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Each person is faced in life with certain primal existential questions. There may be more than two central questions, but at least two universal and perennial haunters of human consciousness can be identified:

  1. How did I come into existence?
  2. What is the purpose of my existence?

Answers to these questions are given to us initially by a parent, guardian, or respected elder. Such answers, wherever in the world given, will most likely be derived from a time honoured body of belief imbued within the culture where the questioner was born. The answer of such fables and conceptual presuppositions will, for purpose of this discourse, be called `myth'.

The Greek word `mythos' means a fable. Thus reference is here made to tales which cannot be accepted as literally true, but nevertheless remain real within the world as retaining `true' cultural location in human experience. In contrast to `mythos' there was the Greek concept `logos', or reason, which would readily equate to our modern concept of `science'.

Use imagination for the moment, and consider yourself again a naive, impressionable, inquiring youngster. As you could then conceive of yourself as a legendary hero, so too can you now visualize yourself a tribesperson about to ask questions about your primordial origin. You are a member of the Bassari tribe, in West Africa, in northern Togo. You look at the elder before you, and with an empathic smile the elder exhales in cogitative reflection, then with a fixed stare of certitude responds as follows:

The Legend of Unumbotte

`Unumbotte made a human being. Its name was Man. Unumbotte next made an antelope, named Antelope. Unumbotte made a snake, named Snake. At the time these three were made there were no trees but one, a palm. Nor had the earth been pounded smooth. All three were sitting on the rough ground, and Unumbotte said to them: "The earth has not yet been pounded. You must pound the ground smooth where you are sitting." Unumbotte gave them seeds of all kinds, and said: "Go plant these." Then Unumbotte went away.

Unumbotte came back. He saw that the three had not yet pounded the earth. They had, however, planted the seeds. One of the seeds had sprouted and grown. It was a tree. It had grown tall and was bearing fruit, red fruit. Every seven days Unumbotte would return and pluck one of the red fruits. One day Snake said: "We too should eat these fruits. Why must we go hungry?" Antelope said: "But we do not know anything about this fruit." Then Man and his wife took some of the fruit and ate it. Unumbotte came down from the sky and asked: "Who ate the fruit?" They answered: "We did." Unumbotte asked: Who told you that you could eat that fruit?" They replied: "Snake did." Unumbotte asked: "Why did you listen to Snake?" They said: "We were hungry." Unumbotte questioned Antelope: "Are you hungry, too?" Antelope said: "Yes I get hungry. I like to eat grass." Since then, Antelope has lived in the wild, eating grass.

Unumbotte then gave sorghum to Man, also yams and millet. And the people gathered in eating groups that would always eat from the same bowl, never the bowls of the other groups. It was from this that differences in language arose. And ever since then, the people have ruled the land.

But Snake was given by Unumbotte a medicine with which to bite people.'

The Constant Thread of Mythology

Leo Frobenius, from whose work `Volksdichtungen aus Oberguinea', this legend is recounted, states that as best known the legend arose independently of missionary Judeo-Christian influence.

A constant thread weaves its way through the tales of all peoples in all lands, as mythological explanation is given of origins. Similar to the Homeric epic of the Greeks, the Finnish people have an elaborate and beautiful tale of creation and adventure recorded in their Kalevala. The origin commences with a scaup laying seven eggs, and from their pieces are obtained elements of the universe.

The Aborigines of Australia conceive of a "dreamtime" from whence creation emerged. The people of the Marshall Islands in the North Pacific tell their story of creation with a God named Lowa. And so we might visit each nation, and therein each specific culture, and find varying mythological responses to the primal question - how did I (and by implication all my human ancestors, and the first of humankind) come into existence? Creation myths serve the purpose in a culture of explaining that which is in being. A universe is built via many routes of such conceptual abstraction from reality. A mythological construct does a lot in a culture, for it may impose a morality based on a duality, `good' versus `evil'. It may project life on a linear plane. It may conceive of existence infused with vitalizing energies.

