True Myth and Fake News

When my mythologist tribe visits town, I like to pour Chardonnay from a vineyard called True Myth. The wine goes down like nectar, a goddess adorns the label, and the name always makes us laugh, because we share the conviction that no, myth is not literally true, but yes oh yes, myth is truly true, deeply true, soul-true. In other words, myth tells lies to tell the truth. Myth reveals its truth not in the literal facts of its images, but as their meaning cloaked in metaphor.

For example, who is the goddess on the wine label? The bottle makes no overt introductions, but the prominent word “true” reminds me of Aletheia, the ancient Greek goddess of truth. Aletheia doesn’t embody only the kind of truth regarding facts and data; she also personifies disclosure or revelations. Aletheia reveals what had been hidden.

The Greeks mythologized lies, on the other hand, as the Pseudologoi, or False Words — a nasty horde born of Eris, the goddess of strife. It’s easy to imagine the Pseudologoi as stinging winged beasties, especially these days when they swarm from the mouths of the president and his apologists. But there’s also a different tale that tells of a single goddess named Pseudologos. As the story goes, when Prometheus was making Aletheia in his workshop — the same divine studio in which he fashioned humankind — Zeus summoned Prometheus away from his work. Prometheus’s ambitious assistant Dolus, whose name means trickery or deception, set about making a copy of Aletheia. The copy’s features and radiance matched Aletheia’s exactly, except that Dolus ran out clay before he could make the copy’s feet. When Prometheus came bursting back in, he stopped in his tracks, breathless at the copy’s likeness to his own work and greedy to garner the glory for creating both goddesses. He hurried them into his magic kiln, and when they came out, glowing hot from the fire of the gods, Prometheus breathed the spark of immortality into both of them. They both exhaled, and then Aletheia walked with slow, steady, measured steps, but Pseudologos could only stand still, because her legs ended in stumps.

Prometheus Creating Humankind while Athena Looks On, Louvre Museum

Have we not all faced difficulty in distinguishing truth from lies, and plagiarism from originality? Even clever Prometheus fell for the trick, and we are but muddy mortals. And notice how the blurring goes both ways: lies can seem so much like truth, and truth can seem so much like lies. Both are sculpted from the same clay. Both are equally alluring. But Pseudologos has no feet. She has no firm foundation in reality, and she cannot move on her own. She needs the aid of accomplices. Isn’t it interesting that her existence springs from an excess of ambition, in both Dolus and Prometheus?

Aletheia, on the other hand, has an independent existence. She stands on strong, supple feet. The solid earth supports her. She doesn’t back down. Careful and conscious, she neither rushes to judgment nor jumps to conclusions.

See how mythic images raise the ante on everyday metaphor? Magical, fantastic, and full of wonder, myth bursts with gods, goddesses, and creation on cosmic scales. Mythic imagery doesn’t just tell lies to tell the truth; it tells fabulous lies, huge lies, amazing lies.

Fake news works on a similar principle. It, too, tells big lies, and its lies also have some deeper meaning. For example, consider the slander that circulated about Hillary Clinton and the pizzeria during last year’s election season. The facts of the story were patently ridiculous, but the deeper meaning that many of us ignored — myself included — was that Clinton had a real image problem, and that some voters loathed her with a malicious, toxic furor. Then there is the story about Donald Trump’s visit to Russia, and the prostitutes peeing in a Moscow hotel room. The meaning of the story is that many people believe the president to be a dirty conman who treats women like commodities and is in bed with the Russians, financially and politically. But we don’t have all the evidence yet. This story might turn out to contain literal truth as well, aka true news.

Fake news scratches the age-old itch of myth — a deep desire to believe the unbelievable, to participate in magic, to thrill along with a flight of imagination. But fake news is not true myth. The truths of fake news are passing, ephemeral things, as fleeting as the headlines, and their lies are designed to manipulate.

Our slippery times speak in slippery terms: alternative facts, reality tv, infotainment, misinformation, post-truth. Each is a euphemism for the ugly fact that money-mongers lie to gain, preserve, and augment their power. Fake news is a powerful weapon in their arsenal. Fake news lies to drain us of our power. Myth lies to remind us of our power, here and now and always.

