Obliquity of the Ecliptic

Poetry, Prose, Photography, etc.

Why do we believe in myths?

It’s a valid question, really. Why are we so fascinated by stories of Zeus, Thor, or Anubis? Why do these stories get retold over and over, in different forms and across different mediums, in different societies across the world?

These questions are ones I want to answer, but I didn’t feel qualified enough to do so without any research first. So like any curious soul seeking knowledge, I read a book.

Well actually I googled it first, but the results were so less than satisfactory, so then I read a book.

Found at the local library, it was called The Universal Myths: Heroes, Gods, Tricksters and Others by Alexander Eliot. Now this is not the author’s only work regarding mythology—his other books bear titles like The Timeless Myths and The Global Myths, which gives you an idea of this author’s expertise. It went into such great depth and detail that I highly suggest reading it for yourself, since the collection of quotes and explanations below are just the tip of the iceberg on this topic.

One of Eliot’s first points is that myths are very complex. He states: “No wonder myth eludes definition. It’s not something which we can isolate for a close look. The primal myths are built into our brains, our genes, and our blood. However distant they may seem, they still surround, embrace, imbue, and color human consciousness.” [1]

Poetic, no? Essentially, mythology cannot be so simply categorized. Myths are, in many ways, like history—a deeply ingrained part of humanity.

But what exactly does “myth” mean? According to Mircea Eliade (a Romanian historian and professor who helped write the book), the exact definition of the word doesn’t adhere to our expectations of it. For those living in the nineteenth century, “‘myth’ was anything that was opposed to ‘reality.’ . . . the word mythos in Greek meant ‘fable,’ ‘tale,’ ‘talk,’ or simply ‘speech,’ but it came be used in contrast with logos and historia, thus coming to denote ‘that which cannot really exist.’” [2]

So really, in the past a myth meant any type of story told, but then over time it became a contradiction to fact. Interesting indeed.

So how do myths come about? Now that question has a very long, complicated answer, but to use the words of Andrew Lang (a Scottish poet and anthropologist who also co-wrote this book): “myths reflect actions, ideas, and institutions which actually existed at some time in the past.” [3]

And I believe this reason plays a huge part in why mythology is so fascinating to us. It reflects the different cultures across the globe, and by learning about different myths, we also have the opportunity to learn about the ideals and mentalities of diverse societies.

But to go even more in depth, Eliot brings up Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. He asserts:

“Another attempt at psychological understanding of myth is that of C. G. Jung, whose theory of myth is interdependent on his theory of the collective unconscious. Indeed, it was mainly the striking similarities between myths, dreams, and symbols of widely separated peoples and civilizations which led Jung to postulate the existence of a collective unconscious. He noticed that the images and structure of this collective unconscious manifest themselves in regularly repeating forms, which he called ‘archetypes.’ Like Freud, Jung considered myth, dream, and fantasy to be the indifferent products of the unconscious . . . these mythical images are structures of the collective unconscious and are an impersonal possession.” [4]

In other words, mythology is an extension of the “collective unconscious,” or the part of the mind that stems from ancestral memory and experience and is a shared quality by all humankind, which is different from an individual’s unconscious. How truly fascinating.

In the modern day, we tend to categorize those past stories of demigods and demons as just another slice of fantasy, yet we can see that they are much more ambiguous than expected. They are a shared experience, a crucial part of humanity, and should not be so easily defined or scorned.

Mythology is a very broad topic, and I hope to continue pursuing it with these little research and writing endeavors. In fact, with all this in mind, I plan on writing the next installment of my “mermaid-a-month” series, focusing on the history of the mermaid myth.

But after this discussion, are they really myths after all?

Bibliography

[1] Eliot, Alexander. The Universal Myths: Heroes, Gods, Tricksters and Others. New York: First
Meridian Printing, 1976. Print.

[2] The Universal Myths, 14

[3] Ibid, 17

[4] Ibid, 20

© 2017 Obliquity of the Ecliptic

Shen Yun: A Review

The lights are dim, the crimson curtains drawn.

It’s approximately 7:15 on the night of January 25th, and I sit in the balcony of the grand theater, waiting for a life-changing performance. I know it’s life-changing because the first time I saw it 2 years ago, I was moved, astounded, inspired, and so much more.

I came alone, wanting to fully submerge myself in the experience, but I am still surrounded by a crowd well over a thousand, all of different ages and appearances. The 74 dollars needed for the ticket and the treacherous teetering up the stairs in heels are just small prices to pay for two hours of the diverse and powerful music, dance, acting, culture, and history I am about to receive.

The title printed boldly on the blue pamphlet in my lap reads Shen Yun. According to the inside, “Shen Yun” loosely translates to “the beauty of divine beings dancing.” Shen Yun itself is a performing-arts and entertainment company formed in New York City. They perform a mixture of classical Chinese dance and ethnic/folk dance, usually in a narrative structure, with orchestral accompaniment and solo performers. So along with traditional Western instruments being played in the orchestra, like the violin or the trombone, there is also traditional Chinese instruments such as the pipa or the erhu. The dancers are also not just dancers, but acrobats, actors, and even comedians. It’s truly fine art in the highest form.

A man walks around several rows below, waving a sign that declares No photography permitted during the show! In this day and age, when I can spy at least 12 people on their smartphones at a time, I find it’s getting harder for them to enforce this. Since I lack a cell phone of my own, I worry not about breaking this rule. After all, to distract both the performers and the audience with the bright light from a phone screen would be sacrilege.

The orchestra begins to play, each musician joining in until they form one single swell of melodious noise. The show has begun.

Two hours later, I leave the theater in a daze, the crisp night air waking me from some sort of dream. The sound of chatter from surrounding strangers is background noise, the glowing headlights of vehicles blurred in my vision. I am at peace and yet also abuzz with excitement, wanting to share my experience.

Words cannot truly express how sensational it was, but I will try my best describing the performances that appealed to me the most. The first is titled “Mongolian Bowls”: an ethnic dance in which 16 women performed with bowls of simmering milk tea, precariously balanced on their heads or in their hands. I loved this dance the most not only because of the sheer skill involved, but also because of the costumes. They were made of jewel-adorned sapphire fabric which sparkled with every twirl, atop layers of flowing white skirts and puffy white sleeves. That, coupled with the fluidity of their movement, reminded me much of the ocean.

My second favorite dance was “Yellow Blossom”, in which the female dancers, dressed in mint-green and white gowns, used ruffled yellow fans to create the appearance of flowers in motion. At one point, they even came together to form one large flower shape, shaking the fans to make the “petals” of the flower rustle.

My third and final favorite piece was a narrative with a lot of acrobatics, named “Monkey King at Fire Mountain.” It takes a story for the 1592 novel, Journey to the West, which is about a monk and his companions who search for Buddhist scriptures. I won’t spoil the story, but it involves a humorous monkey king (of course), a princess, a goddess, and a lot of fire.

These were just three pieces, but there were close to 20 in all. My descriptions really don’t do Shen Yun justice; you must experience it for yourself to understand. It’s not just for lovers of drama or dance like me, but anyone willing to endure a few hours of sitting to undergo a transformative ordeal.

For those who have seen it, what are your thoughts? Let me know in the comment section below.

© 2017 Obliquity of the Ecliptic

The Mothman, the Myth, the Legend

Who is Mothman?

Well, according to a clever text post circulating around the internet, he’s “half moth…half man…….100% boyfriend material.” Amusing, but not too informative. And obviously, this legendary figure has had his appearances in comic books, video games, and the occasional poorly-made TV special, but right now we’ll just be focusing on the one, the true, and the original figure: the red-eyed cryptid from Point Pleasant, West Virginia.

So, according to Wikipedia (the age-old source for things of any real importance), the Mothman is a creature “reportedly seen in the Point Pleasant area from November 12, 1966, to December 15, 1967. The first newspaper report was published in the Point Pleasant Register dated November 16, 1966, titled ‘Couples See Man-Sized Bird … Creature … Something’.”

