Mythologies of Labor

In Christian mythology, labor is a curse. A punishment to humans for disobedience. Deity curses the land so that men shall forever toil in futility until the day they die. It’s a rather grim outlook on labor.

“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you…” – Book of Genesis. Too many laborers return home daily with the weight of sorrows on their shoulders and fulfill this curse. “I hate my job” is perhaps the most common phrase spoken in homes at the end of the day.

In African mythologies, labor is a gift. One of the Yoruba deities, Ogun, gifts humans with iron from which they make tools of labor. Blacksmiths, farmers, mechanics, surgeons, etc. Those who use iron tools see their labor as divinely predetermined.

Among the Bambuti of the Congo, their supreme god, Khonvoum is also the god of the hunt, which is their main labor that provides food. This deity yields a tool of labor, a bow made of two snakes that also appear as the rainbow to humans. Their god also recharges the sun every evening so they have light and energy for the next day. Everything connected to labor is a blessing.

The Greek theogony gives us a rich blend of gods who stood for a combination of labor as harsh and punitive and also as a joy and blessing. Ponos is the god of Toil. Together with his siblings, they represent “the many harmful and destructive things that arise from discord and strife” (Hard, 2004). On the other hand Dionysus is the god of viticulture, harvest, wine, fertility and ecstasy. The gifts of labor were decadently celebrated in his name by all, including women, slaves and prisoners.

In Capitalist mythology, the laborer is a tool. It is meant to sharpen itself and labor to produce maximum profits until it is retired and discarded. Phrases like “cog in the wheel”, “daily grind” and “race to the bottom” are derived from this outlook on labor. There seems to be an eerie connection between Christian mythology on labor and Capitalism.

But it is not an unseen force in the heavens beyond our control that makes our labor punitive. It is fellow humans who create oppressive systems of labor. The history of human labor proves that we often have to organize and mobilize against these labor systems that deplete human dignity.

The sweat of our brow, our mind’s constant toiling, and the midnight hours of our soul’s creative labor can and often do bring us immense joy and a sense of purpose when the conditions are just and fair. It’s always in our power to change the mythology that doesn’t work for us.

We surely must find time to redefine our labor so that it honors us, even if it comes with some measure of pain like confronting unjust systems and dehumanizing work environments. An environment that places humanity before profit, dignity before competition, creates opportunities for fulfillment. This is true even when we take up work we think we will dislike or jobs we’re forced to do by circumstances. Eventually, all honest labor is inherently gratifying. We do need new 21st century mythologies that connect human labor with human dignity.

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