TAMMY (ADVAYA): We are in conversation with Sophie Strand, a writer based in the Hudson Valley who focuses on the intersection of spirituality, storytelling, and ecology. But it would probably be more authentic to call her a neo-troubadour animist with a propensity to spin yarns that inevitably turn into love stories. Give her a salamander and a stone and she’ll write you a love story.
Sophie was raised by house cats, puff balls, possums, raccoons, and an opinionated, crippled goose. In every neighborhood she’s ever lived in she has been known as “the walker”. She believes strongly that all thinking happens interstitially – between beings, ideas, differences, mythical gradients.
Her first book of essays The Flowering Wand: Rewilding the Sacred Masculine will be published by Inner Traditions in Fall 2022 and is available for pre-order. Her eco-feminist historical fiction reimagining of the gospels The Madonna Secret will also be published by Inner Traditions in Spring 2023.
Today we'll be talking about the upcoming course, Myth & Mycelium, with Sophie Strand, which is starting in mid July, and early bird tickets are on [sale] now.
The opening and the central questions of the course are these: “What if hidden underneath contemporary narratives of progress and domination, there was a mythic root system, of earth-based wisdom? How does Jesus, a Galilean healer, with a penchant for nature-based storytelling get mistranslated by empire and coopted by patriarchy?"
Could you share briefly about the problem of mistranslation that these questions are getting at? What has been mistranslated, coopted, written over, by centuries of storytelling specifically by human storytelling? And kind of what are we getting wrong, and why have we gotten it wrong? And why is it so important to reroot the story back into its context?
SOPHIE STRAND: I think the really scary thing about dominator cultures and Eurocentric patriarchy is that they don't just erase stories or practices...
[Dominator cultures and Eurocentric patriarchy] reappropriate [stories and practices] and neuter them of any of their empire destroying ecological knowledge.
I think a really great modern contemporary example of that is how, you know industrial capitalism is now trying to get behind psychedelics. And this is the very structure that has destroyed indigenous populations who have cultivated and stewarded those plants and those relationships. And now, capitalism is trying to extract that medicine and then reappropriate it so that people can become more “mentally healthy” and reenter into a progress oriented extractive paradigm. And so that's a really interesting way in which dominator cultures don't just erase myths or stories or epistemologies, they reappropriate them.
I always say that when you look at a monster myth, it's a mother myth. And that's a simplification. But what it really is… a great example is in the Mediterranean basin during the Bronze Age we see partnership societies, where the art is not focused on human beings. It's focused on weather patterns, chevrons, bulls, animals, epiphanic experiences with the more than human world. And when the Greek Kurgan hordes come down, instead of destroying these myths, they reappropriate them.
So you see a figure like the bull, the Minotaur in the story of Theseus, that’s actually—myths are like palimpsests. So palimpsests are when you write over one manuscript and so what you see is—you’re reading, perhaps the most recent “translation” but you can see glimmers from below of older stories that are getting reappropriated. And sometimes that can be creative, like, our very cells are the product of a merger between two different bacteria types. I think mergers of mythic systems and bacteria and ecosystems can produce biological novelty but it can also be a very active attempt to neutralise and destroy and undermine a culture that is being actively suppressed.
TAMMY (ADVAYA): Right, and so did you want to talk a little bit about how specifically the story of Jesus has been mistranslated?
SOPHIE STRAND: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I think Jesus is a really great case study, because what you see is you see a person in a culture that while they prized the word—only 2% of the population were literate at that time period, and [they] would’ve probably been focused on oral storytelling, he was fruiting up at a time where his people had been oppressed by a series of empires and by the Roman Empire, and were used to an extraordinary level of violence against them on a day to day basis. So he was responding to farmers, Galilean farmers, who couldn't read, and who were experiencing a high level of trauma, and he […] would be speaking in Aramaic, which is a very different type of language than Greek.