Assumptions resting on the conceptual plinth of how our world came into being, inform a people's outlook on life; their conceptions about morality; their sources of artistic inspiration; their preconditioned modes of thought; indeed, conceptual outlook bears reference to mythological premises.

The rational and scientifically trained mind may readily be dismissive and assert that myths are of absolutely no significance, use or relevance in the modern world. Such a mind might observe that each, if not all these mythologies are ultimately confronted by a common problem of infinite regression. Initially, the scientific mind asks logically -who was the creator? Then with the answer, follows another logical question - before that Creator who or what ..... and before that, then who or what?.... and so on in search of the prime mover or source from whose source there can be no logical or conceptual retreat. Such a mind never finds the unassailable primordial source, so it logically concludes that the mythological construct must be discarded as it is devoid of logical consistency and is scientifically invalid. And, interestingly, in the eighth or ninth century A.D. there is the Indian response of Jainism, as follows:

bullet"Some foolish men declare that Creator made the world. The doctrine that the world was created is ill-advised, and should be rejected.
bulletIf God created the world, where was he before creation?
bulletIf you say he was transcendent then, and needed no support, where is he now?....
bulletKnow that the world is uncreated, as time itself is, without beginning and end, and is based on the principles life and the rest. Uncreated and indestructible, it endures under the compulsion of its own nature, divided into three sections - hell, earth and heaven."

A cyclic conception of existence is reflected in much of Indian thought, and is quite apparent in Hindu philosophical discourse.

Should Myth be Discarded?

The mythological beliefs referred to hold sway with tenacity, and in a certain sense it is impossible to discard that which is integrally a part of us. The book of Genesis posits a time cycle of seven days, and the day of rest on the seventh. The life of Western man, believer or non-believer, centres on predictable pattern, a sacred day for worship, if believer, or a day of rest from work if non-believer, and a governance of the week as derived from divine prescription. Certain of the conceptions become rigidly fixed in the human psyche. For example, Galileo responded to ideas of Copernicus through the `Dialogue of the chief systems' published in 1632, confirming that the sun is at the centre of our universe, and found himself on trial for heresy as other beliefs had already decreed that the earth is at the centre.

If we are perceptive enough, we will comprehend that our construction of our universe and of time bears reference to a relative interpretative process, not an absolute prescription (cf. Newton's immutable `absolute' and Einstein's variant `relative'). Cross-cultural comparisons of concepts of time reveal different cycles which produce qualitatively different attitudes to motions performed within the defined time-frames. A spatial-temporal interpretation of time bears reference to a perception of cosmological cycles and our own biological and physiological functions indicating points of significance, in time demarcated. The universe we dream of existing, is itself delimited by the cognitive constraints of our interpretive assumptions. Yet, there is validity within the limits of our observations. On further reflection we find in our days, names derived from Scandinavian mythology. The Gods, Tiw, Woden, Thor and Fria; our Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Our intelligence when applied for comprehension as to how we conceptualize of our material world, can only acknowledge an integration with and relationship to influences derived from mythology. With a certain ironic twist, Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle might confirm for some of us that a fixed scientific defined causality is as much an inhibitor of lateral comprehension, as is fixation to a single deified conception of reality. 

The process in motion may best be illustrated with Unumbotte's help. Assume, for purposes of argument, that the tribe is facing famine, save and except that only one plant continues to bear fruit. However, alas, it is precisely the tree whose fruit Unumbotte decreed must not be eaten. The tribe obtains international assistance from the United States, and USAID, and a barrage of consultants arrive to produce studies on the problem. The minds of the scientifically trained consultants reason that there must be delivery of emergency food aid, and that by dislodging the belief, "Unumbotte made a human being", the prime inhibitor of the tribe eating the locally available food source will be removed. Incidentally, loans are obtained from the IMF, many lines of credit arranged, a democratic election within the coming year is guaranteed by the Chief - as all aspects and prescribed preconditions of solving the tribe's perceived underdevelopment problem. Further, a rural electrification programme is implemented, and via the newly available televisions, the message is finally transmitted that the fruit can safely be eaten, without devastating consequences of retribution from Unumbotte. The tribe eats fruit, and also receives other externally imposed cultural influences accompanying the food aid. Considering the example, with a degree of seriousness, there are indeed cross-cultural influences on traditional belief, and these coalesce into new manifestations of religious proclamations. However, the sustenance of primary belief is itself a telling phenomenon. All the members of the tribe reasoned why an aspect of the literal interpretation must be sacrificed to avoid starvation. 

