, but I didn’t feel like laughing.
Since that evening, the notion has been on my mind quite often. Certainly, religion seems like a nice shortcut to hope, but despite knowing that many scientists are believers, my rationalist brain cannot comprehend religious feelings.
The age of reason stripped me of the sense of playing a role in some greater plan, and of hope for rewards in the afterlife. As a result, I became fascinated by the idea of living in another time, when rational thought didn’t seek to explain every aspect of reality. Just imagine a stream of fresh water springing up in a deep, dark forest, but you have no idea why and where it’s coming from. The sun and moon’s presence in the sky is inexplicable; the change of the seasons as inevitable as it is unpredictable. No way to know where the wind, the rain and the snow come from, or where they go when the warmth returns.
For millennia, myths explained the inexplicable and helped to make sense of the world in a relatable, human way: through stories. They gave rise to religions, and religions to rites and laws which governed communities, societies, and finally the nation state. It occurred to me that learning about this process could perhaps help me in understanding my own humanity and the constant need for a purpose. Recently organising our small library, I found a thin volume by Karen Armstrong: A Short History of Myth, and singled it out as my next read.
Armstrong gives a quick and easy to follow outline of the development of mythical thinking, from its inception in the palaeolithic period to its supposed demise around the time of the Industrial Revolution. The explanation of how, for primitive societies, the sacred and the profane intertwined with everyday life is simple and evocative (apart from the paragraph where the author likens indigenous peoples to primitive cultures) but the subsequent chapters felt somewhat rushed. Perhaps the clue was in the title and expecting a 150-page book to do justice to the history of myth and religion is simply unreasonable.
The most fascinating part explored myth in the context of Christianity. Protestants sought to purge religion of superstition and pagan-like rituals, and therefore the idea of the Holy Trinity didn’t sit well with them. Like many other religious stories, over centuries of repetition, the Trinity myth had been dogmatised and finally elevated to the status of unquestionable fact. However, its origin was the very opposite. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa (335-395) was firm in his explanation that the idea was to remind people of the incomprehensible nature of the divine: precisely because you can’t be three beings at the same time, it was a way of showing the omnipotent and mysterious nature of god.
In a sense, it is the dogmatic nature of contemporary religions — god is such and such, and you must believe it because it’s true — that makes them unappealing in the age of reason. Because we know that something is impossible, we therefore dismiss it as untrue and not useful. But myths are stories weaved of symbols, which should not be mistaken for reality, and neither do they make any claims to it. The myths of a Holy Trinity, or that of Prometheus, synthesise reality and seek to advise or reassure us in providing advice, explanation, or a sense of belonging.
Now, advice, explanation, or the sense of belonging are all things which seem worthy of pursuing, especially for somebody struggling with depression.However, for the realist that I am, dogmatism made any contemporary religion useless. I just cannot shake off the feeling of make-believe, so I’ve decided to play make-believe on purpose, learn about a mythology completely unknown to me, and then perhaps even pretend to buy into it. The choice has fallen on pre-Christian Western Slavs, and voila, my new special interest has been born.
In A Short History of Myth, after the arrival of rationalist Christianity, Armstrong moves on to... read more now →