Around the World in 6 Myths

6.) Thor & Loki in the Land of Giants (Norse): There’s no shame in putting a mere dent in the impossible.

5.) Rama & Sita (Hindu / from the Ramayana): Careful with your assumptions. You may end up looking like a jerk even if you’ve proven yourself generally virtuous.

4.) Anansi the Trickster (Ghanan / Akan): Don’t do favors for tricksters.

3.) Arachne the Weaver (Greek): Don’t be arrogant, even if you’re the best.

2.) Izanagi & Izanami (Japanese [creation myth]): Hell hath no fury…

1.) White Buffalo Calf Woman (Native American / Lakotan): Don’t let your lust get away from you and be careful in your assumptions.

BOOK REVIEW: Treasury of Greek Mythology by Donna Jo Napoli

Treasury of Greek Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Heroes & MonstersTreasury of Greek Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Heroes & Monsters by Donna Jo Napoli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page


This book consists of 25 biographical sketches of figures from Greek Mythology. It’s one of those books that grew on me, and the reason it grew on me was a few of the chapters toward the end were engaging, such as those about Heracles, Jason, and Helen. This also means that the number of stars I gave it is fairly meaningless. It was in no danger of getting 5 stars nor 1, but could’ve been anywhere in between at various points in my reading.

The problem with the book is that the unit of interest isn’t the myth, i.e. not the story, but rather the mythical figure, the various gods and heroes of ancient Greece. Because of this organization, some of the chapters have a tight and memorable story, such as that of Heracles and his 12 labors, while others are just piles of genealogical facts mixed with odd mythical happenings (e.g. who burst from whose forehead) and tossed with that mythical figure’s bit parts in larger myths. The book is a good, solid reference book for schoolkids doing research on Greek Mythology, but much of it’s not very engaging to read.

The graphics are beautiful and colorful, if a bit artsy (not always instantaneously clear in subject.) There are maps, a timeline describing happenings of ancient Greece — real and mythical, a bibliography, and a quick guide to the characters that would make more sense if the book wasn’t a collection of relatively brief biographical sketches to begin with (but repetition has its merits, particularly for children.)

If you’re looking for a collection of biographies of mythical Greeks (i.e. a reference for children,) then this is a good book for you. If you’re looking to get your kids intrigued by the Greek myths, then you might want to shop around. Put another way, if you’re looking for a version of what Neil Gaiman did with this “Norse Mythology,” only for the Greeks, this isn’t it.

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POEM: A Khasi Myth: or, Rodent, Lightening, and Sword

In a sacred forest

a Rodent roamed

who owned a sword

it freely loaned.

This was no hacking

machete blade,

but made of metal

of unmatched grade.

One day Lightening

made a request:

To borrow the blade

believed the best.

Lightening zigged,

sliced, and zagged.

Claiming ownership

 in its boastful brags.

The rightful owner

requested its return.

But the rodent’s

plea met only spurn.

So the critter devised

a clever, sensible plan

in order to bridge

the requisite span.

It needed to climb

from Earth to the sky

because it had no

wings with which to fly.

But it wasn’t just wings

which Rodent lacked.

It had only one item

 to be skyward stacked.

So it piled its poop

as high as it could,

from the base of a tree

past the top of the woods.

Stacking and piling, the

poop nearly touched cloud.

When a thunder crack

struck ear-splitting loud.

Lightening saw rodent

would reclaim the sword

that Lightening had come

to so ardently adore.

Down fell the Rodent

to a pile of fried dung

that had once been its

steps and its ladder rungs.

 You may think that

Lightening got its way.

But the Rodent piles

its poop to this very day.

Someday when Lightening

is momentarily distracted,

Rodent’s sword will be

surreptitiously extracted.

BOOK REVIEW: Monkey: A Folk Novel of China by Wu Cheng’en

Monkey: A Folk Novel of ChinaMonkey: A Folk Novel of China by Wu Cheng’en
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page


If you’re familiar with any Chinese folklore, it’s probably this story. But you probably know it as “Journey to the West.” It’s not only been released in numerous editions as a novel, it’s also been adapted for film, stage play, and I’m sure there must be a video game of it out there.

If you’re thinking, “Chinese folklore? Sounds boring.” Think again. This is a superhero story. Monkey, also known as the Monkey-King and “Great Sage Equal to Heaven,” is an immortal who has all manner of supernatural powers. He can fly. He can make copies of himself. He can transform himself—either disguising himself as another being or appearing as an inanimate object. He has an iron truncheon that can be the size of a sewing needle or a mile long and which is indestructible. Wielding said staff, he can defeat armies or deities.

