Words by Sophie Strand
The rise of empire was in part facilitated by the deracination of local mythologies. As climate collapse worsens, a return to multi-species mythmaking might just be what saves us.
The Lion Man statuette comes to us from a distance of 40,000 years. Polished by prehistoric caresses, the ice-age relic was unearthed in Germany’s Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave alongside a collection of perforated arctic fox teeth and reindeer antlers on the eve of the second World War. Now, the Lion Man, which combines a cave-lion head with the upright body of a human being, is considered one of the earliest examples of figurative art.
The popular argument is that, in blending the head of a lion and the body of a man, the statue demonstrates the ability of human beings to imagine a creature that does not exist in ordinary life, constituting a conceptual leap in the evolution of human consciousness. But this interpretation rests on a decidedly anthropocentric urge to locate the moment when we evolved out of bestiality into self-reflective cognition and creative mastery over the natural world. What if, instead of articulating the divide between man and animal, the Lion Man affirms a different reality—that we are all multi-species hybrids?
The Lion Man is a theriomorph—derived from the Greek therion for wild animal and morphe, meaning to change shape. Such human-animal hybrids are one of the dominant motifs of paleolithic iconography. One of the most famous examples is the Sorcerer, painted deep within the Cave of Les Trois-Frères in southwestern France. It depicts a deer-antlered man with bear-paw feet, a bison beard, the tail of a horse, and owl eyes. Such figures are considered the whimsical creations of early human dreamers. But what if these theriomorphs represented a profound type of myth-making that is in conversation, not with fantasy, but rather with the reality of deep time?
The History of Multi-Species Ecosystems
Blinkered by Eurocentric epistemologies, it is easy to forget that for most of human history we have been asking questions of our ecosystems and receiving accurate data in return. Science, as an interrogative tool that helps us understand the natural world, is only the most recent development of this primal impulse to dialogue with our environment. True, our Paleolithic tools of measurement were not the standardized technologies of modernity. But the qualitative data provided by our bodies, our dreams, and our relational webs were no less accurate in their own way.
In many cases, Indigenous folklore and myths precede science in their precise documentation of ecological phenomena. Aboriginal stories describe “debil-debils” descending from the heavens and creating massive craters. It was only after “following” the geographical cues provided by these stories that the Henbury craters in northern Australia were identified and iron slugs were pulled from the ground confirming a meteorite strike. The Pit River Nation of northeastern California, also known as the Achumawi, have a cosmology that dates the universe at 10,000 billion years old, a mythic origin that far predates the material reductionist conclusion that the universe’s age is, indeed, close to that estimation.
Theriomorphs, then, are not imaginary creatures but mythic reminders of our rich evolutionary past as animals.
Theriomorphs, then, are not imaginary creatures but mythic reminders of our rich evolutionary past as animals. Going even further back, they point to the fact that our existence as multicellular beings is the product of an ancient bacterial merger. Around 2.7 billion years ago, free-living prokaryotes melted into one another to form the mitochondria and organelles of the cells that build our bodies today. Even wombs are inhuman technology, the product of a retroviral incursion that taught mammals how to develop the protein syncytin that created the syncotrophoblast layer of the placenta 200 million years ago. Suddenly, the centaurs and mermaids and owl-eyed sorcerers of our favorite myths seem less like fantasy and more like crucial reminders that we are less atomized individuals and more multi-species ecosystems, constituted by ancient symbiotic collaborations.
The Reclamation of Mythtelling
Myth, at its best, is a way of honoring and facilitating those collaborations. It is a way of rooting our lives back into place. 416 million years ago plants made it onto dry land. But these plants were unlike the vegetation we know today. Lacking roots, they had no way of accessing the rich nutrients in the soil. Luckily, mycorrhizal fungi in the soil collaborated with these early plants, acting as surrogate root systems for millions of years, slowly teaching them how to root into place and root into relationships. Over millions of years, plants “learned” how to develop their own roots from their symbiotic association with fungi. To this day, over 90% of plants depend on mycorrhizal connections in the soil. Every slice of leafy shade, every old-growth forest, every wildflower-woven field, every vegetable and fruit we eat today is the product of an underworld myth that far pre-dates Inanna’s descent deep into the Earth and Persephone’s seasonal stay in the land of the dead. Our first underworld myth is decidedly inhuman, documented not in a dry text, but the twining roots of the trees and plants we now walk alongside.
