Guidelines for Metahistory
The writings in /guidelines present essential orientation to the concept of metahistory, its assumptions, themes, and applications. These texts are:
How Metahistory Works sets out the Socratic orientation of metahistory.org and examines the problems posed by the inveterate need to believe in what cannot be proven or tested. It carries links to other texts that bear closely on the many issues raised by human reliance on belief.
Tree and Well explains the logo of metahistory.org, a composite of ancient images of a magical tree and a sacred spring or well. The figure of the Norse deity Odin represents a timeless theme of human experience: the shamanic calling to access the Otherworld and interact with supernatural powers. (This theme comes to full expression, and rather outrageously, in the Planetary Tantra.) Finally, this text emphasizes the power and beauty of language and the veracity of story-telling.
The Right to Believe is a brief, one-page text addressing the question of the risk of believing in blind faith, balanced against the necessity to imagine what may be possible.
The Four Concerns considers how all human concerns reduce to four primary issues corresponding to the four relations that
pertain between God, Nature, and Humanity. This orientation essay stresses that human reality is relational, comprised of a web of relationships. We may frame or approach the relationships in belief, but ultimately the relationships have to be tested if we are to know the veracity of such beliefs.
In the Knowledge that Frees explains the status of metahistory.org as a teaching site and explicitly states the author's purpose: to teach teaching what
I regard as lost knowledge of the Mystery Schools of pre-Christian
The Arch of Metahistory with its five themes presents a suggested format for thematic organization of the material on the site. Access the Arch from the menu tree in the righthand margin.
Background to Metahistory is a long, long essay n the antecedents of metahistory, going back to founding of Rome in 747 BCE, an event in which mythical and history converge. Then it comes forward through the Middle Ages and Enlightenment to Hayden White, the American academic who coined the term "metahistory" though his studies have little in common with the material on this site.
Myth in Metahistory is on long essay on teh nature of myth, the eight categories of mythic narrative, and problems concerning the use of myth in its application to actual experience.
The Uses of the Erotic by Audre Lorde is an exception on the site. Metahistory.org does not feature the writings of any other authors except this one. Audre Lorde was a black lesbian feminist active in the 1970s. Her view of the erotic resonates closely to the spirit and tone of metahistory.org, and especially the goddess material. See, for instance, in the eros folder of Gaia-Sophia: Coco de Mer.
The Necessity of a Story
It is wonderful indeed that stories can bind us into a coherent
social order, but what if the personal and collective identity
of each of us acquires conflicts with the still, small
voice of individual conscience? American philosopher
Henry David Thoreau remarked that society is a conspiracy against
the integrity of its members. This is not necessarily so, but
it is inevitably so when a society relies on blind adherence
to the belief-systems encoded in its core stories.
Metahistory asks, What kind of society would arise from clear
and voluntary adoption of beliefs? What kind of a world would
develop if we put our stories in question? To explore these issues,
metahistory examines the diverse expressions of belief in the
three main formats* science, religion and culture with
close attention to the scripting in the six categories (listed
in the definition on the Home Page). This critical but open-ended
exploration reveals new options for a social order of enlightened
consent, rather than blind consensus. In the language of metahistory,
the shift from living by received and unexamined beliefs to living
by freely chosen, carefully deliberated beliefs is called alignment.
"The best thing for being sad, replied
Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, is to learn something.
That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and
trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening
to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you
may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know
your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only
one thing for it then to learn. Learn why the world wags
and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never
exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or
distrust, and never dream of regretting.
- T. H. White, The Once and Future King
What lies beyond history is a new sense of identity developed
by choosing for yourself your own beliefs, drawn from a range
of stories. Or, more liberating yet, by revising myths and thus introduce new directions for the human adventure.
History is the sum-total of
stories derived from the past, the complex inheritance of nations,
races, places, creeds and families. This legacy carries vast
richness and some tremendous, perhaps life-threatening liabilities.
Metahistory presents a way for us to outgrow the limitations
of this legacy called history, and transcend the
conditioning of belief-driven behaviors that deny and defeat
human striving for an optimal, compassionate way of life.
goal of the this site is to generate broadly based,
pro-active participation in discovering and evolving the choices
that will arise when we put our most fundamental beliefs into
question. The process it invites is both a visionary quest and
an open-ended adventure in learning.
The basic assumption of metahistory states a self-evident truth:
all beliefs held by human beings are encoded in stories. An obvious
example comes from Christianity. The belief that obedience to
God is rewarded by eternal life (in heaven) stands on its own
and can be stated in just these few words, but rarely is. More
often, this belief is transmitted through stories preserved in
the Bible. The belief that God can overcome death and grant immortality
is not presented in a bare formula but in a dramatic rendering,
the life story of Jesus Christ.