It's super interesting that the New Testament is written in the very language of the empire that killed him. And that Aramaic is a much more plush, animistic language, where the distinction between even inside and outside is much blurrier than it is in Greek. So we lose—when Jesus is translated into Greek, we lose the ecological knowledge that he was intimately responding to with his teachings.
We lose the sensibility of [Jesus'] Judaism, his social and anthropological contexts, and his anti-Imperial sentiments.
So what they're doing doing is they're neutralising him. The very empire that killed him is neutralising him, not by destroying his story, but by re-appropriating it to become the figurehead of a militaristic operation. It's really upsetting to think about how the very empire that by 70 CE had destroyed the temple and destroyed Jerusalem, takes Jesus as its figurehead.
TAMMY (ADVAYA): To respond quickly to that...
When you were speaking to the idea of palimpsest and creating myths writing and overwriting each other, I think that's something that's so interesting to think about [how] often, we think about, especially with stories that are related to religion, and have a long history, they seem to be kind of a one way story, where we receive the text and the story and the history, and we don't realise that it is kind of always being overwritten by each other and the communities that we tell these stories in.
And also to respond to the second part, where you were sharing about the history of Jesus and also of how the story has been retold and neutralised… It is really interesting to think about… I think most people won’t associate the figure of Jesus [with] a radical perspective. There's so much that I think, gets lost. People who don't actually read biblical texts, myself included, we have an impression of Jesus as a leader of an empire. [His story is so] woven into the story of domination, rather than his more radical roots, which I’m sure people who read biblical texts, and who are part of that community, have a closer eye and [know a] more truthful telling of that story.
SOPHIE STRAND: I just want to say even if you go into the New Testament, these are Greek writers who are writing the story they heard that was translated through like… it's like a game of telephone. It's so far past the original experience. It's so deracinated and uprooted from its traditions and its ecology that even if you do have a biblical knowledge, you're not getting anything very close.
And […] people take these texts and think they just arrived pristine, but they are representative of a very particular political bias. And that political bias, interestingly enough, is not the political bias of the characters in the story. It's the political bias of the invisible authors. And that's an important thing to do.
What I really enjoy is to compost them… So now we know that Jesus spoke Aramaic, can we look at Aramaic? Can we look at the words that the Greek people used, and then the words that he would have used… A great example is, we hear “kingdom”, and this sounds like a patriarchal word of empire. But the word, “malkutha”, that Yeshua, Jesus, would have been using is actually much less gendered and not associated with imperialism. It means, pretty much, “mother-father of the cosmos” it means this interrogative, interactive, multi-gendered experience of a cosmological vision. And we lose that. Suddenly, we are associating with being a figurehead of the kingdom, the lineage of divine providence. So that's a very small example.
One of my favourites, though, which is ecological, and it's important to note that most of the stories… So like in the earliest stratum we have of the Jesus texts, the earliest versions, most of what he was offering were stories that were nature metaphors. And they can seem often very precious, when they've been uprooted from their web of kin. But if we actually look at them, they're radical. They're not only just anti-Imperial, they're anti-Neolithic, they're anti-agricultural. I oftentimes call them the downhill gospel. They're all about working with the land, rather than working against it.
He says, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” The mustard seed was the most pernicious weed at that time period. Saying that to Galilean farmers was like a radical wild thing to say They said, “The crops that you are growing to pay the taxes to the Romans, are going to be destroyed by the kingdom. So the mother-father of the cosmos is the worst weed you’ll ever experience.” That’s pretty wild. But we lose that when we're reading this mistranslation, and this telephone game.
TAMMY (ADVAYA): I love that. And there's so much in there that I want to pick apart. But I'm going leave that to the course. Sophie, you clearly have a really deep understanding and knowledge of all this history and these stories. We are very excited to have you curate this course, because there's so much knowledge to be gleaned from this.
I really like […] when you said “uprooted”, these stories being uprooted from the original context, we will also return to this later.
