We all have a general idea of the distinctions between myth, fable and legend. A legend, to me, is a story that doesn’t need to teach anything – ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. A fable is a story, often with animal characters, which is intended to teach a lesson – ‘Aesop’s Fables’. A myth is a story which is supposed to tell us why things are the way they are.
My personal favorite is myth. I like the word. I like the way it sounds, the way it comes out of the mouth like a feather. And I like the way I understand it. Once upon a time, myth, to me, was the same as ‘lie’, but no longer. I did a research paper on myth back in the day, and the way I view the word and its function changed completely. I came to see myth, not as an ancient fabrication, but as a living thing. Myth has a function in life.
I believe a myth is 1) a story which attempts to tell us why things are the way they are, and 2) a living story in that it can come alive to us and help us interpret ourselves and our existence. What does this have to do with the human tendency to try to lead in the divine/human dance?
Theologians call it ‘original sin’.
We’re all familiar with the story of the fall of Adam and Eve. It’s a myth, as defined above. It answers the question, where does evil come from? In my opinion, the insight the ancients were trying to share is usually lost on us because we get distracted by apples and snakes and debates over whether it actually happened or not. We get distracted and we miss the insight.
In Sunday School, we were told that we are separated from the divine because of ‘original sin’. As a child, it made no sense to me that I should suffer because of something someone else did. As I grew to adulthood, it continued to make no sense to me, and I found no help from people who I hoped would know the answer. So, I came to my own conclusion. I think the key is in the temptation. Forget the garden, the snake, the fruit and the two naked aboriginal humans. Forget the question of whether it actually happened or not, and look at the temptation: ‘you shall be as god’. I believe we are separated from the divine by our efforts to take on the prerogatives and semblances of the divine, generally as it relates to other people.
I read recently that one percent of the US population controls forty percent of the nation’s wealth. My first thought was, how can anyone need so much wealth, but it was a silly question. Wealth is power, and power lifts us above the ‘unwashed masses’ and allows us to ‘lord it’ over them. Power makes us ‘godlike’ in the eyes of our fellow humans. The poor bow before the rich, begging for a crumb from his/her table. (Give me a job, please.) The powerless idolize (which means to worship) the powerful. Ordinary people stand in line for hours just to catch a fleeting glimpse of movie stars and sports stars. (He waved at me!)
Power is a temptation few of us can resist. It may be the most potent of all aphrodisiacs. And you can never have enough.
So, here is where the myth of Adam and Eve comes alive for me and instructs me. Here I believe I can see the insight of the ancients because I commit ‘original sin’ every day, multiple times a day, every time I seek to lift myself, every time I chose to enhance my power, however little it may be, over others.
The man from Galilee warned against that. He told us not to lift ourselves, but to lift others, especially the weak, the poor, the fatherless. He said, and this is important, that the divine would lift us.
In our efforts to lift ourselves, we struggle against the divine. In our efforts to empower ourselves, we are trying to lead the divine/human dance.
The ramifications are many and daunting. One could argue that even my desire that others read my words is a desire to be lifted, to be empowered. As I consider the ramifications, I feel like I’m standing upon a precipice, gazing into the immense gulf which separates me from the divine, a gulf which I myself have dug, and I feel the anguish of the ancient writer who said, ‘woe is me, for I am undone’.
But then I sense a hand reaching out to me, and a gentle voice inside my soul says, “Would you like to dance?”