Blogs >> How myths and stories help us understand the world by Rachel Fleming

How myths and stories help us understand the world by Rachel Fleming

The Good Ship Myth and Ecology

From the moment I sat on the front lawn of the Old Postern with Martin Shaw and we shook hands on running an MA programme in Myth and Ecology, I knew I would have to take it myself.

I don’t want another Masters, but there was something about this one that could not be avoided. I had been creating courses for Schumacher College for seven years and needed a creative break, I’d worked with Martin for a long time, and knew that what he offers is totally unique, but there was something about his proposition this time that sounded like the most powerful libation I’ve ever heard for a world in need.

What he suggested was a close look at the way that humans think and feel about their place in the world, an exploration of the way we use our myths and stories to understand and create the world around us. This programme, the good ship Myth and Ecology would be setting sail to un-map and re-map human imagination itself, the very source of all that we have created.

When did we stop noticing that there is something of soul outside of our small selves? If we can find another world, a world of non-ordinariness, a world of magic and soul that lies within this one, not separate from it, then perhaps we can learn to live in a different way within it, with more reverence.

Three months into the programme, far from land, I am not disappointed. Last week, we were huddled in the ships cabin – a room in the Elmhirst Centre at Dartington Hall where scholars and explorers have been before us – visiting Homer’s Greece. We embarked on a mead-fuelled telling and exploration of The Odyssey - our first foray into the workings of the human mind as we experience it today. On the way to Greece, the islands and peoples we visited on our own Odyssey, have included Paleolithic hunters and gatherers, Neolithic agriculturalists, the sea-board dwelling Haida of North West Canada, the shamanic Tungus of Siberia and the flesh-eating Yagwoia of Papua New Guninea. 

We were looking at their stories, their relationship with the Gods, the way they live and how they interact and behave within the natural world around them. We were joined by the world’s leading poets and anthropologists in this endeavour, Robert Bringhurst with his knowledge of Haida myth, Jadran Mimica our expert anthropologist on the spell-making and mortuary practices of PNG, and with many more to come, all of them excited to travel a while with our expedition, the first of its kind in the world.

What are we up to and where is this leading? Someone asked me recently whether this endeavour is a bit of an indulgence given that there will be no job at the end of it. All I can say to this is that we are not really looking for jobs, most of us already have jobs … we are psychotherapists, poets, academics, wilderness guides, philosophers, writers. What we will have to do at the end of this is find a way of taking back the many gifts we have received back to our communities.

But I am in no doubt of the value of what we are trying to achieve. The co-leader of the programme, anthropologist Carla Stang, began our first day by saying the one thing that has inspired her life’s work is the certainty that C S Lewis was right, that there is a door at the back of the wardrobe leading to another world besides the one we live in now, it is simply a matter of finding it. So we are looking – in the mythology and creation story of peoples through time and space, in the ‘mundus imaginalis’ of Henry Corbin, in the archetypal psychology of Carl Jung and James Hillman, in alchemy, in romanticism.  We are looking at the very act of telling the myths of the world themselves, in their roots and their sources and in the very movement of the imagination that this activity catches.

At what point did we stop telling each other the stories of our land and ancestors, our beginnings? When and why did we stop using the spells and believing that there was some kind of magic in the world? When did we stop noticing that there is something of soul outside of our small selves? If we can find another world, a world of non-ordinariness, a world of magic and soul that lies within this one, not separate from it, then perhaps we can learn to live in a different way within it, with more reverence. And for me that is a job worth doing.

Rachel Fleming is a student on the MA Myth and Ecology

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