But for now, I think an important question and clarification about the course is that it's not simply about Jesus. So we're going on a little bit [at length] about Jesus. and about biblical tales and gospels, which speak to a lot of people, of course, and we recognise that. But we also want to make sure that this course is something that would interest and also be relevant to folks who are not interested in or don't have a background in the study of these particular tales and gospels. And so the question is, why should they engage in this inquiry?
SOPHIE STRAND: So I've been thinking of myths as being like mushrooms.
[Myths and mycelium] look above ground like individuals, but they're actually this reproductive flourish of this much more complicated hyphal mycelial system below ground, connecting different places, different species, different time periods.
So I see Jesus not as being this isolated individual but being the end of a long line—not even a line, a long rhizomatic continuity of vegetal gods associated with dying and resurrection, invasive species and fermentation and mother goddesses. And so I actually think of Jesus as being an interruption in that, that his story doesn't complete the virtuous cycle of decay. Usually we see Dionysus, Zagreus, Orpheus, Adonis, we go all the way back to ancient Egypt we look at Tammuz. In the Mediterranean basin there are so many of these different figures, and of course, every time they fruit up above ground, they're freshly adapted to specific ecological and social pressures. But they share that below ground mythic mycelium, which is an interesting way to complicate ideas of individuality, and also to look at a more complex mythic system, rather than this isolated object of Jesus.
So we're going to look at Dionysis, we're going to look at a long tradition of bull gods and animal gods. And look at how, for a long time, deities were not so much human as they were amalgamations of wild kin teaching us how to root into specific ecosystems and relationships with animals, plants, fungi, and with shifting climatological pressures. And so I think it's about trying to resurrect myth telling as a way of overhearing the wisdom of the earth and then responding to it intimately.
It's really unfortunate that right now, no matter what your ancestral inheritance is, or where you live, Eurocentric epistemologies inform your ability to survive and impinge it directly. They determine our agricultural practices, and our ways of asking questions. They determine our science. They have enshrined a kind of anthropocentrism and material reductionism that is, I would say, sterilising our ability to do science in a compassionate, intimate way that's actually helping us root into where we live and live in a more responsible, reverent way.
What I think is really interesting is my favourite experimental theologian Mary-Jane Rubenstein says it’s not helpful to say God is dead if he's still operating culturally, and doing really bad stuff. It's more important to say he's still around—this monotheistic, patriarchal God figure is still around.
A great example of this… And you’ve had the Rupert Sheldrake course, and I deeply benefited from his work for years at demystifying this processes. You have Platonism, which is this idea that there are abstract forms, and then there's the body and there's a split. And then you have the Greek writers of the gospels who are misinterpreting this complex animistic Judaism who graphed this Platonism onto the divide between spirit and body. And then that gets rearticulated as Cartesian Dualism.
And so what we really have is—[and] people don't understand…
[We] think that science is secular and objective, but honestly, it is controlled by Christian theology. And that's really important to begin to articulate so that we can do these practices better, and interrupt these processes that reinforce anthropocentrism and ecocide.
TAMMY (ADVAYA): [I want to] hold on to the idea of Christian theology having a very strong influence on how science is done. People who are interested also can check out our Rupert Sheldrake course, that's also coming up. We'll also talk about that in a little bit.
Because I guess to a lot of people this might feel a bit abstract—talking about storytelling and myth. So as you write: “The Gospel of Thomas gifts us with a Jesus that will encourage us to create a personal spiritual practices and narratives, rooted in and inspired by our contemporary ecologies and communities." So this course, I think, is not just about the big stories and big narratives that kind of define our time, or at least define a way we tell stories within certain contexts.
But it's very much about how we personally relate to the places around us, the ecologies around us and the communities around us. And so I wanted to ask you about how this course is going to do that.
