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  • Writer's pictureTõnn Sarv

Trapped in myth

That evening I was with Ott Maus and his girlfriend, the beautiful Maria, after a pleasant dinner in the club, at his small cozy basement studio near the city center. We had already exhausted the current gossip, admired enough beautiful weather, and Maria's new spring hat, which, against the increasingly brutal background of commercial fashion images, seemed a soothing anachronism.

In short, everything seemed to be in the best, and had it not been for the events that followed, we would probably have all disbanded after emptying a few cups of coffee without the slightest sense of touching something significant.

It was me who, a little carelessly, motivated by a desire to prolong the meeting rather than find out something, asked Ott about his recent activities. Ott Maus was one of those withdrawn independent thinkers, now in his forties, who had early in his academic career chose freedom and independence, and whom no one really understood how to classify. From time to time, he came up with some original ideas, had published a couple of articles on entirely different topics, and some poems. In general, he was assessed as a somewhat peculiar, but at the same time a quite tolerable companion.

At my question, he raised his light blue eyes to the ceiling, fell silent for a moment, and then half-objected:

"I'm reading this here." He took a book from his desk and handed it to me. It was Roger Cook's "The tree of life. Image for the cosmos, N. Y. 1974."

"It turns out," Ott said for a long time slowly, "that our folklorists and mythologists have been stuck for more than half a century. Instead of the fear, caution, and scrutiny that prevails here, the rest of the world has long gone to a whole new paradigm. They may or may not like it, but contemporary folklore is semiotic, and there is no way around the issue. "

"Listen," Maria said. "If you're going to start talking smart, you should make it clear to me one day what this 'semiotics' really is."

"Well," said Ott, "it would be easiest to say that folklore and all kinds of mythological texts, including literature, art, architecture, and so on, are viewed from many angles."

"How?" Maria asked.

"We look at what these texts say in their own language. And at the same time what they could mean in some other interpretation. Can you say that?" he asked, turning to me.

"I guess so," I said.

"In what interpretation?" Maria wanted to know.

"It can be said in many ways," said Ott. "As a secondary modeling system, for example. Or as a cultural code. Or as the language of mythopoetic consciousness."

"And next?" Maria asked.

"Next?" Ott repeated.

"Give me some examples," Maria asked.

"Well, I don't know," Ott said, "what an example could be. But okay. For example, a fairy tale. The hero reaches the well. In ordinary language, a well simply means a water intake. However, the fairy tale has nothing to do with taking water from the well. Instead, the hero climbs in there, or someone throws him in there, and he gets into another world. And in this case, it is said that this well, in this myth or cultural code, means a passage, a gate, or a bridge between two worlds."

"As they say," I added, "it must have been that ordinary language uses lexemes, that is, their ordinary words in the usual sense, but in the myths, they are mythemes."

"Well," Ott said, "in general, signs. And then these signs or myths become the language of the myth that is being studied. "

"But what does a gate or a bridge mean?" Maria asked.

"How?" Ott asked.

"You said that a well means a gate or a bridge between two worlds. So what does it mean if in a fairy tale, there is a bridge, for example? "

"A bridge still means the same thing - the path you can take to another world."

"And what does path mean?"

There he began to laugh. "It always happens," he said, turning to me. "Every time she pretends to be interested in something, but when I start explaining to her, it turns out that she just wants to have fun."

"Not at all," Maria protested. "You're just playing with me like I'm some goof you've taken on. I really want to know what the point is! "

"It doesn't make much sense," I said, leaning to Maria. "It's just men wasting their time, flaunting, to make themselves more interesting to you. As usual."

Maria laughed in amusement. "Thank you." She nodded lovingly to Ott as if he had complimented her. "But still, I want to know if I have to deal with some semiotic mythologists, which words I can use and which I can't."

Ott started laughing, I got serious.

