THERE IS NEVER A SINGLE, orthodox version of a myth,” Karen Armstrong writes in A Short History of Myth. “As our circumstances change, we need to tell our stories differently in order to bring out their timeless truth.” As human beings have moved through different stages of social development, from hunter-gatherer to agrarian to urban and industrial models, they have reviewed the myths they inherited and made them speak to the new conditions. If a myth cannot be thus adapted, it dies. But, Armstrong writes, “human nature does not change that much…and many of these myths, devised in societies that could not be more different from our own, still address our most essential fears and desires.” “We are meaning-seeking creatures,” she says. It’s what differentiates us, as far as we know, from dogs and cats. Andrew Marr, in his recent history of journalism My Trade, makes the same point: “We are the storytelling mammal and we constantly reshape the world into narratives which make psychological sense to us.”
Armstrong’s concise but erudite exploration of what myths are, and why they remain relevant even in our supposedly rational, science-driven age, is the first volume of Canongate’s ambitious new international series in which writers such as Chinua Achebe, A.S. Byatt and Donna Tartt will revisit and retell a myth of their choosing. It sets the context for the second and third volumes, published simultaneously: Weight, Jeanette Winterson’s version of the story of Atlas and Heracles, and Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, the tale of Odysseus’s wife told, as one might expect from Atwood, from Penelope’s point of view.
These elegant, intriguing volumes are, to some extent, designed to address Arm-strong’s contention that we live in an age of unprecedented alienation from the significance of myths. “In the pre-modern world, mythology was indispensable. It not only helped people to make sense of their lives but also revealed regions of the human mind that would otherwise have remained inaccessible.” It was, she says, an early form of psychology: thus it was only natural that Freud and Jung should turn to classical mythology to explain their insights.
But are we as alienated from myth as Arm-strong suggests? Perhaps we just access it differently now. Up to a point, Armstrong agrees: “We still long to ‘get beyond’ our immediate circumstances, and to enter…a more intense, fulfilling existence. We try to enter this dimension by means of art, rock music, drugs or by entering the larger-than-life perspective of film.” We also make instant mythical beings of individuals like Elvis and Diana. But these are shallow and ultimately unsatisfying outlets for profound needs. “We no longer know how to manage our mythical lives in a way that is spiritually challenging and transformative.”
Myth – which historically has shifted and shaded by degrees into religious belief – is a mechanism for coping with the burden of having an imagination and a memory, of being conscious of one’s own mortality. Stories of jealous gods and strange or terrifying other worlds, of death and rebirth, of heroes going into the unknown and returning home – are really stories about ourselves. Mythology is about how to be human.
It might be argued that myths are for children and that science and rationalism have removed the need for them. But we know that, whatever its benefits, science insures us against neither barbarism nor error. We need a balance, says Armstrong: “Mythology and science both extend the scope of human beings.”
At a collective level, myth may be what enables a community or nation to define and explain itself, and thus to function. This is something fundamental to any social unit, from a family to a football team to a nation, and at different historical moments collective myths can have negative or positive effects; can be hugely debilitating and delusional, or can be empowering and revealing. They can also, as the 20th century amply demonstrated, be used to justify the most appalling acts of inhumanity.
In Scotland, the power of myth has been crucial in reaffirming a sense of nationhood at times of crisis, from the medieval Scota legend which tracked the Scottish royal line back to an Egyptian princess of that name and thus validated independence from Eng-land, to the near-superhuman exploits of William Wallace as recorded by Blind Harry, or, in the aftermath of the ’Forty-five, the literary phenomenon of Ossian. When in the 1760s James Macpherson published his English translations of ancient Gaelic verse, Fin-gal and Temora, Edinburgh’s literati greeted the works with hysterical enthusiasm. The nation, it seemed, possessed a body of poetry on a par with that of ancient Greece, passed down orally through the generations, and this, in a post-Union Scotland suffering something of an identity crisis, was a huge confidence-booster. The subsequent stushie over how much of what Macpherson collected was from original sources, and how much manufactured by himself, should not obscure the fact that the legendary exploits of the Celtic heroes supplied a much-felt need. In fact they struck a resounding chord right across Europe. Napoleon was an avid fan, taking Ossian as bedtime reading on his campaigns forty years later.