SOPHIE STRAND: The Gospel of Thomas is one of the earliest texts we have, and it's actually not a story of Jesus's life, it's just a collection of riddles, almost. They're very close to the parables that he did. But they're strange. And it starts by saying, "Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will marvel and then he will rule over all." And this was part of an early Christian practice that wasn't even Christianity, it was Gnosticism. And it was demonised and almost eradicated by the Orthodox Roman Christianity, because it encouraged personal seeking, that it wasn't about hierarchy, it was about each person having their own spiritual practice and their own spiritual experience.
And what I really want to do in this course, is if we're trying to problematise these artificial divides between mind and body, we better involve the body. And we better involve the exact place where we are. Jesus was a person responding to his specific ecology; we can't take his Galilean ecology, and pretend like it responds to [for example] where I live in the Hudson Valley, in the 21st century. So what we what we're going to do, and I want to encourage is, there are going to be somatic exercises and practical, creative approaches, that will be like seeds, and we're each going to plant them in our environments and see what different plant grows. And then in [our] conversational Q&A parts of each session, we're going to bring in the different plants we've grown, the surprises that have arrived.
I don't want these practices to be prescriptive, and to determine the answer you're going to get: they're necessarily interrogative and open so that you can, like a fungi... Fungi don't have body plans. When you pour them into an ecosystem, they become a map of relationships. So my hope is that these exercises are open enough that they will begin to show us a map of our relationships where we're living, because the truth is that we're molecularly built by the microbiome, by the pheromone, by the funk, by the beings that we live [with]in a five mile radius of.
So if our storytelling is really going to matter, it's not going to be about abstract gods or ideas. It's going to be about actual beings we know. I think it's very interesting that for most of human history, storytelling was oral, and our vocabularies were smaller, but they weren't smaller because we knew less—they were smaller because our words had root systems they [...] designated relationships. The words you used were words that actually told you who to be, who to be friends with, who to be afraid of, [what] not to eat, how to tend to a specific place.
And now we have these abstract words, like "justice" and "freedom", because we live in these surface level worlds, where we can pretend that homogenising universalisms help us live. But the truth is what actually helps us live is ecologically situated knowledge.
What I'm aiming to do is to help us each access our own unique stories. Which is kind of what we can see in these vegetal gods is each one is in a relationship with a different plant. They're not all associated with grapes. They're not all associated with vines. They're very specifically responding to where they're arriving.
TAMMY (ADVAYA): I'm just going to leave that there for people to think about their own narratives, and their own stories, and their own myths that they're writing over all the time. Hopefully, when you put a bit of time to thinking about that, you'll be encouraged to join us on this course, to do that together with other people. I guess it's a good place to also weave this into the next question, which is about ecological storytelling.
So I'm very personally excited and interested in this idea of ecological storytelling, because it's very related to what I studied—environmental humanities. Ecological storytelling is, I don't want to say "a way out" of where we are at right now... But a poor phrasing is that like, it is kind of "a way out" of [the] multiple crises [we are in] right now. But I want to hear from you, about what you think ecological storytelling means, and why it's so important now. And also [tying it] back the [idea] of how science is not secular, how science [is] a way of storytelling as well.
You wrote in the introductory note to this course, that: "Myths arrive from the same impulse as scientific inquiry.... While a scientist quantifies reality, a myth teller personifies it." I would like you to talk about ecological storytelling, and myth and science all together, and how you see them as related inquiries. So to put that question in more simple terms, what is ecological storytelling? And then, how is that adjacent to science?
SOPHIE STRAND: I like to say that while humans belong to stories, stories do not originate with human beings, that storytelling for me is any kind of movement, any kind of gradient and difference that precipitates change.
When I use the term "ecological" I'm going back to the original etymology Greek oikos, for "household", reminding me that I'm not a noun on an empty page, I do nothing alone, I am a syntactical being, I am strung together by my metabolism, by my needs, my appetites, my desires, to thousands of other beings. And together we make a household, and within that household, every choice we make, mundane or explosive, takes place within and affects a networked household of relationships.
And the thing that really worries me is is that if we are constituted, nourished by these tangled, multispecies relationships, why do our mythic and literary narratives prize heroic individuals and human-centric drama?