"There really is a problem," I said. "If a semiotic mythologist ever happens to meet Maria, he can really think he's encountered a fairy." I caught a glimpse of Maria's big deer eyes, but I didn't look at her again. "And in that case, Maria's text really becomes the mythological code which it" - now I looked at the girl for a moment - "certainly is." Ott wanted to say something, but I didn't let go. "In itself, this is an age-old problem, I mean the relationship between myths and the real world. Usually, real attempts are made to find myths, such as Schliemann searching for and finding his Troy, or another searching for and not finding Noah's Ark at the top of Mount Ararat. But I think it will be even more interesting if the myth is before and the real event comes after. "

"How?" Ott asked. He became interested in my story.

"Very simply," I said. "There is some myth which everyone knows. And then the myth starts to happen, in front of eyewitnesses, all at once, with all its meanings and conclusions. And after that, one can be sure that this event will also be considered a myth, or rather a variant of the well-known myth. The Michail Bulgakov's novel 'Master and Margarita' begins with this: Berlioz tries to prove that Jesus could not exist because there were exactly the same myths about the sons of the Virgin born before him. Or, for example, the fulfillment of the prophecies of the old prophets of Israel – it is also a myth before the actual event – for them, it increases the divinity of events. However, I think many of these prophecies are simply sought after events."

"You know," said Ott, "the famous work, 'Why Napoleon Never Existed.' How all his wars and other characteristics are nothing more than the personifications of well-known astral myths. It was pretty witty."

"Yes," I said. "One could very well think that the events that somehow resemble some myths will turn out to be the most influential."

"In literature as well," Ott added. "Myth-making is considered to be the highest that a writer can do. Although it might be more correct to talk about compliance with the myth."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"No matter what," Ott said. "Dostoevsky, for example, has been considered a mythologist, but it would be more correct to talk about the correspondence of his work to Christian mythology."

"Rather resonant, or coherent," I added.

"Well," There seemed to be something on Ott's mind. "And all those Pharaohs and rulers who proclaimed themselves gods. Same thing: the myth of God was before – and now God comes and becomes the visible ruler on earth. Well, coronation itself is also a ritual, so to speak, to make the myth visible. By the way," he added, "I have just read some summary of such a thing as the basic myth of the Indo-European peoples. Have you heard anything about it? "

"No," I admitted. "What is this?"

Ott got up and took a mythology encyclopedia from the shelf.

"Look, here it is," he said. "Of course, I don't want to believe very well that there is such a thing as a basic myth at all, but if they call it that, so be it. They have tried here to reconstruct it, using a few Proto-Indo-European phrases. And the story comes out like this. Somewhere high – in the sky, at the top of a mountain, or a tree – is the Thunder God. His name is Perun or something like that, and from it has become the Lithuanian Perkunas and many such god names. Oak is Quercus in Latin, and it has also come from there, which means that their Thunder God may then be on top of the oak. "

"We have such word for the devil - "pergel" - too," I couldn't help but say. "And "põrgu" - hell."

"Yes, of course," Ott said, "in the form of Baltic loans." He thought for a moment. "It's interesting how they appear in reverse positions. But okay," he continued. "This Perun must then have an opponent, somewhere below, with whom he fights. The opponent's name has a root syllable *vel or *uel, and it again has analogs of the whole list in Russian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Sanskrit, etc. That adversary has some wealth or treasure, often a herd, and it is still somehow connected to the underworld, that is, the dead. Valhalla and Elysion and several names of the dead in Lithuanian and Latvian have come from the same strain. And also power and possession, well, our word "valdama" itself is there from there, I don't remember, probably as a Germanic loan. Of course, the Russian "vlast" is also there. And then this Thunder God descends and kills his opponent, who can often be a serpent-shaped monster. The god of thunder breaks him into pieces and scatters them, and then releases his cattle or wealth and lets fertility rain overall. I mean," he said as he closed the book, "that at least in Christianity, this myth is firmly ingrained. Is it not that God will come down from heaven to redeem his herd, which from the Fall of Man has been caught in the snare of the serpent?"

"I don't like this story very much," I said. "It smells like the fact that in the end, all the stories can be reduced to one, and all the others are nothing but the same!"

"Well," said Ott. "It smells like that."

