When we think of “Thanksgiving” we usually think of American families gathering around a gargantuan turkey as if they were having a practice-run at eating vast amounts of food in preparation for Christmas a month later. But there is more to this and the many other ‘thanksgiving’ festivals than that and they go back a long way before it was cool to wear belt-buckles on your hat. So, what is “Thanksgiving” really?
What is Thanksgiving?
A sugar-coated, white-washed story about an almost-destroyed group of people having dinner with their destructors.
Well, that was easy. Everyone to the pub!
No, no, hang on! Nothing’s that easy, is it? Anyone with even the slightest awareness of US history knows about the Thanksgiving controversy and anyone with even a modicum of empathy can’t help but support the protests against the festival by Native Americans.
Which leaves us in a sticky situation. You see, Thanksgiving is an excellent example of how a literal reading of myth distorts the world. Which is funny because it seems no historians can even agree on what happened at ‘the first thanksgiving’ or even when or where it happened, for that matter.
The consensus appears to be on it taking place in 1621 and being an ‘alliance of convenience’ between European settlers and the native Wampanoag people. But I’d be doing you and I both a disservice if I started pretending I had any better idea of the truth than what’s on Wikipedia.
What’s clear by any standards, however, is that the primary school story – the myth that we know so well even outside the US – is a pretty story told in a room with a rather large elephant in it. (An elephant that looks like genocide, systematic racism, theft of a country … ah you know what it looks like)
So, what do we do? Do we ignore the elephant and roll our eyes at anyone who points at it? Or do we pin a label on the word ‘thanksgiving’ so that it can only ever make our skin crawl even when it’s used at other times of year by different people?
Tempting but we’d be throwing out the baby with the bathwater, to use a macabre saying from my youth. As is often the case, it might be more productive to look at reality through the lens of myth. Not the pilgrim Thanksgiving myth, another one from The Arabian Nights.
“Oh Beware The Sons of Adam!”
The Birds and Beasts and the Carpenter tells the story of a duck who finds refuge on an island paradise from «The Sons of Adam». The duck tells a peahen and peacock there all about the dream it had in which it received the following warning.
«O duck, beware of the son of Adam and be not beguiled by his words nor by that he may suggest to thee; for he aboundeth in wiles and deceit; so beware with all wariness of his perfidy, for he is crafty and guileful.»
The duck then goes on to tell the birds how it befriended a number of other animals who had already been victims of humans, including a lion. This lion then meets a poor Carpenter who says he too is a victim of other humans. He adds that, whatever kind of beast ‘Man’ is to animals, it is a similar beast to its kin.
The lion asks the Carpenter to build a house to keep it safe from any (other) humans that might arrive on the island. The Carpenter builds said ‘house’ for the lion but in the form of a crate just large enough for the lion to get into … and then the human burns the lion alive.
The duck tells this story to the island creatures and they tell it not to worry because it’s safe now. Then a ship, blown off course, unleashes humans on the island who subsequently find the duck and whisk it away … presumably not to give it a hat, promote it to captain and sing shanties on the high seas.
All the other animals flee the humans, including an antelope whose first encounter with the “Sons of Adam” is the murderous capture of its new friend the duck. In their sadness at the loss of the duck, the antelope and the peahen discuss what happened and why it happened and come to the conclusion that it was because the duck didn’t give praise to god.
The antelope ends the story with the words, «Glory be to the Requiter of good and evil, the Lord of glory and dominion!»
What The Hell Does That Mean?
It’s a pretty unsatisfying end to an extremely unpleasant story when you take it at face value. To mourn the tragedy of another by blaming them is a pretty shitty thing to do by any cultural standards. Not to mention, sitting back and giving dopey thanks for a status quo that doesn’t affect you too adversely.
But the historian and writer Norland Tellez has a different approach that sees the myth in terms of the Jungian concept of the ‘Shadow’. The Shadow is what Carl Jung calls that part of the psyche that the conscious part of us does not recognise and which often includes our darkest, most negative aspects.
In the case of this Arabian tale, the figure of the Carpenter – who was both the victim and perpetrator of human cruelty – is the epitome of the Shadow concept. And Antelope’s last mention of the “Requiter of good and evil” is a kind of uneasy acceptance of a horrific status quo.
Tellez frames the tale in a tragically comedic way in that warns us against a false sense of gratitude “based on deep persecutorial anxiety.”
As Tellez put it in his article on the Joseph Campbell Foundation website:
“It is as though the myth were asking us: is gratitude simply a way to acknowledge our dependence on worldly masters? Or is it a ritual worship of the unjust world order against which we are pleased to “count our blessings”? Touting a kind of ‘slave morality’ of its own, the antelope’s prayer allows us to rest content with a “business as usual” kind of attitude—together with the collective shadow that is pushing us to the brink of extinction.”
The fact is, you can’t give thanks without acknowledging the darkness but that doesn’t mean it’s good to ignore or dismiss the darkness as just part of the status quo.
Thanksgiving Is Sharing
It is! Gratitude for food on a plate is compounded when you can put some on the plate next to you for somebody else.
So, with that in mind, I’m going to share three websites / publications I am extremely grateful for. They have been sources of inspiration, comfort and comedy throughout a horrific time and I hope they bring you some sense of joy too.
The first is the Joseph Campbell Foundation, which shares exceptional articles every week that show how myths can be leaned on in times of need when confronting real-world problems. There’s also a newsletter you can and should sign up to!
Then there is The Marginalian, which is the brain-child of the magnificent Maria Popova, who reads an insane amount of books each week and brings you countless gems of wisdom from art, philosophy, journalism and science among others in her inimitable newsletter. This we she shared this gem from Seneca about gratitude:
“We should try by all means to be as grateful as possible. For gratitude is a good thing for ourselves, in a sense in which justice, that is commonly supposed to concern other persons, is not; gratitude returns in large measure unto itself … I do not mean for the reason that he whom you have aided will desire to aid you, or that he whom you have defended will desire to protect you … but that the reward for all the virtues lies in the virtues themselves.”
And finally, the newsletter (and books) that have brought me an insane amount of joy over the past few years: Letters of Note. Shaun Usher compiles, collates and curates some of the best letters from the brightest minds to have ever walked this earth. What’s more, he has organised a number of live events called Letters Live that showcase an onslaught of brilliant letters read by the likes of Sally Phillips, Laurence Fishburne and Benedict Cumberbatch.
I’ll let Benedict sign off this Pop Mythology on gratitude in an often senseless and unforgiving world: