IN THIS ESSAY . . . You will find an overview of the history of the word myth, discovering that it has a number of legitimate meaningsand a few less-than-legitimate ones. By the time you’ve finished this chapter you should understand the following:
• The origins of the English word myth
• The difference between the myth-tellers’ inspiration and the highly polished narratives that often find their ways into written form
• The meaning of the word “metaphysics,” and the differences and similarities between how myth treats metaphysical questions and how trained philosophers treat them
• The difference between the way philosophers and literature specialists understand and view myth
• The similarities and differences between myth, folklore, legend, fable, saga, parable, and allegory
This chapter concludes with a “Working Definition” of myth intended as a starting point for your own investigations of this fascinating subject. Students interested in earning full points on this week’s Reading Quiz would do well to memorize all the entire working definition.
Like the word story, the word myth has a wide range of sometimes contradictory meanings and connotations. Were you to “Google” the word myth, your search would reveal a wide range of definitions and usages. “A traditional story whose author is unknown and that is accepted as factual history serving to explain the worldview of a people.” “A narrative with its roots in primitive folks-ideas that, through many tellings, has become accepted in a society as an account of beliefs, phenomena, and practices for which no simple explanations are possible.” “A traditional, sacred story, usually featuring gods and heroes.” “A term referring to the stories of one or more religions deemed to be false or dubious.” “A fiction, something untrue.”
Your Internet search results would also likely include references to any number of issues or phenomena that someone, somewhere believes to be an elaborate falsehood crafted by cynical manipulators to fool the gullible. One might find, for example, references to the “myth of overpopulation,” the “myth of RSS compatibility,” the “myth of upward mobility,” or the “myth of racial profiling.”
Some of these definitions shed light on the actual nature and function of myth. Others do not. While casual, modern usage of the word myth certainly does include such ideas as the primitive, the unreal, the untrue, and the deceptive, a more deeply informed view of this word reveals a richer, more satisfyingly complex picture. Considering myths only in terms of whether the events they describe “really happened” or whether the characters and creatures in them “ever actually existed” produces exceedingly limited (and boring) results. What makes the study of myth intellectually stimulating and imaginatively compelling is that such stories wereand aresincere attempts at answering humanity’s most enduring and fundamental questions: How did the universe and world come to be? How did human beings come to be here and what does that tell us about our ultimate purpose? What are our proper, necessary, or inescapable roles as we relate to one another and to the world at large? What should our values and proper behavior be? Analyzing myth for what it can tell us about how the various peoples of the world have attempted to answer such questions sheds light on that most basic of human activities: that is, the search for a framework through which personal and collective purpose and meaning can emerge.
We continue, even in the modern, largely secular world, to seek such meaningful frameworks. We need, every bit as much as the ancients did, belief systems that orient us to our rights and duties in the world. Individuals, communities, and nations continue to look to narrativesstories about origins, about contact with the divine, and about great teachers and leaders of the pastfor explanations and exemplars that validate the moral, ethical, and behavioral codes that give them a sense of identity, purpose, and even destiny. Thus, approaching myths reflectively is more than the study of dusty cultural artifacts or a survey of quaint and primitive superstitions from the human past. Rather, it is an invitation to consider the ways various branches of the human family have answered humanity’s enduring questions. The formal study of myth also shines a light inward, revealing to us how we are influenced by the traditional myths of our culture and highlighting the fact that myth-making is an ongoing activity.
Ancient Roots of a Modern Word
So how is it that the word myth can be used by some to indicate sacred truth while others use it to indicate that which is false or dubious? The answer to this question lies in the early history of the Greek language. The modern English word myth derives from the Greek word muthos, which can be translated as “word,” “speech,” or “story.” Early on, muthos was used almost interchangeably with another Greek word logos, which roughly means “word,” or “that which expresses thought.” At first, the ancient Greeks did not conceive of a muthos as a unique narrative genre. That is, they do not seem to have distinguishedas modern readers dobetween stories about gods and heroes and other kinds of narratives. Over time, a disagreement arose about the origins and value of muthoi (the plural of muthos). On one side, were the traditionally religious and poets who claimed these stories were divinely inspired and should therefore be revered as religious, historical, and political truth. Hesiod, for example, begins his well-known poem, Theogony, by claiming “The Muses once taught fair song to Hesiod/As he was herding sheep under sacred Helicon/And the goddesses first breathed this word [muthos] into me ...” In other words, Hesiod claims that his poem is divinely inspired; his verses and what they tell us about the origins of the world, gods, and men are ultimate truth.
