More about Nature and Myth

The Crow Priestess

The Crow Priestess> (detail) by the author

In my somewhat pretentiously-titled post The present is haunted by the mythic ghost of the paleolithic wilderness a couple of weeks ago I wrote:

What is clear to me is that there is a wider paradigm that is emerging in certain quarters of the collective cultural consciousness that incorporates all these new perspectives on wilderness and our relationship to it.

The paradigm is actually two paradigms, but they are interconnected:

Paradigm 1: The End is Nigh

Ever-increasing human production/consumption is completely unsustainable and will probably result in the collapse of the economy and/or western civilisation (or at least radical changes to society that will necessitate a completely different structure).

This idea has been around for years, of course, but it’s becoming more predominant due to the possibility of declining oil supplies and the economic collapse of recent years, which has rocked the widely-held belief that the western economy was pretty much untouchable apart from minor fluctuations.

Recent examples include the Dark Mountain project, and the final section of David Mitchell’s latest novel The Bone Clocks.

As I was writing this post earlier today Warren Ellis posted on this theme again, but playing with the idea of Ebola as the agent of change:

Imagine if the Health Goth look became, in response to First World Ebola, the street-level iteration of the medieval “plague doctor” look, jumping right past cheap hazmat suits. Extinction Symbol connects to Health Goth by its stark black-on-white nature. The symbol leaps out at you on streets, but may not look so out of place in hospitals. Rewilding becomes a reaction, not an active response, to First World Ebola because the African hot zone where this latest outbreak originates is so wild and unmanaged that WHO has to state that its infection stats should be speculatively multiplied by three, due to the simple fact that they can’t get reportage out of a significant chunk of the region.

Tomorrow I’m flying across the Atlantic for a friend’s wedding in New Jersey. This will be the first time I’ll have been in the US over Halloween, so I’m really hoping that the plague doctor look will very quickly filter down into the Halloween costumes by this weekend, but I suspect we’re still on Sexy Ebola Containment Suits rather than sexy plague doctors. Did I really just write “sexy plague doctor”? Anyway…

Paradigm 2: People and Nature, People vs. Nature

There is an increasing awareness of the disconnect between People and Nature, specifically nature-as-uncontrolled-wilderness rather than nature-as-commodity to be consumed.

Recent examples include Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (and Adam Roberts’ review of it), Martin Shaw’s books, and the Rewilding Britain campaign, that I mentioned in that previous post.

Intertwining Paradigms

These two themes are often intertwined: a breakdown in the current production-heavy civilisation will force us to reconnect with nature and re-evaluate our relationship with it.

It’s probably fair to say that most primal myths are about human reactions (for “reactions” read “fear”) to nature - the seasonal changes, the weather, water, and the wider environment, especially forests.

This doesn’t mean that we have to create a new religion or adapt an existing one. Myth—like any story—is separate from religion. Myth provides a way to frame the way our minds interpret nature - a psychological guidebook for the development of a mindset based on a healthy fear/respect.

Primal myths have been sanitised over the centuries as people have found ways to overpower nature. It’s easy to blame the Victorians, but I think it must go much further back. The fear of the forest—and the knowledge that it also provides food and shelter—probably started abating back in Neolithic times when humans started widespread clearance of the forests across the British Isles & Ireland.

The fear is now safely packaged for children in fairy tales about witches living in cottages in the depths of the wood, as in Hansel & Gretel.

Gaia’s Vengeance Indifference

Last weekend’s Doctor Who episode In the Forest of the Night plays a very sanitised version of this where the trees are our friends and do some arboreal magic to protect us. The moral of the episode was a child-friendly “we shouldn’t chop down trees because they’re our friends” (as if producing all the oxygen we need wasn’t enough of a reason, but this is Doctor Who and the scripts of late have been patchy to put it mildly, even for a kids TV show).

Obviously nature is as indifferent to our survival as it is to our extinction - a point made very clearly by Adam Roberts in his review of VanderMeers’ Southern Reach trilogy:

The fact that you are starving doesn’t delight the forest in which you hunt fruitlessly for food; nor is the forest in which you hunt fruitlessly for food saddened to see the state you’ve gotten into. The forest doesn't care one way or the other. Caring is what humans do, not forests. Forests are no more malicious than they are compassionate. Forests are forests.

The “Gaia’s Vengeance” trope is just as ridiculous as its inverse, but they’re both popular because it’s comforting to think that we matter, that we’re either loved or hated rather than not even being considered.

I will tentatively reference Warren Ellis’ Trees here as well as an example of the indifference of (alien?) nature, but the next issue will probably contradict me!

Abandoning anthropotheism

This indifference is one of the reasons I named my latest series of artwork The Crow Priestess, abandoning the anthropotheism (ascribing human form to deities) in my Badb Catha artwork and others. Anthropotheism is not a new concept - it certainly goes back to Sumerian religion 5000 years ago, and very probably predates that because it’s an easy way for people to frame their concepts.

In some stories it’s possible that the opposite occurs - is the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood a simple warning myth about the dangers of predatory wolves in the dark forest, or is it a reverse-anthropomorphic tale that warns girls about the dangers of predatory men (“the worst wolves are hairy on the inside” according to Rosaleen in The Company of Wolves). Or maybe both at the same time, since myths and stories are never constrained by single meanings.

The role of the priest/priestess in religions is to placate the deity/deities. Even though Nature is indifferent to being placated, people try to do so when in desperate straits, either because we believe that such mediation works or because we feel that doing something is better than doing nothing.

I imagine the primal priest/priestess would be a strange figure - only partially human as they would have to shed some of their humanity in order to understand the non-human. That’s what I'm investigating for my artwork at the moment.

Myth and Masks bookNote: A version of this blog post has since been published, along with others on the subject of myth and the “English Eerie” and pieces of my artwork, in my 2016 hardback book of art and writings Myth and Masks, available exclusively from our online shop.