Once and Future Myths

by Phil Cousineau

Published by Conari Press

320 pages, 2001

Buy it online




Old Ways For New Days

Reviewed by J.M. Bridgeman 


Once, as a spontaneous gift, a lover gave me a worn brown penny dated 1896. The head was Queen Victoria's, but it was the obverse he flashed at me. "It's you," he murmured, "it's you." "It," she, was Britannia, seated, holding a trident scepter and a sun-symbol shield bearing the Union Jack and wearing a spiked centurion's helmet. I didn't ask him what he meant by that. I just shivered, querying the depths of his eyes, transmitting mutely my simple "How did you know?" Not that I am Britannia, Boadicea or Brigantia, Queen of the Celts. But I already recognized these guises as other incarnations for my mythic namesake, Bridget. My lover, who had never heard of any of these female heroes, had handed me through the veil of time a mirror in which I could see both myself and my sacred core.

Phil Cousineau would understand this story. And the frisson it engendered. In Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in Modern Times, his latest book about stalking the sacred presence on Earth, Cousineau describes some of his own peak experiences and his search for the core of their meaning as he understands them so far. He is, as Stephen Larsen says in his gracious foreword, describing his own "dance of the universal with the personal," weaving old ways and now/new days. Raised "on the knee of Homer" by a father with a passion for the Classics, and mentored by mythologist Joseph Campbell, Cousineau is imbued with the awareness of narrative as one of the vehicles that transport us from now to once upon a time.

In his own "Introduction: The Splendid Prism of Myth," Cousineau shares collected definitions of myth and outlines his plan to write about "how I've actually experienced and encountered myth," and sets us up for his "mythopoetic approach to the modern world." He uses his poet's license, switching back and forth between two common definitions of myth -- as "old story" and as "underlying cultural assumption." Then he chooses six topics that have been important in his own life -- creativity, time, mentoring, travel, cities, and sports -- and extrapolates.

Once and Future Myths is a collection of essays about myth and the meaning of life. Each of the six essays takes us on a tour through an ancient or sacred place -- a citadel in Corinth, the valley of the Kings, the killing fields of Troy, Easter Island, Paris, the fields of Olympus and Detroit's field of dreams. Our guide regales us with stories of others who have been here before us and of his own earlier visits. He explores the importance of this shared experience of place and the importance of transmitting what we know to those coming behind us. For each mythic topic, Cousineau chooses one or two classic myths tied to an ancient place, one or two celebrity heroes from modern western culture and one or two examples from his own private experience.

To discuss the myth of creativity, Cousineau describes the ancient myth of Sisyphus, the songs of Sinatra and his own personal struggles to find his creative voice. The myth of time looms in a private nightmare image of the ancient story of the Fates cutting the threads. This essay is the least satisfying and convincing. There is a jumble of images; he seems not to differentiate Time from the measure of time and he fails to apply the wisdom learned in the previous chapter -- that it is not Time but our attitude towards time that matters.

The importance of mentoring is demonstrated in the story of Mentes and Mentor who looked after Telemachus while Odysseus was lost at sea for 20 years, by Cousineau's own uncle and his own high school coach. A mentor is the "soul friend" who helps us become ourselves. Every day, Cousineau points out, we see and hear in news headlines the tragic results of unbonded, unmentored "gunboys" who act out their rage and revenge in violence against self and others.

The essay on the myth of travel explores the mysterious giant heads of Easter Island and the appeal of travel to sacred places, "going to the stones," as a way to help us "feel the mana," gain perspective and see home with new eyes. He complicates the myth of travel with stories of the dream of flight -- Daedalus, the Wright Brothers, moon landings. There is a sense of a file stuffed full with a collection of related images and quotations that could have benefited from more sifting, sorting, and self-editing.

To explore the myth of the city, Cousineau reinterprets the story of the Tower of Babel and revisits his personal mythic city, Paris, a place that was part of his ancestor's name and also the haunt of mythic writer role models, Hemingway and Joyce. Finally, the myth of sport, of play, looks at the ancient Olympic games and the personal story of the stadium he went to with his father and was able to take his young son to visit before it was demolished. The ancient, the pop cultural, the personal. Cousineau's Once and Future Myths furthers the quest for meaning and teaches us by storytelling example how we know what we know and how knowing heightens our bliss.

So, how do we know? How does an antique penny morph into a sacred object? Much as I cared about that person who gave it to me, perhaps he was trying to tell me that I am imperious and royally condescending. I choose to believe otherwise. Sometimes, as Campbell put it, "we know more than we understand." What is important is that messages are sent and, because we choose to believe, we recognize and receive them. Everything, for a person on a quest, is a potential image, symbol or metaphor. Not simply the story, but our attitude towards the story, is what matters. And we control our attitude. To a lesser extent, we also control the story -- by choosing which to hear and which to tell and by how we choose to tell them.

Once and Future Myths is Eurocentric and masculine, reflective of its teller. Cousineau could have chosen some mythic hero other than Aphrodite to describe his personal seduction by Paris. That is his point -- he can choose whatever he wants to choose. He is teaching us by example not what to think, but how to think. Not what a story means, but how to approach a story in such a way that it reveals to us something about our innermost selves. All the understories, all the ghosts that beckon, the throughlines, the threads, the golden strings, the core of all the narratives lead us out of our cave to a hidden door or gate, to a mysterious unknown realm, which, when we finally get there, our soul recognizes as home. | January 2002


J. M. Bridgeman is a contributing editor at Suite 101 as well as January Magazine.