On the other side of this disagreement were the rationalistsphilosophers and early scientistsa new breed of thinkers who were skeptical of all truth claims, including the claims of priests and poets to have direct access to ultimate truth. Early philosophers like Xenophanes and Heraclitus considered myths to be silly stories suitable only for children and the feeble-minded. Xenophanes, for example, attacked Hesiod’s suggestion that myths derive from divine revelation because these stories attributed to the gods “. . . all/The shameful things that are blameworthy among humans:/Stealing, committing adultery, and deceiving each other.” By Plato’s time, rationalists tended to use the term logos to refer to written prose rather than oral poetry, argumentation rather than narrative. By contrast, Plato and his followers tended to use the word muthos to signify poetry and imaginative narratives. Not always, but frequently, Plato used the word muthos as a synonym for the fanciful, the naïve, or the false. Therefore, this disagreement between the poets and the rationalists explains why, even today, the word myth is seen by some as referring to stories of supreme individual and cultural importance but to others as another way of saying an explanation is “false” or “dubious.”
Myth as a Form of Metaphysics
If you have done much reading about myth, you will have noticed how discussions of the subject frequently also involve discussions of religion and philosophy. This is because myth, religion, and philosophy are each preoccupied with a special branch of knowledge known as metaphysics. As any encyclopedia of philosophy will tell you, metaphysical inquiry is concerned with three general questions:
1. “What is reality?”
2. “Are there fundamental principles by which all that is real operates?” and
3. “What is the ultimate nature of that which is real?”
Myth typically addresses such metaphysical questions imaginatively through narratives that enact answers to these questions while philosophyand the sciencestypically address such questions rationally. That is, philosophy and science base their answers to the above three questions on that which can be observed through the senses and explained in logically consistent, experientially verifiable terms.
Poetry and Philosophy: Two Metaphysical Approaches By the fifth century BCE, two well-defined approaches to metaphysical questions had emerged in Greece. In one camp, the “poets”seers, singers, and priests who traded in muthoi similar to Hesiod’stold compelling stories that revealed, incidentally, their insights into human nature and speculations about the origins and nature of the universe. In the other, were the philosophers and early scientists who based their metaphysics on closely reasoned argument and careful observations of the material world. This tension between metaphysical approaches should seem familiar. In our own day, scientific rationalism and belief in divine revelation continue to contend with one another for the last word on the ultimate nature of realityas demonstrated by recent court battles between proponents of “intelligent design” and mainstream scientists who assert instead the theory of evolution.
It should be emphasized, however, that poets and rationalists alike use stories to address the great metaphysical questionsboth now and in the ancient world. In the ancient world, Xenophanes, who was quick to dismiss Hesiod’s claim to divine inspiration out of hand, himself asserted that god is spherical. Xenophanes’ claim cannot be directly confirmed by ordinary perception and observation any more readily than Hesiod’s story of Kronos castrating Ouranos. The key difference between the rationalists and poets is that the former articulate their metaphysical speculations through “thought-experiments” and “likely stories” based on logical argument, careful observation, and informed reasoning whereas the latter rely on intuition and inspiration, utilizing such literary devices as plot, character, and setting to entertain audiences with tales that, among other things, address metaphysical questions.
Plato’s Rational Myths Plato’s distinction between muthos and logosthat is, between the “lies of the poets” and the rational truths of the philosopherscontinues to shape modern thought. But while Plato was a rationalist, he was not, as so many modern intellectuals are, a materialist. That is, even while the Athenian philosopher rejected the stories of Homer and Hesiod as “lies,” he would never have agreed to the proposition that all there is to reality is that which we can perceive with our five senses. Nor did Plato completely reject the use of imaginative narratives, so long as they were used in service of philosophy. Sometimes the characters in Plato’s dialogues use what he called “falsehoods” or “stories” (pseudoi) to illustrate philosophical points. This is not to say that Plato lies in order to persuade us to his ideas; rather, it means that he sometimes advanced parables, likely stories, or thought experiments in order to communicate what his rational inquiries led him to conclude about the nature of reality.
