Myths are like air: invisible until you realize you live inside of them and thrive or die according to their limitations.
When we hear the word myth we think of heroes and battles. But patriarchy is also a myth - as is heteronormativity and capitalism and human supremacy. Civilization is a myth. And it is within these imperceptible yet encompassing narrative structures that we now find ourselves stuck like flies in a spider’s web.
But myth, when it is consciously created, can be a powerful way of coming back into dialogue with the rubble ecologies within which we find ourselves negotiating climate change and social upheaval. We cannot return to the folk traditions of our distant ancestors. But we can reclaim myth as a way of rooting back into a resilient multi-species network of beings with more feral suggestions on how to dismantle “the master’s house”.
Originally, our mythic systems were created as vessels for crucial environmental wisdom. If we look back far enough, sky gods become storm gods and then, finally, storms. Mother goddesses very quickly melt back into their original essence – matter itself. Very often, heroes and heroines represent anthropomorphized plants and animals, their romantic entanglements representative of real-world relationships between symbiotic species. In myth, elementals are personified. Harvesting schedules are embedded in episodic family dramas.
A myth is a patch of soil where we can plant the best practices of a community: how to relate to each other and to our shared ecosystem.#
The type of mythmaking we are called to do now is probably somewhere closer to composting. We live in a culture that is remarkably good at abstracting itself from waste and off-loading it onto the marginalized communities least responsible for its creation. We cannot simply decide that civilization and patriarchy are toxic and then reject them. Instead, we can take responsibility for our entangled inheritance of bad stories through the transformative power of rot. On the compost heap, nothing is exiled. Beliefs and epistemologies never designed to touch, inappropriately combine in the moist refuse pile, fermenting into soil that can grow something freshly adapted to our dire circumstances.
For our circumstances are dire. And we cannot keep letting myths we didn’t tell continue to decide our narrative direction.
We can no longer abide by stories that center heroic individuals and human concerns.#
Instead, let us pour our heteronormative lovers into lichen, watching as they symbiotically fuse and forget their socialized genders. Let us turn King Arthur’s round table into a pitcher plant, hosting and nourished by the excrement of an inquiline community of insects and invertebrates living within its tubular body. Let us coppice the hero’s journey like an old tree, delighting when the cut trunk of an ossified narrative sprouts into many trees and many different possible stories. Let us turn linear narratives into convoluted food webs where one being’s refuse becomes the sustenance of another’s survival.
While science and myth are often seen as opposed, I want to propose that the tools of science have provided us with a unique window into the lives of the beings whose stories may save us. Inspired by the work of philosopher Isabelle Stengers, I believe the most resilient science and art will arrive from the overlap of disciplines– creating what Stenger’s calls an “ecology of practices”.
It will be in these inappropriate overlaps – between species, between epistemologies, and between beliefs – that adjacent possibles may become visible. Let us meet in the microbial meshwork of the compost heap. Let us step sideways out of anthropocentric stories that by virtue of their linearity always progress into extinction; let us slide into the symbiotic body-sharing of multi-species mythmaking.