Exploring the Western vs. Indigenous Intersection in Costa Rican Mythology. Conversation with Douglas Williamson, Earth Charter International and Willi Paul, Mythologist. Presented byNewMythologist.com
Legend of the Irazú Volcano (Costa Rica)
Near the city of Cartago, Costa Rica, mighty Irazú stands watch over her domain. As the ancients tell, Irazú was the favorite daughter of a local leader, Aquitaba. The village where they lived was at war with a rival leader, Guarco, who wanted to control the entire valley. Desperate and fearing he would lose, Quitaba took Irazú to the highest peak and offered her in sacrifice to the gods to help him win the battle. As Guarco’s forces close in, Aquitaba called on the spirit of his daughter to help their people. Immediately the mountain where she had died exploded in fire and ash and rained destruction down on Guarco’s warriors. That day, the volcano became known as Irazú – making her unique among her male volcanic counterparts.
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Conversation with Douglas and Willi –
Willi: Do you see any creative tension (mixing) between the Indigenous and western cultural myths and rituals in Costa Rica?
Douglas: I think its creative tension, definitely tension, as those who are experimenting are trying to compromise different traditions and ways. Sometimes it comes off as authentic, and sometimes as contrived. Don’t you find? I think it’s good that people are experimenting though. I am skeptical usually, but open to experience always.
Willi: Are there festivals or products that, as you say, create a compromise in the traditions there?
Douglas: I sense that there may be some but my feeling is that most of the impetus is coming from outside Costa Rica. It seems to be a kind of tourism. People come here with the desire for a mixing of indigenous and other traditions, but it doesn’t seem to be a Costa Rican impulse for the most part. Costa Rica has a very small and poor indigenous population and the average “Western” Costa Rican is much more interested in a typical North American materialist value system and standard of success than with a traditional indigenous value system. There are some pockets where the indigenous worldview crosses over that I’ve seen, but it’s quite rare.
Willi: What are the fundamental mythological concepts of the sustainability movement? Are these shared by all there?
Douglas: I’m not sure I am ready or qualified to answer this question. I don’t even know if I have a good working definition of what a “mythological concept” is. I can say that there are a lot of mythological bits and pieces within the sustainability movement, many pertaining to Earthrise, Gaia, nature gods, justice, vengeance, cleansing/destruction, and more.
Willi: I like where you are going with this. It seems that you went with symbols of sustainability. If we insert permaculture for sustainability, what do you see? How about the Transition Movement? But, yes, there is a ton of experimenting going down in Gaia!
Douglas: So, I’m still not sure what you mean by “mythological concept”. I guess I touched on some concepts before like cleansing/destruction and renewal above. I think these play a strong role in the sustainability movement. I think the concept of paradise, heaven on Earth, Eden, play a role in the movement too. There seems to be an unagreed-upon concept of the ideal that underlies some of the movement. Sadly, much of the sustainability movement is an opposition political position, and so a lot of the concepts that drive the movement are negative reactions to current unacceptable situations. Personally, I prefer to focus on a proactive utopic visioning, rather than a reactive negative motivating.
Willi: Does the hero work at the community level?
Douglas: I think this is a great question and would be a lot of fun to map through. Once again, I have to claim insufficient knowledge of the hero archetype and narrative to really answer this question adequately. It seems to me that certainly there are aspects of the hero story that could be transposed onto a community narrative. I do wonder though if there are sufficient individuals who have such a strong community identity to be able to identify themselves as strongly with their community as individuals do with individual heroes. This question arose in the webinar that I attended and I think its well worth exploring more deeply and fits in neatly with a lot of the thinking I am doing about utopic societies.
I would also like to note that while I think the hero archetype and narrative is something that we all know and appreciate, perhaps it is more useful for us in visioning the future to step away from that narrative in order to increase our collective appreciation of alternative narratives. The hero narrative seems to be the one we always look to for guidance, perhaps because it is the most developed, the most known, the most popular. But, what if we were to change the priority of our narrative desires to creating narratives that viewed “community” as the central character or actor without attaching the narrative structure of the hero to it?
I think this utopic visioning needs to see community as having its own narrative, detached from the hero story. I think this is what the Earth Charter tries to envision, as do stories and philosophies expounded in enlightenment political philosophy like The Social Contract, and stories including Utopia, Erewhon, and Ecotopia. Granted, these narratives, as well as all of the dystopias, are in some ways criticisms of present (or contemporary) communal rules and mores. These kinds of narratives are emerging all over the place, although they are presented in small bits and as criticism of certain aspects of contemporary society. I have been seeing a lot of the tiny house stories of late, and these seem to be one example of the emerging or reemerging narrative that speaks to lifestyle and community. The off-grid energy narrative is another. Any you are attracted to?
Willi: How is Nature viewed in Costa Rica? By tourists? Locals? Business?
Douglas: Interestingly nature in Costa Rica is viewed by many as recreational and commercial (tourism). There is a decent segment of society here that reveres the natural world on a spiritual level, myself included, but those are less numerous. The Costa Rican identity is in flux at the moment and the nature aspect of it is pretty strong, although superficial too.