Plato’s argument that myths about gods, heroes, centaurs, and the like contain irrational and therefore false elements and that philosophical myths about origins were rational and therefore true, was crucial to his political and philosophical vision. Leveling a charge that has been made occasionally against art down to our own time, the great philosopher argued that poets manipulate their audiences and present them with cheap imitations of reality which have the effect of making their hearers lazy, fearful consumers of stories rather than active, thoughtful seekers of the truth. In Plato’s ideal political state, poetsif not banished altogetherwould be subject to philosopher-kings who would have the power to censor the irrational and morally suspect elements in their muthoi.
Thus, unlike Xenophanes and Heraclitus, Plato does not dismiss all muthoi as lies about the gods or the laughable superstitions of the ignorant masses. Rather, he redefines muthos in a way that serves his rhetorical, ideological, and political purposes. This is an important point because Plato’s reconfiguration of terms and use of “rational myths” to lay claim to the ancient power of the myth-tellers became standard operating procedure for mythologists, philosophers, and politicians after him.
Myth as Literature
Plato’s “rational myths” and Homer’s “poetic myths” are, on one level, identical; they use the imagination to answer metaphysical questions and, in so doing, provide cultural exemplars, explanations of purpose and origin, and moral reference points. But, myth is not merely metaphysical truth dressed up in the outlandish clothing of fiction. There is a significant difference between the myths of Homer and Hesiod, which, presumably, distill an ancient oral tradition into superbly crafted tales embodying ancient Greek society’s ideal picture of itself and Plato’s “serviceable lies,” which were created by one man to illustrate and make attractive the products of his rational inquiry into politics and metaphysics. Myths are, first and foremost, storieswell-crafted specimens of literary artand while they frequently raise and answer metaphysical questions, we miss the point if we approach them only as a form of metaphysical speculation.
Are Myths Merely Bad Philosophy? If we were take Plato’s dismissal of the “lies of the poets” at face value, we would be forced to conclude that the great philosopher was a joyless philistine. But how could anyone living in Athens’ Golden Age, the age of Sophocles and Euripides, not have learned to love a well-told tale and to appreciate the kind of truth that expertly crafted muthoi communicate so memorably? On the surface of things, Plato seems oblivious to the fact that the art of the story, as Homer’s “tribe of copyists” knew only too well, is every bit as rigorous about truth to nature as the most carefully qualified philosophical argument is about the nature of truth. The poet and the philosopher serve different masters and therefore have different values, priorities, and methods. Plato, because he valued rational argument, logical consistency, and the beautiful (if artificial) symmetry of an abstract truth, distrusted the slantwise power of literary art over the human heart and mind, disparaging it as “lies” fit only for women, children, and others he considered sub-human.
But we should not take Plato’s dismissal of the poets’ lies at face value. His attacks on Homer’s tribe of copyists constitute a “straw-man” argument; that is, he constructs and then destroys a philosophical position that no one actually insists upon. The poets Plato rejected as dangerous to his ideal republic would have been flabbergasted to learn that anyone considered the practice of their art objectionable on the grounds that it didn’t explore the ultimate Truth about reality in the systematic, logical, carefully articulated way that philosophy does. That simply is not what literary art doesas Plato surely knew.
While the individual literary artist may care passionately about philosophy and value its approach to the Truth, his or her first allegiance is to the well-told story. The storyteller’s tools of the trade are unforgettable characters, hair-raising events, exotic settings, evocative language, and the full-blooded expression of our deepest and most complex emotions and longings. Such features of literary art require no special training to be understood and enjoyed and therefore reach people more quickly and more profoundly than even the most elegant proof or carefully phrased theory.
