A Dash of Epic Myth in the Workday

Louis le Brocquy, The Táin. Magic chariot, 1969, lithograph on Swiftbrook paper, 54 x 38 cmThe Táin Bó Cuailnge is the great Irish epic that describes devastating episodes of battle instigated by what is essentially a lovers’ quarrel: Queen Medb and her husband Aillil set to comparing their riches in bed one night; in an effort to match her husband’s fortunes, Medb stages a raid on neighboring Ulster to snatch one particular bull. The amount of individuals ready for a good fight prove that they are clashing over more than a couple and their cows, but that is another topic entirely.

The events in the tale lead to the naming of many aspects of the land, so it seems only right that the story should be “earthy” in every respect. One of my favorite professors always used to say that Irish myth “out moderned the modern” and one of the many ways these stories do that is by proving our Victorian-inspired sensibilities really are recent constructs; legends like these endured long enough to be written down because they were made of all of the stuff of life including passion and revenge and cowardice and more than a few bodily fluids.

A strange angle to take on The Táin, I know, but it is a valid one in light of the discussion, or, well truth be told, “pissing contest” that I engaged in over the subject of Irish myth and language today. Pardon me for putting it like that, I don’t quite have the brashness of Medb to say that without apology, but putting it any other way seems a disservice to this metaphor I am trying to construct. I was introduced to an eager, newly minted PhD who has just joined the faculty. As always, I was introduced with a mention of my own credentials. In such situations I tend to smile mutely, caught between shrugging off Irish Studies as a lovely little phase and fumbling around for an vaguely related arcane witticism in a faltering attempt to flatter myself. By the end of the conversation today, I felt like a fraud hiding for behind knowledge I half remembered, nodding sagely as this lovely seeming woman compared the difficulty of translating medieval Irish to the Norse.

In the car on the way home I cranked up the Decemberists’ EP The Táin and felt a little less ridiculous about the conversation. I had not spoken my truth exactly, but I certainly had permission to talk about Irish myth since it was clearly still a part of my life – in this case it was blasted with heavy guitar and bizarre circus music.

One of the hardest things about working in academia at the same time that I pursue knowledge that is not necessarily wrapped in a scholarly, footnoted package is that one often feels robbed of the ability to speak about issues she cares about with any real authority. I know that subjects co-opted by college and university departments tend to become sanitized or problematized ghosts – how many people would recognize themselves as described by anthropology or folklore or ethnic studies faculty?

The exchange today gave me a new appreciation for the enduring versatility of myth, the ways these origin stories can color so many lives in different ways. They can be fireside diversion or fodder for a professional career, respected tales of a people’s genesis or wisdom imparting vignettes. When I lived and breathed the words and history of Ireland these stories were all about illuminated manuscripts and goddesses and warrior queens who could be read as precursors to the feminist age. Freed of the thesis scribbling imperative, they can take on a new life for me, something much closer perhaps, to their original intention.

Artwork by Louis le Brocquy as it appears in Thomas Kinsella’s 1969 version of The Táin.Louis le Brocquy, The Táin. Cúchulainn mounting into his chariot, 1969

Dreaming the Present Moment

I spent a few quiet moments during the boisterous Thanksgiving holiday reading David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous by my parents’ fireplace, completely captivated by his description of the Aboriginal people’s concept of Dreamtime. The landscape is fully mapped by the trail of the ancestors, each hill and valley associated with Kangaroo Dreaming Man, or Tortoise Woman, or one of the many other animal spirit beings that are thought to have preceded the natives of Australia. Individuals come to be connected with an ancestor and they learn the stories and songs associated with the “songline” of that being. The songline is one of many trails that cross the country, taking a route through areas most rich in resources. It seems that the ancestors marked the paths that could sustain the people in times of scarcity as these trails would lead the singers of the songline to ample food, water, and shelter.