In fact, the flaw in this story isn’t a lack of adventure or thrill. On the contrary, it’s one adventure after the next. If anything, the flaw is “Superman Syndrome.” That’s what I call it when the hero is so ridiculously overpowered that even when he’s fighting gods, dragons, or whole armies there’s still no doubt about the outcome.

Of course, the Monkey does eventually meet his match in the form of the Buddha. The Buddha defeats Monkey not in combat, but in a bet. That event shifts the direction of the story. In the early chapters, Monkey is goes about heaven and earth arrogantly wreaking havoc. He’s not altogether detestable. He does have his redeeming traits, but he’s insufferably arrogant and mischievous. After he’s imprisoned following his run-in with the Buddha, a monk is assigned to go to India to bring back scriptures (hence, a “journey to the west”) to China. Monkey is assigned to be the monk’s guardian and along with two others that they pick up along the way (Pigsy and Sandy) the monk is escorted on his journey. The party faces one challenge after the next, and the trip is long and arduous. Some of the challenges require brute force but in many cases they are battles of wits. So while Monkey may be overpowered, he does experience personal growth over the course of the story.

The story is told over 30 chapters, each set up with a cliffhanger. I enjoyed this translation by Arthur Waley. It is end-noted, which is useful given the historic and cultural nuances that may not be clear to readers.

It should be noted that this is unambiguously a Buddhist tale. There is a bias against Taoists and other non-Buddhist religions evident throughout the story. It’s not just the fact that the Buddha easily defeats Monkey when no other deity or group of deities can, there’s a steady stream of anti-Taoist sentiment. So, Taoists and Chinese Folk Religion practitioners be warned, I guess.

I would recommend this book for fiction readers, particularly if you have an interest in the superhero genre or Chinese literature.

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BOOK REVIEW: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Norse MythologyNorse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


This is the telling of a select group of Norse myths with the signature humor and down-to-earth prose of Neil Gaiman. It’s a fascinating collection of stories and is well-ordered so that the reader is often familiar with references to past events from earlier stories.


After an introduction that explains how Gaiman first became interested in Norse mythology both through the comics and then actual mythologies, there are a couple of chapters that largely provide background before delving into the chosen Norse myths in great detail. One of these chapters gives extended “bios”—if you will—for three of the most prominent characters: Odin, Thor, and Loki. Then there are a couple of chapters that both convey the timeline and of the spatial dimensions of the nine realms of the world the Norse created.


There is a brief story of how Odin lost his eye in the pursuit of wisdom that’s entitled “Mimir’s Head and Odin’s Eye.”


It’s from this point on that the stories are substantial and complete. The first of these stories is entitled “The Treasures of the Gods” and it’s about of how Loki created a competition among dwarf master craftsman. Loki does this in order to keep Thor from beating him with Mjöllnir after the god of mischief stole the hair of Thor’s wife, Sif (one of the items to be judged by the gods was stipulated to be a set of hair that would reattach and be as beautiful as Sif’s original hair.) The competition was Loki’s way of using a clever ploy to make the fix without it costing him anything and while at least sticking it to the dwarfs a little. The story is also well positioned as some of the items that are gifted to the gods in the competition are seen repeatedly in later stories. Loki creating mischief is a recurring theme not only in Norse mythology, but in this collection of myths specifically as they make for some particularly humorous tales.


“The Master Builder” is about a builder who shows up right as the Asgardians need a wall built. He claims that he can build it improbably quickly in exchange for the sun, the mood, and the hand of Freya (the most beautiful Norse goddess) in marriage. While all the other gods consider the price too high—not the least of whom being Freya—Loki convinces them that it’s an impossible task and that they can get free foundations if they give the builder a set timeline (a fraction of what he stated) and set another limitation or two. When they are on the verge of losing, the gods—suspecting the builder isn’t what he appears—agree to cheat.


“The Children of Loki” concerns a second family that Loki that is kept secret from the Asgardians. The three are an odd bunch: a girl who is half beauty / half corpse, the creature that becomes the Midgard serpent, and Fenrir wolf. Most of the story deals with the wolf child and the fact that they will only release the creature if they know that they can later bind it, but its strength is such that it seems to be able to break any binding. This story also explains why the Norse god Tyr has only one hand.


