Myths

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I imagine that if today I called one of your cherished beliefs ‘a myth’ you would be offended. The word has come to mean an untruth or even a deliberate lie. Few urban myths have even the slightest contact with factual reality: so no alligators swim in New York sewers nor do dead grannies in rolled-up carpets get placed on the roof-racks of British cars. I believe this change of meaning is an unfortunate development since the myths that interest me exist in an area well outside ordinary truth or falsity, and must be accepted as they are.

If any of you want to write a best-seller then producing a book purporting to explain the reality behind a favourite myth would be an excellent place to begin. Even a well chosen title may be sufficient to ensure success. Mike Baillie was persuaded to call his deservedly popular book on dendrochronology Exodus to Arthur. I would have thought that his theory of periodic, comet-induced, global catastrophe was quite controversial enough without introducing the ‘once and future king’. In my view historians’ attempts to elucidate the factual elements behind a myth are bound to fail. They may appear to be set in time and space but in reality myths are timeless. Evidently we do need a word that describes a traditional story that may be historical but lacks provenance and authentication. Legend fits this bill nicely. Of course even this word is undergoing a change of meaning. When a group of kind, young, archaeology students called me ‘a legend’ they were commenting on my cooking ability not my existence.

How can we recognise myths? They often set out to explain how a portion of the world came into being, and creation myths naturally attempt to explain the existence of the whole word. They are usually emotionally compelling stories. There is often a supernatural element to myths, and they may be of considerable significance to those that believe them. Finally a great myth will contain symbolic elements and will leave us asking ourselves: what does this mean? In the Arthurian legend knights endure great hardships for a vision of the holy grail, but exactly what this is, and precisely what it symbolises, is not really made clear.

Having said this I find that legends and myths are not always easy to distinguish. Alfred the Great, whose jewel illustrates this blog, was said to have learned of the plans of his enemy, King Guthrum, by wandering into his camp disguised as a minstrel. This early medieval equivalent of planting a surveillance device is clearly a legend. In another famous story Alfred allowed some cakes to burn in the oven of a poor housewife who had offered him shelter. When understandably rebuked by the housewife he apologised and made no attempt to explain who he was or demand her respect. It is said that the Prophet Mohammed was once called to the mosque only to find that a cat was sleeping on his cloak. He then cut the cloak rather than disturb the cat. In my view these stories about two great men are myths, rather than legends, because they describe significant elements of their heroic personalities which we are encouraged to emulate. Whether the stories are true or not hardly matters; it is evident that people could easily believe that these powerful figures were also humble and considerate men. Can you imagine such stories being told about the newly elected US president?

I should like to encourage everyone to judge a myth in its own terms, not to look for historical truth. Everyone knows three things about Robin Hood: he fought evil Prince John and the sheriff of Nottingham, he and his fellow outlaws used long-bows, and he stole from the rich to give to the poor. The first element would place Robin in the last decade of the 12th century whereas the longbow was introduced to England from Wales as a military weapon in the mid-13th century or later. The mythical element resides in the presumption that however oppressive a regime may be there will always be people of courage and generosity found to defend the weak. Oddly the role of the church in the Robin Hood myth is rather ambiguous. Wealthy abbots and prelates are clearly oppressors but Friar Tuck, who I assume is a Franciscan and so also anachronistic, is really one of the good guys.

King Arthur enshrines ‘the matter of Britain’. A just king, surrounded by famous companions, who preserve civilisation and order with the sword when surrounded by the forces of darkness. A true servant of light. Medieval Arthurian legends were common in Britain and France and with each retelling seemingly acquired an accretion of new events and figures. The sword in the stone, Sir Lancelot, Excalibur, and so forth. I know enough about late Roman and early medieval British history to appreciate that trying to place Arthur in time, or even decide who exactly his enemies were, is a pointless exercise. The supernatural elements in Arthurian legends are particularly interesting since they consist of both Christian and non-Christian elements. Merlin the Magician is a compelling figure in his own right and was incorporated by CS Lewis in his SF based retelling of Christianity in the Out of the Silent Planet trilogy. The powerful nature of the Arthur myth resulted in the construction of at least two famous artefacts. There is a replica Round Table which is still on display in Winchester. The timber is 13th century and it was embellished by paintwork in the Tudor period. Henry VII’s eldest son was actually called Arthur, and it was his premature death which gave Henry VIII his throne. In the late 12th century King Arthur’s tomb and an inscribed stone were discovered at Glastonbury Abbey. Sadly most students of this development regard them as pious fakes produced to encourage pilgrimage to the abbey church.

Naturally I have favourite myths myself and both as it happens concern women who, allegedly, defended the poor and dispossessed against powerful men. Lady Godiva was perhaps originally called Godgifu (gift of God) and one such person was married to Leofric, Earl of Mercia, in the pre-Conquest period. There is evidence that both were benefactors of the church. The real Earl Leofric died in 1057 and Godiva at some unspecified time after the Conquest but before the Domesday survey. The pair are mentioned briefly in a number of Anglo-Saxon sources but the famous myth is medieval in origin. Leofric is said to have imposed harsh taxes on the townsfolk of Coventry and to make him rescind his decision Godiva offered to ride naked on a horse through the streets. The common people, whose love and gratitude she had, stayed indoors and refused to witness her sacrifice, with the exception of ‘Peeping Tom’ who tried to see and was struck blind for his presumption.

These events can hardly be true. Coventry was a very small place in Anglo-Saxon England although known for its monastery. Nudity was disapproved of in Anglo-Saxon society and it is inconceivable that Leofric would have subjected his wife, and indirectly himself, to such a humiliation. The word naked certainly also meant unarmed, and might have implied ‘unadorned with finery’. Might Godiva have ridden in a shift or long linen undergarment as a penitent, as good Duke Humphrey of Gloucester’s wife was forced to do during the reign of Henry VI? Could the story even be a remnant of an older myth relating to Epona the pagan horse-goddess?

There is another myth of a wife defending the poor from a vindictive husband. St Elizabeth of Hungary was taking bread to the poor. Her husband King Ludwig forbade it. Out of pity she ignored his orders and continued in secret until one day met her husband, with a hunting party. She concealed the bread in her apron. ‘What have you got wrapped in your apron?’ Ludwig asked. ‘Roses’ she lied. ‘Then show me’. Elizabeth undid her apron which was filled with roses.

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