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Reclaiming Story as Cosmic Medicine


Simona L. Perry

The first world to exist was Muspell, a place of light and great heat.

The Ancient Norse creation story had been passed down in oral tradition for thousands of years before transcription in the 13th century. It continues:

Adjacent to Muspell lay a great yawning void, known as Ginnungagap, and on the other side of this void was the place known as Niflheim, where ice, frost, wind, rain and heavy cold emanated. Where this heat and cold met, the giant frost ogre, Ymir, emerged. It was from Ymir’s sweat and left arm that other frost giants were born. Odin and his brothers, Vili and Vé, also the offspring of these frost giants, killed Ymir and took him to the middle of Ginnungagap to be dismembered.

Captivated by this place of ice, heat, frost, and sweat, we learn the ramifications of Ymir’s death:

Ymir’s blood became the sea and the lakes; his flesh the earth; his hair the trees; his bones the mountains; and his teeth, jaws, and broken bones the rocks and pebbles. From Ymir’s skull was made the sky, and it was set over the earth. And the brothers threw Ymir’s brains into the sky to become the clouds. The brothers took the sparks and burning embers that were flying about after blowing out of Muspell and placed them in the midst of Ginnungagap to give light to heaven above and earth below, and to the stars they gave appointed places and paths.[1]

Good stories are journeys, opening a portal into another dimension of time and space; drawn in, we become time and space travelers. Like a cosmonaut who dreams of touching galaxies, we are moved to share how the power of story launched us into realms of time and space, far beyond this material plane. You see, it’s the story that inspires and transforms us.

Such “out-of-this-world” story is a type of cosmic medicine— a salve that can lead to recognition and eventual healing of our emotional and spiritual wounds. The feelings, thoughts, and actions catalyzed by stories can leave us simultaneously severed from and bound up with the source of all creation and one another. This cosmic medicine penetrates wounds, rooting out all dead, putrid, and infected feelings, thoughts, and actions from within. In so doing, it allows new insights to enter us, awakening our intuitions and reestablishing our connectedness to all life.    

The acts of story sharing and listening are sacred practices rooted in and stemming from ancestral and experiential knowledges and wisdoms about the nature of our universe and our place in it. Original wisdom or creation stories are global, yet local. Expand on universal experiences yet are profoundly relatable. And invoke the dynamic complexity of separateness and oneness with the Sun, Moon, planets, galaxies, and all phenomena in the cosmos. Paradox abounds. Allegory and parable all in one, such stories are not to be understood in one listening or reading.

Stories as they were originally practiced were not based on a one-to-one transaction between teller and listener. Instead, they were an ongoing relationship: we sit in silence, experience with all our senses, let the story speak to us in its own way, and perhaps share the story with others. This is not entertainment in the way we consider TV shows, summer novels, or music concerts to be, although these stories are many times infused with humor, epic tragedy, and drama.

In today’s consumer-obsessed society, much of what is categorized as “story” is a capitalistic transaction between storyteller as salesperson or entertainer and listener as consumer or audience. The transacted story is “sold” once and possibly given away later. As such, it poses the immediate threat of epistemicide to our collective and individual well-being by divorcing our understandings and relationships with other human beings, other non-human beings, and the cosmos.

Today story has become untethered from its cosmic potential for deep healing and transformation through connection. From the beginning of the colonization and expansion of empire, stories have been crafted as psychological weapons to justify stealing, genocide, and destruction for the accumulation and concentration of wealth and power.  The 1452 Doctrine of Discovery story was decreed by Roman Catholic leaders to justify European claims to all non-Christian lands. In the United States, Manifest Destiny was a story invoked in the 1820s to justify western expansion to the Pacific Ocean and beyond. Both stories of empire expansion motivated explorers, merchants, farmers, tradespeople, and various religious groups within European societies to participate in land grabs and projects to annihilate non-Christian, non-European peoples, and to control and profit from Nature. As they explored new areas for expansion and exploitation, European monarchs and merchants observed and coveted the abundance of deer, beaver, trees, birds, and the fertility of the waterways and rich soils. It was (and is) a bloody race to extract from all original peoples, lands, and waters across the world and story played a central role in European empire expansion. Stories were invented, heavily endorsed, and promoted by economic, political, and religious institutions that portray places as lands of milk, honey, and gold where sometimes friendly, sometimes unfriendly, “savages” await (and, according to the story, want) to be “Christianized” or “civilized.” This expansion project, rooted in a corrupted origin story, worked so quickly that the orchestrators of this building of empire encountered shortages of laborers and the need to find free or cheap labor through first indentured servitude and then through chattel slavery.   

These empire stories are still very much with us today; they compose the base of modernity’s patriarchal, colonial, and white supremacy soup that is boiling us alive daily.  Over time, modified versions to the Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, and new storylines of empire have been created to advance colonial, neoliberal, fascist, and genocidal projects, and political regimes; to create and maintain fear and control within families, social groups, and religious systems of belief; and to promote instrumental projects of gratuitous and capitalized entertainment and psychological control. In the United States, our failure to acknowledge and account for the violence and devastation caused by such stories continues to destroy and harm our individual and collective souls, psyches, and societies.