Just as fungi taught plants how to root into the soil, so do myths teach us how to root into our ecological and social ecosystems. Mycorrhizal fungi map the relationships in a forest just as myths map the specific relationships of a community rooted in place. While the theriomorphs of cave art are compelling, it is crucial to note that they are never pictured alone or highlighted as the main character. Instead, we find them nested within polyphonic iconographies: bison and lions interweave across the stone with aurochs and bears, sewing together a multi-species entanglement rather than enshrining a single anthropocentric divine.
Mycorrhizal fungi map the relationships in a forest just as myths map the specific relationships of a community rooted in place.
The human-animal hybrids that populate our early mythologies and paleolithic art honor the symbiotic collaborations that underpin our bodies and our ecosystems. Early pantheons of bird-headed goddesses and horned gods mirror the reality that we are constituted socially and metabolically by our network of relationships. Myth, too, is symbiotic: an intimate co-becoming that happens between people and the places where they live. And these mythic maps are difficult to uproot from one ecosystem and transplant to another without corrupting the accuracy of their ecological transmissions.
The rise of empire has depended on the deracination of localized mythologies. Just as landscapes were stolen and terraformed, so were whole pantheons uprooted from their social and ecological contexts. The serpentine divinity Medusa is transformed into a gorgon-headed demon. The lunar bull god finds himself imprisoned as the monstrous minotaur of the labyrinth. The Galilean storyteller Yeshua is turned into the militaristic figurehead of the very empire that had him murdered. Uprooted from their context and from the renewing respiration of communal storytelling, these stories ossified into abstraction and reinforced the anthropocentric hyper-individuality of colonial capitalism.
Myth, when it is consciously created, can be a powerful way of coming back into dialogue with the polluted ecologies within which we find ourselves negotiating climate change and social upheaval. And yet, while it is important to reroot mythologies that have been deracinated from their original ecosystems, reclaiming their forgotten earth-based wisdom, we cannot return to the folk traditions of our distant ancestors. We can, instead, reclaim mythtelling as a way of asking our more-than-human network of allies for more feral suggestions on how to dismantle the dominant paradigms driving climate collapse.
The Myths That Might Save Us
Originally, our mythic systems were created as vessels for our most precious environmental knowledge. If we look back far enough, sky gods transform into storm gods and then, finally, become storms. Mother goddesses very quickly melt back into their original essence—matter itself. Very often, heroes and heroines represent anthropomorphized plants and animals, their romantic entanglements representative of real-world relationships between symbiotic species. In myth, elementals are personified. Harvesting schedules are embedded in episodic family dramas. A myth is a patch of soil where we can plant the best practices of a community: how to relate to each other and to our shared ecosystem.
How do we create the narrative soil that will sprout stories freshly adapted to our current conditions? The mythmaking we are called to do now is probably somewhere closer to composting. We live in a culture that is remarkably good at abstracting itself from waste and off-loading it onto the marginalized communities least responsible for its creation. We cannot simply decide that civilization and patriarchy are toxic and then reject them. Instead, we must take responsibility for our bad stories through the alchemical power of rot. On the compost heap, nothing is exiled. Beliefs and epistemologies that were never designed to touch, combine inappropriately in the moist refuse pile, fermenting into soil that can grow something new to meet the demands of our dire circumstances.
A myth is a patch of soil where we can plant the best practices of a community: how to relate to each other and to our shared ecosystem.
For our circumstances are dire. And we cannot keep letting mythic systems we did not author continue to decide our narrative direction. We can no longer abide by stories that center heroic individuals and human concerns. Let us pour our heteronormative lovers into lichen, watching as they symbiotically fuse and forget their socialized genders. Let us turn King Arthur’s round table into a pitcher plant, hosting and nourished by the excrement of an inquiline community of insects and invertebrates living within its tubular body. Let us coppice the hero’s journey like an old tree, delighting when the cut trunk of an ossified narrative sprouts into many shoots and many different possible stories. Let us turn linear narratives into convoluted food webs where one being’s refusal becomes the sustenance of another’s survival.
While science and myth are often seen as opposed, I want to propose that the tools of science have provided us with a unique window into the lives of the beings whose myths might save us. Inspired by the work of philosopher Isabelle Stengers, I believe the most resilient thinking will occur in the overlap of disciplines, creating what Stenger’s calls an “ecology of practices.” We can return to the hybrid wisdom of the theriomorphs: symbiosis is the basis of life itself. Biological and mythic novelty arise from unruly compositions between species, between epistemologies, and between beliefs.
Let us lose our heads in order to gain our lion minds. Let us tell narratives that, like a mycelial system, branch off simultaneously into a multiplicity of paths. Let us think with our entire mycorrhizal map of relationships. Let us step sideways out of the hero’s human journey that, by virtue of its linearity, always progresses into extinction and into the survival of symbiotic multi-species mythmaking.