The Necessity of Myths
Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? These questions that troubled the French painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) over a century ago are still pressing questions for us who live in the 21st century. How do we comprehend this world that we were born into? Are we really capable of comprehending it? Children acquire different knowledge from adults; and adults acquire different knowledge from others. We have learned endless answers from our parents, relatives, friends, teachers, books, textbooks as well as works of art. Even so, there are still fundamental puzzles about this world that are unanswered; these puzzles remain puzzling.
On the other hand, literature, art, cinema, music, theater and philosophy have bravely challenged these existential questions that science has failed to provide definitive answers. Art, which humans have consistently and steadfastly created, is a technique to construct small harmonies between the beginning and the end of the world. The multiple yet small harmonies constructed in art, though puny, are precious and have, in an indispensable manner, sustained our everyday life. Ideas and feelings of artists that permeate the order and chaos of this universe have attached to the rhizome of artistic creation. When we embark on the journey of this path, we are able to really perceive the profound world behind the works of art. Interestingly, myths have served as a way to respond to such a profoundly creative question since the ancient time. Myths, from an unknown realm, have been urging our thinking, teaching us about the origin of the world, and describing the secrets of the world’s end and beginning. At a time when writing, drama, painting, sculpture, film and animation were still non-existent, myths provide humankind a framework to understand the world, to describe humanity’s courage of exploring the inner world, and to weave out the wisdom of coexistence between human beings and other species.
Myths were once carved in caves and on rocks, embedded in paintings and writings, and continuously passed down through the memory of oral tradition. Taiwan’s indigenous community has also inherited the culture of sharing different myths. Sadly, as electric light generated by the scientific civilization has lit the anthropocentric grand history, the fire passed down from the ancient time has become fainter, and the memory of human being’s coexistence with nature has gradually faded into oblivion. Nonetheless, those important parts in myths are preserved through other mediums, being converted and translated, living on until now. In places like Taitung, where the population is still predominantly indigenous, the creative spirit of myths is still passed down through generations in the contemporary era even though the traditional way of life is slowly changing. Through reading myths and legends, we are able to retrace the origin to evoke the memories about the end and the beginning of the world.
Myths about the “End” and the “Beginning” of the World
Celebrated anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) defines myths in his characteristically succinct yet charismatic way—myths are stories born from the distant ancient times when animals and humans were unseparated and not yet occupied their distinct territories in their separated worlds. For Lévi-Strauss, myths constitute “human being’s oldest philosophy” that represents the ancient people’s serious thinking about “communication between human beings and the rest species”; myths are, therefore, a treasure vault that emphasizes on ecology and biodiversity. What this philosophy speaks about is the crucial wisdom of how human beings, after separating ourselves from other living beings in this world since the invention of instruments, writing and weaponry, can regain a harmonious relationship with this world.
However, after examining Japanese and Taiwanese myths, I could not help wondering: is it really right to limit the essential definition of myths to “the communication between animals and humans?” For instance, one magnificent myth told on the Japanese islands is one about the brothers, Yamanosachihiko and Uminosachihiko, the former being the older brother who was good at fishing and exchanged his fishing hooks with the younger hunter brother for his arrows. After a series of argument derived from the exchange, the genealogy of the gods eventually emerged through the conflicts. This myth is not only found on the islands of Japan but also in the oceanic myths told in Indonesia and other Pacific islands, where the motif of rivaling brotherhood could be found in the local myths. In Japanese myths particularly, such motif has been interpreted as characterizing the historical rivalry and reconciliation between “the people of the ocean” and “the people of the mountain.” In these myths, we not only see the relationship between humans and animals. What is revealed is the landscape and space of the mountain and the ocean, or the relationships between all living and non-living things in between.
In Taiwan, there are also many widespread myths, such as travelogues, heroic stories, legends about demons or foreigners. Specifically, Taiwanese indigenous peoples that possess rich diversity, when talking about the creation myths of their tribes, have mentioned “the end of the world” by flood before those that survived could recreate “the beginning of the world.” This is rather unique and meaningful. Flood myths such as this have disappeared in Japanese myths, including Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan) and Kojiki (The Chronicles of Ancient Events). However, in places such as Okinawa’s Yaeyama Islands and Miyako Islands, similar flood myths could still be found. The expansive area encompassing the central and Kanto regions in mainland Japan is believed to be where “Dosho-shin” (the traveler’s guardian deity) originated and passed down through generations. As a matter of fact, the background of the “Dosho-shin” belief is a catastrophic myth involving “the end of the world” caused by tsunami, earthquake and deluge in the primitive period. In this myth, the surviving brother and sister, setting the issue of incest aside, become husband and wife, creating offspring that sustain a new world.
In fact, beyond the Japanese borders, one can find traces of similar myths in Taiwan. In Japanese myths, it is usually the mythological catfish living beneath the earth that causes earthquakes or floods, whereas it is the eel or snake that dives into the sea and blocks up the “grand cave” at the bottom of the sea, causing floods in Taiwan. There is also a myth regarding a tsunami caused by pregnant women’s flipping stones and gathering corals. In these stories, the survivors that lived through the trials of the subsiding flood witnessed “the beginning of the world.” Therefore, we can conclude that these stories do not focus on the wonder of gods who create the world, but the process of how living and non-living beings help each other to construct a shared world. When these elements are gathered and examined, we can understand that the myths do not aim to convey the relationship between “humans and animals,” but instead the inseparable relationship between humans and the infinite world around us.
