zeusSo why waste time reading mythology when you could be getting laid or learning math or something?

Well, that’s a good question. Besides the fact that my myths are incredibly entertaining, there’s a couple other things to consider. Let me explain, starting with a little story:

Let’s pretend you and me are a primitive society. We’ve got this really sweet story about how the world is a giant papaya hanging from the tree of heaven (I don’t think this is an actual creation myth, but it’s about as plausible). So years pass, and we’re all hanging out on our giant papaya in the sky, when all of a sudden someone comes up to us like “Hey, there’s no way we’re actually living on a giant papaya hanging from the tree of heaven, because papayas rot pretty fast, and it’s been years now and the world has not gotten significantly stinkier.”

So that’s a huge blow to our worldview right there. Probably we’re not going to want to believe it. But say this papaya skeptic offers us a more believable story, like that the world is a rubber ball tossed into the air by some god a million years ago, and when it lands in another million years we’re all going to die. We are pleased with this new explanation, it’s got a nice kind of poetry to it. It also explains some things the old story didn’t, like why the sun and the moon move across the sky for example. So that becomes the new religion.

It turns out that this is pretty close to how Western science first developed. A bunch of Greek dudes back in 600 BCE called the Presocratics (because they predate Socrates) basically spent their whole lives offering ridiculous explanations for the world and the things in it, and then tearing down each others’ explanations and making better ones. And just like the first tadpoles crawling out of the primordial sea and onto land (if you believe in that kind of thing) those theories began to take shape under the weight of all that criticism, and we began to get things like math and astronomy.

Let’s skip ahead.

We’ve gotten to the point now where it takes a lifetime of study just to update one or two of the stories that already exist, but the way we understand those stories hasn’t changed. Think of how you would describe the Big Bang, or evolution. These are our generation’s myths, and science is possibly our generation’s most powerful and influential religion.

People get mad at me when I say this, and I see why. There’s this belief out there that religion equals irrational, closed-minded, unwilling to change. But that’s a very short-term view. The Tlingit people of the Pacific Northwest abandoned their tribal beliefs for Christianity in the 1800s because Christian settlers brought with them medical technology far more effective than their own. These days, many Tlingit people are moving back to their original religion because it gives them a more satisfying sense of their own identity. And many people all over the world are just straight up dropping out of religions like Catholicism because they find that these religions don’t offer them a robust enough explanation of the world and how to navigate it. Depending on who you ask, we’re either “outgrowing” religion or losing our way.

But we will never outgrow our need for explanations, and right now Science has a lot of those. It doesn’t have as much nudity and incest as our old explanations, and it doesn’t do much to explain the human spirit (yet), but it’s got loads of explosions, and those are almost as good. Even our modern physics, though, are just the best guess we’ve managed so far. We’ll keep telling new and better stories ’til our giant rubber ball hits the bottom of the universe and we all die. In the meantime, read some mythology. You’ll be surprised by how little we’ve actually changed.

zeusSo I talked a couple days ago about how maybe I’m murdering all culture. I think that raises an interesting question to try and get into: is culture dead, and if so, who’s killing it? But the weird thing about culture is that it’s one of those things that’s very hard to look at from the inside, much like a fur-suit or a nice butt. You’ve got to kind of bounce your cultural radar off of whatever is in the vicinity and see what comes back (This is possibly where the butt metaphor breaks down.)

I’m a myths guy, so I’m going to talk about culture in terms of myths. Specifically I’m going to talk about hero myths, because (as Joseph Campbell has already explained so well in “Hero With a Thousand Faces”) those types of myths arise out of a deep, shared psychological journey that pretty much every person has to deal with at some point. Hero myths get told all over the world in incredibly similar ways because the people who are telling them are all dealing with the same problems in their brains. If that’s true, we should be telling just as many new myths today as we were telling a thousand years ago.

So why is it that when I ask you to name me a myth, nine out of ten of you will give me a Greek one? If I ask for a legend, is it presumptuous of me to guess that you’re probably thinking of King Arthur? Where’s our mythology? Time was, everybody in town went to the same church, or shaman, or ritual orgy. They bonded over a mythology that were uniquely theirs, despite its universal themes. Maybe the reason we don’t seem to have a cultural mythology anymore has to do with the size of our cities, or the internet. It’s hard to keep a legend cohesive across that many people. It’s hard to bond with all of New York City.

But I think the real problem is that we know too much now. It’s hard to write a good-old-fashioned hero legend when everybody’s already sick of how the old ones end. We’ve become too classy, too embarrassed to tell the kind of un-subtle, crude, unabashedly optimistic tales our ancestors grew up on. But that doesn’t mean the stories don’t still exist inside us. The brain-problems still exist, so the stories must exist too. They bubble around under the surface and explode out of us whenever they find an opening.

Take a look at the Lincoln Memorial and tell me that’s not a temple. Look at comic books. Look at sports stars and pop stars and Elvis god-damn Presley. Look at John Henry (a real man immortalized in ballad) and Paul Bunyan (a folk-hero originally created as part of a Canadian ad campaign). Hell, look at Scientology. Mythology has gone underground, but it’s still there, and we’re still telling it in our own self-conscious ways. That’s why I’ve stuffed some American myths into my book alongside the Greek and the Sumerian. It’s my way of saying “Hey, look! I haven’t murdered culture at all! It’s right over here, under all these guns and hamburger wrappers!”

zeusSo I wrote a book of mythology and you are going to buy it. You are going to buy it because unlike other books on mythology – which make you want to curl up and take a nap next to a bonfire composed of books on mythology – my book is a furious hurricane of swears and incest, interspersed with classically inspired illustrations that I have gone and drawn dicks all over.

It is, basically, the death of all culture.

I have a website where I do this kind of thing all the time, and I’ve drawn criticism because some people believe that by making Zeus talk in all caps and by inserting disco balls into Native American creation myths, I am disrespecting the founding beliefs of cultures I have no right to disrespect. Here’s the thing, though, and it’s a thing that all teachers and students of mythology would do well to remember: Myths are supposed to be ridiculous.

Here’s what Joseph Campbell – pretty much the god of talking about myths – has to say about humor:

“Humor is the touchstone of the truly mythological … The gods as icons are not ends in themselves. Their entertaining myths transport the mind and spirit, not up to, but past them.”

That is to say, if you want to communicate some seriously cosmic knowledge, it helps to warm the crowd up with a couple jokes. The problem is that in our centuries of academic analysis, we’ve completely forgotten what makes the jokes funny. We’ve let the languages get out of date, and the pop culture references don’t make much sense anymore.

This is where I come in.

I come from a proud lineage of bards and vagabonds; the guys who lived or died on whether they could entertain a hall full of drunken barbarians. I come to you from a time before copyright law, where it wasn’t so much what you told, as how you told it. Think of me as a modern-day Shakespeare, except more attractive, less British, and on the internet. This is not the death of culture. It’s the zombie apocalypse.