Yet, there is a residual realization that Unumbotte symbolizes much that is good for the tribe. Unumbotte has occupied societal, institutional, moral and philosophical locations within the life of the tribe for centuries. There is no need to banish him, for if so, so too does the tribe banish significant elements of its collective identity and consciousness. Thus, the Chief, while befuddled as to the increasing numbers of consultants being sent, long after the problem of famine has been solved, prudently discerns that he retains social cohesion through reliance on the symbolism of Unumbotte's teachings. Indeed, he is fully aware of the deep-rooted organizational structures centred around the idea of Unumbotte, and even deeper-rooted psychological factors which give sustenance to the traditional life and beliefs of the tribe.

Myth as Metaphoric Message

The story just told is not so farfetched as may be thought at first glance. It is a myth of sorts, and as such contains its own metaphoric message. We can readily observe that economic globalization is rapidly penetrating every remaining traditional nook and sacred cranny on the earth. The industrialized nations' impact on, and association with non-Western cultures impose influence and force conceptual transformation. In the information age societal change is greatly accelerated by automation and computerization. The time-lag between initial idea and technological application is measurably shorter than in the immediately preceding industrial epoch. The rates of change are astoundingly noticeable the further back we delve for comparison and contrast. The rates of change, and the novelty in types of change, are affording our species increased access to more sources of knowledge. However, the increased quantitative access to sources of knowledge, may itself not inevitably herald automatic improvements for societal qualitative change. For, albeit a computer can retrieve information from memory banks across the globe, in a manner unprecedented in human history, the `artificial intelligence' which facilitates this technological process still calls into play human intellect to discern the interconnectedness of human experiences, the commonality of our problems, and the universality of interest in finding optimum solutions.

Viewed from the perspective of the majority on the planet, the phenomenon of persistent poverty looms large as part of daily reality. The consciousness which inhabits the minds of the poor is anchored more firmly to fundamental beliefs than the aspiring middle or affluent upper echelons. In the process, the affluent West grieves for itself in the following terms:

"History and anthropology teach us that a human society cannot long survive unless its members are psychologically contained within a central living myth. Such a myth provides individuals with their reason for being. To the ultimate questions of human existence it provides answers which satisfy the most developed and discriminating members of the society. And if the creative, intellectual minority is in harmony with the prevailing myth, the other layers of society will follow its lead and may even be spared a direct encounter with the fateful question of the meaning of life."

This observation may have as much to do with cultural attunement, as with biological evolutionary synchronicity. The great divides within our world have roots in economic distributive injustice, race, religion, language, custom and narrowly defined concepts of kinship. We move closer to application of care with an awakening of sensitive concern. By some process there would have to be a move of global consciousness to a sphere of rediscovery of common humanity, and unification of humane purpose. The faiths which divide us when viewed from one perspective, would have to be rediscovered as containing the same base elements of common human concerns, when viewed from another perspective. It will, no doubt, take humanity some time yet to advance along this route. Over time, hopefully, there will be illumination, and the light shone will focus for beneficial upliftment and enlightenment for the majority. The light might be focused in the corner of the human mind where lurks the shadow of collective consciousness, hiding our common bonds, one from the other, with consequences for our relations with the world and the rest of humanity who inhabit it with us. Such a rekindled light, if our mythical reflections provide a spark of recognition, may point a way to acknowledge kinship from the original point of primordial thought about our beginnings. Human beings can more readily share a common purpose, when we share a common identification of who we are. It is a learning process of discovery that behind the masks of difference, we are more similar than dissimilar. Such discovery may stimulate in us some humane realizations and a rejuvenation of purpose for worthy ways of being, and thus being as one species, wholly human beings.

C. F. R. Barnett


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