Causes

Sometimes, when I hear the guttural growl of rolling thunder, beginning with an abrupt bone-jarring crack that fades into the distance, I imagine the fierce battle between Zeus and Typhon taking place far above me. Their combat is hidden from my view, but I can hear their monstrous fists smashing against the other’s jaw as they wage a brutal campaign born of fury.

The storms that raged last night and this morning triggered those delusions for me. I suspect the stories of ancient Greek and Roman gods emerged from similar experiences, fantasies sparked by witnessing the immeasurable and incomprehensible power of nature.

I’ve written before about more mundane provocations that lead to stories based only tangentially in reality. For example, sitting in a restaurant or in my car, I see people around me and make up stories about their lives. The only truth about the purple-haired women in the car next to me is that she has purple hair and is sitting in a car. My explanation of what she is doing there—that she is on the run, having stabbed her husband in the throat with an ice pick after finding him in bed with her hair-stylist—is pure fantasy. The fact is, yes, she was in a car and, yes, her hair is purple, but none of the remainder of the tale is true.

So can it be with stories about ancient Greek and Roman gods. So, too, can it be with stories from the Bible. Real events, perhaps, massaged and manipulated by people who want affirmation of their concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, and so forth.

The more I think about these matters (and I think about them quite a lot), the stronger become my conclusions about the purposes of storytelling. Storytelling is about making sense of the unknown—the confusing, the mystical, the mysterious, the curious, the odd, and so on. We ask ourselves “what if” questions and answer them with stories. Sometimes, though, the stories take on lives of their own, influencing people to believe and/or do bizarre things. According to the people who prosecuted “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Secret Agent, inspired Kaczynski’s actions.  What inspired the Crusades between 1096 and 1102? Certainly, it wasn’t simply stories; politics played a huge role. But what launched the political framework upon which the Crusades rested?

I suppose I could argue, based in part on my ramblings here, that the causes of most calamities and good fortune might be traced back to stories that emerged from experiences with nature. While that might be an interesting exercise, it would take more time and more energy than I am prepared to give this morning (and it would take far more than a morning, anyway). Thus, I choose to be satisfied with toying with ideas and wondering how far they could be taken, if one were inclined to provide them transportation.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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