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The practice, and problems, of myth

In December almost exactly ten years ago, I was in the fourth grade, and excitement was in the air: we were about to start a unit on Greek myths. Well, maybe the excitement was just because it was almost winter break. But for me, as Mrs. Johnson opened her large yellow storybook with the crinkling plastic cover, the excitement was in that moment — in the story.

As 2018 comes to a close, I find it hard to believe that it’s been a full decade since that formative moment in my life. Over those ten years, I’ve learned Classical languages, read more mythology-inspired fantasy series than I’d care to admit and (hey!) even started this Opinions column called “Life in Lore.” But I’ve also realized some problematic aspects of the myths that have been such foundational and salient parts of my education.

For starters, why did I learn Greek mythology and their Roman equivalents in elementary school, and not stories from another culture? I was told for many years that Greek and Roman societies were the foundations of “Western civilization.” Teachers pointed to everything from the Olympic Games to the neoclassical architecture of our nation’s capital to prove that we were just steps away from ancient Greece and Rome.

While it’s true that modern society is influenced by the Classics, we often forget why. Many of the similarities were not an accidental influence but rather an intentional propagation of particular ideals to promote the superiority of the so-called “West.” This was even true of America’s dearest founding father, George Washington. Washington was supposedly so inspired by the legend of the Roman farmer-king Cincinnatus (who only ruled out of necessity, and gave power back to the Senate) that he willingly stepped down from the presidency. Even today, we can’t seem to shake the idea that presidents, with their maximum 8-year terms, are benevolent, reluctant leaders. Meanwhile, the U.S. has risen to unprecedented power and influence, often at the expense of other nations.

There is also a diversity problem in the teaching of mythological stories. I was formally taught my first myth from sub-Saharan Africa on an Overseas Seminar in South Africa just this past summer. Even then, I heard it from a white lecturer, who began our astronomy lesson on the stars of the Southern Hemisphere by showing us Greco-Roman constellations. This included the myth of the great hunter Orion, who was killed by a great scorpion, the Scorpio of our zodiac. The story of Orion is one of my personal favorites, but I also found the Zulu myths we heard to be incredibly beautiful, and I wished I’d known about them before.

Another difficulty is the violent and misogynist content these tales often contain. Although many myths were censored the first few times I heard them, eventually I came to learn the truth: many of the gods’ trips to earth to have flings with mortal women involved little more than what we would call sexual assault. In one story, Apollo, the sun god, became hopelessly enamored with the nymph Daphne, who rejected him. She fled, Apollo pursuing close behind. Finally, when she saw no hope of escape, Daphne begged a river god for help. He turned her into the first laurel tree, which became our symbol for victory. It goes without saying that it is unacceptable that a woman should have to turn into a plant to escape her assailant, and that he should face no consequences for his actions.

Cincinnatus. Orion and Scorpio. Daphne, the laurel tree. Each time I see these myths in a new light, I also feel a new sadness. I can’t deny the problems I’ve uncovered, but I also can’t deny that for my whole life, Greek and Roman tales have been a beloved Pandora’s box of evocative imagery and fascinating characters. I also feel incredibly lucky to have been exposed to the Classics in the first place; to be educated in this tradition is a privilege unto itself. (Emily Elott recently wrote an excellent article on how literary criticism can feel like a “playground for elitists;” I often feel the same way about Classical mythology.)

While this paradox is a conundrum for me personally, it is actually part of all of our daily lives. We all engage in myth-making every day. Even if we haven’t been exposed to all of the myths of the past, we still tell each other stories, whether it’s at the dining hall or over a phone call. Some of those stories might be problematic—maybe we’ve exaggerated a detail or made another person look bad to get our points across. But it’s part of human nature to create our own narratives. And this practice is amplified at the New Year: we look back over the past twelve months, and we craft an anthology that ties together all the events and moments we experienced.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing to look back at the past year, although it probably is harmful to say 2018 was just one thing: “fast” or “slow” or “terrible” or “the best year of my life.” But, as with the myths of the ancient past, we need to use the myths of the recent past to inform our futures. We can acknowledge that maybe that hard class wasn’t just the professor’s personal vendetta against her students, and use the experience to reexamine our schedule next quarter. We can ask ourselves whether we flaked on that meeting because we were truly “too busy,” or because we had a deeper reason for wanting to miss it. And we can reexamine the intentions behind everything we do, from our extracurriculars to our social lives, rather than just casually accepting the image of ourselves that we present to everyone else.

As we make New Year’s Resolutions, or even just consider how we want to change, let’s remember that myths can be beloved, challenging, and insightful, all at the same time. And let’s remember that they rarely, if ever, show the full picture, of society or of the lives we lead — yet they are still tools we can carry with us, as long as we use them mindfully.

Contact Melina Walling at mwalling ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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