What is mythological studies?
Through the lens of Hinduism, Bettelheim, and Morrison
Mythological studies is the quest to discover our humanness. Mythologists study phenomenon by attempting to understand it through self, community, and the tie to the larger community and by doing this reveal animae mundi, the world soul. Unlike hard science that has set facts and data, mythological studies is very personal and changes and grows as we change and grow. Humanity is always changing just as it is always staying the same, the tension of this complexity is what makes mythological studies so difficult to define. It is a study of tensions and how those tensions are woven through experience, story, and soul. The tension that surprises me the most about studying mythology in this way is finding things that seem completely foreign become fundamentally familiar. Since the field is so metaphorical and hard to define, I will use Kali as an example of how the study can be complex, fluid, and essential.
When I first read about Kali for a class on Hinduism a year and a half ago, I thought she was a horrible monster that was both abhorrent and unsettling. “She is always black or dark, usually naked, and has long, disheveled hair. She is adorned with severed arms as a girdle, freshly cut heads as a necklace, children’s corpses as earrings, and serpents as bracelets” (Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses 117). Since my original introduction to Kali, I have changed both through my studies and life experiences and now I greatly admire the fierce goddess and recognize her within myself and others.
Just as I was repulsed by the savage Kali, I was drawn to Parvati and her domestic relationship with the wild Siva. Imagine my surprise when following Parvati led me right to Kali, the goddess I most wanted to avoid. By the time I was doing research on Parvati, Kali, and Siva I had learned about duality and balance and understood the importance of Kali and that she was just as necessary as the calming nature of Parvati. By learning about Kali, duality, and balance I learned more about myself, the other, and what it means to be human.
Through my journey of mythological studies I learned to not just recognize Kali but accept and love her in myself and others. Although I gladly embraced my Parvati nature, I tried to avoid the inner Kali but now I know she was always there in the shadow. I also now know how important it was for me to bring Kali out of the darkness and give her the admiration she deserves. Sometimes things need to be destroyed in order to make room for the new to have space to grow. This is true for people as well, Kali has allowed me the freedom to change and grow and allow those people in my life to do the same. Before embracing Kali, I was afraid to take stands in fear that I would contradict myself and appear foolish. Through Kali, I no longer have that fear. It is good to be fluid because lack of growth and change can lead to stagnation and decay, a slower form of death. I would rather take chances with my thinking than allow them to fester and die away.
Currently in my studies, I have come to love another female character that I originally attempted to avoid. Sethe, the main character in Toni Morrison’s work Beloved was especially abhorrent to me even with my maturing relationship with Kali. I was able to recognize Kali but I hadn’t yet learned to understand her. It isn’t difficult to see Kali in Sethe, a mother that attempts to murder her four children in order to save them from the slower painful death of slavery. Until I understood and forgave Sethe, I couldn’t understand and accept Kali.
While a student of mythological studies, I became a mother to my second child. Having two small children, school, work, and life in general to tend to I often forgot to feed myself both physically and metaphorically. This made me angry, I saw myself becoming Kali, the devouring mother. While I didn’t go on the war path or crave human flesh this recognition of Kali in myself gave me the ability to make changes and regain balance. I also began to see my new friend Kali, the devouring mother, everywhere. Part of it was personal, I wanted to understand why I had begun to relate to that which I had at one time thought abhorrent so I sought her out in order to understand her and myself. Kali is not hard to find, she appears in fairy tale class as Baba Yaga, the witch from Hansel and Gretel, and evil step mother in Juniper Tree. Sethe from epic imaginations class embodies Kali. Nature and psyche shows her as earth. The abundance of Kali figures throughout the consciousness illustrates that Kali is universal and necessary.