“Freya’s Unusual Wedding” This story revisits the idea of someone trying to negotiate Freya’s hand in marriage. Freya proves unwilling to take one for the team in order to fix the problems of other gods—in this case Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir, has gone missing and the thief says he will give it back as a wedding gift. This time it is Heimdall—rather than Loki—who hatches a clever plot that will save the day.


“The Mead of Poets” This story revolves around a god of wisdom named Kvasir who comes into being after a strange treaty agreement between the Aesir and the Vanirs. Kvasir is killed and his blood is used to brew mead that is said to give imbibers the ability to write great poetry. This time it is Odin who saves the day and retrieves the mead. It also offers a humorous explanation of from whence bad poetry comes.


“Thor’s Journey to the Land of the Giants” Thor travels with Loki, and—eventually—with a bondservant named Thialfi (how Thialfi comes to be with them is part of a prank that Loki pulls that is explained at the story’s beginning.) The three were each subjected to a competition to see whether they were worthy, and it appears they weren’t.


“The Apples of Immortality” This is another tale that begins with a traveling trio including Thor and Loki. When Loki gets himself into hot water, he agrees to hand over the Apples of Immortality, which go hand-in-hand with the goddess who oversees them, Idunn. Without Idunn’s apples the Asgardian gods age and die like humans. Loki first has to hatch a plot to surrender Idunn, and then he’s forced by the angry and aging gods to carry out a plan to get her back.


“The Story of Gerd and Frey” This is a love story in which the god Frey (brother to the aforementioned Freya) is smitten with a woman named Gerd. Frey promises his magical sword, capable of defeating any attack, to his manservant in order for him to ask for Gerd’s hand.


“Hymir and Thor’s Fishing Expedition” Thor needs to borrow the huge mead cauldron of a giant to make a massive banquet happen. Thor goes on a fishing trip to help grease the wheel with the giant, who is very attached to the cauldron. Thor shows both his legendary strength and dimwittedness, but ultimately wins a bet that will grant him ownership of the cauldron.


“The Death of Balder” Balder is one of the most beloved Norse gods, and he dies as the result of one of Loki’s vicious mischiefs. To call it a prank would seem to trivialize it, but that seems to be how Loki views these acts. When the overseer of the underworld (where the dead who didn’t die gloriously in battle go), Hel, agrees that she will release Balder if all the creatures of the world agree that he was beloved, Loki outdoes himself.


“The Last Days of Loki” Adding insults (literally) to the injury of having been responsible for the death of Balder, Loki heads off into exile, but is pursued by the Asgardian gods.


“Ragnarok: The Final Destiny of the Gods” Here we have a description of how the Asgardian end of days is to play out. The Norse gods aren’t immortal, but Ragnarok is the end of a cycle, but not the end of all existence.


As I mentioned, the first couple chapters offer more backstory than the extensive myths through the rest of the book. This works well as it gives the reader the necessary background in a readable and palatable fashion. Another nice feature is a glossary that includes all the named characters and major places mentioned throughout the book. The section of mini-bios at the front only covers Odin, Thor, and Loki, and so it’s beneficial to have a list of all the various other gods–a number of whom (e.g. Freya, Frigg, Heimdall, Tyr, etc.) play major roles in one or more of the stories.


I’d highly recommend this book. It’s extremely readable, humorous, and educational to boot.

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DAILY PHOTO: Guardian Lion, Singapore

Taken in Singapore in November of 2016

Taken in Singapore in November of 2016



6 Persistent Myths About the Brain

lucy1.) 10%: As this story goes, we humans only use about 10 percent of our brain’s capacity. This long-debunked myth is so well ensconced that there was a film built around the premise as recently as 2014. That movie, “Lucy”, features a titular character who accidentally ingests an overdose of a drug that allows one to exploit increased levels of one’s mental capacity. Admittedly, by the movie’s end the 10% myth is one of the lesser violations of reality because as Lucy gets closer to 100% of mental capacity all the laws of physics dissolve in her presence.


I’ll give a reference at the bottom of this paragraph from which one can learn about all the evidence of the folly of this belief. I’ll just lay out part of the evolutionary argument. The fundamental rule of the biological world is that mother nature doesn’t over-engineer. Once there is no longer any benefit to be gained in terms of enhanced likelihood of survival, we don’t evolve new and costly capacities.  We don’t see people who can run 500 miles per hour or jump 50 feet vertically from a standstill. Those capacities weren’t necessary to survive the beasts that preyed upon us. Our brains are very costly, they consume 20 to 25% of our energy intake.  [For the science, see: Beyerstein, Barry L.1999. “Whence Cometh the Myth that We Only Use 10% of our Brains?”. in Mind Myths: Exploring Popular Assumptions About the Mind and Brain. ed. by Sergio Della Sala. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. pp. 3–24.]


