Part of a new interview upcoming for www.schoolofmyth.com
Interview with mythologist and storyteller MARTIN SHAW
Where can myth lead us right now?
From abstract solitude to the inhabiting of a vast, earthly interior. That takes a little explaining. The greatest gift that mythology got in the twentieth century was psychology. Psychology made the numinous energies that radiate through the old stories if not exactly approachable, then relatable. Many people made a home in the chest for the gods, denizens, blue-tailed magpies and magnificent weddings the stories contain. They stepped forward and were able to say; “all this lives in me!”. That is a wonderful move. Without it, not much is going to happen. It’s what Hillman called “felt experience”. This is a great legacy from Jung, Von-Franz, Estes and Bly.
But i think something else is starting to happen. Something that pertains to the almost zeitgeist desire for a rooted or indigenous sense of place. What if we dwelt within the psyche of the story rather than imagined it was all neatly contained within our own heads? What if the stories owned us rather than the other way around? What if myth - in the words of Sean Kane - was “the power of a place speaking?’
Something i have witnessed from working with the wilderness vigil (four days in the wild, fasting) for so long, is that often towards the end of that experience there comes a moment where you feel absolutely, devastatingly, connected to the living world around you. There is no longer some hoarded up, treasury of interiority separate from the rowans and circling hawk. This is not anthropocentric in any way, it is actually a kind of elegant disintegration. Without that moment - which may always just be a glimpse - i don’t think we will get near the sense of what it could be to have an indigenous footing in the world.
One of the huge challenges when teaching is how to present such a profound grinding down of much that we have been elevated to assume into the context of a western educational framework. It doesn’t sound comforting. Well, often it isn’t.
When we claim myth as nothing but a map of our inner-life we reduce it, make a prison of it in our rib-cage. We stay in a rather sad isolation, rather than the sophisticated awakening that we are frisky boars rolling in myths deep and nourishing mud. The delicate flecks of soil that lace the sides of our pen (that is the world) is the art we display from such a calorific experience.
I am saying that in a functioning culture, myth is the dwelling hut for the people, the goats, the gleaming little babies, the old ones crooked and crazy-wise, the heart-broken, the grand stretch of birch trees at the bottom of a Norfolk field. It contains it all. It’s not just a reductionist blue-print for a therapists handle on why you feel so blue.
This is not to deny the interior - much great art has been developed in its amplification. But at what cost? For many of us now, our inner-world has become more real than the real.
So i praise the genius of psychology but i believe there is much gain in myth cutting loose from the corral of human allegory - these are wild horses we are encountering. They have much to disclose.
What makes our little hedge-school in Devon a little unique is that we function out of that awareness. We all dwell together within the interior of the story, just like medieval folk dwelt under the interior of the great lintel of the stars. In this teeth-gnashing anguish we feel about getting closer to the earth, a next step is seeing how you dwell in the wider story, not just how it dwells in you. And that includes things - literal things - rocks, pine cones, hearth-fires. David Abram speaks beautifully to this.
ENTERING THE BONE-HOUSE:
Myth Demands Full Occupancy of the Lived Experience
What are the myths we see around us today?
We don’t. What we see for the most part is mimics. We see hero-stories with little mythic resonance. A society continually emphasizing victory and progress is out of touch with myth. Myths emphasis on descent is erotic:
it is the longing of the apple to fall from the quivering branch and be cradled in the dark arms of the soil. Gravity is a secondary issue. It is really the business of desire. I think our access to so many facts is causing us to be in a permanent state of hallucination. We are societally tripping. We have the facts but where on earth has the story gone?
Myths demand full occupancy of the lived experience. Which includes the myriad difficulties and slow-drip struggles that eventually carve out those rare and ordinary creatures we call elders. It requires a full, creative declaration of attachment to the world. That declaration, hewn into language, growing, loving, learning, music - is part of awareness of the impossible debt of gratitude we have for being here at all. The very sensation of the debt is a wonderful grounding in being a full human being. We can’t clear it - which is horrific to most of us good bill payers. Again, this is part of the revelatory nature of the wilderness fast. Who could pay enough for the dawn to rise?
What we teach at the hedge-school is stories with roughage in them. Full fat, bristling with protein, punch drunk with insight. They may be hard to apprehend at first because they don’t always come from a human polemic.
I don’t have students i have pirates - they steal back stories from the bored, inky lines of anthologies and let them occupy the oral-ground of their origination again. Touched by literature for sure, but back out amongst the corn fields and splashing the green waves of the ocean. We are hot on telling stories as a kind of elongated courtship to a place. Oral culture has always been local, and we have that emphasis in our studies - though we take a long route through much myth and culture to get there.
