This is the second of four parts of a talk originally scheduled this week at Reboot 9.0 in Copenhagen. Links to the others follow this post.
Myth – which I’m using here very broadly – is the most persistent method of lowering entropy, originating from the necessities of passing on information by oral means, and continuing to the present day – even in educated Western societies. Poetry, song and legend are the building blocks of myth. Easy to remember, crafted in metaphor, they have served through millennia to transmit culture, religion, history, law, social mores, and pre-scientific explanations of natural phenomena.
I’ll pick an example from Norse mythology. My maternal grandmother was born on the island in Denmark which is home to the city of Odense. Its name comes from Norse words meaning “Odin’s sanctuary.” My surname comes from the family farm in mid-Norway. It has several ancient stone-pile graves and the name is likely a kenning – “Hár’s acre” – “The High One’s field,” from one of Odin’s many nicknames – for this field of graves.
Odin was effectively the Nordic/Germanic god of information –credited for eloquence, poetry, music, wisdom, magic, prophecy and inventor of the runes – writing. His myth has it that he pawned one of his eyes in exchange for wisdom. Each morning, he sent his two ravens, Hugin and Munin – thought and memory, respectively – to fly the world bringing back what they had seen and heard.
One of the poems in the Poetic Edda, preserved in Iceland in the 13th century from the oral tradition, is Hávamál, The Sayings of Hár where Odin provides advice for wise living. Examples below from the translation by W. H. Auden and P. B. Taylor:
The ignorant booby had best be silent
When he moves among other men,
No one will know what a nit-wit he is
Until he begins to talk;
No one knows less what a nit-wit he is
Than the man who talks too much.
Early shall he rise who has designs
On another’s land or life:
His prey escapes the prone wolf,
The sleeper is seldom victorious.
Pretty benign stuff, but myth derives strength by being close to power – the shaman or priest or official or family head. Even today, otherwise sober people are demanding that myths be substituted for science in the education system of scientifically sophisticated countries. Tragically, deaths from stoning or decapitation are still happening in other parts of the world when the codes that myths engender are violated.
But myth can also be sublime. It would be hard to convince me that any form of information provides more “value per bit” to humans than literature, poetry and music. To me, the music of Johannes Brahms and the novels of Halldór Laxness touch my soul – to use a very unscientific word – like nothing else. From the latter’s masterpiece, Independent People, these words about the principal character’s step-daughter:
When a man looks at a flowering plant growing slender and helpless up in the wilderness among a hundred thousand stones, and he has found this plant only by chance, then he asks: Why is it that life is always trying to burst forth? Should one pull up this plant and use it to clean one's pipe? No, for this plant also broods over the limitation and the unlimitation of all life, and lives in the love of the good beyond these hundred thousand stones, like you and me; water it with care, but do not uproot it, maybe it is little Ásta Sóllilja.
The essence of his subtle and complex novel is captured in this one paragraph in a way that a similar number of words of, say, business writing, cannot replicate.
Is it our ability to create myth that makes us human? Myth hasn’t been replaced by media and “meta.” To the contrary, myth was an early adopter of, and has arguably thrived under, each.