The problem with storytelling is it doesn't just affect the stories we tell—it affects what we care about, how we ask questions, and how we live. The stories driving our culture right now are stories about human supremacy, and appropriation and extraction. So if you keep telling linear stories that are about a knight killing a dragon and saving a maiden, suddenly that linearity, that drive, that propulsion towards completion and domination is going to inflect every choice you make. If a teaspoon of soil has miles and miles of mycelium, fungi and billions of bacteria, so also should your story begin to reflect tangled relationships, rather than these fictional sterile individuals.
So I'm really interested in beginning to compost these problematic human-centric narratives with new forms. For example, we are very stuck in heteronormative coupling. And it's become actually—and as we've seen, it makes us do really bad science... I've been very fascinated with how the only scientific studies that get funded are ones that are about gender trouble with amphibians, with pollution, rather than looking at the fact that the pollution is killing the amphibians. We're more worried about their gender flipping because of our own uncomfortability with that, than we are with the fact that they're actually dying.
Another great example is this very mainstream scientific study [that] was done about seagull mating. And [they were] like, "all of the seagulls are having lesbian relationships, they must be exposed to environmental toxins." It turned out this is actually their normal behaviour. But the bad science behind it, the bad stories behind it, kept us from accessing the really interesting queer information there, about how sex and reproduction are conflated, but don't actually exist together.
So I think science is a way of... At its best, science is not a theology, it's become a theology, [but] it's a way of asking questions. And myth is also a way of asking questions.
And I don't think that we need to demonise science, I think that science is actually proving true a lot of mythic ideas. And there's an incredibly interesting cross pollination there. We can learn so much when we begin to do the two together, I mean [think of] Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Science is going to help us respond to a lot of the very bad things our culture has created.
So we can begin to do science that understands animism, that understands that beings are alive, and have information that values qualitative evidence, rather than just quantitative evidence, and that brings in indigenous epistemologies that are incredibly good at asking questions of the environment. That's what I'm interested in.
TAMMY (ADVAYA): Thank you for that. These questions are also [at the] top of my mind after writing and thinking of seeing myths and science as a way of reinvigorating how we see the world, and if we went with the [animist] impulse, that "everything is alive", which I think at this point, some people find to be repeated too much that it's lost its meaning, but... I think it's [...] like when you think about "everything is alive", you have to think about how you personally see that, how you see the world. So yeah, [all of] these questions are really with me right now. And I hope that other people are thinking about this as well.
Going back to you, and wrapping this conversation with, this final question, So you write that the course is about "rhizomatic realms, root systems, vegetal gods, and archaic magicians and storytelling", which are themselves very interesting elements, but I'd love for you to talk about your background, and how these elements came together, what this course means to you and how it's part of your own individual inquiry and how you want to weave that together with a community. Why this course, essentially.
SOPHIE STRAND: So we're interested in animate things [in how they] collaborate, and antagonise each other, and are sometimes in mutualistic interactions, where a stone is alive, but it is a different way than I am. And that means that I have to keep asking questions. So I just want to say we're not going to do this appropriative idea of animism, as being the simple homogenised thing.
Where, [and] what is my background? I am the child of two writers interested in the history of religion and spirituality. My dad was an ex Buddhist monk. He ran New York Zendo in the city, and he ran Tricycle Magazine for a long time. And by the time I was born, he was really interested in non-hierarchical interfaith communities. He's worked with the Soka Gakkai for a long time. And my mother was really interested in trying to get back to her pagan roots underneath her Irish Catholic lineage. Also part of my family are Israeli Jews. So there was a lot...
[CW // childhood abuse, brief mention in the next paragraph only]
My parents are writing about this, So we have rabbis, Theravada Buddhist monks in the house, we have storytellers, and also a lot of animals. I grew up in the mountains. We rehabilitated possums and swans; my Chinese goose lived inside with us. So it was an interesting compost heap of different stuff, cross-pollinating in ways that were inappropriate, but also very, very interesting. The more complex, intimate side is, I'm a survivor of early childhood abuse. And it really primed my nervous system to be very, very open in a way that we can problematise but it's also made me hyper-aware of animals and plants and fungi.