"I understand," I continued, "that this conquest and liberation is so terribly important to them. All these princesses were imprisoned by the dragon and so on. But if they still stuff the big oak of our ancient rune songs in it ... "

"It actually exists around the world," Ott said. He picked up the book again. "Look," showed us the pictures. "Under the roots, it has snakes, lizards, mice, and all kinds of monsters everywhere. There are birds at the top. There may also be an eagle or any such storm or thunderbird. But the dove too – the holy spirit, please! And around the trunk are solipeds and ungulates, like cattle, or prey animals."

"But, where are we?" Maria asked now.

"The human world is the average, right here, around the trunk," Ott said. "In fact, this tree divides the universe like three layers. The middle is the human world; above is the sky, and below is the underground world of the dead. "

"But why haven't people been put here?" Maria still wanted to know.

"Sometimes we're there," Ott said. He pointed to another picture. "Look, here we are."

Maria picked up the book and began to flip through it.

"The direction is interesting," Ott said. "Yet the tree grows from the earth to the sky. Here, however, is the leading movement just from the top down. The upper world is like the prenatal world, the lower again is the afterlife. It's really like a shaman's descent, but there's really ... "

"Listen, do you remember," I interrupted him. I didn't like Ott's story. I tried to remember something. "Remember that paper of Uku Masing that he once presented, if I'm not mistaken, on an Orientalist Days conference at University, a myth where the main characters were the Thunderbird and the Water Monster?"

"I don't remember much," Ott said. "Was it published somewhere?"

"Certainly in the theses," I said, "but also in a separate article, wasn't it in the University Proceedings?"

"What was he talking about there?" Ott asked.

"If I remember correctly, it's just the same thing you're talking now, this basic Indo-European myth. Or rather its sources. I mean, it turned out that these two giants could be, in a certain sense, ancestors of two tribes. But I can also be wrong. "

"Remember," Ott said. He tried to pour himself a coffee, but the pot was completely empty.

"I should look it up," I said. "I guess it was the case that initially, these characters were more or less equal and quite fair to people. And it was only in an Indo-European culture that one became useful and the other harmful."

"What about the tree?" Ott asked.

"It's much older, been already in Sumer, much earlier than Indo-Europeans. That's what I'm talking about. I remember now. Masing still had a lot of fun with the reconstruction of the same basic myth."


"Well," I began to feel a little better. "First of all, how they make all their earlier motives derive from this so-called basic myth – from Sumer, Siberia, from the Indians, from Fenno-Ugrians, of course. And, of course, the theft of cows by which every Indo-German dragon tries to achieve a prominent social status, not to mention the gods. "

"Well," Ott said. He seemed a little disappointed. "In some ways, this tree could also be a river," he said. "A sacred river that actually exists. And then there is the conflict, that the evil force somehow obstructs or hinders the flow of that river. "

Maria raised her head at once and looked at me. Suddenly I saw a strange prayer in her eyes.

"I guess, in Vedas, something was like that, if I not mistake it," Ott finished.

"Listen," I said. Suddenly I remembered something. "Have you read the short stories of Aino Kallas?"

"No," Ott said.

"Revenge of the Holy River?"

"No," Ott said. "What is it about?"

"Wait," I said, getting up. "I'll remind you." I felt my heart start beating. I tried to concentrate calmly, but it didn't work very well. "Yes," I said. "It was according to the book of Johann Gutslaff, the pastor of Urvaste in the Swedish era. This is where the famous lightning prayer, that Veljo Tormis made for male choir his "Lightning Litany", comes from. Ain Kaalep set the text for him for this occasion. It's in every textbook of Estonian literary history. "

"I know," Ott said. "But what happened there?" He was very interested.

I went to the shelf and took the "Estonian Encyclopedia." I noticed that Maria was only looking at the same page in the book in front of her. She didn't read. She just listened to something and looked, waiting.