Willi: Can you name some of the “flux forces?”
Douglas: The flux forces here are the economy and materialism. Costa Rica is a country in transition. It is a middle class country with aspirations to be materially rich like the USA. The economic transition here is driving many towards materialistic values, although politically, the country understands better than most the value of nature and preservation. Still, there is, in my view, a perspective dichotomy among Costa Ricans between material aspirations and appreciation of nature. The material aspirations are favored over nature connection and as the economy creates greater differences between wealthy and poor, and the middle class is reduced, the value system will be ever more favorable towards the material and against the spiritual and natural.
Willi: Is localization a viable strategy there? Has this influenced the stories?
Douglas: This concept is mostly carried out by foreigners here. It has not influenced the narrative here as far as I can tell.
Willi: Please describe what the foreigners are localizing!? How?
Douglas: Ok, I think you mean localization in the sense of an opposite to globalization. In this case, there are plenty of foreigners who are here creating small intentional communities, some with values similar to transition towns, a lot of permaculture, organic farming, etc. It’s slightly colonial, but Costa Rica has always been heavily influenced by the USA, so the North Americans and Europeans who are here, some are very much into using superior economic wealth to create communities and retreats, many with values of localization, although their presence here is a result of globalization.
Willi: Is creation mythology a strong presence now?
Douglas: Not that I can tell. I like creation stories a lot. I just spent a week at the beach and I experience a lot of creation feelings when looking at the horizon, the vastness of the sea, sky, stars, sunset light. I enjoy listening to the physics folks discuss theories, enjoy the cosmology of Swimme and Berry, and appreciate the myths I know about the creation of the world.
Willi: If you were to write and produce a play with creation as the dominant theme, what elements / plots / mythic sources would you use?
Douglas: I don’t know. I’m less interested in creating foundational myths as I am about visioning narratives for the future. The only thing that comes to mind in answer to the question is water, an element (compound) I have an affinity for and find is fundamental as a starting point for creation.
Willi: What is the role of initiation for the people? Are these coupled with resilience?
Douglas: I don’t know what you mean by “role of initiation”. Which people? Are you referring to rites of passage? Again, you’ll have to define what definition of “resilience” you are using. I am familiar with more than one.
Willi: For resilience, see this work. Initiation is an active community & personal alchemy, a change; growth. It is a key principle in J. Campbell’s work.
Douglas: Ok, I’ll try and answer as best as I can, although I’m not entirely sure I’m on the same page as you regarding “initiation”, which “people” you are referring to, and your understanding of “resilience”. It seems to me that most people are reluctant to take the hero’s journey and as such, avoid initiation entirely. In Costa Rica, most people, I find, are not very adventurous and most seek paths of less resistance. This seems to be normal most places I’ve lived. As for resilience, I’m not sure where that comes into the equation. Costa Rica seems average regarding resilience, although there is perhaps slightly more awareness on a political level of the dangers of global environmental change and economic instability, hence more resilience.
Willi: Given that the Earth Charter’s ethical vision proposes that environmental protection, human rights, equitable human development, and peace are interdependent and indivisible, what are some of the mythic artifacts that support this movement?
Douglas: Again, I am going to have to ask for a definition of “mythic artifacts”. Perhaps, there is some of the answer above in the answer to your second question. I think the myths that speak to interdependence and interconnection include Indra’s Net and the present mythology of the quantum theory. Does that answer help?
Willi: Artifacts as I find and develop them are key to the Myth Lab. Please dig in on this a bit….
Douglas: First of all, the Myth Lab looks fantastic. I will have to dig in when I have some time. Great work! I don’t think I have an answer to your question really. There are perhaps elements of the different aspects of the Earth Charter in artifacts like green buildings, multi-use food spaces such as greenhouses that also serve as residences, organic community gardens, nature trails in preservation areas that support the flourishing of local communities, etc. I don’t know how small an artifact can be that represents all of the facets of the Earth Charter.
Ok I think that’s all for now. Thanks for all the back and forth. Very interesting and enlightening for me. I don’t think I have the knowledge yet to adequately respond to you on many points, but I’m hopefully moving in a direction that will get me there eventually. Any tips on reading would be helpful. Believe me, Campbell is high on my list. I’m reading the Red Book at the moment and also a lot of theory on improvisation, which is my method of choice for exploration with groups.
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Today, while deforestation rates of natural forest have dropped considerably, Costa Rica’s remaining forests still face threats from illegal timber harvesting in protected areas and conversion for agriculture and cattle pasture in unprotected zones. The popularity of Costa Rica as an eco-tourist destination makes parks a source of income rather than an expense, and past governments have been known to use park funds for making up budget shortfalls instead of maintaining protected areas. Corruption remains a problem in Costa Rica, though not as much as in nearby countries.
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Contact Info –
Douglas F. Williamson
Communications, Earth Charter International
Climate Change and Environmental Communicator
Award Winning Environmental Filmmaker
IUCN Commission on Education and Communication Member
Translator (French, German, Spanish)
New Mythologist & Transition Entrepreneur
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