Sometimes, dreams, folktales, and local legends transcend tribe and village and rise to the level of archetypes; sometimes, an isolated people’s story-telling traditions acquire a near-universal resonance. But this only happens if gifted artists work such raw materials into a form that not only challenges the mind but also touches the heart and twists the gutsand does so not only in the artists’ generation but thousands of years later. Take a random survey on any street corner anywhere in the Western world and the majority of people you meet will be able to identify Heracles’ defining qualities. They will know the ostensible cause of the Trojan War. They will be able to tell you the fate that befell Oedipus. But it is doubtful whether even one person in ten passing that same street corner could summarize a single one of Plato’s philosophical positions or name more than one of his dialogues. This is not to say that mythic truth is powerful and enduring while philosophical truth is weak and fleeting. Greek philosophyand Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas in particularhave been enormously influential in Western civilization, providing the basis for such areas of modern inquiry as experimental science, medical ethics, legal forensics, and even Christian theology. Nevertheless, myths like all forms of fiction are enduring because they are entertaining and accessible in ways that philosophy and science seldom are.
Are Myths Sacred Narratives? If we accept the notion that myths are, first and foremost, stories, we must still determine just what kind of stories they are. Many modern scholars, if pressed for a one-sentence answer to the what-is-myth question, would define myth as “sacred narrative.” For example, Robert Ellwood argues, in his The Politics of Myth: A Study of C.G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell, that modern students of myth do not actually study muthoi, per se. For Ellwood, “official” myths like the Theogony, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Bible “are inevitably reconstructions from snatches of folklore and legend, artistically put together with an eye for drama and meaning” (175). But “real” myths are, like one’s own dreams, “so fresh they are not yet recognized as ‘myth’ or ‘scripture,’ [and] are fragmentary, imagistic rather than verbal, emergent, capable of forming many different stories at once” (175). In short, to study myth as Ellwood defines it, we would have to record and analyze the performances of storytellers and the still-fresh visions of poets, prophets, and dreamers. We would have to eavesdrop, as it were, “under sacred Helicon” as an inspired Hesiod first sang his muthos describing the “birth of the gods.” For Ellwood, once those initial images and intuitions become polished tales in a storyteller’s repertoire and especially after they have been committed to writing, they cease to be myth as such and instead become mythic literature or even scripture.
Defining myth as “sacred narrative” or as stories deriving from dreams and/or other forms of inspiration is fairly widespread among historians of religion like Ellwood and his famous teacher, Mircea Eliade. The term “sacred narrative” seems well-suited to the scriptures of Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, not all myths are sacred; and not all sacred stories are committed to writing and therefore they can never be, literally speaking, script-ure. For example, most students, when they hear the word myth think of the epics, poems, and plays of the Greeks and Romans. And they are not wrong. Homer’s account of the gods’ role in the Trojan war is a myth by any reasonable definition. Likewise, the story of Callisto and Arcas recorded in Ovid’s Metamorphosis has been considered a myth since before the rise of the Caesars. It would be perverse to argue that the stories featured in Greek plays about such memorable characters as Orestes, Oedipus, and Clytemnestra are not also myths.
Yet none of these “myths” was considered sacred, in Ellwood’s sense, in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Ordinary Greeks and Romans did not read passages from the Odyssey to solemnize religious ceremonies. Various playwrights reworked even fundamental elements of their mythic traditions without fear of being excommunicated for abusing holy scripture. While it is true that religious belief and ritual are portrayed accurately, even reverently, in Greco-Roman myth, that fact alone does not make them sacred narratives. In the ancient world, only those stories told by sanctuary personnel during special religious ceremonies were considered sacred. In fact, we know almost nothing certain about such sacred narratives because they were considered so sacred that to write them down was blasphemy, and to tell others about them was an offense punishable by exile or death.
Just like the stories told by Demeter’s priests in the darkness of her temple at Eleusis, the sacred narratives of the Navajo, Tewa, and Hopi Indians of the American desert southwest were never written down. These tribes observed strict taboos and traditions dictating how their most important stories might properly be performed. For example, some stories could only be told at night, others could only be uttered during the season between the first killing frost of autumn and the first lightening bolt of spring. These cultures never developed writing systems; but, so far as we can tell, their oral narratives became relatively fixed in terms of plot details, characters, and meaning. Therefore Ellwood’s distinction between “real” (oral) myths and literary (written) myths begins to break down when we apply it to the myths of non-literate cultures. In short, some oral mythsas well as some scripturemay properly be defined as sacred narratives. However, there are a variety of myths, both written and oral, that are not subject to the kinds of taboos and traditions that would define them as sacred. Thus, while it may frustrate scholars to do so, the only answer to the question, “are myths sacred narratives” is to answer, “sometimes, but not always.”
