Morphing the Myth – Riffin’ on a Jam

This series of posts, which I have titled as “Morphing the Myth” after the Pantheacon 2016 panel of the same name, has taken me along some really interesting and odd passageways in how I view myth, legends, stories and folk-tales. The next question I had written down from the panel was concerning the rewrite of mythology, specifically as has been done via movies, novels, and comic books. If these stories take liberties with the myths, changing aspects of the story lines, combining characters into one, or even creating new characters out of whole cloth, are we really honoring the Gods and Goddesses whose tales these are?

I will be completely honest. This is the fifth full rewrite of this particular blog post over the last nine days. And I am not completely sure that even this version will make it into the outside world when I am done. The primary reasoning behind that is in what follows in this paragraph: trying to relay what I mean by “honoring the Gods and Goddesses.” By this, I am not trying to convey something along the lines of pouring some of my water when standing out by my backyard stone circle, honoring the Gods, Goddesses, and Spirits of Place. Nor am I thinking of something along the lines of raising my voice around a public circle, giving thanks to Crow, Coyote and Fliodhas for their continued guidance along my Path. And yet, in a way, I do mean all of that. And some more. So, to try and express what I mean, I am going to switch to something I do understand, in hopes that it helps to explain how I feel about the modern re-tellings of the tales, heroism, and mythic adventures of the Gods and Goddesses.

It is well known that I am a Grateful Dead fan. I am also a huge fan of improvisational Jazz. Given my love for the Grateful Dead and their jam-style marathon sessions on stage, that revelation should come as no surprise. But I am also a fan of tribute albums. And all three perspectives have a similar theme – riffin’ on a jam. For those unfamiliar with jam-band terminology, riffin’ is essentially improvisational playing of an instrument. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary describes “riffing” as improvisational talk. Or if you prefer, a far easier concept is driving long distances with me. I tend to jump from topic to topic, looking for something new to bend our brains around. Jam-band riffin’ is the same thing, except it is done with musical instruments, and typically in a stretch of non-lyrical notation in a song.

One of the essential elements to the entire concept of riffin’ on a jam within a song, is that the instrumentalists need to understand their roles in the song. There’s an essential element that needs to stay consistent to what is the “normal” playing of the song, usually done by drums, bass guitar, keyboards and/or rhythm guitar. this is where the listener can relate to the riff’d song as sounding “somewhat” like ¬†the original song that they know so intimately well from the numerous times that they have listened to it in their cars, on their iPods, or on the radio. That allows the listener to connect to the song, and it also provides the bedrock over which the improvisational instrumentalist(s) can work their magic and mood over. In essence, adding their mood, their feelings, their thoughts, their presence through their playing.

I’m not sure that the concept has come completely across with what I am saying, but I am going to suppose that it has. What if the same thing can be done with the telling of myths, legends, tales, and stories? Can it? Of course it can. The storyteller can embellish certain aspects of a story, even change some of the elements so as to fashion the story against his/her audience. Little flourishes can be added through sound effects, emphasized passages from voice or physical gestures. A creative storyteller can even add new characters to a story, particularly if the characters are background or secondary characters – again, fashioning the story to the audience or even to the social setting of the time. This is done all the time in movie re-tellings of myths, stories, legends, tales…and even in television re-tellings of myths. Take for example Hercules – The Legendary Journeys or its companion show Xena – Warrior Princess. The Gods and Goddesses are depicted in the show, and provided with very different personas from what the myths ascribe to them. Which does bring up another thought….

When we change myths in such ways to create palatable television and movie entertainment (or even Fantasy novels for that matter), are we truly honoring the Gods and Goddesses?

I have to admit, this has been the more difficult part of this particular post to write. I am not sure how I actually stand on this. On the one hand, I think that riffin’ on the myths can sometimes help to refocus what the myths are about, as well as highlight some of the lesser observed components of the over-arching story. On the other hand, riffin’ can go way too far, and transform the myth into a completely different story. For instance, gender-flipping Thor (turning him to a her) may be an interesting twist to the myths, but may also change the story so much as to render it unrecognizable in its new format.

In a manner of thinking, I equate riffin’ on the myths to be similar to a tribute album to a specific artist or musical group. For instance, there have been several tribute albums for the metal band Iron Maiden that have been released. The bands that play Iron Maiden “classic” songs on the album stay within the bounds of the song – utilizing the same rhythm, and the same lyrics – but they also stamp their own style of music onto these classics. ¬†Essentially, riffin’ on an Iron Maiden classic as their way of tipping a hat to the influence of one of the best selling metal bands of all-time. Sometimes, the band or artist covering the song totally mangles their version…taking the riffin’ too far. But it is still a tribute to the influence of Iron Maiden.

To twist this in a musical and religious manner, take the Rock Opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” as an example. There are several different versions of this done – particularly in the role of Jesus Christ. Every actor/singer I have seen/heard portray this part, has stamped their own style into the role. Even interpreting some of the gestures that Christ makes in his emphatic and emotional statement in “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)”. I have even heard some Christian ministers remark on how some of these roles seem to be “inspired by the Christ Himself.” Could we not extrapolate from this as an example of riffin’ on the myth of Jesus Christ? I realize that many Christians view the rock opera as being deceitful and even “satanic” in nature, because it corrupts the image of what the Christ is, even bringing Him into a role that borders on idolatry in some corners. Could we not set those folks into the corner of those who would believe that riffin’ on the myths does not honor the Gods and Goddesses? Or perhaps we could consider the rock opera as going too far on riffin’ the Myth??

Personally, I fall in-between the two camps. It all depends on how the Myth is riff’d and just how much of a change is made. If Thor’s hammer is substituted with a Pink Powerpuff Girls’ hammer…we may have gone too far with the riffin’. If we bring Thor to earth in a modern-day America, perhaps we have struck the right chord to add some modern twists to the Myth, provided we don’t draw outside the lines too much with Thor and turn him into something that is not recognizable.

The exact same thing can be said for Grateful Dead concerts. Mainstay riffin’ sessions such as “Dark Star” are wonderful to listen to, but can sometimes go astray and become jumbled noise instead of “different music”…but then, the sound’s authenticity is left up to the listener, with the musician unafraid to take some risks with the song. The same can be said for some storytellers – both by the campfire, and via more modern methods – the embellishments sometimes give the Myth an extra edge…knowing when you’ve walked the riff too far is the key to being good or being too far out of bounds, at least to me.

–Tommy /|\

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