“I can’t do this Sam”, he sighs.
With no hope in sight and legions of orcs heading their way, Frodo sinks back down beneath the ruins of Osgiliath, as the Two Towers, part two of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, draws to a close. The epic quest to destroy the Ring and end Sauron’s plan to rule the world is turning into an equally epic fail.
Here we leave the heroic duo to ponder on their doom for a minute, as we attempt to unlock what it is about myths, legends and epics that have left people throughout history and the present generation breathless.
Despite being written miles and centuries apart, a common theme resounds in all myths, as though weaved from different threads of the same piece of cloth. As uncanny as these connections are, the similar reactions they get from people across completely different cultures are even more so.
Myths appear in history as well, forming the backdrop for many of the world’s religions. Here, we find parallels that cut across race and geography. Many cultures agree that the universe began from some definite point in time, and that mankind fell from a state of grace into the real world.
Greek mythology points out that the world used to be in a state of chaos until the goddess Gaia or the Earth formed order. Hinduism adds that human civilizations wind up and down in cycles, from order to chaos and vice-versa.
To the Ancient Egyptians, the universe before creation was a dark, endless river, echoing how “the earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Judeo-Christian Yahweh then created the heavens and the earth in about a week, breathing life into man on the sixth day. In contrast, the Egyptian god Atum willed himself into existence, and created the world and his fellow gods by expelling them from his body. Brahman did the same – only to pantheistic Hindus, a god that neither formed nor expelled nor created, being the universe Himself.
Regardless of the differences, the underlying themes behind the creation of myths are more or less the same: of gods bigger, mightier and stronger than men warring against one another, forming order out of chaos, while the world then turns from perfection toward a state of decay.
There are other similarities, often having to do with water. In most myths, the ocean almost always came first; land formed after. Filipino folktales speak of how the Sea and Sky once fought for supremacy when the world was young, and the Philippine islands formed from boulders hurled from above by the Sky god’s pet bird. While the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh recounts a great flood, maybe the same flood that forced Noah to build the Ark.
Mortals, heroes and gods
Myths preserve and reflect virtues that live on throughout history – honor, justice, purity and charity – to name a few. We find countless other stories beyond gods and religion, in tales that speak of ordinary men and women transcending mortality in the arms of love, as in the exploits of Isolde and Tristan. Sagas from different cultures exemplify courage, the best and worst of man: Scandinavia’s Beowulf, Greece’s Iliad and the Odyssey, and India’s Ramayana.
We remember these stories and yearn to let them out, recounting dreams of one great Dream: as we gathered ‘round Flintstone fires, then sketched them on walls of caves, the tombs of Pharaohs and long-winding scrolls; then again in Shakespeare’s plays, novels, Hollywood blockbusters, and the Internet.
We remain the makers of our own little worlds, in our Superheroes. Justice League and the Avengers have usurped the gods of Olympus and the Knights of the Round Table. Beowulf has been replaced by Batman and Cat woman, Achilles by Superman and Spiderman; Dumbledore and Gandalf both have beards longer than Merlin’s.
Experts have long pointed to a need for man to create poetry out of the ordinary. Myths are nothing more than tools to prop ourselves up, to imagine that we can live forever. They help us come to terms with death, to reconcile ourselves of our own mortality. But surely there is more to it than that.
Humans yearn to make it better. This is how heroes are made, how the Ugly Duckling grew into a white swan, how David the lowly shepherd boy became the king of Israel.
Another explanation is that we ought to look nowhere else but within because according to Carl Jung, myths are part of the “Collective Unconscious”, a pool of thoughts, memories and images passed down from generation to generation. This, in metaphysical and spiritual terms, is where we find ourselves in our dreams at night and in the dreams of society as a whole, brought out into the waking daylight through our rituals, religions, dreams, aspirations and nightmares.
This also explains the universal “archetypes” we find in myths, in particular that of the Risen God, who dies and rises again to redeem the world. An example would be Jesus Christ, but other religions have a resurrecting god figure as a central doctrine as well, like Hinduism’s Krishna, the Babylonian god Tammuz, the Phoenician Phoenix and more.
Anthropologists say ancient cultures simply patterned their gods after the rebirth and death of plants in the natural world, the changing seasons or the rising and setting of the sun. People worshipped them, blurring the lines between fiction and reality, in hopes of ensuring better harvests in the future.
But another possibility is that some of these myths predate and resemble Christ’s death and resurrection so strongly, that C.S. Lewis wrote about how the pagan myths of the past, when analyzed, all seem to reflect back to the gospel story of redemption – as though God the Father merely spoke through them to lead the world to his Son.
The Bigger Picture
Myths are symbolic of how life always emerges out of death. They remind us of how all things must pass, like dust to dust, ashes to ashes, because “all flesh is grass”, to quote Isaiah, who contrasted the brevity of human life with eternity. There is nothing to fear.
In the unfolding of history, our lives are but a fraction of the bigger picture.
Along these lines, people are all connected. Despite our differences, we hold the same ideals, share the same thoughts, express the same fears and treasure the same hopes through the myths we create.
There are moments when, for a split second, we are either shocked out of our senses or everything starts to make sense. The grand narrative of Life – of which we are but a part – throws open its pages and we begin to see, to feel, to sense, to love. When the dream ends, everything returns to normal and we sink back to our routines, our dilemmas, like nothing happened. We lose the magic, disconnecting ourselves from the rest of humanity.