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On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 1

In this series of articles, storyteller and bard Moyra Caldecott reflects on the perennial meaning and importance of myths and legends.

To me a MYTH is a seminal, original story, using symbolic images, with the aim of stirring up thought about the great mysteries of life. “Where do we come from?” “Who are we?” “Where are we going?” Myths have the power to entertain and inform century after century because they deal with the deep unease in all of us that we know so little about why we are here.

A good myth is not a falsehood, but a truth conveyed by symbolic image – in code, if you like. It resonates on the human experience deeply, even if superficially it appears weird and barbaric. It often works subliminally – hidden meanings emerge years after it is first heard, when something happens in life to bring it to one’s attention. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a myth of our times because we recognize “Mordor” as an image of the palpable evil and darkness against which we are pitted, and ourselves as the Hobbits who need to overcome its influence in our own villages and towns.

A LEGEND is a story with mythic components, but inspired by a real event or character, which has grown by addition over the years to something greater than itself. As Billy Connolly said, when discussing the Blarney Stone in Ireland which was reputed to have been given by Robert Bruce, legend is “rumour plus time”.

We can witness the growth of legends in our own time. Princess Diana has become a kind of Spring Goddess – destroyed by furies pursuing her down a dark tunnel – conveyed over the water like King Arthur to be buried on an island of flowers. Certain mediums claim that she is still speaking through them. And one person at least saw her image in the sky.

Similarly the Twin Towers in New York have taken on mythic significance. Clash of Good and Evil. Light and Dark. Shining glass towers overthrown by men from dark caves. Heroic firemen challenging monstrous evil. As with all good myths, no answers are given, but questions are asked. The Towers themselves are ambiguous: were they symbols of Light, or symbols of Greed?

Myths and legends need decoding. Let’s look at that decoding process and its significance.

  1. The process of decoding is important partly because it slows you down. It makes you think about each symbol.
  2. Each of us will decode a story according to our own individual experience and state of mind. Like a Rorschach test, a symbol will reveal something about that particular person. This means that instead of needing to tell as many stories as there are human beings, we can tell a few, and these are interpreted in a billion different ways.
  3. A mythic story is enjoyable on many different levels. One level is sheer adventure – but at the same time it makes you aware of the underlying meaning in your own life. A symbol or mythic image is like a pebble dropped in a pool – circles and ripples continue to appear long after the pebble has vanished below the surface. A mythic image is shorthand. It tells you much more than is on the page.
  4. We can use them such stories as learning or teaching devices in our own lives. How many women, living in cities where there are no wolves, tell their children about the boy who cried wolf too many times?
  5. A symbol draws on the associative power of the past. The same symbols are used many times, in many contexts, and each time they acquire new associations, greater resonance.
  6. The very strangeness of the story often suggests to us that it must be about something more than it says. So we look and find.
  7. Imagination is one of the strongest and strangest and most important faculties of the human mind – it is the bridge between the known and the unknown. It tests out the ground beyond ourselves, and allows us to explore the way ahead in symbolic, imaginary form, before we have to encounter it for real. Without it we cannot understand our neighbour. Without it wars are inevitable.

Every culture has stories – always they use images from their own culture to drive them along. But always, always, a true myth will speak to any other culture, at any other time, because all cultures consist of human beings trying to make sense of life and death.

More soon…

On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 1
On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 2
On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 3
On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 4
On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 5
On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 6

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