I believe that the stories the west tells itself in private are not good. If you create a societal mantra of speed, growth and shiny teeth, than what lumbers up beside you in the slow hours of night? If there is no seat for the business of death, the currency of longing, seeding the acres for those to come, then those elements regress into a low lying chronic sense of unease, private self-hatred and depression. With such an evangelical upswing in our modern storytelling, the only place for our privacy to go is to whisper that we are bullshit. Now if that darkness was given purchase in our public stories we may find that very shit becomes compost, compost from which wild flowers grow. That’s a swift metaphor, but i think it stands.
YOUTH: A PROPOSITION BIGGER THAN THEMSELVES
Do you have stories designed for working with youth?
First of all i don’t have stories designed for anything. The stories do the designing. Myth means no author, and they are not really about “a long time ago”. Stories are not auditioning for our contemporary concerns - they’ve already earn’t their place at the feast. But I’ve worked with all sorts of young folk for about twenty years so i can say a few things.
One is that to constantly affirm their wonderfulness when they have done nothing to earn it is very damaging to them. Secondly, they need to be presented with a bigger proposition than themselves. Take them to wilderness, get them away for any form of social media, get them to a place where the Lords and Ladies of Death are near, and let them wrestle wind/thunder/dreaming/themselves for a few days or weeks. Every street gang is partially a contemporary attempt to heighten the mortality stakes for young folks, but it’s old news that kids can’t initiate kids - not in the fashion of this big kind of initiation - it requires older people fully tempered in the process. And it’s never parents that offer it to their kids - you are too close. It will malfunction.
We need to know how desperately disappointed the youth are with us. Hoodies are partially about ritual garb - adolescence is a time for looking inwards - but also, tragically, for many there’s not a damn thing to raise their heads too - no sense of appointment, no great task.
Having worked especially with young guys, there’s all sorts of paralysis at work. Y’know, Patriarchy is a result of too little mature masculinity, not too much. It’s a posture of tremendous anxiety.
Young men feel both the weight and shadow of the history of men in the world. The yoke of that guilt is crippling them. It’s also ridiculous. Like blaming modern Germans for the rise of Nazism. Sons are not here to apologize for the sins of their fathers. They should get out there and live. As a wayward feminist myself, this is part of its legacy i don’t see us talking about. Despite how it may seem, when the door closes at night many young men are not doing a victory dance.
There is also a lack of rounded, playful, occasionally fierce stewards of the masculine - role models - to look to. The growing of male into a man is not a given-thing, a sure-fire-bet, it requires crafting and a great deal of exteriorization - men need to see other men modeling equality, passion, up-standingness, generosity, openess to mystery, what to protect and what to let go. These words are not a joke. And generations of both women and men are withering on the vine through lack of this kind of emotional education. We can smell its absence - its loss is in the realm of the senses, it’s an animal thing.
Young girls used to enter the temple of Artemis to learn a cornucopia of secrets before entering relationship with anyone else. They worshipped the spirit of the bear, engaged in intricate rituals, memorized stories, sang songs with their sisters to the moon under the rough fur cloak. Wow. They knew the mythic ground they stood upon.
So i say let the wild be the great educator. A non-human disclosure. But it needs wily old humans at the edge to help sing them back into the village. To then wrap myth like a cloak around the returning initiate. The place they are returning to is far more deadly than four nights on the hill, and stories become a place to both reveal and protect something of their experience out there in the bush. Bush soul is what we need, and then enough real human beings around us to craft that into some kind of significance. Then there is a reason for a praise.
We do this kind of thing about once a year at the school, but we keep the numbers real small.
So what do you teach at the school?
Well, to enter the bone-house really. To show up to your life. To recognize that the treasury of myth is your inheritance, and it is just waiting for the delight of hearing it told again through the word-magic of your speech. Stories re-animate much of what we are told is corpse-cold. It can be a revival- big tent style - for your ancestors! And not just the flesh and blood kind. So we go at myth full tilt - long sessions of telling and commentary on story. This can feel like a huge stretch at first. We place an onus on student investment, study outside of the gatherings, and turning up with gifts of story, elegant jokes, music and family history to warm this fragile thing we are building together. There are no passengers. A crow sits on the shoulder of everyone that rolls in, and we make sure she stays well fed. Make of that what you will.
We always, and i mean always, take the stories back out into the living world. Bardic exercises to keep establishing relatedness between the oral stories and the wider, byre-tangled mythic interior that we are sharing with hedgehogs and the chalky estuaries of Devon. How do we move from a society of taking to a culture of giving is the clearest intention. What part does speech and the edification of the soul play in all that? These are the kind of questions we are asking.
Maybe our greatest sign of health is the faculty working with me at the school now - David Stevenson, Rebeh Furze, Tina Birchill, Tim Russell and Del Saunders. There are like something from the old stories. They cause me some trouble, and rescue me from plenty too.
Copyright Martin Shaw 2013