As we have seen, the word myth, even in ancient times, had acquired a number of meanings. Then and now it has been associated with popular entertainment, religious teaching, and metaphysical speculationsometimes all at once. Our modern sense of the term retains these contradictory ancient meanings and associations. Further complicating the picture, is the fact that nonspecialists tend to use the words myth, folktale, legend, saga, and fable interchangeably. This is understandable because these genres overlap to a significant degree; however, those seeking a more precise definition of myth do well to understand the differences as well as the similarities among these terms.
Folktales Most folklorists would define folklore as the beliefs, traditions, narratives, superstitions, proverbial sayings, and arts of a folk group. Obviously, this is a very inclusive definitionas is the generally accepted definition of a “folk” as two or more people with at least one trait in common. Families, for example, are an oft-studied folk-group; quilters, southerners, and Gulf-Coast shrimpers have also been studied as distinct folk groups. Folktales, then, are the stories told among members of a folk group that transmit the group’s defining ideas, beliefs, and traditions to new members and that create solidarity among existing members. Given the breadth of this definition, it is difficult to imagine a story that could not be classified as a folktale. Surely the stories recounted in myths, religious teachings, history books, and political speeches, for example, are manifestations of the ideas, beliefs, traditions, and proverbial sayings of such large folk groups as the Americans or the Japanese. And, indeed, the Journal of American Folklore routinely publishes articles and reviews books on myth, an indication that American folklorists, as a professional group, consider myth to be a subset of their discipline.
But a definition that includes all possible forms of “lore” is not very helpful for understanding the differences (both literary and cultural) between one of Paul Bunyan’s tall tales, the Book of Genesis, and the Odyssey. For this reason, a number of important folklorists have attempted to distinguish between folk culture and “official” or “institutional culture” as a way of more narrowly defining the scope of their investigations. As a result, the published work of folklorists tends to focus on such “unofficial” beliefs as those embodied in urban legends, such unofficial traditions as folk art, and such unofficial narratives as fairy tales, ghost stories, and legends. While the “official” teachings, rituals, sayings, and “folk ways” of America’s churches, schools, universities, industries, and professions do reveal what kind of “folk” we are, folklorists have tended to train their collective gaze on the more fluid and less formal lore of smaller, more idiosyncratic folk groups within the culture at large.
Legends The term legend has proven easier to define than folktale because it refers to a much more specific kind of story. Most specialists would define legends as stories that have traditionally been accepted as true accounts of historical events, but which actually combine elements of fact and fiction. The stories of King Arthur, for example, are most properly classified as legends because there is evidence for an historical Arthur around whom such fictional materials as the Sword in the Stone, the Round Table, and the Tale of the Green Knight have accumulated over the centuries. To the extent that the Iliad, for example, is based on actual battles between Mycenaean Greeks from the mainland and the so-called Trojans inhabiting a city on the coast of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), this epic could also be considered a legend, or a myth incorporating legend, or, even, a work of fiction based on a legend. In fact, most Greeks and Romans in the ancient world accepted the Trojan War as historical fact and its heroes as actual persons, a fact that further justifies classifying the Iliad as a legend.
Sagas Sagas are stories or cycles of stories that recount the exploits of a hero or follow a particular family through several generations. In Norse myth, Saga is the goddess of the literary arts and our modern term for narratives of this kind derives from her inspiration of such Norse and Icelandic literature as the Eddas, The Volsung Saga, and The Vinland Sagas. Typically, the stories constituting a saga are chronological and self-referential. That is, they follow the story of a hero or a family as it develops over time, with the later episodes building on events occurring in earlier episodes. The hero at the center of a saga’s action typically embodies the essential virtues and values of a culturejust as the villains he is likely to face embody the antithesis of those virtues and values. In Classical literature, the “Labors of Hercules,” as related in Apollodorus’ Library, could be classified as a saga because they follow the adventures of this Greek hero. Driven mad by Hera, Hercules murders his wife and children. When he returns to his senses, he is overcome by guilt and grief. Eventually, Apollo tells him the only way he can atone for this terrible deed is to serve Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns and Mycenae, for twelve years. Eurystheus is no friend of Heracles. Accordingly, the king assigns the great hero twelve seemingly impossible tasks which Heracles nevertheless accomplishes (with occasional help from Athena and Apollo). True to the saga form, Hercules personifies the ancient Greek’s sense of themselves as brave adventurers ready to battle monsters and villains and to endure all hardship to achieve lasting renown.
