Convert’s Zeal

I think I’ve discussed the meaning of the word “myth” on this blog before.  Despite the common contemporary usage of the word “myth” to mean “something that is not true”, as folklorists use the term it kind of means the opposite.  We define “myth” roughly as a narrative which is believed a particular group to be sacred and true.  And we don’t really go further than that.  We don’t get into discussions of whether a particular story actually is true—we leave that to theologists, philosophers and scientists.  All we care about is what people believe is true and what that tells us about their culture.

So I teach introductory folklore courses and we do a small unit on myth.  The big assignment from this unit consists of giving the students a packet of creation myths and making them analyze two of them in terms of what they suggests about a particular folk group’s worldview.  This packet includes, among other myths, the Genesis creation story and a telling of the Big Bang Theory. Every semester I wait for the Christian and Jewish students to freak out about us calling the Genesis creation story a myth.  But it’s never happened.  Apparently they are actually getting the message that just calling the story a myth is not challenging its validity.  Maybe they privately resent it, but they don’t bring that attitude into class and they don’t express it in their papers.  It’s a big relief.

Who causes the problems with this assignment?  The atheists.  First, there’s contention over whether the Big Bang Theory can be classified as a myth.  As we discuss in class, I freely admit it doesn’t necessarily fit nicely into the rubric we generally set for myths.  On the other hand, it does fit a lot of the characteristics.  And if we really believed things could be easily sorted into set categories we’d be anthropologists.  We put the Big Bang Theory into the packet of myths deliberately to problematize that rubric.  And upon analysis, it becomes immediately clear that it does reveal a lot about contemporary secular worldview in much the same way as myths.  At any rate, discussion I’m fine with.  Debate I encourage.

Using a person’s lack of religious belief as an excuse to write a crappy analysis?  That will result in a crappy grade.

To be fair, I don’t poll my students on their religious affiliations, but I’m sure I have many atheist and agnostic students who write wonderful analyses.  But without fail, every semester, I get a handful of analyses from out and proud atheists whose analyses consist of “This myth reveals that the worldview of X people is ignorant.  This is clear because believing in myths is stupid.”  In what world is this a college level analysis?  It’s annoying.

I’ve spent years arguing that religious parents who don’t want their children exposed to concepts such as evolution or the Big Bang Theory in science class should find an alternative to public schools.  The job of science classes is to teach science and anyone who is that against learning should simply get out.  I suppose perhaps the same is true for courses that cover mythology.  If you can’t handle hearing about myths and discussing them in an analytical fashion, perhaps you should find another course to take.

To be fair, I think this is at least as attributable to my students’ age as it is to their religious creed/lack of creed.  I do realize that a lot of college aged atheists are either newly out as atheists or have only recently discovered atheism.  I do think in some ways this is just a matter of convert’s zeal.  It seems new atheists are subject to many of the same foibles as new Christians.  And in my class it can be just as detrimental to their grades.

Rules for Surviving a Folktale/Myth/Legend

This list was initially compiled by one of my mythology classes, later contributions came from friends.  We welcome further additions, so feel free to comment with your own rules.

  1. When a divine/powerful being gives you only one requirement don’t break it (yes, Orpheus, I’m talking to you).
  2. When an animal disrupts your attempts to have sex with a stranger, kill the stranger, not the animal.  Trust me.
  3. When they come around looking for virgins, don’t raise your hand.  It’s never for something good.
  4. Whenever they loudly demand volunteers, stay quiet. They aren’t looking to build an orphanage. This goes double for Gawain.
  5. If you’re riding through a forest and you run into a beautiful maiden in the middle of no where who wants to pour you a drink, keep riding and please don’t take a drink.  (seriously Percival.  I mean it this time).
  6. Avoid forests. When’s the last time you heard of something skulking after you on the wide open plains?
    1. Caves aren’t good either.
  7. When the hot chick asks for the secret that will destroy you, it’s not out idle curiosity.
  8. Never laugh at a prophecy.
  9. If someone makes a prophecy that your child will bring about doom and destruction either a) smother it with a pillow then and there or b) raise it normally, making no reference to the prophecy. Under no circumstances should you send the child away to die.  That goes double if your child is named Oedipus or Paris.
  10. Killing your offspring may be prudent, eating them never is.
  11. Don’t have kids.  The odds of them coming back and killing you one day are too high to risk.
    1. It doesn’t matter how long your adopted parents may have raised you: you’re still a threat.
  12. Making fun of powerful beings is never a good idea.
  13. When someone offers to show you paradise, remember that paradise it the land of the dead.
  14. “Impossible” tasks are never really impossible.  But are you willing to take the risk you’re the one “destined” to complete it?
  15. The women who discovered the queen ate her baby/gave birth to a small animal instead of a baby usually have some idea where the baby went.
  16. There are plenty of people who were “not born of woman” so don’t get cocky (Macbeth) or too lonely (Llew).  (Tho’ let’s face it Llew, you were better off lonely)
  17. If your mother dies, do not, under any circumstances, let Daddy start dating again.
  18. Avoid beautiful women who like to hang out around water. Especially if you ride around on said water in a boat.
  19. Given the choice, always go for the dullest metal.
  20. A stranger already in your house is inevitably a friend. A stranger knocking on the door is inevitably the enemy.
  21. An inventor’s inventions never win the day over magic or a good-sized army.
  22. Your uncle never loved you. Really.
  23. Always grab the first weapon you find when in a desperate situation. Especially if it’s stuck in a rock. Or if it IS a rock.
  24. Never take candy, fruit, etc from strangers.
  25. When a clearly magical being tells you to kill them, the LAST thing you want to do is try to kill them.  (Gawain, are you listening?)
  26. The uglier a woman is, the more vital it is to be nice to them.
  27. Married women are off limits. Yes, this includes you, Zeus. You too, Lancelot.
  28. If you have two siblings, be the youngest child.
  29. Talking animals are to be trusted unconditionally.
  30. Normal women do not use chicken legs for house foundations. Bear this in mind.
  31. If you are in a hurry to get somewhere and you pass a person/animal who needs help, help them. Especially if it will delay you.
  32. Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  Fool me three times, you’re a trickster and I’m the butt of a joke in some folktale.
  33. The best way to find something is to not be looking for it.
  34. Never piss off a gypsy.  (But don’t let them babysit either)
  35. Don’t trust mice, but don’t kill them either.  The sneaky little buggers may have valuable information.
  36. If your intended seems too good to be true, he/she probably is.
  37. The young lady accused of being a slut is probably the most virtuous girl in the village.
  38. If you encounter a strange object you’ve never seen before, don’t touch it!
  39. If someone wants to sing you a lullaby, punch them in the mouth first and ask questions later.