Stories Retold

            A myth is defined as a traditional or legendary story, usually concerned with deities or demigods. Myths, especially creation myths, contain elements of magic and magical thinking; animals speak, animals become people, people become animals, the dead come back to warn or watch over us. God(s) roam around the dark and bring forth light and all matter of things, leaving us to ask, who created the creator?
            Did the people who created these myths really believe them? Yes and no. Only a small child would expect a dog to talk or Grandma to come back and give him a cookie and a hug. However, myths contain truths that can be believed—that the universe is good or bad, that animals are helpful or harmful, that your neighbors are friends or enemies.
            Myths are a way to try to make sense out of nonsense. They are also entertainment. Imagine living in a world where the only light at night is a small fire. It’s too dark to do most work and too dangerous to move around very much. So people sat around the fire and sang and talked. They gossiped and told stories. Some people are better at telling stories than others. Those people gained status in the group and became the storytellers and sometimes shamans and were called on to talk more often than others. They told stories they had heard and made up new stories. The stories were about the world they lived in. Sometimes the stories asked the “big questions”—where did we come from, where are we going, how did the world get started, what happens when we die? This is how myths are born.
            Some of the myths in this book follow the theme of siblings. Sibling rivalry depends on the individuals but also on age differences. Sibs more than three years apart live in such a different world that there is little overt rivalry. Resentment ,yes, rivalry no. Resentment of the older that they must look after the younger, “don’t hit your little brother,” “take her hand when you cross the street.” Resentment of the younger that they never get to make any decisions and are always getting hand me downs. Mythic rivalry is often on a whole different level than this and sometimes contains mayhem and murder. But where did Cain and Abel find wives?
            Here’s a modern creation story. Take a glass flask found in bio and chem labs and put in seawater and add some of the components found in the early Earth atmosphere such as methane, nitrogen, and ammonia. Then zap it with electricity to simulate lightning and seal the flask. Walk away and come back in a couple of weeks and you will find amino acids in the water.
            That experiment was first done about fifty years ago. The problem was that the amino acids just sat there. They didn’t combine and recombine to become more complex. Recently the experiment was repeated. The researcher tried adding various components, one at a time. When steam, available long ago from volcanoes, was added the amino acids became active and evolved. Once you have viable amino acids it’s just a matter of time before you have amoebas, trilobites, sharks, dinosaurs and people.
            There is some evidence that pre-literate people handled story memories differently than those of us who rely on the printed page. The Bhagavad Gita, an (East) Indian saga, contains thousands of lines and was created over two thousand years ago. When it was first written down, a couple of centuries ago, from four separate groups of storytellers, in different parts of the country there were only a handful of words (not lines) different in the four versions.
            The Bards of Ireland and Scotland each knew hundreds of songs/stories. In Ancient Greece the storytellers could recite the entire Iliad from memory, exactly the same each time.
            Today, we know that there is a part of the brain which stores some things differently than the memory of where we put our car keys or when Columbus discovered America.
            Myths and stories may be stored in the area of the brain which houses music. That’s a different part from where ordinary memories are found. A musician friend once said. “I have hundreds of songs in my head. Both the music and the lyrics are there complete and all I have to do is call them up, storytellers have this same ability.”
            We know which group of Native Americans and First Americans (the Canadian term) created each of these myths but we don’t know anything about the individual storytellers. We also don’t know when the myths originated. Were they brought from Asia ten thousand years ago? Probably these, or similar stories, made that journey but we know also that they have changed over the years. We know that because the geography and animals in the myths reflected the American landscape. We also know they have evolved more recently because some of the stories mention horses, sheep, wheat, ovens and woven blankets, all things that were brought here from Europe.
            These myths don’t tell us much about creation but they tell an enormous amount about the peoples who told and enjoyed them.
      —Barbara Blair