Challenge: Exploring the Mythic

I’ve been thinking a lot about myths and symbols lately.

There is a long-lasting, prevalent trend in the therianthropy community of making a significant distinction on the difference between one’s animal identity and one’s totem. The basic idea is that one should understand their kintype as it actually is: shy skittish foxes rather than archetypal sly tricksters, family-oriented lupines rather than stereotypical vicious lone wolves, and so on. Many argue that as animal folk, we are akin to the real, physical animal, not an archetypal version of that animal.

I feel that there is a certain value in that approach. It’s important to research the species you identify as: watch it move, learn of its behavior and habitat. Observe it in the wild or at a zoo. Volunteer with it at a rescue or wildlife rehabilitation center. Learn about what you feel you are; it may help you understand yourself better.

Yet I think this mindset has its drawbacks as well. It discourages exploration of the animal as archetype; it treats a more symbolic examination of one’s identity as invalid. There’s power in archetype, in symbol, in personal myth. It’s possible that learning about cultural interpretations of an animal can lead to a deeper understanding of that species. Obviously you shouldn’t rely on folklore, myth, and archetype as your only or even primary source of information on an animal, but it can enrich your comprehension.

One example of someone who has explored his animality both in its factual, literal form and in its mythic, spiritual form is Akhila, who maintains Thébaïde. He states clearly that for him, “being an animal is more than metaphorical” – and yet he also says that “There is Clouded Leopard with a capital C, and Raven from myths and tales. Sometimes we overlap, sometimes we don’t; sometimes I’m nothing like in the animal folklore. . . But other times like now I can talk about what clouded leopard and raven are and it is both experience and archetype.” He writes about being a liminal animal, and he writes about animal people folklore, and adding to the folklore of clouded leopard through his own experience. And it all seems to add to his understanding of himself and of clouded leopard and of raven.

Here, then, is my challenge to you: Explore your animality as myth and archetype. Read up on folklore, heraldic symbolism, and spiritual beliefs about that species. Think on what the animal means to you, symbolically. Try connecting with the totemic or spiritual component of the species if your beliefs and practices allow for that. If there isn’t any available folklore on your animal, write some true and meaningful lore of your own. How does the archetype compare to the flesh-and-blood creature?

Then write about what you experience and learn. Link to a page or blog post, or share in the comments. If you use Dreamwidth, consider joining Animal Quills and post your thoughts there. On LiveJournal, try Therian Thoughts or Animal Scribes.  I’ll be doing this exercise as well. I’ve never seriously explored rough-legged hawk, or hawk in general, from a mythic perspective.

For the non-therian otherkin, I’m curious about how you approach your otherness. Methodically, with research into lore and others’ UPG? More ecstatically, through contact with spirits or other planes? By exploring memories? Observing your own feelings and behavior? Do you already work with your otherness through myth and archetype? How can you approach it from a different angle than you usually do?

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12 Responses to Challenge: Exploring the Mythic

  1. technobushi says:

    One thing that immediately comes to mind when reading this is the archetype of the berserker versus the actual bear. Bear is an animal I strongly associate with, though I have not progressed far enough in that particular exploration to know if it is totemic or something else. However, I’ve noted that I tend to fall within both spectrums at different given times. I’ve yet to solidify my thoughts on the matter, which I hope to do so here in the near future.

    I should express that, to me, there is an inherent flaw in focusing too much on the archetypal–mainly because the archetypal doesn’t always tell the whole story, or doesn’t even tell the same story. For example, in old European lore, the wolf was considered a synonym for a sex-crazed predator, when in reality they have only one mating cycle per year and are largely disinterested the rest of the time. But that’s only one of many examples.

    Good to see these thoughts out here.

    • Meirya says:

      Agreed, regarding too much focus on the archetype – I tried to indicate a need for balance and knowing the animal as it actually, behaviorally, physically is as well as exploring it archetypally. What I’ve often seen in the therian community is an aversion to looking at the animal mythically because you might not get taken as seriously or because it’s “not valid” somehow, which I think is a bit silly. Hence my curiosity about and encouragement towards a symbolic exploration of an animal *in addition to* a literal one.

      • Tenshi says:

        …and see, I set email notifications for this blog, and of course got none. I tried un-and-reregistering my email to see if it made a difference.

        I think exploration of archetypes is important, because it highlights how (particularly early) humans sought to interact and interface with the various animal conditions. I think the issue lies in focusing too much on the archetype with some, which may seem more appealing or palatable than the reality. Such a practice breeds imbalance. However, to ignore either is to inevitably toss out the baby with the bathwater, to miss the whole point entirely of the human+animal interface.

