Conference report by Joris Dormans (2005)
Friday February 25, 2005. In the morning a small group of twenty-odd participants gathered at the Meertens Institute for a conference on the popular myth and New Age spirituality. Seven presentations were scheduled for the day. Over-all I found the conference quite interesting, although some presentations were more clearly interesting to me than others. Especially the ones that explained in some detail the way popular stories, become myth and possibly turn into belief. Here you can find some notes on six of these presentations. In this report I have omitted the presentation of Martin Ramstedt who'se focus on the use of narratives in corporate and managerial strategies is not very relevant to my interest in the subject and this site.
The morning started with a presentation on the spirituality and fan culture around The Lord of The Rings by Giselinde Kuipers (Erasmus University, Rotterdam) and Jeroen de Kloet (University of Amsterdam). They presented some results of a world-wide internet survey. In this survey people were asked about how well they liked LotR, both films and books; how often the seen or read these; what kind of story they though it was; and what was their favourite character; etcetera, etcetera. Most of the results did not really surprise me, about seven percent of the readers responded that they thought LotR is a spiritual story. These people tend to have read the books and watched the film more than others. They also tend to favour the character of Gollum who internalises the struggle between Good and Evil. The most surprising result that the percentage of 'spiritual readers' was the lowest in English speaking countries. After the presentation the participants discussed this a little further and wondered whether this had to do with a difference with the English term 'spirituality' and the connotations similar terms may have in other languages. Kuipers and De Kloet also mentioned the great production of fan-fiction and drawings that and mentioned life action role-playing as further re-enactments of the text. They suggested that the fans stay relatively close to the core text of the LotR, a tendency that can also be found in the LotR games, whereas the games and other types of text that contribute to the Star Wars universe are much more peripheral to the plot of the films. A thesis that might be interesting to investigate further, once.
The second presentation was made by Andreas Grünschloss (University of Göttingen). He discussed in some detail the 'Ancient Astronauts' myth. This popular myth underlies many science fiction and even fantasy stories. It presupposes that in ancient times the earth was visited by extra-terrestrial visitors who caused or inspired the accelerated evolution of mankind. Atlantis, the ancient gods, the face on the surface mars and other mysteries of history and nature can be explained or attributed to these ancient astronauts. There are many who strongly believe such myths to be true, it is for example to some extend the basis of Scientology. Grünschloss exposed the paradoxical role of technology and science in this myth. On the one hand their practices are scientific or at least pseudo-scientific; they give a lot of weight to scientific evidence that does support their theories. On the other hand the reject science because it does not accommodate their 'visionary' views, the discovery of Troy is the historical exemplar for this latter stance: it was an individual, lay-man that believed – contrary to scientific views of that time – that the stories penned by Homer were true, and subsequently found Troy. I found this presentation of interest because I had not encountered the 'Ancient Astronaut' myth as a distinct mythical corpus before. It is obvious that the settings of the games of Warhammer make use of the same myth (both the role-playing and tabletop war games, and the 40k variants in particular). Also the 'weird-science' ideas in Mage uses the same ambivalent stance towards science.
After the lunch there were two presentations that addressed (at least in some ways) how verifiable false sources can still give rise to popular believes. In first presentation Goffe Jensma (Fryske Akademy, Leeuwarden) focussed on the 'Oera Linda' Book, a nineteen century hoax that fakes a mythological past of the Friesians. Perhaps the most ironical conclusion of Jensma was that he supposes inspiration of the book was to expose the ease with which ease myth could be established on fake sources and what if that might indicate for other mythical texts such as the Bible. The creators clearly subscribed to some progressive and liberal ideas: they made the ancient Friesian society a matriarchy. But the book was quickly taken very literal and inspired neo-pagan movements in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Worse still, it also inspired certain prominent Nazis. Likewise Mikel Koven (University of Aberystwyth) described how the film The Wickerman inspired neo-pagans to take the rituals depicted in the film as a historically correct representation. The irony in this case is in the fact that the director of the film is a strict Christian and hoped that the film would expose the ancient Celts as savages and dissuade people from their old believes. Both presentations illustrated the 'Folklore Fallacy' within reception and the audience of fantastical fictions.
Next was Stef Aupers (Erasmus University, Rotterdam) who with his presentation on computer role-playing games accounted for the 'homo ludens' in the subtitle of this conference. Needless to say it was this presentation that drew me to the conference in the first place. Unfortunately it was also the presentation I liked the least. His account of MMORPGs was not very informed. He based the presentation on valid theories from the domain of cultural philosophy, but drew on little knowledge of Computer Game Studies; it seemed that he based most of his views on only five interviews. At the basis of his presentation was a supposed digression of from 'play' via 'serious play' to 'serious magic' where players more and more lose sight of the fictional status of a game. Although I can understand – and advocate – a 'serious play' stance where games and their content affect the player's real life attitude and believes, I do think that the number of players that really believe in the magic of games is very low. And I definitely hope it stays that way, or we might be returning to debates that resemble the violence in games discussion to close for comfort (as somebody mentioned).
The last presentation was made by Theo Meder (of the Meertens Instituut and conference organiser). He presented his research on the popular myth and believes that surrounds crop circles. To this end he joined the Dutch Centre for Crop Circle Studies. This way he was able to study from real close how certain stories and sets of believes surrounding crop circles develop. He exposed how certain aspects of narratives and believes make it easy to for popular myths to take root. All in all I liked his presentation best, especially because he made manifest fourteen number of steps and mechanisms that are involved in the creation of urban legend and modern myth.
After the presentations there was room for a brief discussion. Here again the mechanisms that give rise to popular myth was put forward the most interesting subject of study. Although I am convinced that this is a subject worthy of study, I find that I am interested in a weaker version of this mechanism, one that does not lead to (almost sect-like) groups of believers, but how these myths (consciously and subconsciously, wittingly and unwittingly) can affect the attitude and lives of a much broader base of fans. I would be more interested in a study of the 'folklore fallacy' in a stance equivalent to the 'serious play' in many types of media.
In the end I learned a couple of new things of modern myths and urban legends. Most importantly the conference has shown me (again) how myths are collections of aligned stories, contents and believes. In myths there is much more room for paradoxes and personal exploration than a singular narrated version of it would suggest.