Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Living Myth

I am taking on a new ethnography project. My work concerns the growth of polytheist religions in contemporary societies. Early data indicates that these people represent a significant shift away from the neopagan sensibilities of an earth-based, magickal-practicing, life-death-rebirth cycle-celebrating religion concerned deeply with the spiritual growth of an individual and honoring the divinity within each individual. Polytheists are reconstructing the religious observances, practices, holidays, and ritual structures that were in place prior to the heavy advent of Abrahamic Monotheism. Their goal is not to cultivate a deeper, more spiritual, and more meaningful individuality. They are instead striving for a relationship with the Gods/Goddesses. They seek to honor their Deities in the way that their ancestors have. They seek community that is based on the principles and ethics that can be found through a more rigorous religious practice. As one interviewee put it, "The point of a relationship with the Gods is to be worthy of their company." This is a sentiment shared by many polytheists. Polytheist practice centers on honoring and revering the Gods- it is a devotional practice, not a magickal one.

One major finding has emerged thus far from my research: myths as living narratives. Once upon a time, the myths that contemporary people see as literature, legend, folktale, plot device in a comic book or movie were actually living narratives. They were passed from generation to generation through the oral storytelling tradition for years before they were captured and imprisoned in the written word. Stories in the oral tradition are remarkably protean. As the culture changes and the people of that culture begin to have a different view of one or two deities, the myths about those deities would reflect these shifts in consciousness. Also, myths are sacred stories- often stories describing the origin of natural forces, mankind, the Gods. They weren't told around a campfire late at night as girl scouts on a one-night camping trip might do. These myths were related in a sacred context- told only on certain holidays, in certain designated sacred spaces, and only to those who were considered to be appropriate initiands into the mythic mysteries.

Times have changed and myths are splashed all over out pop media culture. And they are beginning to take on a life of their own within these media. Two examples of this are the Thor movie that just came out, and the CW TV show Supernatural. The depictions of the gods in entertainment serve to shift people's understanding of what these gods actually are. For example, Sif is a home-and-hearth sort of goddess primarily ruling over agriculture- her flowing golden hair symbolized the harvest and time of plenty for the clan. She was not, as has recently been depicted, a short-haired brunette goddess of War. Yet that has now been grafted onto the preexisting myth, and a strange mixture of the two will coalesce and spread as the honor and worship of the Goddess Sif gains ground.

While I don't love what has been done to Sif, the situation is one modality of the larger situation I see happening in polytheism. As modern people encounter and learn about the old Gods, their understanding of these gods begins to shift. In order for the myths to apply, they must be reconceived as sacred narratives that present ethics, values, and beliefs that are then brought to bear on present times. The myths, in other words, have been resuscitated and restored to their status as sacred dynamic narratives. The more polytheists began to revive and and refashion meaning from the myths, the more the myths are going to evolve to reflect present life concerns. The longer this process continues, the more often that insights and experiences gleaned by modern people who seek to live the truths of their myths, the more that myths are going to transform through incorporating new material and new data. This is not a process of "rewriting" the mythic narratives. Myths are not literature to be perused and then put down. They are living dynamic narratives that have been trapped for thousands of years in the amber of a grapholectic society, and they are being revived and freed to once more be living, dynamic narratives. Evolution in mythic narrative is a positive and natural process consistent with the transmission of myths from one generation to the next.
The Polytheists I am talking with have repeatedly confided that their understanding of particular Gods & Goddesses. The believe their Gods are more rich and complex than can be seen in the existing narratives. Over time, their personal understanding of the myths will be added to the mythic narrative as it is passed from one generation to the next. They are reviving the flies trapped in amber and giving them new life in the contemporary world.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Hamlet Schamlet

My English 15: Written Composition and Drama class is studying Hamlet this week. I am beginning to accept the New Critical interpretation of Hamlet as being the first "modern" play, even if it preceded the rest of them by several hundred years. "Hamlet" the play and Hamlet the character are riddled with ambiguities upon which the course of the plot hangs. This is a convention of modern theater, not classic or renaissance theater. Depending on what choices the actress playing her makes, Gertrude might have been more involved with the murder of the King. Her interpretation of the role will have much to do with the audience's acceptance or rejection of the morality governing the final bloodbath that concludes the play. Again, attempt to sort out moral ambiguity is a modern occurrence. By far the most ambiguous character is Hamlet. Is he crazy or not? Does it matter? In Los Angeles recently, a mock trial was held to determine if Hamlet was guilty of Polonius' death or if he was too crazy to be guilty of the crime. That character is so ambiguous that an actual trial was set up to determine his level of guilt or complicity.

