The Mythic world often seems to have a tenuous relationship with the natural world. Hercules slew monsters, while Gawain sought to give his life up to the wild Green Knight. Dragons are hunted, big bad wolves are boiled, and yet young kings are turned into animals to learn lessons of leadership. Animals and trees can be sought as prizes, imbued with the aspects of gods, or feared as agents of the maleficent. How is it that myth treats nature with both fear and honor, and seeks both its favor and its conquest?
The answer may lie in one of the most characteristic components of the Mythic: Magic. As David Abrams notes in The Spell of the Sensuous,
“Magic, then, in perhaps its most primordial sense, is the experience of existing in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition in every form one perceives – from the swallow swooping overhead to the fly on a blade of grass, and indeed the blade of grass itself – is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are different from our own.”
The magic, on its most fundamental level, is not about the miracles, or the breaking of laws. Rather, it is an attempt to live within and share a world filled with beings fundamentally different from ourselves, with differing forms of intelligence and ability. The raw strength of dragons, the inherent purity of unicorns, the wisdom of ancient wizards, and the powers of gods are not supernatural, but rather inherent aspects of what they are, and though different, no more or less natural than the mind and heart of man. The mystery of magic lies not in its impossibility, but in its incomprehensibility, the acknowledgement that there are things we cannot understand, and yet with which we must learn to coexist.
If magic is the experience of living with these entities, if it found in a relationship with the unfathomable, then the Mythic, in many ways, is the conversation that attempts to understand how to maintain that relationship. In Merlin’s transformations of Arthur from animal to animal, we learn alongside the young king about the tasks a leader has in a world of heterogeneous minds. Sir Gawain leads us on a journey to where the task is to find friendship with the enigmatic and imposing Green Knight. We temporarily become adopted by those tribes who must wrestle to learn how to make the connections to the animal shapeshifters that enter into their lives. As we participate in the Mythic, we participate in the relationships with those things other to ourselves.
As we transition from the Mythic into the more mundane realms of man, these lessons of learning to live with the Other hold their importance. With the infinite diversity and variation that exists within both individuals and cultures, learning to truly coexist requires one to know how to enter into relationships with people who are vastly different than ourselves. And if you look at the patterns of history, such as the European Renaissance or Axial Age, when humanity has embraced the mind of the Other, it has resulted in leaps of progress in those systems, such as art, philosophy, and science, that are the most human. On the more individual level, the regard we have for the non-human often reflects our view of the human as well. When you look at the leaders of the world, it is not surprising that most peacemakers also have a strong ecological ethic, while those who pursue policies of war and dominance also tend to ravage the lands they hold. Also, the torture and mistreatment of animals has long been seen symptomatic of antisocial and psychopathic tendencies. Conversely, animal therapies that focus on getting criminals to raise and care for animals have seen increases in empathy towards people.
The apparent conflict of the views of nature held within the Mythic, the feared and the respected, the conquered and the honored, is less a conflict within itself, and more a reflection of the conflicts that occur within a relationship. Myth, at its core, is a guide to becoming fully human; an instruction of those lessons about that which is both intangible yet crucial to the meaning of being human. The magic within myth is a reflection of that ambiguity that comes when working with an Other who is not understood or even fully knowable, yet still experienced. As we experience the magic within the Mythic, we learn how to deal with that Other, and form relationships with those things that are not fully like us. The resulting ecological ethic, the care we learn for all things within our environment, not only enhances the world we live within, but also instill within us an empathy that makes use more human.