Even though I saw Kali everywhere and started to recognize her within myself, I still saw her as a monster, a necessary evil. This changed when I got to know Sethe and the women behind the character, Margaret Garner and Toni Morrison. Margaret Garner was the inspiration for Sethe, she was an escaped slave that attempted to murder three of her children and successfully killed the fourth. When first hearing about this horrific act, the reaction is of shock, disgust, fear, and anger. The speculation is that the mother must be some kind of monster, mentally deranged or animalistic but Margaret Garner and Sethe were loving mothers. It seems odd to say these women did these horrific acts out of love but there are things worse than death. A mother that bashes her children with a shovel, slits their throats, and attempts to bash her newborn against the wall is too horrific for words but as demonstrated in the novel, she is a loving Kali. Her actions which seem so horrific and wrong actually stem from love for her children. The monster in this story is slavery, which is also a Kali that thankfully destroyed what it created. This is how Kali loves, her love is indeed too thick.
It seems that all the important elements in this journey of discovery have been things that at first, I wanted to avoid. Slavery and race relations was not a topic I wanted to address but it seems that Kali again has something to teach me to destroy and make new. This is currently relevant in our society as racial tensions have been escalating with violence and seething hatred festering within the community. When I was growing up, I was taught to think of all people as equals to the point of not acknowledging that we are different. The messages I received were that all people were the same and should be treated the same. Ignoring differences is the same as treating them as faults. Kali is not a monster, she is different and is beautiful and valuable because of that difference. Without Kali, there is no change and only a slow death. Kali and Sethe are also the other that I did not understand and I am still in the process of understanding. The other is beautiful and needs to be acknowledged and respected.
Since this is a process of discovery I am currently encountering it is especially ravenous and fluid. One thing each class has taught me is that I have so much more to learn. There is so much complexity with mythological studies that it doesn’t have an end it only continues to grow and become more complex and hard to define. The culture of other was an important lesson. As a white female and a minority in my hometown, I thought I knew about otherness but there was much that the myth of Kali had to teach me about race and otherness. Otherness is more than feeling left out, it is in the very language we use.
This quote from Bruno Bettelheim shows how subtle and complex this language can be. It is alive everywhere, just like Kali, lurking in the shadows. “Even taken on this surface level, the folk fairy tale conveys an important, although unpleasant, truth: poverty and deprivation do not improve man’s character, but rather make him more selfish, less sensitive to the sufferings of others, and thus prone to embark on evil deeds” (159). This statement on first reading may seem harmless, maybe even true and that is why it speaks volumes about the culture of the other. While he greatly helped me understand fairy tales from the view of the child and self, Bettelheim is guilty of using language that others. What is said in this simple statement is that to be poor makes a person more likely to be evil. This is a complex issue because the feeling of desperation that occurs when a person or people feel their only options are all a sort of evil, then they are more prone to desperate actions like the murder of a child. While Bettelheim’s language shows this concept of the other as inherently evil was written forty years ago, it has resurfaced this week in the news as one of the candidates for president spoke of the other, in this case, Mexican immigrants, as criminals and rapists, in a word, evil. This is why we need Kali now just as much as ever. I’m sure Bettelheim didn’t even see himself as setting up the language of otherness but there it was in the opening of the article about Hansel and Gretel. Bettelheim explains why the self and the child need Kali, a devouring mother. To a child, a devouring mother is the scariest sort of fear and to see children in stories defeat this creature, gives the child a way to cope with those fears. He turned his analysis inward while Morrison used it to look outward.
The very language we use betrays the historical scars the country carries as part of our mythology. In watching interviews with Toni Morrison and reading her articles, I have come to understand how the past, no matter how painful to face can inspire pride and instill confidence. Much like Kali did for me, the abhorrent system of slavery in America can inspire pride and confidence for African American women and others that have been marginalized. Morrison speaks volumes because she speaks in images and metaphors. So often marginalized people are told to assimilate but I learned through Morrison, Kali, and Sethe that even the atrocities need to be faced and admired because they are necessary for change and demonstrate the complexity and horror of what it means to be human.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1989. Print.
Kinsley, David. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1988. Print.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage International, 2004. Print.