Today we begin a new series about the role of mythology in uncertain times. We’ve asked six writers who work with story – as teachers, storytellers, anthropologists, poets, performers, activists – to choose ‘a myth we live by’ and explore what a mythological response to an age of converging crises might look like. We start with an interview with storyteller and mythologist Martin Shaw by the series editor, Charlotte Du Cann.
There was a moment at Base Camp when it happened: Martin Shaw was reaching the end of the long Siberian story and the whole room was learning forward. We were waiting to catch the moment when the once-broken King and the wild sovereign Earth would finally be reunited. The atmosphere was so intense you could hardly breathe. All the logistics about climate change and consumerism, alt-right politics and Hollywood illusion, all our shattered dreams of progress had disappeared, and suddenly you knew what fundementally, urgently, crucially, mattered was for us to make this same reconnection in our deep collective soul. And that nothing, absolutely nothing, would get us back on track as a people until we did.
In the coming six weeks as spring approaches, we will be looking at several ‘uncivilised’ ancestral myths that have connected people and the land through generations, to rediscover what Dougie Strang, in his autobiographical tale woven around the Gaelic song, Am Bron Binn, called the ‘rich feast of our birthright’. We’ve asked six writers who work with the world’s indigenous tales and teachings, how can the act of storytelling liberate us from our narrow, data-driven perception of the world and shift our attention towards what Iain McGilchrist calls the vast universe of the ‘right hemisphere’? How can myths give us a language, a technology, to navigate a time ruled by dragons and ugly sisters, in a culture that is ‘broken open by its own consequence’.
Martin Shaw has been telling his wild alchemical tales to Dark Mountaineers for years now, in his books, his teaching (at the Westcountry School of Myth) and most strikingly at our events – and from all these emerge a depth, a heart, a clarity, a connectedness, that you cannot find in modern collapse narratives. When you pay attention to these archaic stories you realise they were never there to reflect the power and glory of an empire, to provide escape or entertainment at the end of a hard-working day. They exist as a reminder of our place and meaning on the Earth; a reminder of what we have to undergo to become truly human.
It is this core act of remembering we hope to show and tell over the coming weeks. So do draw up a chair by the fire and be ready to be transported in time and place, from the deep forests of Siberia to the snowy mountains of California to the inky blue waters of the Mediterranean. We’re going on a journey that starts with a conversation with Martin about ‘the radical power of story’ that opens us to reclaiming an uncolonised imagination’ (a full version will be published in Dark Mountain’s spring Issue 11):
CDC: Do you feel mythology plays a role in a world which has become increasingly fragmented and meaningless?
MS: Myth has something very direct to say. Many of the stories we need now arrived perfectly on time about 5,000 years ago. Old mythologies contain not only stories about our place on the Earth, but have the Earth speaking through them, what the Islamic scholar Henry Corbin termed the mundus imaginalis – where the human imagination is open to what David Abram describes as the more-than-human world. So with myth, you are working not just with imagination but with the imaginal, what many aboriginal cultures would call the Dreamtime. In other words, as we turn ideas around in our head, we’re not just thinking but we are getting thought.
For the last 20 years I’ve been taking people out into very wild parts of Britain, and for four days and nights they are absolutely alone, and often towards the end of that time, the participant will touch the edge of that experience. It’s very hard to talk about the imaginal in conventional language. The most fitting language to address it is poetry or imagery or mythology. If the language is too psychological it reduces the mystery. It makes the mysteries containable and safe.
Myth is a robust and ancient way of addressing a multiplicity of consciousnesses that abide in and around the Earth. What is so powerful about an uncolonised imagination, a mythic intelligence, is that it connotes but does not denote. It doesn’t tell you what it is. Its images have a radiance that reveal different things to whoever is beholding them. In storytelling, I know that when I say even something as definite as a crow in the room, we are all seeing 30 different crows. It is important that I don’t hit a PowerPoint presentation, and say this is the crow we’re talking about. Everyone’s imagination is being stirred, where they are remembering and catching a glimpse of crows in their lives before that.
CDC: So storytelling and myth also have a relationship with time?
MS: Yes, and memory. Stories with weight to them have what C.G. Jung terms ‘the lament of the dead’, which in our frenetic culture we can no longer have time to hear. Most indigenous cultures will tell you that this world belongs to the dead, that’s where we’re headed. So mythology for me involves a conversation with the dead, with what you might call ancestors.
