“I suspect that primary peoples all know that their myths are somehow “made up.” They do not take them literally and at the same time they hold the stories very dear. Only upon being invaded by history and whipsawed by alien values do a people begin to declare that their myths are ‘literally true’.”
The above passage is from Gary Snyder’s essay “Blue Mountains Constantly Walking” which appears in The Practice of the Wild (1990). It is not quite clear to me what to make of his claim that “primary peoples all know that their myths are somehow ‘made up’.”
Is this a way to salvage (itself a somewhat derogatory or at least dismissive term) such myths and to thereby defend the integrity of the people to whom they belong? If so, it is probably a failed effort that is itself rather insulting (“Surely they know better! They cannot genuinely believe what they are saying!”).
The difficulty seems to arise from equating genuine belief with literal belief; in prioritizing literal expression over and above all other sorts of expression. Yet, surely something can be true without being literally true. A person can assert something and/or believe something, without taking any position as to its literal truth. Snyder does not say that primary peoples know or suspect that their myths are false and he places “made up” in scare quotes. In a sense, all stories are “made up” whether they appear in The New York Times or Aesop’s Fables, they all need to be composed or put into words. Stories may be both “made up” and true. That a story is made up has nothing to do with its truth value.
The myths referred to by Snyder may fall precisely into this category of the true yet not necessarily literally true. Furthermore, it is not that they are lacking in literal truth or deficient in some way but rather that they do not aspire toward that particular manner of being true. To ask about their literal truth is to assess them by the wrong standard.
It is difficult—for me, at least—to avoid the mistake of failing to even recognize the category of the true but not necessarily literally true. For example, I might ask “Does she really believe this?” when in fact, I mean to ask “Does she believe it to be literally true?” The questions are not equivalent. “Really” should not be used in place of “literally” as if genuine Truth was necessarily literal truth; something may really be true without being literally true.
David Abram, in an interview with Scott London explained, that “people in our culture…tend to think of poetry as a kind of secondary use of language. We don’t realize that language originates in poetry and in poetics.”
If primary peoples suspect that their myths are made up that may be to their credit and speak to a level of nuance in their thinking that is absent in contemporary cultures which trivialize the other-than-literal.
It is clear that Snyder values the other-than-literal for in the same essay just prior to the above quoted passage he writes that, “Narratives are one sort of trace that we leave in the world. All our literatures are leavings—of the same order as the myths of wilderness peoples…Other orders of beings have their own literatures.”
To recognize the literatures belonging to “other orders of beings”—be they deer or deciduous trees—requires that we see truth in cloven hoof prints left in the snow and in the changing colors of autumn leaves.