"Yes," I said, "1644, I mean, this book. The events themselves, therefore, took place a little earlier. Gutslaff's book is, to my knowledge, extremely rare, but only preserved in a few copies. Someone promised to translate it if I remember correctly. This book was apparently on the desk of Aino Kallas when he wrote his story. "

I put the encyclopedia back on the shelf. "Well, the story was that a mill started to be built on the Võhandu River somewhere in Sõmerpalu, at the initiative of the lord of Sõmerpalu manor. The master-builder was commissioned from Germany. But the local people, that is, the Estonians did not like it. For them, the river was sacred and could not be blocked in any way. However, the dam was built with workers from further afield. But then an unprecedented drought began, and the crop completely withered. The people of the country began to revolt and finally demolished the dam. The thing was, the river was somehow connected to the lightning. Blocking the river had angered the thunder god. An ox was sacrificed for lightning, but that didn't help. It was only when the mill dam was demolished that the thunderstorms brought rain again, and the land became fertile. "

"Yes," Ott said. "It's too beautiful to be true."

"It's true," I said. "It's the strangest thing about this. Because it corresponds precisely to the reconstructed primordial myth that you just talked about. "

"And what doesn't really exist, as you just said," Ott added sarcastically.

"Certainly not in this form," I said. "If I resent these semioticians at all, it's just when they start taking their models seriously. You can play with everything, find grants for your obsessions. And that's just weird. Gutslaff did not write his book for Estonian peasants, but for the Germans - as a pastor, he fought against the superstitions of the Germans. He was straight, he didn't play! "

"What was the title of this book?" Ott asked as if considering something.

I retook the encyclopedia. Maria hadn't moved.

"Kurtzer Bericht vnd Unterricht Von der Falsch-heilig genandten Bäche in Lieffland Wöhhanda", or "About the Right and Wrong of the False Holy Superstitions of the River Võhandu in Livonia".

"Maybe the Germans were terribly disturbed the myths they didn't know? The collective subconscious had to recognize it. This could have given rise to a new religion. Really interesting, why didn't it happen then? "

"I don't know," I said. "But, well, conflict was inevitable. It turned out that the rulers of the country are the evil force that the thunder god must destroy. "

"Yes," Ott said. "A new religion could have arisen just if they had somehow been able to identify themselves with what is to be saved. But now it turned out that." He stopped and thought. I waited. "Of course," he said after a moment, "it can be quite awful when you suddenly realize you're trapped in a myth."

"Yes," I said. "It's one thing when you get into a myth, and it's starting to move, starts to embody itself in reality. Without a corresponding ritual. Without the priests leading and defending the process." I stopped. "But even worse, in my opinion, is the situation of those who only then begin to realize who they really are."

"In what sense?" Ott asked. He looked a little restless.

"In a mythological sense," I said. "Well, for example, if you realize that you are actually the embodiment of some evil force. And right now, a fearless knight is approaching you, preparing to cut off all your fire-spitting heads, and you know that he does, that he did it already, that's the predestination, and you also know that there is nothing you can do about it. "

"Then why like that now?" Ott tried to argue. "It all depends on the interpretation..." He was pale.

"Then you won't interpret anything anymore," I said calmly. "Your text will be interpreted by others, as one version of an original myth. "

"Yours, too," Ott said.

"Of course," I said. "It's just that the parts have already been set, and, even with the best of intentions, and we can't change them anymore."

Ott got up and walked to the bookshelf. I watched him from the corner of my eye. He slid his fingers over the spines.

"Would you like that?" Ott asked. His voice was hopeless.

"It would just be a change of names," I said. "You can, after all, call a mouse, a cat, and a cat a mouse if you think it will change anything. I don't think so. "

Ott came back and sat down again. "Can we still come to an agreement?" He offered.

"Only on the postponement," I said. "But I don't think it's up to us, really."

"Who else?" Ott asked.

"The sacrifice," I said. "Which side does the animal fall to?"

I got up and walked around the room. I stopped behind Maria and saw that the article "Fall of Man" was open in front of her. She really didn't read but stared at Titian's reproduction at the bottom of the page. I bent closer.

At that moment, I felt Maria instinctively lean herself against me. I shuddered.

Outside, thunder boomed.

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