Whatever we are facing now we need to have a root system embedded in weather patterns, the presences of animals, our dreams, and the ones who came before us. Myth is insistent that when there is a crisis, genius lives on the margins not the centre. If we are constantly using the language of politics to combat the language of politics at some point the soul grows weary and turns its head away because we are not allowing it into the conversation, and by denying soul we are ignoring what the Mexicans call the river beneath the river. We’re not listening to the thoughts of the world. We’re only listening to our own neurosis and our own anxiety.
CDC: Much of your work calls for a return to bush soul and for us to remember. Do you feel these myths are resurfacing so we can relearn our ancestor training that has been shut down for a very long time?
MS: I would say: if you don’t have ancestors you have ghosts. At the moment many of us are so impoverished and lacking in a cultural root system that what is around us are not ancestors supporting us but ghosts depleting us. So one of the things we could do is to reach out to stories, to practices – such as working on the land or a good art form – that require skills, diligence, a willingness to be bored and to lose our addiction to constant excitement. Myth and story put you into the presence of the old ones who have told the story before you.
CDC: When you told the story of the ‘The Crow King and the Red Bead Woman’ at Base Camp there were certain points where people were feeling very moved and in tears. What is that upwelling of sudden feeling in us all when we hear the story being told like that?
MS: One answer would be that this is a moment where we collectively experience what William Blake used to call ‘a pinprick of the eternal’ or the anthropologist Victor Turner ‘communitas’, where often through grief there is a kind of permission given in the room to feel something deeply in public. These days that’s quite rare. We tend to grieve and emote away from other people. But that’s not the way traditionally it’s done.
Folk tales told well have the power to be tacit ritual. In other words they have the strength to put their arms around the whole room and create a container that for an hour you can cook in the images of the story. You can allow yourself, bidden or unbidden, to be provoked by the images. And somehow it is safe to go deep within it. So I think it’s partially to do with the way a room is held, the feeling that you’re in the presence of something ancient, which these stories are, and a readiness in the listener to allow themselves to just be carried by the power of the thing.
CDC: You wrote once that we were not sure what story we were in as a culture. If there were a story that could speak of our present situation, that held in its talons, if you like, or in its heart, a feeling for regeneration or return, for making sense, for bringing together, for waking us up, what might that be?
MS: I do have a story. It’s called the ‘The Lindwurm’. It’s a story that suggests that you and I have an exiled, slightly older sister or brother, who was hurled out the window the night they were born, and has sat brooding in a forest for many, many years, and has now returned. And somehow contained in the psychic nerve endings of this story, I feel is a lot of information about what we’re living through both ecologically and politically right now.
CDC: It has an active female protagonist who transforms everything, is that correct?
MS: Oh yes. Without the ingenuity of a young woman working in tandem with an old woman (who’s really a spirit of an oak tree) we are going to be incinerated by the furious returning sibling, who devours everything that comes into its grip. It takes the ingenuity of the young woman, with the advice of the older woman, to not just defeat the serpent, but to free the serpent. That’s what’s so beautiful about it. The days of conventional hero myths are not serving us. What is being called for now culturally is a word you find often in Ancient Greece: metis. Metis is a kind of divine cunning in service to wisdom.
We can’t be naïve in times like this, because we are in the presence of underworld forces that will do one of two things: they will either educate us, or annihilate us. And in fairy tales whenever the movement is down – and the movement culturally is down right now – you have to get underworld smart, have underworld intelligence, underworld metis. I have a strong feeling that a lot of what wants to emerge through many ancient stories is a kind of wily, tough, ingenious and romantic force that needs to come forward at this point in time.
So my challenge for anybody is to regard themselves as a kind of a mythological scholar in training. And to go out and to look through the old anthologies, get a library card, and try and collect these stories that are waiting to say something vital about the nature of our times.
And the second part of that challenge, the most crucial part of the research, will be your individual expression of that story. It doesn’t have to be an oral storytelling. It could be something you write down, or paint. You could craft a boat from an image within the story. But one way or another you need to let the story have its way with you.
CDC: Ah yes, so that it becomes creative and externalised rather than inward and psychological. You also ask, in respect to medieval culture: ‘What replaces the chivalric viewpoint and creates anchoring for humans?’ There are not many myths that consider a band of people working together, except perhaps Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In terms of the future, it’s clear we can’t be held in an individualist story, but one that brings community into it, or a bigger relationship. And I wondered if you had any thoughts about that?