In the language of metahistory, the belief is scripted in
The historical process is the expansion of cross-cultural contacts
between various peoples and a resultant sharing of a continuously
growing pool of information, ideas, and myths. This body of inherited
and shared information represents our collective understanding
of the nature of our species conscious journey through
Terence McKenna, The Invisible Landscape
An example of a different belief about immortality comes from
Melanesia. The story tells how humans were originally immortal i.e.,
they did not have to earn immortality and shed
their skins like snakes. One old woman went to the river to
change her skin and discharged it into the current where it
fetched up on a stick. When she got home her children did not
recognize their mother in her youthful skin, so she returned
to the river, retrieved her old skin and put it on. Since then,
all humans ceased to cast off their skins and so they live
once only and die. In bare form the belief encoded here is
that we die from attachment to personal identity.
Both versions, Christian and Melanesian, are not rational, but
they exhibit a certain form of logic typical of mythical thinking
that combines rational and imaginary factors. Both stories represent
beliefs that exert tremendous influence in driving or guiding
human behavior at the individual and collective levels.
In metahistory the beliefs scripted into our most enduring stories
are brought to attention so that our behavior can be liberated,
re-aligned, and consciously guided. The purpose of the material
in this site is not to present a specific agenda for action but
to propose views for alignment and open new perspectives
that can lead to optional ways of acting and believing.
The basic practice in metahistory is to investigate
the beliefs contained in all kinds of inherited stories. This
approach assumes that social and collective belief-systems reflect
a limited set of formulas, or thematic plots. These universal
and recurrent plots can often reduced to motifs found in myths
from around the world. The story of Jesus encodes the belief
in immortality, as noted. The promise of ethernal life is a universal
motif not exclusive to Christian faith. The same story also encodes
the belief in salvation by a higher power, but this comes about
through sacrifice, for Jesus must sacrifice his life to save
the world from sin (so the belief states). Sacrifice is another
example of numerous universal themes, or motifs, which determine
the plot-structure of various stories.
Comparative mythologist Mircea Eliade, a pioneer of metahistory
who made an inventory of these motifs, called them mythemes (pronounced
myth-eeme), short for mythological themes. The mytheme of sacrifice
displayed in the life of Jesus occurs in countless other stories,
but it does not always convey the same value or meaning. The
motif is consistent with the encoded belief, although the beliefs
(in this case, beliefs about the meaning of immortality and sacrifice)
vary through a range of different stories. The Melanesian belief
that we are originally immortal conflicts with the Christian
belief that we must earn immortality. In both belief-systems
the same motif operates, but is treated in a different way.
The number of mythemes in the entire inventory of human stories
is not infinite. It amounts to about thirty in all. These can
be grouped in five categories under what might be called master
themes. The Arch of Metahistory (see menu tree in righthand margin))
describes these five components of the universal story-telling
process and indicates how each category is related to the other.
Detecting the mythemes in the stories that drive human behavior is the key to unlocking the power of those
Identification and Alignment
The scripts that make us behave the way we
do are rarely chosen by us. They are inherited and imposed without
options, usually by telling us what we must believe rather than
by asking us what we want to believe. The effect is so profound
that most of us are largely unaware of how we enact belief-driven
scenarios. (Whether the compulsions thus enacted are unconscious
or merely unadmitted is a key issue in metahistorical ethics.)
In metahistory, the terms story, script and scenario are largely
interchangeable. To regard a story as a script indicates that
we bring a questioning attitude toward the story. The story of
the colonization of the New World after Columbus is a supported
by vast research and documentation, but it is more than just
a collection of names, dates and events. Any version of this
story is also a script that contains beliefs, assumptions, hidden
agendas. For instance, the belief that the natives of the New
World were violent and immoral savages who needed to be socialized
by conversion to Christianity is one such script. The same distinction
applies to news stories presented by the media. In
every case, the so-called facts are not neutral.
The selection and narration of the facts is directed by beliefs,
sometimes openly and sometimes not.
The version of history proposed, and imposed, is always the version
approved by the teller. The generally accepted versions
of history carry moral beliefs, religious doctrines, political
ideologies, sexual, and political agendas and familial credos
deeply held by those who impose them. All these components are
pre-scripted without the knowledge or conscious consent of those
of us to whom the story-scripts are transmitted. Every religion
consists of a belief-system framed and created by its originators.
To accept a story is to adopt its beliefs. In a moral sense, the
believer belongs to the story, because he or she enacts
the belief it carries.
Acceptance confers identity, a sense of what it means
to be human, including how we are related to God, race, nation,
society, family, gender. Identification serves the human need
to belong, but it can stifle human potential, because the inculcation
of belief-systems often risks suppressing the innate gifts of
the individual. Socialized identity can contradict feeling, stifle
imagination and overwhelm personal conscience. Unexamined scripts
bind people blindly to the beliefs embedded in the story. You,
the individual, are rarely given the chance to examine a scripted
belief before adopting it. The stories for modeling behavior
are almost never presented in optional form, as one choice among
others. They are imposed as the single and exclusive truth that
confers identity to those who embrace it. If you do not believe,
you do not belong.
--> Revised Nov 2009