Why does this myth get so much play? There are two likely reasons. One is wishful thinking. We’d all like to think there is much more available to us. And lucid moments of meditation or flow, we may even feel that we have tapped into a vast dormant capability. (In both the aforementioned cases, it’s interesting that the enhanced performance we may experience is a function of parts of the brain shutting down and not increased capacity ramping up.)  The other reason is that people see savants of various sorts, but they don’t account for the full picture. There are people who can carry out activities with their brains that seem supernatural. However, it should also be noted that savants who can memorize phone books or tell you the day of the week for a random date hundreds of years ago [or in the future] often suffer corresponding downsides with respect to their brain activity. Of course, there are people who are just geniuses. Geniuses are endowed with more intelligence than most of us. They have a bigger pie; they aren’t just eating a bigger slice.


2.) Left and Right Brained: The myth is that some people use one of the hemispheres of their brain much more than the other, and that this explains why some people are creative and artsy and others are logical and mathematical. We must be careful about the nature of the myth and separating it from reality. The science is NOT saying that there aren’t some people inclined to be “artsy” and some inclined to Spock-like rationality. Clearly, these personality types exist. The science is also not suggesting that there aren’t some functions that are carried out exclusively in one hemisphere–e.g. language is a left brain function.  The myth says that predominant use of one hemisphere is the cause of these extremes of personality type.  This myth has had–and continues to have–a great following, but it’s not supported by the studies that use the latest brain imaging technology to see exactly where the brain is being active.


For the science, see: Nielsen JA, Zielinski BA, Ferguson MA, Lainhart JE, Anderson JS. 2013. “An Evaluation of the Left-Brain vs. Right-Brain Hypothesis with Resting State Functional Connectivity Magnetic Resonance Imaging.” PLoS ONE. 8(8): e71275.


Why is this a persistent myth? First of all, we all know people who fit neatly into one of the boxes, either “artsy” or “logical.” The left-brained / right-brained explanation is as good a way as any to explain these differences in the absence of evidence. It may have also been a way for people to attribute their weaknesses to an uncontrollable cause (always a popular endeavor among humans.) Secondly, once this idea caught on, a lot of people built the idea into their teachings, businesses, and academic ideas. Yogis used the notion to support ideas about imbalances in the “nadi” (channels.) Psychologists used it in their personality testing and profiles. In short, many people had a vested notion continuing false belief. Thirdly (maybe), there could be something to the issue of how we notice differences versus similarities. (e.g. A person says, “Hey, look Jimi Hendrix is playing a left-handed guitar. Lefties are creative.” The next thing one knows people are disproportionately noticing the left-handed individuals in the arts [and failing to notice the many (more) righties.])


theDecider3.) The Conscious Mind Makes All Our Decisions: We all have a conscious mind that we think is our ultimate decision-maker. The evidence, on the other hand, suggest that this is wrong. It turns out that it’s entirely possible for an entity to think it has decision-making authority, when–in fact–it’s finding out about the done deal decisions after the fact. Like the left / right brain myth, this is an idea that was firmly affixed right up until brain imaging technology became sufficiently sophisticated to see what parts of our brain were firing and when. In the wake of such imaging studies, we could see that the subconscious mind does its work first, and this has led to the widespread (though perhaps not consensus view) that decisions are made subconsciously before they filter up to our conscious minds.


There are many sources of information on this idea, but one popular book that is built around the idea is David Eagleman’s “Incognitoa book that devotes itself to the part of our neural load iceberg that goes on below the waterline (i.e. subconsciously.) Scientists often compare consciousness to the CEO of a large and complex corporation. The CEO doesn’t personally make every decision. Instead, the CEO sets an agenda and the strategy, and–if all goes as planned–the decisions that are made are consistent with those overarching ideas.


It’s easy to see why this myth is persistent. First, if part of a process is buried from view, as subconscious thought has been (and–to a large extent–continues to be) then it’s easy to see how humanity would develop a story that excludes it and fills in from the visible parts. Second, there is immense vested interest in protecting all sorts of views of consciousness that are embedded in religions and quasi-scientific undertakings.


