The Universe Knocks Three Times
In May I visited The Science Museum of Minnesota’s mythical creatures exhibit. I was surprised to learn that way before any sort of long distance communication was possible, folklore about unicorns and mermaids (among a few others) existed across diverse cultures on multiple continents. Mermaid tales were especially pervasive, often with small variations from country to country.
One such creature, the Australian Aboriginal Yawkyawk, could appear as the stereotypical mermaid with seaweed hair, a humanoid torso, and a fish tail. But a Yawkyawk could also shapeshift, and appear in the habitus of a crocodile, dragonfly, or even a snake! Far from the ocean, she would swim out of water holes, and help bring rain to the land. Definitely not the “typical” mermaid of Disney lore.
I continued walking through the exhibit, noting that many other mythical creatures also had globe spanning stories. Not surprisingly, but disappointingly, the exhibit didn’t offer a clear explanation of how these tales could have spread so far and wide. I was left to wonder, what if these beasties travelled around for real? What if they walked (or swam or flew) the earth, leaving only a common narrative behind? Or, better yet, what if being “mythical” was the actual myth?
A REAL unicorn…
a REAL griffin…
a REAL Pegasus.
Each roaming the earth, making mischief.
I was giddy just thinking about it.
And then I ran into this sign, and I’ve been mulching on the message ever since.
What DOES happen to mythical creatures when the people and societies who believed in them are no longer around to retell their tales? Or, more simply, what happens to a story when it’s no longer told?
Before the end of this school year, The Girlie completed a large end-of-year genealogy project for her Social Studies class. First she identified a relative who immigrated to America and discussed the reason(s) for leaving their country of origin. Then, she traced this person’s journey to America and included a brief societal history of that time. She continued following this person’s history, and subsequent descendant’s histories, up to the present day. By the end of the project, The Girlie recreated her family tree, ending with herself.
As luck would have it, gathering information for this project proved extremely challenging. The Girlie chose to start her project with my great-grandfather, Avner. On June 15, 1897, a fire engulfed Ellis Island, destroying every structure except for a single pump house. Irreplaceable records burned, leaving large gaps in the historical narrative of many families. Unfortunately, Avner immigrated to the US from Vienna shortly before the fire, and his immigration records were among the ones forever lost.
My dad, Avner’s grandson, used to tell the most colorful tales of his grandfather; he adored his “Pa”. These days, Dad‘s memory sometimes lapses, leaving even the most well worn stories hard to remember. Luckily for The Girlie (and me), Dad’s sister WAS able to remember much of Avner’s life. The Girlie recorded the conversations with her great-aunt, word for word, making it possible to complete the school project.
Once again, the idea of lost stories stood in the front of my mind. Here was a concrete example of (almost) no one able to tell the narrative of a person’s life. If my aunt hadn’t been able to share her memories, what would have happened? Avner’s history (and his name) would have disappeared. Although The Girlie may say otherwise, I thought this school assignment was a blessing. Had she not sought out her great-great-grandfather’s story, she would have missed interviewing her great-aunt, and this piece of our family history would have been lost forever.
In June while on vacation in Grand Marais, Minnesota, my family made our annual summertime pilgrimage to a favorite bookstore. We all can spend hours there, browsing and reading.
Drury Lane is a tiny bookstore, resting right on the edge of Lake Superior. I don’t know how they do it, but they manage to stock every book a person could possibly want. Seriously. The shelves are a multidecimal point fraction size of those in a chain bookstore, but their inventory is immense. I happily buy multiple books when I’m there, because I want this little gem to remain right where it is; patronage is key to independent businesses.
As I walked in, the book American Gods by Neil Gaiman (http://www.neilgaiman.com/) almost immediately caught my eye. I picked up the thick paperback, and flipped it over to read the back. The teaser paragraph posed this question: what happens to gods and myths when no one remembers them or when they become obsolete? I sat down, opened the book, and started reading. Needless to say, I bought the tome, and didn’t let go until I gobbled it all.
In Gaiman’s book, gods from different countries and cultures came to America through the stories that new immigrants shared with each other. Once established, they rooted themselves into society by disguising as sentient beings; working jobs and living relatively low key day to day lives. Each god’s existence, however, required a regular diet of worship and adulation. Since the normal cultural channels of temples and sacrifices didn’t translate as easily to American life as the stories did, gods chose lives and jobs that made access to these necessities possible, such as grifter, prostitute, undertaker, or even taxi driver. Over time, people stopped telling the legends and tales, and the world slowly forgot the gods. Without their stories, the gods slowly disappeared. This novel centered on the gods’ multifaceted and convoluted efforts to remain in this world.
Gah! Again with this idea of sustainable existence through memory and story! I’m beginning to think that The Universe is trying to tell me something, and it’s losing patience. The hints are getting less and less subtle as time passes.
But I really don’t know what I’m supposed to do besides acknowledge that I’m receiving the message.
Maybe I’m supposed to find and retell the stories of those who can no longer spin their own? Or maybe I’m supposed to fortify my own story in some way so that it’s not forgotten over time? (For the record, I don’t like that idea; it’s pompous.) Or, maybe I’m supposed to support the telling of story, itself?
I think that last one might be it.
But, I’m still not sure.
I’ll keep working on it.
If you keep finding yourself asking the same internal question, over and over again, don’t ignore it. While you may not have the answer, you can be more active in hunting one down.
Don’t be afraid to tell your story, or share the ones told to you. Stories are gifts. Treat them as such.