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Dying leaves no clues for survivors. When the eyes of a family member or friend close forever, we want to feel sure that this sense that we have that they endure correlates to something real. The jaw drops open, so we see a silent scream or the route by which the soul left the body. The limbs stiffen: the outline of the skeleton becomes plain to us. The coffin descends into the open grave and we perceive a portal to another world. We want retribution against those we hated, compassion for those we loved. We want to own an awareness that this death is not a random happening in a greater chaos; that it is part of a larger order, an organization with intentions and motives of its own. The dead, we insist, must have an identity like that which takes and keeps them must have a form and a purpose. Death, we resolve, must have a face. This profound and heartfelt emotion, I think, is the origin of our beliefs about what causes us to die and what lies beyond.
Spirituality isn't about Truth. It is about coping with uncertainty. The tales of Science help us find oil, know which animals are good to eat, what chemicals will help us heal, etc. The tales of Religion comfort, draw us together, and amuse. The stupid thing that some person did at the beginning of Time to bring Death into the world must be told with a twinkle in the eye. Folktales are meant to move us: scientific explanations are meant to help us in a material world.
To say that myths are made of "vapor" is only a metaphor and a bad one because vapor is matter and what we call "spirit" is our hopes for something that exists that is not material. Not only is the world of the spirits invisible to us, but we can't touch, taste, smell, or hear it either. If there is a God and people have experienced that higher being, their language based on the senses cannot begin to describe it. It is like giving an amoeba a taste of intelligence and then leaving it the impossible task of communicating to its marsh pond kin what it has experienced. If there is a "higher intelligence", then we are like amoebas to it. Can we even begin to be aware of what it is like, how it perceives us? Even modern myths, likening our small planet to a molecule in a universe of unknown but immense size demonstrates our own intellectual limits more than they express anything approaching a certainty.
Certainty fails when we attempt to divide our myths from our folk tales. Some say that the difference between a myth and a folk tale is that myth speaks to matters of existence while folk tales merely tells a story. The collection of jokes I have included in this collection, I think, destroys this distinction. A clearer perspective is offered when we accept that myth is used by religious figures to grant authority to themselves. This neatly covers everything from the Eleusian mysteries to shamanic journies into otherworlds to the Bible and other scriptures while preventing the invasion of the merely ribald and amusing. To clarify this further, we can look at the place of each in Catholic ritual: A priest can tell a joke from the pulpit during his homily. It does not enjoy a sanctified place, however, like the gospels do. As he begins the sermon, the celebrant leads the congregation in the sign of the cross, to mark a point at which the mystical portion of the mass is ended and a frank discussion of the pragmatic can begin.
Even this is not a clear break. The priest or minister who delivers a sermon still relies on the myths of his religion to educate the audience. And when a joke is used in a religious context, does it not take on some of the numina that already belong to the scriptures? Myth continually happens in the sense that we always work on the stories, putting the attitudes of our age into them. There is nothing Biblical, for example, about Jesus the Salesman: this is an invention of the 20th century that has been used to sanctify the gaining of wealth and to create, for a seemingly secular world, a new version of an old god. Even skeptics invoke mythic images to add a charge to their cause: a recent book by atheist Paul Kurtz that challenges our assumptions about the necessity of having religion is published by Prometheus Press, named for the Greek god who brought fire to humans.
Because of these places of fuzziness, I have not attempted to separate myths from folktales. I certainly do not allow the fact that some tales have been written down to sway me into believing that they are of a higher order than the beliefs of the ancient Greeks or s so-called "simple" or "primitive" peoples. If you have to have a distinction, try this one: folklore is myth minus the expectation of seriousness.
A problem that one runs into when researching myth is lack of agreement about what the myths and beliefs actually are. I've drawn from many sources and I've often wondered to what degree the accounts I have found have been embellished by authors and scholars who have sought to recreate them for us. If there are modern additions, what do we make of them? Are they corruptions of a pure form, a kind of toxic sludge in our spiritual drinking water? Or should we see that in such modern revisions the myth is still active, that its elements have something to say to us, maybe to challenge us with a reversal of our usual thinking?
The way to appreciate myths is not to accept them factually, but to enjoy them for their grand departures from reality. Gods, ghosts, angels, demons, vampires, and the other characters of the Other World of our mind are fun to hear and read about. I have trouble with saying that myths have "spiritual truth". Labeling anything that isn't scientifically proveable as Truth gets us into a wallow capable of bogging down university seminars for weeks in discussions of "Your Truth versus My Truth". The joy of reading and retelling a good story turns to brine if we sound its waters too deeply for universals or meanings that we suggest for them based on our current pet literary theories. It is true that this is no approach for the writing of a class paper or an article for a scholarly journal, but I don't purport to be doing either here.
What you will find here is a collection of retellings of delightful stories set in a rough glossary for your ease of browsing. There is no question in my mind that these folk artifacts often repeat and attempt to answer one of Life's Big Questions. Using philosophy as a starting point, the stories of the people offer respite from the usual ideological litanies. They are good yarns, worth repeating.
The tale is not the philosophy. It is entertainment; a break from catechisms; a wonder full of extraordinary things and extremely human responses to them.
Approach these pages as you would a carnival. Stop off at the booths that interest you and watch the puppet show for a while. You will probably learn something about their creators' attitudes and maybe a wise thing or two, but be sure you enjoy them.