Thirdly, people have a deep-seated need to feel in control, and reducing the role of consciousness to long-term strategist and rationalizer of decisions would seem to make free will illusory. A number of scientists and scholars (e.g. Sam Harris) do argue that free will is an illusion. However, it should be noted that there are others who suggest otherwise (e.g. Daniel Dennett and Michael Gazziniga.) These “compatibilist” scholars aren’t necessarily arguing that the conscious mind is the immediate decision maker in contradiction of the scientific evidence. What they are arguing is that through learning, thinking, and agenda-setting, people can influence the course of future decisions–perhaps imperfectly, as when one eats a sleeve of Oreos after contemplating what one has learned about how that’s not good for you. (This goes back to mother nature not over-engineering. The conscious mind must have some role in facilitating survival or it–being incredibly costly–wouldn’t have evolved. If it can’t influence our path, it can’t enhance or likelihood of survival.)


I’ll attach this video by Alfred Mele that contradicts the notion that free will has been proven an illusion. This isn’t to suggest that I’m convinced Mele is right, but he does lay out the issues nicely and more clearly than most.



4.) The Sleeping Brain Shuts Down: I won’t spend a lot of time on this one because: a.) in a sense it’s a continuation of the consciousness myth (i.e. we lose track of this time as far as our conscious mind goes, and so we think nothing is happening because our conscious experience = what we believe our world to be.) and, b.) it’s not as ingrained a myth as some of the others. Perhaps this is because it began to be debunked with electroencephalogram (EEG) studies which began decades ago–in the 1950’s–well before the functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) that has been providing many of our most recent insights into the brain.  (The EEG measures brainwaves and the fMRI blood flow.)


The NIH (National Institutes of Health) offers a quick and clear overview of this science that can be viewed here.


Our bodies go from a very relaxed to completely paralyzed state over the course of a night’s sleep. The paralyzed state occurs with Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and may be an adaptation that kept our ancestors from fleeing out of trees or cliff-side caves during their dreams. If the body is essentially immobile, it’s not a far stretch to imagine the brain is as well. However, the brain is like a refrigerator–always humming in the background (part of the reason it uses between 1/5th to 1/4th of our energy.)


5.) Adults Can’t Generate New Brain Cells: This was the prevailing thought until quite recently. It was believed that one’s endowment of cells–at least as far as the Central Nervous System (CNS) is concerned–didn’t change / replenish once one reached adulthood. It turns out that, at least for the hippocampus, there is now evidence to support the idea of CNS neurogenesis (the production of new nerve cells.)


There’s a Ted Talk by Sandrine Thuret that explains the current state of understanding on this topic, including what activities and behaviors facilitate neurogenesis. (Long-story short: Exercise and certain healthy foods are good, and stress and sleep deprivation are bad.)


What is the basis of this myth? First, one must recognize that the studies don’t show that any and all CNS nerve cells are regenerated. That means there is an element of truth to this myth, or–alternatively stated–a more precise way of stating the idea would produce a statement of the best current understanding of medical science.  Of course, telling teenagers that every beer they drink kills 20,000 brain cells irrevocably has probably proved a popular–if ineffective–reason for the continuation of this myth. (Note: at least heavy drinking is definitely damaging to the brain, though by damaging / interfering with dendrites and not by “killing brain cells.” It’s also not believed to be irreversible.)


brain6.) Emotion and Reason Are Forever at Odds: Most people have had the experience of boiling over with emotion. That is, they’ve experienced instances during which they believed a particular emotion didn’t serve them and they didn’t want to be caught up in it, and yet they couldn’t help themselves. It’s clear that there’s an ability to inhibit or suppress emotions; recent findings have suggest that the neural pathways involved with voluntary suppression are different from those used when one is persuaded to suppress the emotion.


Of course, there’s also evidence that continually suppressing emotion can have a downside. While it remains an unclear correlation, it’s commonly believed that suppression of emotion is related to untimely deaths from certain diseases–e.g. cancer, and there has been some evidence to support this.


Still other evidence supports the notion that there are healthy ways of regulating one’s emotional life rather than the ineffective and counterproductive process of just suppressing emotions. The key may lie in changing one’s way of perceiving events rather than telling oneself to not show emotions.  Rather than one’s conscious mind wrestling with the emotion, activities like breath control have shown effective in regulating exposure to stressful situations.


The brain is an organ we all possess, and we intuitively think we’ve got a grasp of it. Yet brain science is one of the scientific disciplines in which we have the most to learn.