It is no wonder that we in the United States have so much trouble addressing our addictions, suicides, interpersonal and mass violence, spiritual disconnection, and mutual destruction. Story that contains the potential to connect and heal us has all but been destroyed or discredited in favor of tales of capital accumulation, control over human bodies and minds, and domination over Nature instead of collaboration with her.

The original intent of stories was to speak and transmit knowledge of the interconnectedness of life, death, and rebirth. From around the world, such stories relate to the origins and complexity of the universe through main characters such as fire and ice, turtle, ox, mountain, tree, star, river, sea, and supernatural beings who emerge from locations beyond the world of humans, where humans are rarely central characters in these stories. In listening to creation stories, we are invited to set aside our obsession with self and honor non-human life that is deeply interconnected with the cosmos yet necessary for our own survival. We are reminded, for example, from another Ancient Norse story chronicling Thor and his hammer, Mjölnir, of the power in Earth’s gravitational field and lightning to be at once the creators and destroyers of life in our infinitesimal speck of the Milky Way galaxy. Such a knowingness about the universe is always present in these original stories. They offer a stunning contrast to the “ordered,” linear, and dichotomous storylines of a human-centric, materialistic, and mechanistic universe of winners and losers, saviors and victims, good and evil, conquerors and savages.

When we reclaim our relationships with story and the original intent of exploring paradox, complexity, and interconnections, we return to the wisdom teachings of our ancestors and our living relatives. We are offered healing and renewal as well as connection with one another, Nature, and the cosmos.  This is cosmic medicine. Stories as cosmic medicine, both healer and teacher, are desperately needed at this time of climate disruption and mass extinction.

To reclaim all aspects of story as cosmic medicine, we must remember, acknowledge, and reimagine. Remembering that story, and the sharing and receiving of story, is sacred; the original intent of story is to be in relationship with knowledges and wisdoms for personal and collective well-being. Acknowledging the devastation that has been caused as story has become a tool for seeking power over or extracting something of value from others. And how this has created listeners who expect to be entertained, satisfied consumers or customers, and powerless to imagine or generate a new story.

Yet, we do have the power to reimagine story, especially in how story is shared and received, while also weaving new stories that speak to the unlimited potential of time and space and the unity of all life and its marvelous complexity and continual renewal.

To remember, acknowledge, and eventually reimagine story as cosmic medicine, we need to put our relationships with all life and the cosmos ahead of our relationships with progress, technology, and material accumulation. Late 19th and 20th century expansion of data and technology is not fundamentally different from expansion and exploitation of empire in the 16th through 19th centuries. As the different ways in which we can receive and transmit information has been exceeded only by the rapidity and volume of transmission, we have lost our connections not only with one another but with the stories we all need to share and listen to for individual and collective survival. We are consumers and sellers of story instead of listeners and sharers. All the stories of progress, technology, and material accumulation have drowned out the most urgent story that Mother Earth herself has been screaming at us for more than half a century – the extinctions of other sentient beings on Earth and the catastrophic climatic changes occurring at local, regional, and global scales.

Stories are more than just terabytes of data; they are, like our own bodies, composed of rare elements and subjected to such forces as heat, cold, and gravity, and are influenced by distant stars and galaxies at scales of time and space that blow our tiny brains. Creative soulfulness, universal imagination, intuition, empathy, and love are qualities that no computer algorithm, no matter how “smart,” will ever fully embody.   

Let us boldly acknowledge that for many centuries story has become a tool to be used in our own undoing. With that knowledge, let us set our minds and hearts to reclaiming our power to listen and share story as sacred and cosmic medicine. Let us defend this way of story to heal with all our collective strength. Let us sit across from our loved ones, strangers, others, and look at ourselves as part of a cosmic story. Let us put down our technology. Let us really listen to ourselves and one another for the first time in a long time. We may want to find or create more dark skies that do not reflect ambient light and noise so we can really see and feel who we are in the great yawning void, Ginnungagap, the universe. We may discover that we are connected in personal and surprising ways to giants like stars, planets, and galaxies; that they hold our ancestors and our descendants. Indeed, we may discover that to reimagine story as cosmic medicine is our invitation to reconnect, reimagine, and heal ourselves, one another, and an entire planet.    

[1] Adapted and condensed from the “Elder” Edda, as translated and interpreted into English by Elsa-Brita Titchenell in The Masks of Odin (Theosophical University Press, 1985) and from The Prose Edda (also known as the “Younger” Edda) originally by Snorri Sturluson in 1220 and translated into English by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur (American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1916).  

Simona Perry is founder and director of c.a.s.e. Consulting Services LLC and CEO of Oceans Connect. She serves as senior communications advisor to Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN), communications and outreach coordinator to Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, and community engagement advisor to Pipeline Safety Coalition. Simona is trained as an ecologist, ethnographer, and trauma awareness and resilience facilitator, and has worked in rural and urban places across the U.S. to promote dialogues around the interconnections between ecology, psychology, politics, and culture.

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