Märchen Yet another myth-related genre is the märchen (pronounced MEER-shin), or what is more commonly called a fairy tale. In general, such stories are tightly plotted, featuring an obvious beginning, middle, and end and are set in a fantasy world during some unspecified time in the past (“once upon a time”). All of the characters in a märchen are fictional and may include not only human beings but also talking animals, monsters, ghosts, and witches. While these stories are told primarily to entertain, they often feature moral lessons and reinforce socially acceptable behaviors and attitudes. Jack, before climbing the beanstalk, is berated by his mother for being gullible and disobedient, two socially unacceptable qualities. Eventually, he travels to the land of the giants and returns with valuable treasures that he gives to his mother, demonstrating bravery and respect for his mothertwo socially acceptable qualities.
Fable, Parable, and Allegory Fables, parables, and allegories are literary forms that encourage readers and listeners to look beneath the literal level of the narrative for secondaryand more profoundmeanings. Of these, only the word fable is used as an imprecise synonym for myth because, originally, the Latin word fabula (“a telling”) and Greek word muthos (“a word” or “a story”) meant approximately the same thing. Today, the term fable typically refers to short narratives featuring animals that speak and act like humans and which usually conclude with an explicit moral. The famous fables of Aesop which include such well-known stories as “The Tortoise and the Hare” and the “Ant and the Grasshopper” illustrate the way this form of wisdom literature developed in the West.
The English word parable derives from the Greek parabole (“setting beside”) and is a short narrative genre that, in contrast to the fable’s use of animal characters, typically features human characters to impart a moral teaching or to illustrate a point of doctrine. The parables of Jesus in the New Testament are particularly well-known examples of this form. In the Gospel of Matthew, for example, Jesus delivers the “Parable of the Sower” to comment upon the varying degrees of readiness among his hearers to understand his message about the Kingdom of Heaven. He likens his own parables to seeds, some of which fall on the road, some on rocky soil, some among thorns, and some on well-tended soil. As he explicitly explains to his disciples, the parable-seed cannot take root in most of his hearers because their mind-soil is not suitable for growing the Truth. The ability to penetrate the literal surface of his parables and thereby perceive the hidden message about the kingdom of heaven, Jesus suggests, is a prerequisite for being one of his disciples. As he says to his closest followers, “Blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear” (Matt. 13:16).
While parables and fables are relatively brief and impart a single, definite moral or teaching, allegories may be quite extensive and communicate a number of moral lessons. Like metaphors, the secondary meanings of allegories are implied rather than explicitly stated and therefore appeal first to the imagination and only secondarily to the reason. An excellent Classical example of the form is Plato’s famous “Allegory of the Cave” which expresses the philosopher’s view that beyond what we might call “consensus reality”the commonsense view of reality held by the majoritylies an ultimate reality, a realm of invisible truths which only minds rigorously trained in philosophy may grasp.
Plato’s allegory uses the image of people chained to the wall of a cave to suggest that the vast majority of people are trapped in intellectual darkness, a condition they are convinced is natural and inevitable. Nevertheless, an occasional few escape the cave and, through a long, difficult intellectual journey, discover the true nature of reality and attain a sort of mystical union with ultimate Goodness. These bold few are the best suited to rule in Plato’s ideal republic, but those still trapped in the cave misunderstand and even violently resist those who have seen the light. Plato’s “Cave” differs from, say, his story about the downfall of Atlantis in the degree to which the characters and events in each narrative are symbolic. The prisoner in the cave who finally makes his way to the top of the hill and contemplates the sun directly corresponds to that rare individualthe true philosopherwho frees himself from the intellectual bondage of the many and undertakes the difficult path to Truth. On the other hand, Plato intends for us to understand the characters mentioned in the Atlantis story as actual heroes of a bye-gone age rather than as figures symbolizing specific ideas or human qualities.
