Footprints

For Cultural Hybrids Seeking Home

ALL ABOUT MYTHS

25 June 2021

In a scene from the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, Prof. Indiana Jones, the archeologist, lectures his class, “This course is about facts, it is not about truth,” he says. “If any of you wants to learn about truth, go to Professor X’s class on philosophy next door.” Indiana Jones is telling his students that philosophy classes are about truth, not facts. On the other hand, science is about facts, not truth.

Likewise, myths, legends, and folktales are about truth. Many of us, inheritors of the great Western Age of Enlightenment of the 18th Century, mistakenly believe that what we haven’t experienced, or cannot prove by systematic observation, or handed down by credible authority, cannot be true. Note the common parlance today that says what is not verifiable is simply a myth, i.e., a false belief or a false story. It is sad that because of this misconception, myths have been denigrated.

Myths and their relations--legends and folktales--are fantastical stories that are not factual. For instance, according to Negrense mythology:

Captan, the sky god, in his fury threw a lightning bolt at Sugâ, his granddaughter, who was made of pure crystal. She shattered into thousands of tiny pieces becoming stars in the night.

This is no less true than the modern astronomers’ assertions on the origins of the stars. The difference in these narratives is due simply to our ancestors’ lack of scientific information, but they nonetheless used their natural reasoning and answered the same questions that have beset all of humanity since pre-history. And their answers had led them to make sense of what they saw around them.

Myths, therefore, are not meant to be interpreted literally. They are metaphors that people use to describe things which are difficult to verbalize, such as how to understand their world: who they are, where they come from, where they’re going. We humans are programmed to ask existential questions, to search for meaning of why we are in this world, and what happens after we die. Our answers to these are OUR truths, and these truths become sacred. Thus, the ancient Egyptians worshipped their astounding animal gods—the supposed messengers to and from the afterlife. Likewise, many ancient peoples prostrated themselves before the all-powerful sun. The Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh travelled to the ends of the earth in order to answer the question of why men have to die. And the ancient Hebrews, wondering how the world came to be, wrote about their god who made the universe out of nothing--all in six days--and on the seventh day, he rested.

Thus, answers might be different, but the questions remain the same. These are the questions we ask ourselves again and again, and at the end develop different beliefs, different religions, and different practices that make these beliefs manifest—our rituals. Rituals are an important component of our myths. After all, how can we worship a metaphor unless we participate in something real? My fellow Roman Catholics and I have our confessions and holy communions. The old Babaylans or shamans had their incantations and trances.

So perhaps we can learn from our ancestors. We, their descendants, may after all be inheritors of some of their beliefs, their values, and their traditions. Consider the following creation myth:

. . . And so the first man and first woman married and in time they had many children. When the parents got angry, they hit their children with sticks, driving them out of the house. The many children fled in all directions. Some stayed and hid in the inner rooms of the house--from these the grandees or the nobles are descended; others ran down the steps into the yard--from these the timawa or plebeians are descended. There were also the children who remained huddled under the kitchen sink, from these the slaves are descended.

We learn that our idea of social hierarchy goes back a long time, that at one time if not today, we believed that we were born into our station in life. In order to better understand ourselves, there is therefore the need to learn about our myths, the repository of these beliefs, values and traditions.  

However, some of our myths could become archaic, frozen in time. When communities would have advanced to a higher stage of development, and their old myths no longer served their function, they might die and be forgotten, unless documented, so that succeeding generations could keep the collective memory of those who had lived through them, and consequently develop a sense of their history.

Since failed myths no longer help solve problems, guide behavior, or mitigate pain and suffering, they can be replaced by new ones. Others may simply need modification in order to remain relevant to contemporary people’s lives. There is a feedback loop: myths influence contemporary life just as their malleability allows them to be influenced by contemporary life. It is therefore not unusual to have different versions as they are passed from one storyteller to another. There is no such thing as an original version because they are all true--they serve the same purpose, the survival of the group.

There are different kinds of myths, a few of them are enumerated below:

1. Origin myths – The origin of the world, of places, and natural phenomena. Creation myths are origin myths. They explain why things are the way they are.

2. Historical myths – myths that tell of some event that might have happened in the distant past. What is lost in accuracy is gained in meaning—showing the plasticity of myths

3. Psychological myths -- myths that explain why we do what we do, or feel as we feel. Often explained as an external force responsible for our feelings or actions, they relieve guilt and anxiety.

Likewise, in studies on mythology, there are largely three different kinds of stories. Below the all-encompassing myths, which ask the BIG questions on the meaning of life, are the legends and folktales--the lesser myths, so to speak. These stories are part of a society’s folklore, which likewise includes not only tales, but also customs and artifacts.

Like myths, legends and folktales have no original version--they are malleable. However, unlike myths, they are not sacred, but often told to entertain or to pass a lesson or two, as in fables. Legends especially are believed to be stories from the past, which both storyteller and listener think may or may not be verifiable. But even though there could be some historical underpinnings, over time these stories may acquire mythological properties. A good example is the legend of Jose Rizal. Jose Rizal was a Filipino reformer who wrote about the abuses of Spanish authorities and was executed in 1896. His writings inspired the leaders of the Philippine revolution in their struggle against Spain. When the Americans took over the occupation of the islands in the early 1900s and needed a unifying element in the person of a national hero, they promoted the peaceable Jose Rizal. By the 1920s, Rizal had been deified by some Rizalist groups. The god Rizal would come again to deliver his followers from oppression.

Folktales are at a level even lower than legends. They could be about fairies or monsters, mainly to entertain, to use as bogeymen, or simply as escapist literature. They are more local but do spread to other communities or even other islands through diffusion. Nonetheless, they are not just stories, for they too contain the knowledge and traditions of a society, although their meanings may morph over time, such as All Saints Day transformed into Halloween. When a transcendent belief is taken out of a myth but the story remains, it is reduced to a folktale. Thus, the superhero Thor was a Norse god but Hollywood has reduced the myth to entertainment.

Notwithstanding the three levels of storytelling—myths, legends, and folktales—I will call all the stories in here “myths” as this is not meant to be a scholarly exercise. All of them share common elements: they are fantastical tales dealing with the supernatural. They reflect the beliefs, visions, values, traditions, feelings, and memories of the community. They are transmitted over time and over space through diffusion. There are no original versions as they mutate in order to retain their relevance to the community, or they die and are replaced by new myths.

Lastly, they are important to us because they give us an insight on how our ancestors thought, how they arrived at their truths, how they carried their beliefs through rituals, and how they explained and controlled the various phenomena that have occurred over millennia, in general--how they survived as a community.

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The book SOUL OF NEGROS will be divided into two sections: Aside from the illustrated stories themselves with citations of sources as well as short commentaries, there follow background information on the reported locations of these myths, the history of Negros, and the general Philippine culture. The conclusion is an exposition of the insights I have gained through my readings, passing them on to the readers of this Blog in the hope that they too will profit from them.