Contemporary Myths and Art
The common ground between Taiwanese and Okinawan myths is that “memories of the world’s end” are introduced by earthquakes or disasters, which shape the existing legacy on these islands. The natural disasters are sometimes not purely imaginary, and most of the time, related to disasters that have actually happened. For instance, Okinawa’s Yaeyama Islands were struck by a massive tsunami, commonly called the Meiwa Tsunami that followed the Yaeyama Earthqauke in 1771. This catastrophe caused more than ten thousand deaths and missing people. It was a massive tsunami that reached thirty meters in height; and consequently, one can imagine that the tsunami might have also hit the eastern shore of Taiwan. Similarly, Okinawa Islands and Taiwan had encountered tsunamis approximately every one hundred to one thousand years, which caused massive casualties on these islands. These seismic events and tsunamis in real life were recounted repeatedly by people and later became the local myths.
What approaches should we use to capture the memory of such a disaster or destructive event? When thinking about this matter, I believe that the distortion of the past is unavoidable. What I am interested is that Europe, like Japan and Taiwan, also underwent a major earthquake during the same period. It is recorded that the massive earthquake in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, in 1755 caused a tsunami that took more than then thousand lives, with a total death toll reached around fifty to sixty thousand people. The earthquake and the tsunami that accompanied the seismic event was not simply a massive catastrophe but a cataclysmic event that shook the core of the European culture. Writers and philosophers, including Voltaire (the pseudonym of François-Marie Arouet, 1694-1778) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), started investigating and studying earthquakes. Therefore, I think the myths revolving tsunami in Taiwan and Japan constitute the spiritual legacy equally powerful to what the European thinkers have passed down.
In my opinion, myths that capture and absorb these calamitous memories in the forms of “the end of an old world” and “the beginning of a new world” demonstrate tremendous possibilities. Myths, at least from the appearance, are mostly considered products of a domain utterly different from contemporary art; however, with qualities inseverable from history, myths cannot be completely erased; instead, they have been passed down in numerous forms in the world. To reiterate the importance of myths, I work with Japanese photographer Shitamichi Motoyuki, musician Yasuno Taro, architect Nousaku Fuminori and curator Hattori Hiroyuki to co-create a collaborative art project featuring the topic of “tsunami rocks,” rocks that have been rolled up from the bottom of the ocean onto the shore by tsunamis.
This creative project adopted the title Cosmos-Eggs and was showcased in the Japan Pavilion in the 2019 Venice Biennale. This collaborative project, along with myths related to tsunamis, also introduced myths about “the cosmos eggs” related to the origin of the world. With Okinawa’s Yaeyama Islands as the central area, there are many “tsunami rocks” proudly standing in the surrounding regions, serving as precautionary marks that natural disasters lurk in the unknown future, forming threats to our everyday life. However, the expansive mythological world also informs a background that surpasses Japanese borders, where a grand mythological world exists and unfolds. During this trip to The Hidden South, from the myths of Taitung’s indigenous community, I have discovered crucial elements forgotten in myths from the regions of Miyako and Yaeyama Islands. The world of abundance described in the indigenous myths from Taitung has not only afforded our creative project a new impetus, but also assured me that these myths could be an important source of inspiration for many and more artistic activities and academic research. I would like therefore to pay my deepest gratitude to those who have kept these important myths alive in the contemporary era.
著名人類學家克洛德．李維史陀（Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1908–2009）曾經以他那十分簡單且充滿魅力的方式如此定義神話：「所謂神話，是在動物與人類還未被一分為二、各自在宇宙所佔有的領域尚未被明確區分的遠古時代中誕生的故事。」對於李維史陀而言，神話是古代人類針對「人類與人類以外的東西之間的交流」之命題去認真思考的「人類最古老的哲學」，也是重視生態及其生物多樣性的知識寶庫。這個哲學所述說的，是關於在道具、文字、武器的發明後，將自己從其他生物的世界中切割開來的人類，如何再次取得與這個世界產生調和關係的重要智慧。
這樣的災害或毀滅性事件的記憶，在當代藝術中應該用什麼方法去捕捉呢？在思考這件事的時候，我想，必然再一次扭解過去的歷史。令我非常感興趣的是，大約與日本和台灣同一個時期裡，歐洲也經歷了大地震，據說在1755年發生於葡萄牙里斯本的大地震，包含因隨之席捲而來的海嘯死亡的一萬人，死亡人數總數高達五萬至六萬人左右。那次的地震與海嘯造成的並非只是一場純粹的巨大災難，而是撼動了歐洲全體的文化，伏爾泰（François-Marie Arouet，1694-1778）與康德（Immanuel Kant，1724-1804）等作家和哲學家皆開始針對地震做考察研究行動。因此我想，台灣與日本所流傳的海嘯神話，是具有和歐洲思想家們所留存下來的脈絡同等強大的精神遺產。
本文收錄於《a firetime story》（「南方以南」展覽群記），2021年3月出版。
This article is featued in the book, a firetime story (notes to The Hidden South), published in Mar 2021.
Photography Etang Chen