I sometimes wonder what it must have been like to live in a time when the stories of goddesses and heroines were new, when the women portrayed in them did the daily tasks, had the relationships, and faced the same issues as real life women. “Myths,” “fairy tales” and the like are, of course, meant to be metaphorical tales that speak to our deepest souls rather than true stories. I do indeed find ancient stories to be full of meaning and many do, indeed, make me sit up and say “Yes! Now I understand! What an insight!”
But I wonder if the ones we have are really all that we need. I have tried, over the years, to write “new myths” that relate to challenges that I and other women I know face that were never imagined by mythmakers of old and some of these can be found in the Writing section of this blog. But the ones I wrote never seemed to have the illuminating connection to my inner self that I was hoping for from a “new myth.”
Then, a week or so ago, I read a real story by a young woman about an event that had happened to her years ago. She was a stranger living in a country torn by civil war and chaotic violence. One day, she was surrounded by a gang of young men, members of one of the country’s factions, who threatened to murder her. A group of women, native to the country, joined together and risked their own lives to rescue her. This story’s power rang in my bones and I knew that it was both a recounting from the writer’s memory and a vessel holding great meaning for women of many times and places.
I then began to remember other stories that had come to my mind over and over through the years. The story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, whom Demeter mourns desolately, is one that poignantly speaks of the bonds between mothers and daughters. But so does the real story of my great-grandmother who, when left to raise my grandmother alone, spent decades bent over her needle making quilts and dresses to earn the money to send my grandmother to college. In the tale of Amaterasu, this Japanese Shinto goddess retreated into a cave only to be teased out by being dazzled by her own beauty as reflected back to her in a mirror. How like the true story of an elderly woman I know of who had been abused her whole life only to discover in her 80s that she was indeed sacred and worthy of gentle care, a revelation that caused her to “come out of her cave” and encourage other women in her community to stand up for themselves against their own abusers.
I love those inspirational stories, but, to me, the retelling of the young woman’s rescue leads us even more strongly to a more just and compassionate future. The world is completely different than it was when the stories of Demeter, Persephone, and Amaterasu came into being. Violence is worldwide and capable of devastating all life on earth. We have the technical capability of creating an earth that is a paradise of beauty, abundance and health compared to what those ancient people knew. But, our technology is also creating ecological suicide while we kill one another ever more effectively. We are, as a species, divided ever more deeply by nationality, religion, political ideology, race, gender, economic status, and geography. It is to this world that the young woman’s story speaks.
It is the story of real women. The women who saved the girl are not goddesses or superhuman. They are actual women who made a real choice for compassion and courage, then the next day went on with their daily lives. Like them, our decisions when faced with the opportunity to help overcome or walk away from violence and injustice have real consequences for ourselves and others.
This story tells of looking beyond the 21st century divisions between people to treat others as humans in need of love and protection. The young men had dehumanized the girl based on her nationality and race. The women saw her as an individual worth saving, though they did not know her and would never see her again. They didn’t think in terms of “my child” and “someone else’s child,” but as “our child.” It is only this attitude that can stop the conflicts going on right now, as you read this post, all over the globe.
This is a story not of one goddess or heroine on her own, but of women coming together for a common purpose. It is about how community can form in an instant when it’s needed and how groups of women can accomplish what one woman cannot. This is how we must face these catastrophic situations if we are to change them.
This is a story that has no resolution yet. The conflict is still taking lives in the country where this story happened. While this one young woman was rescued, somewhere in the world are many young women in similar situations right now who are suffering violation and death. This is not a story we can walk away from, satisfied that it all worked out in the end, because it has not. It gets us moving and does not let us stop. I hope that I live to see the day when this story has an end because the brutality that gave rise to it is unthinkable anywhere in the world, but I doubt I will.
I plan on holding onto this story tightly and not letting go. It isn’t likely that I will ever be in a situation to save someone’s life like these women. Still, how many times a day can I choose to step in and help or walk away? How often do I have the opportunity to risk my well being, in one way or another, by standing up for someone who cannot, at that moment, stand up for herself? How many times will looking beyond the divisions that divide us show me the real truth of a situation and encourage me to act? Like a profound “myth,” this story has significance far beyond its original narrative and I have just begun to mine its wisdom.
Stories like these show that all that we really need to build our ever-growing and ever-changing treasure chest of myths is within ourselves, playing out every day as we live our own lives. Each of us is, in her own way, her own anthology of stories that tell all we need to know if we will only honor them as the oracles that they are. What stories are you holding in your heart that can be the “myths” that will guide, teach, and inspire you and all women?