Truth, Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1593)
Our power begins in recognizing and discerning between Aletheia and Pseudologos. Does a story arise from someone’s ambition? Who stands to to gain from it, and how? Does it stand on its own, or does it require co-conspirators? Is it a near copy of the truth but missing a crucial detail? Does the story rush itself? Does it lurch away from scrutiny and race ahead to tell more false words?

Myth tells lies to tell the truth. It can even tell lies to tell the truth about telling lies. Maybe Aletheia and Pseudologos aren’t so much two distinct beings, but two ends of a gradating spectrum. Maybe the more truth a story contains, the stronger its feet grow, the further it can stride. Maybe the more falsehood a story contains, the more its feet thin into mist and blow away.

On the True Myth wine bottle, we can’t see the goddess’s feet, but the label proclaims, Her Secret Is Patience. May Aletheia share more secrets with us. May her strength and beauty walk with us, along with her patience and wisdom.

“To change how we see things takes falling in love…”

“To change how we see things takes falling in love. Then the same becomes altogether different. Like love, a shift of sight can be redemptive–not in the religious sense of saving the soul for heaven, but in a more pragmatic sense. As at a redemption center, you get something back for what you had misperceived as merely worthless.”

– James Hillman, The Soul’s Code

It Matters More Now

Before the recent election, the Dalai Lama took to the pages of the New York Times to address America’s political tumult in an article called Behind Our Anxiety, the Fear of Being Unneeded. We need to feel needed, he says. We need not to feel superfluous.

In other words, we need to feel like we matter.

Couple Riding, by Wassily Kandinsky
Couple Riding, by Wassily Kandinsky

When the article came out, I still floated like a dumb puppy on a cloud of complacent, liberal optimism. I thought it would be easy to accomplish what His Holiness suggests: treat people like they matter. And when you treat someone like they matter, that matters! Yay. Then the election happened, and too many people learned that they don’t matter enough to too many other people.

Mattering implies great value. The word “matter” comes from the same root as “mother,” the Latin mater. Many traditions see the earth as Mother — the nourishing womb from which we emerge, the source which sustains us through our lives.

Here’s what I believe: everything that mattered before the election matters even more now.

#BlackLivesMatter has it right. If you are treated like your life doesn’t matter, claim the truth of your mattering. If someone else is treated like they don’t matter, help them claim that same truth.

Earth - Pacific Ocean, nasa.gov
Earth – Pacific Ocean, nasa.gov

You matter. You are matter. You’re matter and energy. Einstein broke the astounding news that matter and energy are different forms of each other. Energy is super-duper active matter, and it’s exactly what the world needs. In other words, the world needs you.

Hear that clarion call, like bugles and bells? It says live like it matters, especially now, because it does.

Here We Sing of Hera

A long, long time ago, a goddess-queen ruled a pantheon of gods and goddesses. This queen served as the divine sovereign over her land and her people. So when those people imagined rulership and divinity, they imagined a woman. Babies were born, crops grew, the moon waxed, waned, and waxed again for hundreds and then thousands of years. But one day a band of warlike invaders stormed the land, burning, killing, raping, taking, and bringing with them a stormy new king-god fond of throwing lightning around. Some say the invading king took the queen to wife by force. Others say she agreed to the marriage. No one claims the new god overthrew the goddess. She wielded too much power for that, and he knew he needed her to establish legitimacy. Maybe he found her fascinating, too. Challenging. But no one says they fell in love. King Zeus and Queen Hera simply assumed their thrones side by side, high in the thin, chilly air of Mount Olympus.

Agrigento - Temple of Hera 2 (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Agrigento – Temple of Hera 2 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

For the ancient Greeks, gods and goddesses didn’t just represent the energies of the observable world; they were those energies. Earth, ocean, sun, moon, hearth, love, law, marriage–the stories of these forces clashing, contending, consorting, and creating became what we now call a mythology. Because these figures are personified beings, their stories also illustrate personality dynamics. To the extent that these powers remain active today, Greek myth continues to open windows, onto worlds within and worlds outside. Myth taps into timelessness.