For what it's worth, I think Hamlet was guilty as hell. If you accidentally kill the wrong target during your declared attempt to kill another person, you are still guilty of at least second degree murder. This fits Hamlet's situation. Was he crazy at the time when he punctured Polonius? I'm not convinced that conventional criteria for insanity work here, either. Insanity is judged relative to the defendant's ability to comprehend the moral rightness or wrongness of his or her actions. In Hamlet's case, morality was the cause of his mental instability. Hamlet's personal code of right and wrong regarding life, law and justice was at such odds with the morality of the code of honor and vengeance his father thrust upon him that it drove Hamlet to distraction. The problem wasn't that he had no idea of what was right or wrong, but that he had such clear ideas about right and wrong that it bred cognitive dissonance. Ergo, he was fully aware of the difference between right and wrong when he killed Polonius.

The most convincing argument that Hamlet was too crazy to be guilty lies in the perception of him as one struggling against madness. This struggle against madness lends itself to interpretation. If one plays Hamlet as essentially sane but horribly distracted and distressed, then he is more guilty of Polonius' murder. If one plays Hamlet as stark raving mad, than he would be less guilty of Polonius' murder. Modern actors have typically chosen variations on the latter basic interpretation, and it is a given in the modern theater that it is so.

One scene that gets cited in support of Hamlet's insanity is his conversation with Polonius in II.ii. Polonius' reactions guide the audience into believing Hamlet is mad, but if you read Hamlet's lines closely, it is clear that he is playing mind-games to manipulate and unsettle Polonius. There is more method than madness in it.

In calling Polonius a "fish-monger", Hamlet is alluding to the fact that he knows Polonius is baiting him to learn more. Fishmongers earn their living through catching fish, which they use bait to get. When he alludes to the sun breeding maggots in a dead dog and thus is good reason to keep Ophelia out of the sun, Hamlet is expressing that he is aware of Polonius' ordering his daughter to keep away from the sun (or Hamlet the son). Choosing the term "breeding maggots" hints at the socially debased position of sexually active unmarried women and the bastard children they breed. Polonius is trying to save his daughter from such a fate, and Hamlet knows it. "Words, words, words" is an evasion calculated to thrown Polonius off. When Polonius inquires further of "the matter," Hamlet again twists the scene, turning Polonius's inane question into one that might begin a slander. Which Hamlet picks up again in the next paragraph. He believes it indecent to describe old men as putrescent with dull wit and weak hams, even though he believes it to be true. He is clearly making a dig at Polonius here. The crux of the crazy factor lies in Hamlet's "for yourself, sir, shall grow old as I am--if like a crab you could go backwards." What Hamlet means here is the Polonius and men like him are afraid of being as foul as the "satirical rogue" says; they "shall" gladly turn back the clock to be Hamlet's age, if they could do so and are jealous of men like Hamlet for being young. Here Hamlet digs at Polonius' ineffectuality as brought on by age. Hamlet's final line again digs at Polonius, exclaiming that there is nothing Hamlet would prefer to be rid of so much as Polonius' adieu. When Hamlet says, "except my life,' it is uttered in a way to defuse the power of that statement's implications--that Hamlet is suicidal. But it is also a hint that he knows Polonius' actions reporting back to the King might have deadly implications for Hamlet, even if Polonius doesn't recognize them.

There is method in the madness: it's called a mind game. Crazy people can't keep up with those games. Cunning people, such as the Lord Hamlet, can.