What About Myths?

What About Myths? – Petra van Cronenburg

Yesterday, we had 40,000 lightnings in a few hours. In earlier times, myths and stories transported knowledge or subjective, cultural or religious perceptions over generations. Against thunderstorm fears, we children were told that the gods were bowling in the sky, having a hell of a lot of fun. When they laughed, there was lightning. And one could count from lightning to thunder to determine the distance of the thunderstorm.

dark clouded sky

Apart from the gods, that’s correct: you count the seconds from lightning to thunder. In the metric system, you divide by 3, for miles by 5, and you have the distance.

So, the children’s story should be the other way around: Hitting the cones is the lightning, and the gods‘ laughter is the thunder. The mathematical formula comes from the speed of sound; thunder is the sound from lightning.

For years, this formula doesn’t work any more. In so many regions, the quality of thunderstorms has changed. Too many flashes of lightning to count! Enormous electricity! We use real-time lightning apps.

Many myths and storytelling connected to weather don’t work anymore because we have a baseline shift. Thunderstorms often no longer resemble what our grandparents experienced. In France, we had 40,000 lightnings in only a few hours yesterday. Today’s gods no longer meet at the bowling hall but in a rave club. What happened last night was gods under drugs at stroboscopes. Our innocent childhood ended in climate emergency. No more myths?

As one who researches regional cultural heritage and brings customs and stories to people in a museum, I wonder if we leave behind more than weather headlines shared a thousand times on social media. Or do we let algorithms form our image of reality? Do we still need storytelling? Where do we find „anchoring“ when we run out of myths? At what point do we tell small children about climate change and how?

Handed-down behavioural tips can be a nasty narrow role model. But how narrow is a world in which people unlearn how to interact with nature and are lost on the mountain when the app dies? We still do storytelling. Our fire and meeting places became virtual. Sometimes they happen at places we never think about: We have a „lightning beam“ in our museum. A weathered vertical wooden beam with lengthwise carved, strange wave and braid patterns. These beams were placed at a front corner of a house as „lightning beams“ to protect the house from lightning strikes.

Wooden vertical beam

It is a very special place when I guide people in our cultural heritage centre. I talk about the meaning, and people can touch it. It’s like magic: suddenly, people start to talk. They remember old stories about thunderstorms or behaviour rules. Some are crazy, some would never work, some are wise, and some are fascinating. Because all of them are human.

Rural people had different methods of magic to believe that they would be protected against lightning strokes. Knowledge is hidden behind many methods that seem strange to us. F.e. if you hung a beehive next to your front door for protection, the bees could indeed protect your family. They showed you every change in the weather in advance through their behaviour. You only had to have the knowledge to read it.

Behive fixed under a roof on the top of an entrance.

Perhaps, even our memes about bad billionaires are used like our grand grandmother’s Holy Water or that crazy amulet against the devil? Bones, human hair, and carved skulls, the so-called Memento Mori and Fraisenketten („chains of terror and fear“) should not only protect against the evil but show to the rich and powerful: You are as mortal as everyone else.

Meme evil billionaires
Memento mori chain with skull and bone beads.

Did only our images and materials change? And how do we talk about that baseline shift? We have it in climate, in biodiversity, and nearly everywhere in nature and our lives. Is it important to remember how it was before? Should we invent more stories about how it could be? Dreams written in words once were seen as magic, too. They could come true if we act them out.