A famous scholar sulked in the forest, watching a leafcutter ant shove its enormous burden through a tiny hole. You fool! Use your strengths to outwit your weakness, chided the sad genius as e tore at the leaf to make it fit.
Prune out desire
Breed new intuitions
Store up excess feelings
Channel thought and its flow
Study the seasons of your moods
Around two o’clock in the night three ancient Greek scholars were leaving a symposium on love. The director was mostly carrying the main speaker and his young protégé, keeping the former upright and the other out of trouble. They had fallen to discussing the Eleusinian mysteries, and the youth now flicked his blond curls in the dying moonlight, declaiming:
— Perhaps the whole mystery of Demeter’s cult is that there is a secret to her tale, though every initiate is left in the dark as to what it is!
The old man snorted:
— ‘want to know an ugly secret, my boy?
— Maybe the fasting, the potion, the raised stalk of grain only mean you must forever dig deeper…
— Digging deeper, eh?
The director broke into a fit of laughter:
— You’ll have to find some old initiates and ask them!
— But that’s the point: there is no one who could tell me! It’s the one secret i can only discover absolutely on my own!
— Anyway, we seem to have arrived, muttered the ancient wise-crack, and I don’t fancy you penetrating any mysteries on your own just now.
Tchouang Tseu was wandering the northern steppes when he met a shaman on the roadside. The gaunt stranger claimed she could exit her body and explore the spiritual worlds where she accomplished great feats of magic. But the portly scholar was tired and in a bad mood, so he retorted: What if, in fact, you’ve never gotten any further than the walls of your tricky mind? Stunned, the shaman spun around and sloughed the rude man off without another word.
A few years later Tchouang Tseu was again exiled to the same remote desert and happened once more upon the scraggly old woman. This time the shaman claimed she had duly inspected every recess of her mind and learned to control its every movement. But Tchouang Tseu, still hungry and indisposed, shrugged his shoulders and answered: What if you’ve been tricked again, and all this time you’ve only been exploring the faint illusion of your mind? Shocked at the not-so-polite comeback, the shaman turned away in disgust for the second time.
Many years later Tchouang Tseu was snoring through the night in his pavilion when the shaman entered his dream from the north and said: Thank you for being such an ass, sir: your importunate drivel about minds was a most helpful prison from which i have just now escaped!
The rites of old might have long predated their mythical narratives. I imagine they arose in lock-step with the processes they mirrored, serving as mnemonic devices or initiations into practices which the participants couldn’t otherwise explain to one another. Fertility ceremonies and the delicate art of planting would thus both have evolved through a helpful dialectic, advances in one gradually informing changes in the other.
The attendant myths would only have emerged in retrospect, once people had vaguely understood what it was they had been trying to do all along.