That Joseph Campbell is a Smart Guy

I probably could have learned this stuff if I’d just read Joseph Campbell. Sadly, I just can’t get through non-fiction. I’m blaming it on my ADD. I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ve had a lot more fun learning the same lessons by visiting different places in the world. And that is that for all the different mythologies, religions, and superstitions our ancestors taught us, they’re all the same.

I had another reminder of that at the Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera. We had a lecture from Dorothy Zinn, an anthropologist who specializes in the South of Italy. Her talk was on the belief in magic in this region, and how it lasted a much longer time than the rest of the world, because it was a particularly poor, isolated region where life was desperate and people had little control over their fates. According to Dorothy, the melding of magic and Catholicism here lasted into at least the 1950s, with priests and magic practitioners holding equal footing.

She told a few of the stories, a few pervasive myths tat addressed the insecurities and mysteries of life: like the magical jinx, who brought destruction with him wherever he went, or the little people who were pranksters and wore funny hats. Or the fact that on the day between All Saints Day and the Day of the Dead(Nov. 2), a procession of the dead leave the cemetery for mass and communion at midnight before returning to the grave, and how crossing that procession can cause disaster.

Hmmm, thought, listening to the stories. Very familiar. And not as old in other parts of the world as Dorothy thinks. I’ve been going to Ireland since the 1980s, when Ireland was still very poor, isolated from the rest of the world and insular. And I heard people tell me of sightings of fairies, leprechauns(little pranksters with funny hats. Sound familiar?) and Firbolgs, an ancient race of giants with one eye. The dead in Ireland walk on Halloween(well, they walk every day, but they have a special time of it on Halloween, when no living person should cross them for fear of disastrous consequences). Our mythology(because even in America I inherited it) was so entwined with Catholicism that one of the most beloved lullabies, the Castle of Dromore, invokes the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Blackwater Fairies in the same stanza.
A more recent example for me was a trip I took to a small village in Alaska, reachable only by plane and seagoing barge(in fact,all their supplies come by that barge twice a year). The area is desperately poor, still wild and raw, where internet—and therefore the wider world—had just been introduced.

I had the privilege of talking with several classes of children who were mostly Yu’pick, and asked them to write me a story, either about their lives or the stories their grandparents had told them. And there, just like Italy and Ireland, were the small, mischievous men in funny hats. Although I liked the Yu’pic version a lot better. According to them, the Little Men came on New Years and stole bad children. And the children were not returned until they learned to respect their elders and obey. Obviously a parent’s story.

The only difference in the stories of all the regions I got to hear was demanded by that specific environment. In Alaska, for instance, there were a lot of stories of monsters lurking in the forest. When you look at how primeval and unending their forests are, and how very real terrors lurk there, I can well imagine a parent inventing something far more frightening to a child than a bear to threaten them if they disobey and wander off from home.

In Italy it’s werewolves, and the warning is to never answer the first time a person knocks at night. In the stories, the threat is that a werewolf will knock before resuming human form. By the third knock, it’s safe. Sounds like the old “never let a person know you’re alone in the house” warning.

And in Ireland, it’s never wander alone outside after dusk, for fear you’ll stumble over a fairy ring or come across a trooping horde and be stolen away by them. There is also the idea that you never take food from one or you’re doomed. What do we tell our children about strangers?
There is always a myth about how deadly women are, but I think that’s just a man’s excuse for not always being in charge.

But, of course, if I’d read Joseph campbell, I would have learned all of this from him. Because one of his basic tenets about mythology is that it is the stories are the same world-over. Smart guy.

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