I spent a lot of time outside regulating my nervous system by lying on the ground, looking at mushrooms. And I've always loved fungal systems and insects and things that other people think are gross.
So there was this interesting interplay, as I was growing up, between loving writing, loving myth telling and stories, and also mostly loving wild kin. And I never thought that these things would begin to intersect. I never thought that they would find a moment of confluence. But the really interesting thing is, I was fell very ill at 16. And when I finally received a diagnosis of what was wrong with me, it was connective tissue disease. And at that point, I was very in deep with Deleuze and Guattari's rhizomatic philosophy, also learning about mycorrhizal systems below ground, and then realising that this void in my body of connective tissue is perhaps the open space that let these this other wild connective tissue in. So for me, it's very personal. I'm not quite sure why I'm the confluence where all of these things have met, but they have.
I will say that I studied with Bruce Chilton, who was part of the Jesus Seminar. And I've done really intense, rigorous research, and I really enjoy that part but I also think that we have to look outside the academy; that we're so focused on guru culture and learning from human beings, but the truth is that my main mentors have been woodchucks and mountains and long stretches of time sitting in one place, and listening with my whole body rather than just with my mind, and realising that the answer that's going to come is going to be a smell it's going to be a feeling in my belly.
So for me, I really value the research, and I want to offer all of that... I spent five years writing historical fiction retelling of the Gospels, and I read every primary text from the time period, because I wanted to create a real sensory scaffolding, a real historically rooted approach. So the course comes from a real rigorous involvement with a lot of different texts and a lot of different thinkers.
But mostly, I want to offer that it's in the spirit of compost, it's in the spirit of, "I did that," "And then I added on the Hudson Valley, and the bears and the mushrooms around here,"
And I want to invite everyone else to bring their crew with them. We're all gonna arrive and look like these little anthropocentric faces, but we're bringing in everything we breathed in during the day.
TAMMY (ADVAYA): I love that. And I love that also, I wrote down "compost heap" before you actually mentioned it, Because I was going to say that I think one of the most descriptive, rich metaphors that that I've heard and read in your writing, the podcasts that you've been on.
The compost heap, for me, is just a great metaphor for thinking about how we bring our whole selves, it's how [...] build off of each other and build off the crap and the shit, and all of the messy parts together. And it heats up and then it's like... just as a whole that metaphor of the process of composting and then the final result being more beautiful. And the process also being a beautiful product.
And I love that you bring your full self, sitting at the intersection of, the confluence of all the different parts and things and it is a very interdisciplinary course—[that's] what Myth & Mycelium offers. And so I want to leave it at that And also invite you, Sophie, to share anything you'd like to share, that I didn't ask about, or to direct people to your work and where they can find it.
SOPHIE STRAND: I just want to share that I love all of these materials so much, and I never thought anyone else would want to hear about it. So I'm just really honoured to be here and to share. I think that I'm going to be sharing information with you, but I'm not some kind of teacher who's on a pedestal. I want to see what happens here. I want to risk really being changed by this experience. And that's the most exciting part about it. Seeing who, like bees [that] are attracted to this mutual interest of a flower. I think we're going to make some something very fresh together.
Thank you so much, Tammy for these very thoughtful questions, and for helping to put together this course.
TAMMY (ADVAYA): Thank you. To everyone who's listening to this conversation, thank you for joining us, You can get tickets for the course at mythandmycelium.com. And from there, you can also find Sophie's work. Remember to subscribe to Sophie's substack and also to check out Sophie's work on the website. And we will see you hopefully at the course! Thank you, Sophie.
SOPHIE STRAND: Thank you Tammy, thank you everyone! Thank you.