How interesting that I read part of this chapter on a bus full of college students all plugged into more electronic equipment per square foot than the average Best Buy. No one spoke as screens flickered in nearly every seat and we crawled through towns that couldn’t imagine scarcity. Now I write this back in the mountains of New York, thinking about a book I read not far from the waters of Cape Cod. I have traveled much in the last few days, but I never gave the act of moving across the land a thought (beyond taking a bus instead of renting a car). What is it to move not because the journey was informed by traditions deeper than memory, but simply because of the cut of the highways and a holiday dictated by calendar and national decree? (It is not as if we were all hiking home because the full moon indicated it was time for the harvest, after all.)

One of Abram’s central theses is that the alphabet, written language, made it possible for humans to essentially live without concern for the natural world that sustained and informed all aspects of our own ancestors’ experience. Certainly the excess of food on a Thanksgiving table produced in countless forgotten corners of the planet and the massive migration of Americans in their quest to be reunited for family and football is a time in which we generally forget our allegiance to the planet as we contemplate traffic, getting along with relatives, and the shopping season ahead.

But then again, in its own way Thanksgiving itself is a tradition deeper than memory since we celebrate it not because of a children’s tale of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a meal in some remote context, but because the ancestors who inform us of who we know ourselves to be have taught us to feast together at the end of each November. It may be an event less than four hundred years in the making and it may not tell an origin tale that is quite as fundamental as Adam and Eve, but it comes close. In reading Abram’s book I have worried over what we may have lost in the translation of capturing life on a page (or a screen). The indigenous societies he describes all sound idyllic and all of their myths sound pure. But perhaps their stories that we now idealize made some of the tellers cringe because they knew survival of their world came at the cost of other races and species, just as the story of this country often makes me shudder even as I recognize its inherent beauty and revel in its bounty. Perhaps after much happiness enjoyed with my family marking a day that forms the national consciousness, I am able to see beyond the romance of times irretrievably lost to the demons of progress and understand the joy there is to be gained in living right now.

Sharing the “Psychic Interspaces”

The makers of images
Dwell with us still
We must listen
To their speech
Re-learn their
Songs
Recharge the psychic
Interspaces
Of our dying
Age
Or live dumb
And blind
Devoid of old
Song
Divorced from
The great dreams
Of the magical and fearful
Universe.

Lament of the Image
An African Elegy

Ben Okri

I found this poem in Andrew Harvey and Anne Baring’s The Mystic Vision and was overcome with a wash of knowledge I had considered obsolete. It was phase of study that was certainly important as it lead me here, but the details had become irrelevant in my current search. In this hunt for “pure” experiences of God, of accounts of those who superseded the intermediaries of this world, I had forgotten myth. What was once the basis of all of my scholarly interests had receded to a collection of background stories, succor for those trapped in narrative rather than experience.

Such negligence of the very foundations of my current project of living marks me as a most negligent ingrate, or perhaps just someone who assimilates and moves on and then loops back to the basis of it all when the time is right. How could I forget how Irish myth and specifically the poetry of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill had shaped my academic work and perspective as a young woman discovering her voice and viewpoint?

Nuala has said: “I think it is downright pernicious to underestimate myth; it’s like pretending the unconscious doesn’t exist, and that we are just composed of rationality. Myth is a basic, fundamental structuring of our reality, a narrative that we place on the chaos of sensation to make sense of our lives.” (“Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and Medbh McGuckian: Comhra.” Southern Review.)

Myth is the thing that links us beyond cultural divisions and unites us even when the sky itself seems to be made of different stuff as it is in Okri’s Africa and Ní Dhomhnaill’s Ireland. “Recharge the psychic/ Interspaces” could come right from Ní Dhomhnaill’s commentary as she describes the metaphor of mermaids in her work or the symbolism of the fairy líos (fort). The pull of the ancestors, veneration for the creators of culture and memory, these are universal themes that are permitted, or actually required, in myth. Today’s epiphany leads me to realize I forget my first lessons at my peril and that part of me still sits in a Dublin lecture hall and must continue to seek the time before history when the world was forged by these “makers of images.”