Lorraine Shannon – The Myth Gap Review

Perhaps the most famous ‘myth’ of Aboriginal culture is that associated with the Rainbow Serpent.  However Aboriginal culture is also rich in the mythology of other Creation Ancestors whose actions created the features of the Australian landscape.  Their journeys are recorded in songlines that criss cross Australia, and are remembered through dance, ceremony, art and song.  These songlines not only record the actions of the Creation Ancestors, but also hold the knowledge of the behaviour of all the plants and animals and cycles of weather necessary for human survival along that songline.  This knowledge has been handed down through over 60,000 years of Aboriginal occupation of Australia, going back to the Ice Age.

Bill Gammage, ‘The Biggest Estate on Earth’, 2011

Being born on or near a songline decides a person’s most important totem and being taught part of a song or dance legitimates being on the country it describes. People learn their songs, dances and country in minute detail. From far away they can discuss a tree or soak and who is responsible for it. Senior people who learn more song expand their geographical and spiritual knowledge and acquire more rights to responsibilities, including the duty of singing country into life, sometimes beyond their boundaries. In turn a properly sung song’s plains, hills, rocks and waters care for its people and animals. Songlines are places of refuge, of comfort, of communion. They affirm a powerful message: the universe is one; all creation has a duty to maintain it; at the risk of your soul, keep things as they are.

Lorraine Shannon:  At the final meeting of the book club for 2018 we discussed Alex Evan’s The Myth Gap, published in 2017 by Eden Project books. The subtitle to the book “What happens when evidence and arguments aren’t enough?” is an important question that the book attempts to answer. Overall, we felt that although Evans made some excellent points, ultimately his solutions were disappointing.

While we in western industrialised societies undoubtedly live in a “myth gap” with all that that entails – fragmentation, polarization, violence and the inability to successfully combat consumerism, ecosystem degradation and climate change, to believe we can simply create myths that will inspire us to save the planet is, in my personal opinion, naive. Evans makes little if any distinction between myths and stories and this has consequences for the development of his argument.

Myths have a psychological depth and have been passed down through many generations, their origins largely unknown. Stories on the other hand generally have known authors and a clear time frame. This is not to denigrate stories. They can undoubtedly have an enormous impact on our lives. We need only look at Trump’s stories of making America “great again” to realize their power. Evans clearly recognizes that ‘counter-stories’ are largely an ineffectual means to alter the destructive course we are presently following and has grasped at myths as a promising alterative. He rightly comments that we need myths to situate ourselves “at the intersection of a deep past and a deep future.” Such myths, unfortunately, do not spring into being overnight.

True, we have rich Indigenous traditions which can be drawn on but let’s face it, they are unlikely to appeal to those who steadfastly believe ‘they are what they buy’; unlikely to shift the values base of consumerist societies and unlikely to gain credence with mainstream economics.

Evans therefore approaches the problem from the angle of ‘redemption’ and ‘atonement.’ He proposes the Jubilee as “an instruction manual for how to build and maintain social and economic structures that protect rather than undermine the covenant.” This, for me, is the weakest part of the book, where the “myth gap” isn’t replaced by realistic propositions.

The strengths of this book lie in identifying the myth gap and outlining the elements we need in our stories to change course: working through grief, working at redemption and restoration to attain a better good life. How to put those insights into practice still remains a question; one it is essential we pursue.

Joseph Campbell’s works on comparative mythology has shown the interesting parallels in many of the myths that underly different cultures.  The culture of Western Civilisation has been shaped by the myths of Greek culture as well as Greek philosophy, by the Genesis myth that is foundational to Christianity and Judaism, and to the later great myth of Progress that has shaped the West’s entrancement with technology and innovation.

Campbell has identified the Hero’s Journey as one of the most important myths in the narrative structure of Western literature and film.