Myth in Relation to Other Genres Thus, as a modern literary critic might say, fables, parables, and allegories “foreground” the symbolic dimension of language more intensely than other forms of narrative. The characters and events in myth are not as symbolic as those in fables, parables, and allegoriesnor do myths usually teach explicit moral lessons. To read myths as allegoriesas people have done from at least the time of Theagenes of Rhegium (6th century B.C.E.)is to misunderstand the purposes and power of literature generally and mythic literature in particular. Taken on their own terms, myths dramatize the human struggle for dignity, meaning, and purpose in the unique idioms of the cultures that produce them. They are not, by contrast, coded messages that use symbolic characters and events to represent a supposedly primitive fascination with the weather or heavenly lights (two allegorical interpretative strategies used for centuries to make rational sense out of Greek myth).
Returning to the touchstone examples of this chapter, we might ask what kind of stories, exactly, are the Iliad and the Odyssey? Are these epics artfully embellished folktales? Magnificent legends? Universalized sagas? Or are they pleasingly understated lessons in the accumulated wisdom of ancient Greek culture? To an extent, the answer is “all of the above.” The Iliad and Odyssey are hybrid works that weave together strands of each of these more specialized genres into a compelling tapestry depicting an idealized vision of Bronze-Age Greek culture that defines and transmits characteristically Greek virtues, values, customs, and beliefs. Yet, they are more than the legend of the Trojan War and its aftermath, more than a literary account of Bronze-Age folkways, more than a saga about the wanderings of a tribal hero desperate to return to his home. Moreover, these epics are too secular to be classified as sacred narratives and too rooted in the dust, sweat, and blood of real life to be allegories.
The same can be said of many of the stories of the world’s numerous mythic traditions. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Bhagavad Gita, the story of how the Dogon deity, Amma, created and then unintentionally marred the world, and “Seven Great Deeds of Maui,” to cite only a few examples, may be likened to literary buildings, founded upon the sacred utterance of poets, prophets, and priests, then framed by the skill of master wordsmiths who used various kinds of folklore, legends, and sagas as their timber. Thus, with all due respect to folklorists, myth is not a subspecies of folklore but a distinct genre that may make use of various folk materials, legends, and sagas, but transforms them into a more universally resonant form.
Myth: A Working Definition
What, then, is myth? It should be obvious by now that there is no simple answer to this question. The English language has no equivalent term for muthos and, when we appropriated this term from the Greek, we inherited the ambiguities it had acquired in Greece long before the Common Era. Insisting now that myth only means “word or story” because that’s what it originally signified to Homer is like insisting that the word addict can only mean “slaves given to Roman soldiers as a reward for performance in battle” because that’s what this other borrowed word (addicti) signified in the original Latin. Words have histories; their usages evolve; their legitimate associations multiply over time. Similarly, insisting that myths must be ancient and anonymous because the “authors” and source stories for the Iliad and the Bhagavad Gita are irretrievably obscured by time ignores the culture-altering power that such stories as Timaeus’ account of the demiourgos creating the cosmos or Milton’s Paradise Lost can have on belief and behavior even when their authors are readily identifiable.
Our Working Definition No single, dogmatic definition of myth will adequately orient us to the wide range of materials conceivably covered by the term. Nevertheless, a provisional and open-ended working definition should prove a useful starting place for further investigation and analysis. Our class defines myth as culturally significant works of the creative imagination that frequently feature 1) dramatizations of metaphysical speculation; 2) accounts of cultural and cosmic origins and conclusions; 3) exemplars of individual and collective virtues; and 4) depictions of cultural values, beliefs, and rituals. Myths are often (but not always) sacred stories that deal in the metaphoric rather than the literal or scientific truth about human experience and the nature of being and do so with an emphasis on artistic merit, often at the expense of rationality and logical consistency.
