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The difference between myth and fiction is important in shamanic work

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In general use the word myth has come to mean a misconception or even a lie. But that is not the real meaning of myth.

Unlike a lie or fiction, which is usually dreamed up for a specific purpose by one person, myth is the unconscious creation of a whole culture. So myth has a psychological truth within the culture where it originates.

Myths spring from shared language, culture, and environment. You won't find Coyote myths in Australia, for example, because they don't have coyotes there. But you will probably find myths about some other trickster figure.

Recently I was having a conversation with someone about Norse mythology and the god Thor. I mentioned a couple of myth-based fantasy series with vampires and werewolves that I had read in which Thor was the bad guy. In one the constant refrain was, "Everybody hates Thor," and it was funny.

Just when I said, "Of course, that was fiction," someone else at the table tuned in to the conversation.

"You're talking about vampires and werewolves and you have to tell us it's fiction?" She laughed.

At the time, I was too tired to explain, except to say that we had been talking about mythology. But it occurred to me later that the term myth is so widely misused now that she may not have understood what I meant.

Fiction can sometimes be profound, especially if it incorporates a deep understanding of myths and folklore, as some of the best authors do. It is not a lie; it is storytelling.

But myth has at least a metaphysical reality, such as in the spirit world, that most fiction does not even begin to approach. In other words, on a certain level myth is real in the culture where it originates, because it expresses the worldview and inner reality of a people.

To me these distinctions are important, because we have so few metaphysical terms in English, and there is so little basic understanding or common agreement on the meaning of the terms we do have, that if we misuse them, true communication on metaphysical topics is impossible.

So next time you read what seems like an outlandish myth of another time or place, consider these factors:

(1) Translation is never exact, and often it is completely misleading. Some concepts that exist in one language simply do not exist in another language.

(2) To understand a culture's myths, you need to know a lot about the culture itself, how the people lived and thought, what their environment was like, and so on. To truly understand their mythology you would usually also need to be fluent in their language as well.

So when reading the English translation of a myth, you may assume it is "just a story" that someone made up to amuse or control others. In fact, that myth probably developed and was passed down for hundreds (or thousands) of years because it expressed the worldview (the perceived reality) and met the psychological needs of the people it belonged to.

Shamans do their work in the spirit world using the imagery, including myths, of their culture. Some can work what we would consider miracles because of their absolute belief and immersion in the worldview that makes those miracles possible.

That is the power of myth, and we should respect it, as we should respect other cultures and their very different worldviews, whatever those worldviews may be. Their worldview is a product of their experience.

Ultimately to do shamanic work you will have to immerse yourself in the imagery of some animistic culture---or create your own, which is actually much harder to believe in. In either case, the myth and folklore of the traditional peoples in the place where you live can be a great help in tuning in to the inner truth of your environment.

Myths can be a valuable study for all of us, as long as we understand the truth of what they are and the fact that each myth represents a specific time, place, language, worldview and people, whom we may never (in our time and place) be able to fully understand.

Still the truths found in myths are important and interesting. Reading and studying myths is worthwhile. And a few---a very few---fiction writers who have immersed themselves in myth and folklore can add to our intuitive understanding of various myths.

That understanding can help us use imagery in shamanic work.

For more information on shamanism and animism, see http://www.shamanista.com.

To meet and journey with other people in the Houston area who are interested in shamanism, join the Houston Shamanism Meetup group: http://www.meetup.com/HoustonShamanism.

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