It was no accident that, in the decades leading up to the re-establishment of a Scottish Parliament, the writers and artists who laid the cultural foundations for that political change examined a whole range of myths about what it meant to be Scottish. Some of these myths needed to be challenged, some exploded or ridiculed, others revised or renewed. And that process is ongoing. Revisionist historians launch attacks on the “myth” of Red Clydeside, or of the Highland Clearances, and other historians – and, more significantly, ordinary people who feel their political and cultural inheritance and hence their very selves under threat – return fire. Myths surrounding Mary, Queen of Scots, John Knox, the Covenanters, the Union and Bonnie Prince Charlie have all been raised and demolished in their time, and will be again until such these figures from the past cease to engage our imaginations. When Braveheart was released, it was bitterly criticised for being a travesty of the historical truth – as if historical truth was what Hollywood movies routinely portrayed – when it was really a reasonably faithful interpretation of Blind Harry’s Wallace, albeit overlaid with Mel Gib-son’s own conservative-Catholic iconography. Braveheart demonstrated that the mythology surrounding Wallace was far from exhausted.
The Canongate series continues a long literary tradition. From Shakespeare to Milton to Joyce, writers have pillaged mythology for old ways of telling new stories. Scottish literature is full of this. Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg habitually injected their fiction and poetry with a dose of legend: Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor reads like a prose version of a Border ballad, while Hogg’s The Three Perils of Man is awash with devils, witches, giants, talking horses, supernatural dogs, the prophecies of Thomas the Rhymer and the wizardry of Michael Scott. Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Scots Quair trilogy, in which the heroine Chris Guthrie assumes almost mythical status as a symbol of Scotland, is prefaced with references to ancient times when “gryphons and suchlike beasts still roamed the Scots countryside and folk would waken in their beds to hear the children screaming, with a great wolf-beast, come through the hide window, tearing at their throats.” Gibbon was writing about a peasant society being replaced by an urban, industrialised one. Grounding his story in the soil of mythology fitted perfectly with Gibbon’s adherence to Diffusionist theory, which held that primitive man had lived in a golden age terminated by the advent of civilisation.
The fantastical – which is not the same as the mythological, but derives from it – is very strong in Scottish fiction, and can be seen in writers as diverse as George MacDonald, J.M. Barrie, John Buchan, R.L. Stevenson, Alasdair Gray, Dorothy K. Haynes, A.L. Kennedy and Iain Banks. Our poetry, too, has long reworked the themes of ancient mythology. From the Renaissance period we have, among others, Gavin Douglas’s masterly translation of Virgil’s Aeneid and Robert Hen-ryson’s Testament of Cresseid and his animal fables from Aesop. More recently the influence of myth is evident in the work of, for example, William Soutar, Robert Garioch, Edwin Morgan and – notably in her 1981 collection The Grimm Sisters – Liz Lochhead.
The secret of successfully reinventing a myth is to update it without debasing it – something that Jeanette Winterson achieves in Weight. Here, Heracles, engaged on the penultimate of his twelve labours, is negotiating with Atlas for the golden apples of the Hesperides, which only Atlas can pick: “‘But to the point Atlas. If you have got the key, would you mind just popping down there and picking one or two, well three, as it happens, three golden apples for your old friend Heracles? I’ll take the world off your shoulders while you go. Now there’s a handsome offer.’
“Atlas was silent. Heracles slit a skin of wine and slung it at him, watching the giant’s face while they drank. Heracles was a bastard and a blagger, but he was the only man alive who could relieve Atlas of his burden. They both knew that.”
And here is the same scene as imagined by Matthew Fitt, in his rollercoaster Scots adaptation of the Hercules story for younger readers: “‘Atlas, how ye daein? Name’s Hercules. Ah’d shak yir haun but the sky wid probably faw on oor nappers sae ah’ll no bother. Ony idea how ah can get ma mits on thae gowden aipples?’
‘Aye,’ said Atlas. ‘It’ll no be easy, but. Awa kill that draigon first and we’ll tak it fae there. But you canna touch thae aipples, though. Ainly ah can pick them.’
“Hercules focht the seeven-heidit draigon for a week. When the draigon wis deid, he looked at the aipples on the Tree. He could easy pit them in his poke richt noo and gang hame but he wisna shair whit wid happen tae him if he did. Atlas had said ainly he could touch them.
‘Richt,’ said Atlas when Hercules returned. ‘Ah’ll get thae aipples for ye. Gonnae haud the sky for us while ah dae it?’”
Both versions work because their authors, in their very different voices, not only tap into the inherent power of the narrative but also recognise the humanity of the situation. Fitt’s Clyde-built Hercules displays an appealing Caledonian thrawnness in the face of adversity but he is still a hero, not a parody of one. If such retellings lead readers first to know the myths and then to examine the universal dilemmas and issues they illustrate, then they are doing a hugely important job. As Karen Armstrong suggests, “if professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world.”
A SHORT HISTORY OF MYTH
by Karen Armstrong
pp.208 ISBN 1841956449
by Margaret Atwood
pp.208 ISBN 1841956457
by Jeanette Winterson
pp.208 ISBN 1841956716
HERCULES: BAMPOTS AND HEROES
by Matthew Fitt
Black & White, £7.99
pp.48 ISBN 1845020561