To hell and back with professor Linda J. “Tess” Tessier…
No, that’s not the title of Tessier’s recently published book, Living Myth, but it is an underlying motif in the book and in the Myth, Symbol and Ritual class she has enthusiastically taught at Youngstown State University for 20 years.
In the new book, Tessier, a professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies, examines myths, symbols and rituals that have helped humans throughout history to understand themselves, their relationships, the divine and the natural world around them.
Tessier, who joined the YSU faculty in 1988, approached Kendall Hunt Publishing with the idea in 2010 and was given a green light. She finished the book in just 10 months, which she notes is unusual for her. “I think I worked harder on this book than anything I’ve done in a very long time. It was very intense and really important to me. I wanted to get it right.”
Tessier, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Chapman College and a master’s and Ph.D. in religion from Claremont Graduate University, said one of her impetuses for writing the book was the need for a good, introductory course text. “For years I have been saying there’s just no good text; I wanted a good text for my class and similar classes taught at other colleges and universities, but I also wanted to write a book that is accessible and brings the ideas of symbols, myth and ritual into contemporary life,” she said.
Tessier started her academic career right out of high school in 1967 at Whittier College, where she attended until 1971, but she said she lacked direction. “I really wasn’t ready for college…I eventually just wandered off into the world,” she said.
Her wandering led to many different vocations, from managing a motel in Dinosaur City, Ariz., to working in a plastic parts factory and managing professional dance companies in Los Angeles.
She returned to academia at age 30. “I started my undergraduate work at Chapman part-time and finished my BA over three years, from 1979 to 1982. Once I found my place, it was a great fit for me. I graduated from Chapman in 1982 as their outstanding graduate in Religion.”
It was at Chapman under the tutelage of the late professor Ronald Huntington that Tessier saw the world of mythology in a new way. “I’ve always, since childhood, been interested in mythology,” she said, “but his was an astonishing course and I was absolutely hooked from the first day.”
Tessier has since modeled her class much the way her mentor Huntington taught it. One of the main course foundations and a main point in the book is “the hero’s journey” – the idea that the mythic cycle begins with creation and develops through the abundance of life and then decline, death, the underworld, and ultimately, transformation and rebirth.
“I always say this class is going to hell – but it won’t leave you there – I promise,” she quipped.
“The ‘hero’s journey’ model fits so much. It fits the way our lives go through cycles – the way myths are structured – so, I decided to structure the class that way. We begin with stories of creation and wind up with stories of rebirth, renewal and resurrection.”
The other impetus for the book was to temper the idea that the study of myth must be centered in the ancient world. “There is so much focus on myth in the ancient world, as if this were something the ancient people were concerned with and that since, we have developed religion and science and it is no longer active in our lives. I think that is a huge mistake that deprives us of a whole level of meaning,” said Tessier.
Another concept Tess brings to the book is that hell and the underworld are lands of no return. “The one who ascends – who comes up out of the darkness – is not the same one who has descended; there has to be some type of transformation. You go down there and you’re not coming back – not the way you were.”
Human beings need meaning – that’s always been a mytheme and is a main idea in the book. “We communicate many of our truths symbolically without realizing we’re doing it. We have our own myths and if we understand the structure of them, then a myth is a truth we communicate symbolically rather than literally; we can see how they operate in our lives. Myths are true. They are always true, but the ways we communicate their truths—symbolically—that gets my students to let go of the notion of myth as something that’s false.”
“Living Myth,” 2011, 220 pages, is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing.
Story by Robert Merz