Hera’s name most likely comes from the same root as the word “hero.” She illustrates the aspect of experience whose inherent nature is rulership–a natural leader with ambition and intelligence who happens to be a woman. But soon after her marriage, Hera’s husband began chasing and raping other women all over the land. He arrogated to himself a despotic, entitled, physical dominion over her and all his subjects. In his view, a woman’s most private physical places–metaphorically her inner self, her soul–exist only to be seized by men. Naturally Hera became guarded, defensive. Not long after all this, patriarchal monotheism rose in the Hebrew and then Christian traditions and tried to depose and kill her outright. Christianity’s attacks grew particularly violent, with witch hunts, torture chambers, and burnings at stakes.

hera_di_efeso-vienna_copia_romana_del_100-150_ca-_da_orig-_greco_del_400-380_ac_ca-_6027Hera embodies the aspect of experience that is a strong female subjugated, betrayed, and terrorized. She’s the aspect of experience with awareness of its own displacement and mistreatment. The aspect that has no choice but to go into hiding. The aspect that remembers her throne. The aspect that bides her time.

Hillary Rodham started out as an independent young woman–sharp, successful and full of zest, a leader at her women’s college. After law school, she married and accepted a role as a political wife, first to a governor, then to a president. But when she tried to take her place as a partner to her powerful husband, other politicians lost all composure, especially the conservative Christians. They fumed and foamed about a woman’s place and the inherent evil of healthcare for all. They whipped up their age-old witch hunt, this time using lies and conspiracy theories as pitchforks and torches. Meanwhile, Hillary’s husband proved powerless to resist his urge for nymphs and interns. Hera must have felt similar with Zeus as a husband: the public shame, the helpless rage, the isolation and loneliness, the societal judgment that she was somehow to blame for failing to make her man behave himself.

Hillary stayed married, but she distanced herself from her husband and started her own political career, as senator, as secretary of state. Now she finds herself facing off against another powerful man, this one even more like Zeus than her husband was: a thunderer who blusters about law and order, an assaulter of women, a self-promoter inordinately fond of marble palaces. Hillary’s opponent epitomizes the forces that have arrayed themselves against Hera through the ages.

pufferfish-wallpaper

It’s tempting to dismiss Donald Trump as the archetype of the pufferfish–inflated, cold-blooded, highly toxic even in small doses–but actually he draws his power from the darkest depths of the Zeus archetype. Listen to these lines from the “Homeric Hymn to Zeus,” written sometime around 600 BCE:

         Zeus
         who is the best
         god
         and the greatest
         is who
         I will sing…
         son of
         Cronus
         who sees far
         you’re the most
         famous
         of all
         you’re the greatest

The best, the greatest, the most famous… It sounds exactly like recent political rallies. But the best, greatest, most famous what? Nothing. There is no substance there, not in the poem and not on reality tv. Donald and other Zeuses bring no skills to the table, only their hunger for glory, lust to dominate, bottomless greed for power and wealth. They have no access to wisdom or restraint. They rage. They hurl thunderbolts, verbal or otherwise. They serve themselves. This is why democracy rose, because everyone recognized the perils of kingship. And where did democracy first show up? Ancient Greece, in the time of Zeus.

It’s as though Hera stands behind Hillary and Zeus stands behind Donald. These two forces face off yet again. Hera is grim, determined, knowing what she’s up against. She knows the hatred of her opponents. She knows the bizarrely higher standard she’s held to than are the bozos around her. But she has prepared. She studied the law. She practiced the crafts of planning, organizing, governing. Her feet are planted for battle, but she also glows, newly beautiful in her maturity.

Myth changed with the arrival of Zeus. It changed with the rise of Christianity, the Enlightenment, the Internet. Myth taps into timelessness, but it also rides the currents of change. It shifts and shimmies to reflect what endures and what evolves.

When a goddess is wounded and closes her heart, that’s when blight happens. But when a goddess is glad and opens her heart, well, prepare for flourishing, blooming, blossoming. The psychological sequence goes: see her, love her, be loved in return.

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Not that Hillary Clinton is a goddess. She is a mortal person with flaws, wounds, and complexities. But the image of a Hillary Clinton presidency is an archetypal upset, a tectonic shift in what American democracy believes to be possible. It means that thinking of leadership can mean thinking of a woman. Try saying it: Madam President. Now open up to the smallest bit of affection for her, the tiniest dram of liking, the same way you can like a man who has flaws, wounds, and complexities. Feel that ripple in the air at your back? That’s Hera standing straighter, stronger, more sure of herself, with a glint in her eye from the light held aloft by her young friend in the New York harbor.