As the god disappeared into the lake, the travelers began to argue. They argued all night over who should be sacrificed - all of them were willing and tried to volunteer. Finally they reached what they thought was their only true solution. When Manaan reappeared at dawn, calling, 'WELL - WHO IS IT?' their spokesperson replied, 'None of us! You will have to kill us all. We will not give up any one of us to you!'
At these words, Manaan smiled and began to laugh. 'HA, HA! You have passed the first test, my friends. Go in peace!' And he ushered them safely across the water. This tale of courage and self-sacrifice was written by elementary school students. Creating myths helps students work through their fears and worries in a fantasy format. It pushes them to see beyond the obvious and allows them to feel strong and powerful as they come up with creative solutions.
In my work as a storyteller, I've seen children and adolescents gather strength from myths by putting the tools and images from traditional mythology into a format that reflects the social and individual issues we face as a society. Thus, problems such as hunger, pollution, violence, racism, sexism, lack of self-esteem, anorexia, fear, or depression can be 'safely' placed in a fantasy context and worked through in search of possible solutions in a process I call 'New Myths for Our Time.'
The first step in the myth creation process calls for students to brainstorm 'monsters.' As a group, we list important social problems, including many of those I cited above. We then pick one of these issues to use as an example. A student who wants to draw comes up to the board. I ask the students to imagine what this problem would look like if it were a monster.
One of the most dramatic examples of this envisioning process was when a sixth grade student took on the issue of gang warfare. 'I think,' he began slowly, 'if gang wars were one big monster ... they would look like a giant. A big old giant with a hundred heads coming out of it, and all the heads would be dripping blood. ...' Once students choose their concept, they can work individually, in teams, or in small groups to create a myth.
The next step in the writing process itself is to create a hero/ine and a setting. These can be as diverse as the distant planets of Star Wars, undersea kingdoms, or New York City. One sixth grade class had openings that ranged from 'Letitia was one of the people of the Cina, who dressed in the finest silks and worshipped trees,' to 'Looking down on the twinkling lights of Washington, DC, Penelope Watercrest never would have guessed that the nation's capital was in serious danger.' Next, the students create the allies and obstacles that they will encounter on their path to face the primary monster.
As they develop their own stories, I share international examples of myth and story that provide them with multicultural models they can use or adapt. Thus, talking wolves, regal elves, clumsy but clever sidekicks - and even a winged 'God of Self-Help' - appear in their finished work.
I allow for violence in the process of these stories - certainly there is enough in both traditional mythology and our current society! However, when the students create the climax of their story and face the actual monster, they need to find ways to transform it and not merely 'blow it away.' As I explain to the children, the true message in myth - as in life - is that if you simply kill a monster, it will only come back to you in a different way. Although this criteria initially elicits some groans, young people instinctively get the point and rise to the challenge. (Much more quickly than Hollywood has!) Children's transformative visions of their monsters have not ceased to impress me. In a workshop I did with some fifth grade girls, one girl admitted that she had a tendency to 'lose her voice.' Unable to speak her mind, she often found herself giving in to the demands of others.
We created her voice-stealing monster and helped her consider who her allies were - supportive friends, family, and role models. She called one of her allies 'Quiet Moments' for those periods where she went inside herself and drew on her inner strength for the courage to speak out.
The myth-making process left her with a newfound sense of confidence and the feeling that she wasn't alone - she had allies and an inner strength that would come to her aid. Things can be said through story that can be said nowhere else. Dreams can be dreamed, monsters can be demystified and vanquished. Philosophers and therapists from Carl Jung to Joseph Campbell have identified the power of archetypal story to address the core of our human experience. This is a powerful tool within reach of all our children.
Rachel Pruitt is a professional storyteller and teacher who works with creative minds of all ages. Contact her at 503/231-4151.