Interesting. But we could go deeper.

Now recently I indulged myself by watching the 2002 film The Mothman Prophecies, based upon John A. Keel’s book bearing the same name, which of course was inspired by the events mentioned above. The movie features Richard Gere as the tortured protagonist and Laura Linney as the blonde cop sidekick. Though it is described as a “spine-tingling, supernatural thriller that will rattle your nerves and shake your beliefs”, I just found it highly entertaining. However, it did cover some important details concerning Mothman’s story.

This movie also seemed like a metaphor in which industry is the greatest evil and Mothman’s a communist fighting the capitalist agenda, but notwithstanding.

For one, it emphasized how Mothman is associated with precognition, or being able to foresee catastrophic events (in this case, the collapse of Point Pleasant’s Silver Bridge) before they occur. Consequently, it is a common belief that a Mothman sighting means disaster and tragedy are nigh. This doesn’t exactly mean that he himself brings calamity. In fact, one might argue that he has good intentions, trying to warn humanity of danger. So to paint him as a blood-thirsty monster out to hunt and kill humans like some television depictions do is kind of silly.

This doesn’t mean he isn’t a chilling figure. Moths overall are known to be a bit spooky. In the movie, one of the characters, Alexander Leek, actually stated that “in ancient cultures, the moth represents a form of the psyche, or the soul immortally trapped in the hellish death realms.” This could explain why a moth-like humanoid would be particularly feared and revered.

Also, the movie pointed out that those who see Mothman up close are described as having inflamed, swollen red eyes afterwards. Mothman himself is described as having glowing red eyes. Coincidence? I think not.

One thing the movie touched on but I feel didn’t sufficiently explain is Indrid Cold, who is somehow associated with Mothman. But my description of him will have to be saved for another post.

And as a final fun fact, there is an annual festival held in Point Pleasant devoted to the Mothman legend. I hope one day to go.

So that, my friends, is the Mothman. I hope I have informed you well, and I know this will not be my last time discussing him and the questions he brings. The real question though is when will he appear and take me far, far away from all this? Only time will tell.

© 2017 Obliquity of the Ecliptic

Holden the Golden or Holden the Foul?: The Issue of The Catcher in the Rye and Censorship

Language. Alcohol. Sex. Angst. Elements bound to cause controversy, yet they and so much more can be found in the pages of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, a 1951 literary classic. Narrated by the infamous pessimist Holden Caulfield, whose personality resembles that of a cynical stormcloud with a drinking problem, this work relates the coming-of-age story of a boy wandering the streets of New York having flunked out of prep school. With its excessive profanities, sexual references, underage drinking, and melancholy narrator, The Catcher in the Rye poses the question of whether or not it should be censored in schools, an issue teachers and scholars alike debate thoroughly.

Personally speaking, the novel should undoubtedly take part of higher-level school curriculum (taught with careful analysis, of course) because it is a realistic story with which teenagers can relate. However, personal opinion aside, its blatant obscene content often causes controversy, making it one of the most banned literary works in America.

Such content includes swearing (237 “goddams,” 58 “bastards,” and 32 “chrissakes” to be exact¹), sex, deceit, alcohol abuse, secular ideologies, and even homosexuality. It is therefore perceived as an unholy machination by the education system to destroy the ethics of a nation’s students.

However…

Holden Caulfield is an antihero, a character who believes himself to be a martyr of the world and who lacks typical heroic qualities such as optimism or virtue. And though he may have many warped views and bad habits, his actions are very understandable. His speech is excessively pessimistic and vulgar and his actions immoral because he’s a teenager. He agrees to meet with a prostitute partially because he’s lonely, and this loneliness might also explain his alcohol consumption prevalent in the novel.

