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Myths and Metamorphosis

One day last month, a friend called my attention to a cicada freshly emerged from the skin of its former developmental stage. Witnessing this moment, I felt I was in the presence of something sacred. I have seen cicadas emerge before, and I understand some of the biology and ecology of this species of insect. Yet this time, as I stood there looking at the before-and-after forms of the cicada, it was the potency of mystery that caught me, not the physical science.

A few days later, I encountered a Monarch butterfly caterpillar feeding on a milkweed plant. The following morning, in place of the familiar caterpillar was a form so different from that of the fleshy caterpillar. A thin gold belt and a few shining gold jewels adorned the green chrysalis that hung from the leaf. Surely, here was a magical creature! Inside that sacred temple a mystery was unfolding; the dissolution of form. Some mysterious force was at work transforming the liquefied caterpillar into a butterfly.

Monarch Butterfly chrysalis. A chrysalis is not "made" by butterfly caterpillars the way a moth caterpillar makes a cocoon. The chrysalis is already formed inside the caterpillar. When the caterpillar completes its maturation, it anchors itself to a leaf and sheds its skin to reveal the chrysalis. Science has learned a great deal about this process, but the deeper mystery remains untouched. (Click on photo to enlarge)This made me think about our ancestors from thousands of years past who had no science (at least as we know it today) to help explain much of what you and I hold as common knowledge about our physical world. How could they explain an emerging butterfly or cicada? What did they make of the great sun rising each day and traveling across the sky world, or seeing green plants burst forth from the dark earth each spring, or mushrooms magically appearing in forested lands, or fireflies flashing secret messages in the night, or even the power of the shaking earth that crumbled hillsides? All these things inspired reverence and respect, and taken as a whole, they pointed to the vast unseen world of spirit. Their lives were perhaps shaped more by mysteries than by science.

Myths serve many purposes, though primarily they help humankind relate to the seen and unseen forces of nature that surrounded them. Science continues to unravel and de-mystify the world of nature, and the current speed of information-sharing fosters ever shorter attention spans. We have little patience today for mysteries, it seems, because we are spoiled by so many readily available answers. Our minds snack on factoids, bullet-points, and sound bites. The internet will instantly provide all we need to know about metamorphosis. Or does it?

Today it may be hard to see the relevance of many of the early myths and stories. Many of them are culture-specific and belong to an age before the emergence of science as we know it. The myth-makers of old interpreted the world around them in ways that might seem silly or illogical today, but their myths and stories were not a matter of “bad-science”. To assume that would be a mistake. Myths arose as a way to capture a mystery and hold it for contemplation with the hopes of our gaining personal power and practical wisdom. Becoming wise was once a deliberate choice. Today, many people just work at becoming smart. . .

The Phoenix Bird is a familiar mythical creature that possesses a mysterious power. According to some versions of the myth, every 500 or 1,000 years the bird constructs a nest of twigs, sits in it, and perishes in flames of unknown origin. From the ashes of its former incarnation the phoenix is reborn. It is not a different bird. It is the exact same being who is resurrected to carry on the cycle of life, death, and renewal. The cicada and the butterfly go through a similarly mysterious process in which they die to the old form and are resurrected into a new life. Can you imagine what witnessing these events must have been like for those ancient people?

Perhaps we need to hold present day mysteries in our hearts as well as our minds, turning them over and over, seeking the deeper wisdom contained within them. Not so much to answer chemical or biological riddles, but rather to understand what such mysteries point to.

Reader Comments (1)

We do need to view first steps, our early efforts as the creepy crawling caterpillar. Persevere and we transform into butterflies. It is indeed an ancient metaphor, a true holding myth. The cicada offer a deeper change. Think of the proverbial seventeen years needed to change some of those creatures!
I've been working on emerging from my pre-computer literate state as a live storyteller, into a cyber flying monarch, a singing cicada piercing the babel I currently find surrounding some who click here rather than look and listen out there in nature. Like the cicada, however, I'll emerge, as a better storyteller, not a cyberteller!

September 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Kruk

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