When I was researching insect mythology, I came across an interesting paper which used insect myths to “foster active learning” in undergraduate courses. It outlines a course approach which begins with discussing what a myth is then the students are asked to read a variety of insect myths from a range of sources. As we’ve already seen, it is often possible to group these in terms of themes such as creation or explanations for behaviours. A working definition of a myth is then provided.
Working definition of a myth*
A myth: is a story that explains or relates the origin of a natural phenomenon, cultural belief, or tradition. It often answers a fundamental question (e.g. How was the world made? Why does the sun/moon move across the sky? Where do souls go after death?). Myths may justify existing social systems and/ or account for traditional rites and customs, including cosmological and supernatural traditions of a people, their gods, heroes, cultural traits, and religious beliefs.
A myth may:
- invoke supernatural events and gods
- contain elements of a legendary and fabulous nature
- be associated with religious ceremonies
- illustrate geographical, historical, anthropological knowledge
- explain characteristics of plants, animals, and other life forms
*Excerpted from: The Columbia Encyclopedia (1950), New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (1972), and Leach (1984).
Students are then allocated an insect from a list which includes: caddisfly, praying mantis, monarch butterfly, death-watch beetle, drugstore/ cigarette beetle, house/dust mite, green lacewing, mantispid, flea, mayfly; dance fly, water strider, and aphid-tending ant. They are asked to read through some information about their insect which covers biology, ecology and behaviour. Once they are familiar with their insect, they then have to write their own insect myth.
Having read this paper around the time I read White Clouds and the BQE; Using Children’s Literature to Explore the Theme of Nature in the City by Susan Karwoska (included in The Alphabet of Trees), I became interested in the idea of myth making.
White Clouds describes engaging with elementary school children (as apposed to undergraduates) and despite the significant age and ability gaps between the two approaches, there were a number of overlaps. In White Clouds, Karwoska is working with children who live around the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) who have a specific view and experience of nature:
“Nature? Ick, disgusting!” said a girl, a bright and outspoken first grader. “What do you mean I asked her. “Cockroaches!”
Over the course of twelve weeks Karwoska works with the class, asking them to “observe, to dream about, to imagine, and to remember the presence of nature in their city lives”. They read myths and stories and poems and went outside the classroom. They looked closely at objects from nature and drew pictures. As well as a number of other activities, they spend time looking at, and generating, creation myths.
“Young children – like the people of the ancient cultures that gave birth to these myths – lack the scientific knowledge to explain the world around them, and so must use what they know and imagine to piece together an explanation.”
The creation myths they write are about what was here “at the beginning of the beginning” and how what is here now came to be. There are a number of dinosaurs in the myths they wrote as well as some biblical references but, as you’d expect with children, there are also some really nice nuggets:
“Mother Nature made the plants. She had magic and she made the seeds out of her magic… The electricity came from a thunderstorm… The Statue of Liberty did not exist until mine workers dug her out of the ground.”
The way children see the world can be amazing, inspiring and eye opening and it’s such a hard skill to hold onto as we grow up and we learn why things are how they are and become vessels of facts.
Having read both of these pieces, I was feeling inspired to attempt my own insect myth but a part of me was reluctant, knowing I could never catch hold of something as so wonderful as miners digging the statue of liberty out the ground. Nevertheless, here is my first draft:
A long, long time ago, long before the beginning of time even, there was a tree. Its roots ran deep into the rich, blackness. Its branches reached tall, grasping towards the light. Pulling in the wondrous light and sucking up the fertile dark, the treed stood and stood, growing little by little, until one day, on one branch, right at the tip, appeared a twinkling, glowing fruit. As the tree pulled in more wondrous light and sucked up more fertile dark, more and more twinkling, glowing fruits grew until the tree was alight with hundreds of sparkling lights.
A nibbling insect came along, entranced by the twinkling. Desperate to take one of the glowing fruits home, the nibbling insect nibbled through the stem of the fruit. But before the nibbling insect could catch the fruit, it fell from the tree. Falling and falling and falling through the darkness until at last it came to a stop. Here it glowed brightly and became the sun. The nibbling insect kept trying, desperate to take home a twinkling, glowing fruit, but every time the nibbling insect nibbled through the stem, the fruit would fall and fall and fall until it came, at last, to a stop. And this is how the stars were made. The nibbling insect is still up there, nibbling away at fruit stems, desperately hoping to take home a twinkling, glowing fruit but never quite succeeding.
I felt it was important to post a first draft as the internet is so full of polished work that’s been edited and edited and we never see first drafts of anything which can feel a bit disheartening. This is also why I include a lot of half edited, not yet finished, poems on my blog.