Pawprints and Shadows of Myth

There are a lot of stories in the world -- some well-known, others less so; some long, some short; some happy, some sad; all important to at least one piece of the universe. This is part of the older ones, one of those pieces you can find in the shadows and the sparks of fires nearly everywhere. It's there in drumbeats, in jingling bangles, in marks made on skin, in beads and feathers, in sharp knives and the hunt, and the earth underfoot. You know how it is -- bits and snatches whispered on the wind. It began too long ago for any of us to remember how or why it came to be in the first place, but by now it's so much a part of us that we can't very well forget it. One of those old myths, those things you can't really shake because at the heart there's some sort of truth there, just out of reach.

They say that before the world was really concrete, back in those early days after its creation, animals could easily take human form, and humans could just as easily take animal form -- at least, certain animals and certains humans could. This is when the old stories come from, of shapeshifters and animals like Coyote or Raven walking about and doing things the way humans do. Stories about stealing fire and stirring the world into existence, about the making of thought and form and language.

But the world changed gradually; it got harder, sharper, less fluid, and it was more and more difficult to mold the fabric of things. With the world carrying on like this, humans and animals changed in nature -- and in fact everything did -- until the world became what we see today.

But things are rather less changed than you might think; there were still stories about animal folk taking human form and marrying humans, or humans changing into animals and spending the rest of their lives that way. There were tales of witches who cursed good people by turning them into animals, and tales of animals enchanted into human form. Stories of skinwalkers and sorcerers with the power of shapeshifting. This has often been a common theme in folktales and myth around the the world, and still is today, what with werewolves on TV and in movies, the folktales of our time. And I'm sure you've been walking down the street one morning, afternoon, or evening, and seen someone with more of the wild in them than most. Nothing outright, you understand. Just a flash of scale, or fur, or feathers, as you pass them by. A man with dreadlocks and that crazy, ever-hopeful grin that coyotes have, a child with bright red hair and fox in her laugh, a young woman with eyes like a cat's. These are still humans, of course, but when you come across them there is a sense of something other, some hidden layer where the animal shows through.

And the best part of this story is that the animal folk are just living, same as anyone else. And for the most part they are just like everyone else, but a little something other about them, something more like the animals they are. Nothing special, just different and unmistakably there. And, on occasion, there is something more archetypal there too. Strange, I know, to think of Turtle, who carried the world on his back, living life as a person -- but it is and it isn't like that. Archetypes are funny things, you see; they are part of us all, to a point. The man with the coyote-grin has something about his nature that is canine, and somehow he is also Coyote from the legends just as a trusted guide and teacher is the mentor archetype. We are the stories we tell. We are what people need us to be, what they see in us, and what we see in ourselves. And so because we want animal folk to exist, they do; we can see the wolf in a woman lazily typing at her desk and sipping her coffee, the leopard in the boy buying gear for rock-climbing, the hawk in a man packing your bags at the grocery store, the lynx in a woman enjoying the beauty of a wildlife sanctuary, the jaguar in a girl building a plane, the catfish in an old woman reading in the seat next to you on the bus, the coyote in the boy who asks the questions in class that the teacher may not know how to answer, the snow leopard in the girl with her feet up on the seat in front of her in the lecture hall.

So the myth and reality of animal people bears the marks of what it once was, the whips and scorns of time, as it were, and all the while new life is being breathed into it -- the same way we our ourselves and yet we also bear the semblances of our ancestors, the same way a story changes but never falters every time it's told. And at the centre, at the core where everything is still and clear in endless motion, is truth in one form or another.

"The job of a storyteller is to speak the truth. But what we feel most deeply can't be spoken in words alone. At this level, only images connect. And here, story becomes symbol; symbol is myth. And myth is truth." -- Alan Garner


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June 10, 2007