20 July 2009

Mythos and Logos

There is a story about a German explorer and naturalist named Alexander von Humboldt (September 14, 1769 – May 6, 1859) and his investigation of the village of Atures. He was exploring through South America and found out about a tribe called the Atures who had been hunted to extinction by a people called the Caribs.

All that remained of these people were tombs in a mountain cave and a parrot that spoke forty words of their language. Humboldt is supposed to have wrote that:

It is to be supposed that the last family of Atures did not die out until a long time afterwards: since at Maypures - bizarrely - there still survives an old parrot that nobody, say the natives, can understand, because it speaks only the language of the Atures.

This is a potent image that raises a number of interesting and difficult questions. It can touch on a deeply emotional level, captured by Michelle Dockrey and Tony Fabris in their song Strange Messenger (full lyrics):

To those who study history, it seems a bitter curse
The loss of language terrible, the lost potential worse
Past and future stories multiplied a thousandfold,
Vanished out of history and never to be told

Were they beautiful and gentle? Would they call us friend or foe?
What wisdom did they live by? What secrets did they know?
It's a symphony reduced to what a single bird can sing
The forest lost their language, and they lost everything

So tell me, bold explorer, as you wandered through the leaves,
Did you ponder unknown losses that the very Cosmos grieves?
Was it halting? Was it flowing? Was it lilting and divine?
Was it fearless as your native tongue, mercurial as mine?
Would it pique a linguist's interest? Would it hold a poet's thrall?
Do the words of one strange messenger tell us anything at all?

There is haunting power here, and a very compelling story. It speaks to the very essence of humanity and conveys a thousand things with one image, that of a culture who was hunted to extinction and who's last remaining trace was found in forty words mimicked by a parrot.

The problem is that I can't actually confirm the veracity of the story of Humboldt's Parrot. Despite the citation, I've found some who say that--while the phonetic transcriptions of the language are there--that there is no mention of having found them out from a parrot. I can't even confirm this because I lack access to a good translated copy of his Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent and my German isn't nearly good enough to read the original. Even if I could overcome this, I have no way of knowing is Humboldt embellished that one point (though prevailing evidence would seem to indicate that he didn't do such in general, how can I be absolutely sure?)

Really though, it doesn't matter.

Sure, there are areas where it does matter, as does the authenticity of those forty words. There are entire domains for which the veracity of such things matters. But as a symbol and as a legend for discussion of endangered languages or the human condition, it holds its power regardless of the veracity of the claims.

This echoes of Worf's statement in the Deep Space Nine episode "Once More Into the Breach" (season 7, episode 7), talking to Bashir and O'Brien who were discussing whether the story of Davy Crockett's death at the Alamo is real. O'Brien argued that it is absolutely true, Bashir argues that it is implausible at the extreme. Worf tells them:

You are both wrong. The only real question is whether you believe in the legend of Davy Crockett or not. If you do, then there should be no doubt in your mind he died a hero's death. If you do not believe in the legend, then he was just a man and it does not matter how he died.

If you believe in the legend of Humboldt's Parrot--as a legend--then it is a powerful and captivating image of loss. If you don't, if that symbol holds no power for you, then it is just a story, and how Humboldt got his forty words is only important from a linguistics and historical research perspective. It then doesn't matter overly much if he got them from a parrot so long as they are accurate.

In truth, one could even argue that it isn't important even then. Forty words of a tongue that no longer exists, with no written text, and only questionable translations (and possibly transcribed through a parrot) is of questionable use as anything but a symbol.

Today many people want to dismiss old stories--and those who follow them--because some people are inclined to take them literally and believe in their literal interpretation. Both the people who take them literally and those who dismiss them out of hand make the same error: Confusing mythos and logos. They treat myths, which are about deeper truths (see my essay on Crude Superstition for further comments on this) as if they were facts, and treat facts as if they were interchangeable with myths. This insults both science and spirituality, as it holds neither of them to their proper function. To quote Plato's Republic, Book II:

Neither must we have mothers under the influence of the poets scaring their children with a bad version of these myths--telling how certain gods, as they say, 'Go about by night in the likeness of so many strangers and in diverse forms'; but let them take heed lest they make cowards of their children, and at the same time speak blasphemy against the gods.

In most situations, the literal truth is relevant in one context, and the mythological, spiritual, or poetic truth is relevant in another context. Both are useful, but to confuse them weakens them both. It dilutes scientific inquiry by giving it things to accept regardless of the evidence to the contrary, as we see with the Young Earth Creationists. It dilutes spiritual pursuit by trying to find an objective truth in a symbol that may take subtlety different meanings for different people, and may help different people in different ways, as we see with the evangelical atheists who insist on trying to talk about the impossibility of Virgin Births.

A danger among spirit workers is to take stories that have been crafted--possibly a thousand years ago--and treat them as having truly taken place. If we accept the gods and spirits as real (which many, myself included, do) then some of them may (or must) have, but how do we know which ones? Do we favor Saxo's interpretations or Snorri's? What if they are both wrong? What if it was a story made up by a god to convey a certain message, but the original message has been garbled?

In truth, the question I like to put forward is what do you gain from this legend. If what you gain is positive and leads toward spiritual growth and healing, if that legend has meaning for you, then you can believe that it is true without necessarily accepting that it is real. If it doesn't, but it does for other people, then so long as they aren't trying to present it as a verified fact that you should accept as well there is no sense in trying to take away that healing image from them based on your own conception of how it should be used.

Further Reading


  1. Excellent post.

    A couple of thoughts here:

    -While I believe the Gods have lives and we occasionally get glimpses of Their reality, I think the mythos as transcribed by Christian monks loses something in translation. Even those of us who get glimpses through a Heathen filter are going to not always see the big picture.

    -The Germanic Gods are not omnipotent nor omniscient but are capable, as Gods, of existing at multiple dimensions of reality.

    -The Anglo-Saxon world tree has seven worlds (which is not a Christian influence; seven is to the Anglo-Saxons what nine is to the Norse, and the number has rather huge significance all throughout the Anglo-Saxon culture), as opposed to the nine worlds of the Norse tree, and the way the Anglo-Saxons relate to their cosmology is different than the Norse... far less militant. Yet I accept both realities are true for different people. My journeying and seeing seven worlds does not invalidate someone who sees nine worlds, and vice versa.

    It gets more complicated from there, of course. :)

    If someone is not hurting themselves or someone else with their personal gnosis, I'm not going to get too worked up if it differs from mine. My main concern is when people try to impose theirs on me, but even then, no one can force me to change my mind on an issue. It matters less to me if someone agrees whether or not, say, Frey is sacrificed yearly at Lammas, so much as do they respect what He is if we are going to be in a community together, sharing a horn. That sort of thing.

    Anyway, excellent post... good food for thought.

  2. This post reminds me of a line from the Sandman comic where Dream muses that things need not have happened to be true ;)