How not to read a myth.

I’m going to assume you’re smart, whoever you are. I’m also going to assume you know there are people in America who take the Bible literally. You’ll often hear people complaining that these literalists think the earth is six thousand years old, or that the earth was created in seven actual days, stuff like that. I’m not arguing that those people don’t exist. I’m not even arguing that they’re views aren’t a problem. What I’d like to argue is that there’s a better way of doing things, and that by ignoring it and focusing on these people, we’re depriving ourselves of quite a lot of interesting food for thought. However, it’s worse than that.

In general, we don’t want people to take these stories literally. But then, many of the same people complaining about the literalists yell about how we can’t learn anything from stories that are thousands of years old. I mean, these people walked everywhere, didn’t have cars or phones, and what’s even worse, even committed the apparently unpardonable sin of believing that the earth was flat and that the sun went around the earth! How can these people and their stories, so far removed from our modern lives, tell us anything of value whatsoever? I think they can, I think people should be encouraged to learn these lessons from them rather than taking them literally, and I’d now like to demonstrate how it works. To keep things fresh, I’m going to use a myth I’m pretty sure almost none of you have ever heard of, let alone read before. This myth is excerpted from:

Before we get to the myth itself, I should mention a few things. This is a myth, or part of a myth, of the Wintu of California, a Native American tribe. This myth deals with creation, and the beings mentioned eventually become various creatures, features, and objects of the world in which we live. The beings we’ll be dealing with are Olelbis, who is sort of like God but not really, Dokos who becomes flint, Klak who becomes the rattlesnake, and Wima Loimis (Loimis means young) who becomes the grizzly bear. Finally there is tilichi, some sort of water bird, used by Olelbis as a messenger. Got that? Don’t worry, it will all get straightened out. Here we go with the story.

“”Who is this?” asked Olelbis of the old women.
“This is Dokos”, said they; “he is bad.”
Dokos was placed a little northeast of the sweat-house. He sat looking toward the west. Tilichi brought in a second and third person. “Who are these?” asked Olelbis.
“These are both bad people,” said the old women. “These are Wima Loimis and Klak Loimis.”
“Put them with Dokos,” said Olelbis. After he had called all the people out of the sweat-house to send them to their proper places, Olelbis had put something on their teeth to make them harmless.
“Come here, Wima Loimis,” said Olelbis. “I have something to put on your teeth so that they may harm no one.”
“I want nothing on my teeth,” said Wima, Loimis. “If something were put on them I could not eat.” He asked again, but she shook her head, saying: “I want nothing on my teeth, I could not eat if anything were put on them.” “If she will not come, come you, Klak Loimis.” Klak Loimis would not go to him. “Why not come when I call you?” asked Olelbis.
“My sister Wima will not go. She says that she could not eat if her teeth were touched. I want nothing on my teeth. I am afraid that I could not eat.” “Very well,” answered Olelbis, “you, Wima,
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and you, Klak, want to be different from others. Come, Dokos, I will touch your teeth.”
“My sisters, Klak and Wima, want nothing on their teeth. I want nothing on mine. I am angry at my sisters; my heart hates them. I do not wish to be good. I am angry at my sisters. I will be wicked as well as they.” Then turning to his sisters he said: “After a while people will employ me against you whenever they are angry at you. Whenever you bite people or hurt them, they will call me to fight against you, and I will go with them. I will go into your bodies and kill you. Then you will be sorry for what you have done to-day. Olelbis asked you to be good. He wants you to be good, but you are not willing. I will be bad to punish you.”
When the two women heard these words they cried, and Wima said, “Well, my brother, we can put something on our teeth yet.”
Dokos placed his head between his hands and sat awhile in that posture. Then he straightened himself and said,–
“You two have talked enough; you would better stop. You are not like me; I am stronger than both of you, and I shall be so always. You, Wima, and you, Klak, will hate people only, but I shall hate all living things. I shall hate you, hate every one; kill you, kill every one. I want nothing of any one. I want no friend in any place.” “Well,” said Olelbis, “you go as you are.”
“I will go first,” said Dokos.
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“Go,” said Olelbis, “to Koiham Nomdaltopi, be flint there, and spread all around the place. You, Klak Loimis, will go to Klak Kewilton, be a rattlesnake there, increase and spread everywhere. I will send you, Wima, to Wima Wai Tsarauton; you will be a grizzly bear there. After a while a great family will come from you and spread over all the country. You will be bad; and, Klak, you will be bad, but, Dokos, you will be the worst, always ready to hurt and kill; always angry, always hating your sisters and every one living.
“You, Klak, and you, Wima, when you see people you will bite them, and people will take Dokos to kill you, and Dokos will go into your bodies, and you will die. Wima, you will be sorry that you would not let me change your teeth. You, Klak, will be sorry. You will bite people, and they will kill you because you cannot run away from them. Your dead body will lie on the ground, and buzzards will eat it.
“Dokos, you will go to your place and increase. People will go there and get you to kill your sisters and others for them, and when you have pleased them and killed all the people they wished you to kill, when they want you no longer, they will throw you down on a rock and break you to pieces, then you will be nothing. You will be dead forever. Now go!””