MS: In many tribal stories and indigenous tales, there is an implicit understanding that what we call psyche or soul does not live in a person, but that we live within the psyche or the soul. And the tribe, collectively, respond to and develop their lives through that awareness, which is usually a very ordinary experience. It’s not a question of belief, it’s a question of experience. However, in the West, we have had such a different fate over the last few hundred years that there is now a collective amnesia to the idea that we have a soul at all – whether there’s a soul inside us, or that we dwell within one.
So when someone talks about the individual journey of someone in the West, they’re having to make that journey because they do not have around them the cultural certainties that a tribal group would have, to affirm that yes, we are living within this wider thing, the mundus imaginalis, the soul of the world, and your dreams and your opinions are connected to waterfalls and jaguars and lightning storms.
It is a lonelier place for us to be because what is surrounding us does not confirm an Earth-centred consciousness. So that’s why I think the individual has been such a pronounced thing in myth and story over the last few hundred years. But if we cannot get back to a more collectively understood relationship with psyche, with Earth, with matter, with trees and rocks and wolves and bears, with our neighbours, then we will be caught in an enormous malfunction.
CDC: This brings me to a question I’ve wanted to ask about the wild setting for such psyche and soul, as you have described it. When so many of us are living in cities and urban areas, in depleted and industrialised landscapes, how can we recover our relationship with wild things and reconnect with that world?
MS: It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot from people who are reading my books and are living in Detroit or Birmingham or Prestatyn. Initially my response is ‘don’t be size-ist’. Twenty years ago I was living in southeast London, and it was a great consolation for me that William Blake had found a lot of what he needed, as a human and a thinker, in London. He could kneel down and see a little grey thistle and he knew it was a smiling little man waving at him.
It was a way of not just seeing but beholding things. And when I lived in cities I would pay particular attention to what we rather naïvely call weeds. Or I would go out to a small park next to the video shop in Brockley, where there was a rather dejected-looking rowan tree. And I would spend an enormous amount of time just attending to this rowan. There’s a lovely line by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, where he says something like ‘the Earth seeks to be admired by you’.
So if you do nothing else, admire the thing. Learn to give it praise. Learn to speak its 12 secret names. You hear about the Inuit having all these different names for snow. Well, I thought, what are the 12 secret names of those old-growth oaks that I see down near Greenwich docks? My advice really is what the Hindus call the ‘joyful participation in the sorrows of the world’. You have to get amongst the cities. You have to glean what you can, praise what you can, raise up what you can. My attention has been on the diminishing tracts of wilderness in Great Britain. But it can’t stop there for many of us, because that’s simply not the environment we are living in.
CDC: I wanted to ask you finally about breaking enchantment, about breaking the spell, which is a predicament in so many fairy stories. Many of the illusions that we’ve been brought up with are now being cracked open. Do you feel that the myths contain insights that we might reach out for, not as a handrail but as a tiller, so we might steer our way through these choppy waters ahead?
MS: First of all, I would say again that the word enchantment, which ironically is often used about hearing a myth or a story, is the opposite of what’s actually taking place. A story like ‘The Red Bead Woman’ and its effect on a room is not an enchantment, it’s a waking up…
CDC: A disenchantment…
MS: Yes, if you’ve done your job well as a storyteller, your story itself has a magical sensibility to ward off enchantment and to raise up. Secondly, people often prefer to dismiss myths, saying: it’s not true. But a way to think about myth is as something that never was and always is. Or as a beautiful lie that tells a much deeper truth. But one way or another when we lose our mythic sensibility, the powers in this world that may not wish us well have a greater purchase on us, a greater hold.
I notice that several times a day I go into what you could call a mild trance state. I’m not talking about ouija boards here! I’m just talking about falling under the influence of advertising, or various politically engineered neuroses that might be floating around. But I recognise I have come into a kind of enchantment. And the way I recognise it is that I feel less than grounded. I feel I’m not in the realm of imagination, I’m in the realm of fantasy. So the imaginal is not present; the Earth as a lived, breathing, thinking being is not present. What’s happening is I’m simply fretting – to use my mother’s language – I’m spinning my wheels. And so actually I think stories have a capacity to wake us up.
We are living in a time when we need symbolic intelligence, not just sign language. We are being fed signs, and signs that frighten us, and then paralyse us, and then colonise us. And imagination, through myth, wants to give you symbols to raise you up.
A story is not just an allegory, or a metaphorical point. It’s a love affair, and one of the most wonderful ways of breaking the trance states being put on us at this point in time, is to figure out what you love. Figure out what you’re going to defend. And develop the metis, develop the artfulness, to bring it out into the world.