On Reading P. L. Travers

P. L. Travers was an Australian author who wrote the popular Mary Poppins. In her role as senior editor of Parabola magazine she wrote occasional essays on myth and the wisdom tradition. She died in 1996.

As P.L.Travers believed, truth can be conveyed by myth. Before the invention of writing, sacred matter, that is, Truth, was conveyed by means of poetry sung or chanted by bards or priests. It was sometimes preserved for future use by pictures (hieroglyphs) or signs by being carved in stone or clay tablets. This material can be designated as myth, since priestly chanting was regarded as derived from spiritual sources, and bardic chanting was regarded as derived from bardic ancestors who had supposedly witnessed or heard of these events from witnesses. These stories, for example from Homer, were considered didactic as well as entertaining, but were considered no doubt as true only in the didactic sense. They were informative as to what consequences could be expected from certain types of behavior, and what types of behavior could be expected to bring about divine responses, helpful or harmful. Myths, especially about gods or heroes, differed widely, depending on what region the bard came from, or the particular point the bard wished to make. Certain vague parallels to today’s attitude toward Santa Claus as told to children may be seen, although Homer was not at the time directed at children. In other words, this was myth. It was useful as such and had religious connotations when it concerned the gods.

A useful example for our purposes is Dionysus. When Dionysus was an infant, he was torn to pieces by Titans who consumed him, all but his heart, which was saved by his grandmother Rhea when she discovered what was going on. This heart was implanted in Zeus’ thigh (incidentally, a term used in such instances meaning ‘sexual parts.’) Having been borne thus by Zeus, he is thenceforth a god. The heart, in ancient times, was considered the center of the mind as well as feeling, the brain being viewed much as we view a switchboard and not even considered by the Egyptians as worthy of being stored with the four organs, each in its canopic jar. The myths connected with Dionysus are many and varied, but I mention this one merely as an example of the meaning I wish to demonstrate, largely because I do not like to make statements unsupported by evidence.

At the beginning of the Age of Pisces (ca. 1st century AD) the attitude toward myth changed with the rise of Christianity. When the religion was spreading among the people, a newly con-verted Christian might want to tell a friend about this new faith by relating the story of Christ’s immortality through rebirth, which at that time was the most important ‘myth’ surrounding Christ. Easter was for centuries much more important than Christmas and still is in the Orthodox Church. The friend might respond that this was very much like Dionysus. Such as statement could stop a Christian cold in his attempt to convert anyone, since the attitude “What’s the difference?” puts the two myths on the basis of equality, especially since in any polytheistic society new gods are always welcome as a demonstration of the sacredness of all things. But Christians need a basis for exclusivity to prevent the “chaos of the gods” and to bring about the unity of belief necessary to prevent the breakup of the Empire which was threatening everyone. They had the necessary answer. It actually happened! It is a historical fact! It is not a myth! All you need to achieve salvation is not by learning from myth and trying to keep a good relationship with the gods through propitiating them, but simply by believing that it happened. Believe in the immortality of Jesus as the Christ and that he will return and take up to Heaven all the believers and leave behind in Hell all those who don’t, and you too will be one of the saved. The Age of Faith had arrived and the Piscean Age had begun. One must now cling to one of the opposites and fear and despise its opposite, those who do not have this faith. Myth disappears, at least until recently, as the Piscean Age is about to depart.

There are, of course, many examples of the effects of this attitude. In the 11th and 12th centuries Crusades were held which seriously weakened the Christian Byzantine Empire so it was later unable to resist the Turks. The Crusaders wanted to use these Eastern Christians as a base against the expanding Moslems but when they were welcomed into Constantinople on their way, they looted and killed as if the Eastern Christians were the enemy. Needless to say, they were not welcomed later, but often met resistance when they tried to cross Byzantine territory. It is reminiscent of recent events in the Middle East.

You may wonder what I meant when I stated earlier that I have evidence of the truth of the Dionysus myth. I need to make clear that myth is not fact, but truth in a certain sense – perhaps psychological or spiritual, but not in a historical or material sense. As Joseph Campbell often said, “Myth is not what happened in the past, but it is going on all the time – inside you.” The destruction of the infant Dionysus and his being born again through his heart in the thigh of Zeus has parallels in a vision I had when I was torn apart by dogs and was then outside the body while it was presumably being consumed; but the skeleton, now immaculate, was then returned with a beating heart within the rib cage. Demeter, Rhea’s daughter, later reconstituted my body with light. It was not reconstituted in Zeus’ thigh, perhaps because that would have bestowed divinity. I do not know for sure, and I did not ask.

There are instances, however, in which faith is not opposed to myth, but rather to skepticism. At the Asklepion, the patient was often visited by the god Asklepios, after which the patient was healed. The patient believed that it was the vistation of the god which had healed him/her. The skeptic might say that it was the belief that did the healing and not the god; a psychological rather than a religious accomplishment. A believer would not be able to deny this; indeed some mystics have pointed out that prayers are most commonly answered if the person praying concludes the prayer with the assurance that the prayer has already been answered. Here faith and myth, psychology and religion, can reinforce each other.

Today it is the fundamentalists who insist upon the historicity of that which is in the sacred texts of the Old and New Testaments, even though the old Testament is not a Christian text. Most of the Old Testament was written in prose, as was all of the New. In ancient times, truth was expressed in poetry, and fact in prose. Much of the Old Testament simply chronicles those aspects of Hebrew history which the priestly authorities wanted to preserve as fact, but no religious authorities claimed it as divine dogma except for certain parts which were, indeed, like the Ten Commandments, intended as truth and were therefore written in verse. The New Testament was written as fact, but no one then expected that fact would one day hold the meaning of divine dispensation. To accept it as onewould myth would mean that all of us were living the life of Christ and would therefore be sons and daughters of God regardless of whether we believed inJesus as the Christ. That is heresy! The fundamentalists deny the existence of religious myth and say that all religions describe fact or they are lies. Perhaps P.L. Travers was an early herald of the Age of Aquarius, when myth can exist as a balance between truth and fact.

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