The Catcher in the Rye as a whole treats juveniles with a special kind of respect and recognition, speaking to teens’ morality. It addresses isolation and a struggle to make sense of the world. Ergo, it should be taught in schools, but with guidance. Teachers should prompt their class on what they, the students, interpret Holden’s various statements or actions to mean and then offer their own professional insight on the deeper meaning.

Classic literature should not be censored for young adults in general, because the act of banning books is a slippery slope which can lead to the removal of classic, beloved works just for some peace of mind. To shield teenagers from negativity and criticism of society is to teach them that pessimistic views are not allowed. And by doing so, it isolates the youth consumed by their troubles, causing the very thing that the censors are trying to prevent.

Furthermore, it makes modern-day readers better understand the past. On the surface, it merely tells the story of its protagonist, but it also subtly describes the change in philosophy and thought in society post-World-War II, providing criticism of middle-class America. After all, a better understanding of past societal views and values helps current society adjust accordingly.

But above all, it is relatable. It does not romanticize the teenage years as much as it makes them more understandable.  Adolescence is undoubtedly stressful, and reading a book where the narrator reacts to this stress with a less-than-positive attitude mirrors the pessimism many teenagers themselves feel. And like many argue, Holden’s actions and feelings should not be praised but instead pitied.

Censorship is a well-debated issue and often evokes controversy, but it is something to consider when dealing with literature that has so much to offer. Even with his crude words and inappropriate behavior, Holden has profound thoughts that resonate within the minds of equally troubled teenagers. In any case, The Catcher in the Rye is more than just a trite tale of adolescent angst, and Holden’s dream of being the catcher in the rye just might be fulfilled when teens read this book and learn from his mistakes.


¹  Steinle, Pamela. “‘If a Body Catch a Body’: The Catcher in the Rye Censorship Debate as Expression of Nuclear Culture.” Popular Culture and Political Change in Modern America. Ed. Ronald Edsforth and Larry Bennett. State University of New York Press, 1991. 127-136. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 138. Gale, 2001. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4 Feb. 2016.

© 2017 Obliquity of the Ecliptic

The Picture of Dorian Gray: A Review

In efforts to revive my habit of reading more than just comic books, I took upon myself the task of reading Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, this past summer. Published in 1890, it caused much controversy with its homosexual undertones and encouragement of giving into sinful temptations. Literary critic Camille Cauti calls it “a neo-gothic horror chiller about a cursed antihero” and sums up the main character well with her statement:

“Dorian is obviously a beauty, a dandy, an impressionable, petulant boy who mutates into a wicked hedonist. He also breaks hearts, takes drugs, tortures his friends, and murders with nigh-impunity.”

The story revolves around the young and gorgeous Dorian Gray, his artist friend Basil Hallward, and the cynical Lord Henry Wotton. Hallward paints a portrait of Dorian (because essentially, he’s in love with him), and this is where the trouble begins. As Dorian commits more misdeeds and becomes more twisted in nature, his portrait radically changes, becoming disfigured and horrific while he stays beautiful and unchanged for decades.

Basically, it’s a scandalous novel. Explicit content—sex, drug use, etc.—is more so implied than it is described, but it’s not exactly subtle either. It adds to the theme of self-indulgence throughout. And of course there’s murder. Nothing spices up a good book like murder.

As a whole, it was a lovely read with dark undertones. I like old books with flowery language, vivid descriptions, and, of course, drama. Many quotes stood out to me as well, such as:

“In the wild struggle for existence, we want to have something that endures, and so we fill out minds with rubbish and facts, in the silly hope of keeping our place”

“There is always something ridiculous about the emotion of people whom one has ceased to love”

“I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvelous to us. The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it”

and perhaps the greatest of all:

“I adore simple pleasures. They are the last refuge of the complex”

So those are my thoughts on it. As far as classic literature goes, I highly recommend it. Several movies have apparently been made about it, the most recent being the 2009 film Dorian Gray starring Ben Barnes (a favorite actor of mine), Colin Firth, and Ben Chaplin, but I don’t think it did the book justice, lacking some depth to focus more on fantastical thrill and sexual content.

What are your general thoughts on the book or movie?