OK, so, reading this, it looks pretty simple right? I even told you these beings transform into things, so here we get the answers to the question, where do grizzly bears and rattlesnakes and flint come from? But let’s dig a bit further. People show up, and God, knowing they will become other things, says “hey come here, I want to make your teeth harmless. Everybody objects to this, and here is where we get to the meat of the story, so to speak. First Wima Loimis objects. She does not want her teeth to be harmless. If they are, she believes she won’t be able to eat. Klak Loimis also refuses, for the same reason. Then Dokos refuses, and here we come to what I consider to be the heart of the story.

Dokos says, “Olelbis asked you to be good. He wants you to be good, but you are not willing. I will be bad to punish you.” This implies that, if Wima and Klak had agreed to have their teeth made harmless, none of what will happen would have. Wima tries to fix things, suggesting that they can still have their teeth made harmless, but Dokos replies with his declaration of undying hatred. But what is interesting is that he sits for a while with his head in his hands. It seems to me that he is clearly thinking things over. What we really have here then is an origin of violence. But the point isn’t where things come from as a first cause, i.e. why we have violence instead of not having violence in the world. Wima turns to violence out of fear, if her teeth can’t harm, she believes she will die of starvation. Dokos becomes violent as a consequence, to punish his sisters.

Whether this is a good thing or not is open to interpretation, and that is precisely the point. What we see in this story is that violence often comes from fear, and as a reaction to violence itself. Further, in Dokos’ reply that he will punish his sisters, we are seeing the idea that choices, once made, can’t always be changed. Further, nobody escapes unscathed, Wima and Klak will be killed, but then Dokos will be smashed to pieces when the people are done using him. So it seems to me we are also learning that nothing of much good comes from violence. There are certainly other interpretations one could give this story. I’m not trying to say this one is the correct one, or the only valid or relevant interpretation.

Rather, my point is that this isn’t simply a “just so” story, “well Timmy, we have dangerous grizzly bears because a long time ago God wanted to make everything harmless and Wima refused, and …” If we pay attention, we have something a lot more complicated and interesting happening. We also have something that applies to us, because even though we have cars and phones that can fit in our pockets and satellites, we’re still kind of the same dumb humans we’ve been for all of recorded history. That’s not to suggest we haven’t made progress, mind you, but by and large, we still have the same emotions and go through many of the same sorts of problems we did when we started writing things down. So let’s see if I can tie all of this up.

Myths are often more complicated and relevant than many of us believe. Realizing this not only makes us better people, it’s also the antidote to the people who take things literally. Maybe instead of yelling at them and claiming all myths are really dumb, we can show them a better way. So go. Take the example I’ve given you, and go read some myths. Try to see what they can mean to you. I don’t just mean ancient myths or stories from religions either. Lord Of The Rings, Harry Potter, The Foundation Trilogy, 2001 A Space Odyssey, and many other things are equally mythical. But I focus on religious myths because they’re often the things some people like to claim have nothing whatsoever to teach us. They’re stories, like any other stories, some meaningful to us, some not.

I also think the interpretation I gave of the above myth is something we could all probably stand to think about, as human beings that is. Is this myth a “just so” story? Very possibly, it is telling us why we have grizzly bears and rattlesnakes and flint weapons with people who want to use them to kill, after all. But what of that? Does that change the lessons about violence and its consequences we find? Does it mean it was told simply to explain where these things came from, instead of to teach these lessons and to prompt these reflections? On the contrary, myths, like all good stories, can work on many levels, and we can learn quite a lot from them, if we take the time. And hopefully I’ve shown that “a literal interpretation”, in other words the claim that this myth simply tells us where flint and bears and snakes come from, is perhaps the most pointless way we can imagine to understand these stories. Because it seems clear to me that, even if you completely disagree with my reading, there’s a lot more going on here than simply explaining where dangerous animals came from.

Myths are a type of story. If they’re not to your taste, that’s fine, we like what we like. But it seems wrong to simply dismiss them out of hand. If myths have nothing to teach us, then it seems, to my way of thinking at least, that no story has the ability to teach us. I don’t know about you, but assuming stories have nothing to teach us sounds like a pretty awful life to me.