Wednesday, 4 February 2009

914 - 42 Days To Ox Mass

Plans for the Whitley Festival of the Great Ox are probably taking shape. There's a newspaper report here (which I referred to in Post 942), and a little publicity in the ether.

The Whitley Bay Chamber of Commerce are planning the event for 28th March. An ox sculpture based on a sketch by Thomas Bewick, framed in iron and decorated with flowers, will be paraded through town. Poetry competitions will run alongside.

I think it's a great idea. And mischievously I've suggested the Space Rabbit - a splash of paint that just happens to look like, well, ... - should caper, Lord of Misrule-ishly, around its heels. But I'm wondering if the Chamber of Commerce know quite what they are doing.

Karen Armstrong writes very powerfully about myth-making. Last year she won a TED Prize for her work on religion and the need to take it seriously. I'm reading her 2006 book, The Great Transformation, in which she suggests that the most powerful myths arise to help people make sense of the times they are passing through. Arise? More than that, are created, by poets, storytellers, artists, priests, everybody.

She identifies a hole in our myth-making. The grand Western myth of Christianity has largely been abandoned in the face of technological advance and a hard-nosed critique of its claims. It needs radical reworking if it is to satisfy a multicultural world, traumatized by world wars and environmental rupture. And I can't help but feel that Whitley's festival is an attempt to do something similar, on a local scale.

Think about it. It's not just that it's a bit Wicker Man, in a kitsch way. Its institution by the Chamber of Commerce and their choice, as core symbol, of an ox fattened for sale and slaughter on land belonging to the lord of the manor, fits perfectly as a myth about successful capitalism. It is easy to see that a town in need of regeneration could turn to such a festival in the hope that its drawing-power might hoist us out of economic and cultural gloom. And if it does so, great.

But, as Karen Armstrong points out, myths that don't serve their purpose get subverted, abandoned. The Eastern Mediterranean, between four and three thousand years ago, was home to a pastoral civilisation whose rituals were peaceful and celebrated life, agriculture and pageantry. Then the civilisation collapsed. Greek myths, birthed in the turmoil that followed, are darker, full of the vagaries of fate. They expressed the experiences of their time far more effectively than processions and fatted calves. Was this a bad thing? Perhaps not, because out of the trauma, over the next five hundred years, grew the Greek civilisation that inspires us today.

My question to the Whitley Chamber of Commerce is, does the current climate look like one in which a myth about successful capitalism is going to ring true? If it does, then proceed with the procession, flowers and poetry, undaunted. It will be a popular success. But if it sounds a bit hollow, then consider reworking the myth a little. Straining against people's sense of the true state of things is poor quality witch work. Put a bit of dark in, a bit of chaos, like the Greeks did. In the long run it will be more effective.

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