      • Akhila says:

        I think there is a widespread suspicion towards the otherkins, which extend to a suspicion towards the mythical and archetypal in regards to animality. Discussing myths, such as myths as identity bits, would be akin to a more otherkin-like type of identification in the eyes of many, and as most otherkins are regarded as fluffy/fluffier than “earthly” animal-people. Animal-people only mostly agree with otherkins on the fact many believe they have the soul of an animal (though there are non-spiritual therians as well as we know), but many other claims (starting with past lives) are viewed with a lot of suspicion, depending on the kind of forums the thing is discussed.

        On another hand, archetypes are also heavily connoted as relating to the psychology field and symbolical identifications are not considered to be “the bulk” of animal-people’s experience (which would be centered more on bodily and other senses, self-perception and feelings). I think that’s also why “shifting” is such a central concept for a lot of animal-people (or used to be anyway, I haven’t followed the discussions for a long time) – there are other reasons to that, which I’ve developped elsewhere, but that’s not the point here. There’s also the idea that there is no need to look for symbolical data when you can refer to the bone-and-flesh creature; it is a hierarchy of sources. As Technobushi said, sometimes the lore isn’t very close to reality – but that’s mostly because the lore isn’t really or solely about the animal, it is always first and foremost about the relationship human people have with that animal.

        So I think all of these contribute to making the debates over folklore and archetypes somewhat unpopular or at least not sought for.

  2. Athyriek says:

    Rawr, well written! (:

    I’ve always quite enjoyed stories and archetypes around animals when it comes to therianthropy because I think that truly gets to the human aspect of being human-animal. Unconditionally, we’re going to be influenced by our humanity, and being human comes with myth and storytelling. We have these wonderful imaginations and they can enrich our lives, and our understanding of ourselves. If we identify as something, it only seems natural for mythology and less ‘real’ or ‘verified’ things to snake their way in there. But these archetypes are real, just in a different sort of way.

    Which is why I’m quite excited for this blog, and for responding, and for seeing other responses!

    • Meirya says:

      That’s a lovely interpretation of it – that myths/lore about animals get to the human aspect. Akhila mentioned something similar, about lore being about the relationship between humans and that particular animal. These are things I didn’t think about when I wrote the above post, but they are most excellent points and great food for thought! How does being animal better help us understand being human? Things to ponder, hm.

      • Akhila says:

        Actually, I should have said that in most case lore is about the relationships between humans and other humans, more often than not. Animals are commonly used as metaphors. Terence Turner gives a good and simple explanation of it in its essay on “Animal Symbolism, Totemism, and the Structure of Myth”, as he analyzes the Kayapó myth of “the bird-nester and the origin of cooking fire”, where animals represent human figures or ideas (such as the mentor-father, or the child identity that an individual is meant to outgrow). The story of the main protagonist there isn’t so much about his interactions with non-human creatures such as the jaguar, as it is about his initiation from childhood to adulthood by a surrogate parent. All the details from the story reflect what actually happens on a social level between human individuals. This isn’t so much about people’s relationship to “animals” or “nature” or the “wild”.

  3. Tanuki Shojin says:

    I consider it mandatory, in many ways, in order to extrapolate high function out of being +human, as I like to consider it. The mythic in many ways is how humans as a species has pushed outside of the ape filter into the other skins we can wear.

    I certainly can look to the animal, Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus, and extrapolate something from the scientific analysis of the creature. But by accessing fully the stories surrounding not just Nyctereutes procyonoides, but also Tanuki, I find a much broader base to access, and, to my mind, a bigger metaphor that helps be to find +humaness, rather than -humaness. Having long struggled with shifts that felt to me to be -human, and having a personal need to expand beyond that, I felt that playing more strongly toward the hengeyoukai end of things worked much better, and much more to strengths.

    • Meirya says:

      Could you clarify here? By +humanness do you mean extrahuman, humanity and beyond humanity; and by -humanness do you mean non-human, human-less? I’m not 100% clear on your meaning, though if my interpretation is correct, I do really like this statement.

  4. tanukishojin says:

    Sure, precisely such.

    In the cosmology I follow as a Buddhist, you can divide states of mind into 6 realms. Finding yourself relating to the world through a lower realm is harder than embracing the possibilities of the higher realms. Some Buddhists might say that humans have the most options, but I prefer to think that accepting the option to be extrahuman puts more on the table. Dropping the human filter was frequently a problem when I was young, and through understanding of the mythic, and synchronization with the legendary, alongside the primal, I have found something that I feel works well for me.

  5. Pingback: Challenge Responses | Beyond Awakening

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