This definition, so far as it goes, may seem pretty straightforward. But when we examine it more closely, we see that its terms could just as easily apply to the Harry Potter novels as they could to the Iliad or the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Harry Potter novels are, in fact, “culturally significant works of the creative imagination,” as are all novels known and treasured by millions. They do, in fact, dramatize a vision of the nature of reality and the rules by which it operates; that is, they imagine a universe in which some are born with magical gifts and others are not and then set a story against this backdrop. We learn, through the course of seven novels, how Hogwarts was founded and how its customs and hierarchy was established (a mini-version of cultural origins). Harry Potter is nothing if not an exemplar of virtues our culture values. He’s brave, resourceful, loyal, and a staunch opponent of evil (embodied in Lord Valdemort). So these novels depict things our culture values and, to a lesser extent, rituals and ideas that give some lives meaning.
Something is missing from our working definition if we cannot use it to distinguish between an enduring work like the Iliad and the latest pop-culture sensation. But what? Put another way, what does the Twelve Labors of Heracles have that the Potter novels do not have? We can’t know for sure, but it seems unlikely that 2,000 years from now people will be looking back on generations of paintings, sculptures, poems, and movies derived from the Harry Potter series. We do see just such a wealth of imaginative products inspired over the centuries by Heracles’ stories. Likewise, the stories in the Bible, the Baghavad-Gita, and Homer’s two great epics have inspired artists in all media to create many thousands of new works of art.
While the Potter series has certainly inspired movies and some graphic art, it seems unlikely we will see art inspired by the series hanging in the Louvre, Tate, or Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. It seems unlikely as well that we will see later novels, short-stories, or poems that put the characters in J.K. Rowling’s wonderful stories in new settings or reimagine them in ways that speak to the tastes and values of future generations. So, cultural durability and productivity seem to be important elements in what distinguishes well-known examples of the world’s myths from works of fiction that are well-known in their time. Something about the Twelve Labors is more serious, more universal, andsomehowmore inspiring than the Potter novels.
Perhaps this is, at least in part, an artifact of history. The stories of Heracles’ curse, the emotional catastrophe that sets him on a quest for redemption and peace, and the combination of courage, wits, and strength he uses to battle various monsters appeared on the historical scene millennia ago. It is impossible for any modern novel to feature a hero cursed by an unkind fate and battling extraordinary evil not to appear to be echoing the stories that have become, in our time, archetypes of the human condition.
Another possible reason for the enduring appeal of stories like the Twelve Labors is their universality. Even in ancient Greece, Heracles’ story seems to be set in another time and place: in myth-time and myth-space. While the cities of Mycenae and Tiryns were real places, inhabited by real people in the time of Apollodorus, the heroes, monsters, and events occur in a realm parallel to the real human world. Even to the ancient Greeks, Heracles was part of a time and place above and beyond ordinary experience. In addition, Heracles’ struggles are not rooted in the fashions and ideas of any specific people or era. Heracles’s terrible fate, his struggle for redemption, his bravery, his intelligence, and his desire to redeem his losses aren’t merely Classical or Hellenistic Greek ideas. Indeed, they are not even specifically Greek ideas. Who has not wondered at the cruelty of capricious gods or indifferent fate when life’s hardships, uncertainties, and losses become overwhelming? Who has not felt compelled to search for somethinganythingwhich would give the unavoidable pain and losses of human existence meaning? What person of conscience has not sought to make up for past wrong doing through acts of penance? Thus, Heracles’ struggles speak to universal aspects of the human condition. His labors have inspired painters, poets, sculptors, and movie makers not only because they are filled with creatures drawn from our nightmares but because Heracles’ suffering, uncertainty, and determination to make his life worth the suffering he has endured isor at least could beeveryone’s. So, let us add to our working definition that myths are serious, universal, timeless, and inspire secondary artistic productions.
Myths Are a Species of Truth
In closing, let it be said that to dismiss mythic truth as lies or primitive superstition or for being ahistorical, or for referring to things beyond the range of ordinary perception and experience is like criticizing the ocean for being salty or an abstract painting for not imitating nature. Myth has its own time, its own standards of evidence, and describes reality in its own symbolic and sometimes supernatural terms. Myth-tellers in all times and in all cultures have understood this and, whatever the sources of their inspiration, have given their imaginations wide pasture when dramatizing their cultures’ settled truths about origin and being, virtue and value, and custom and belief. In this, they reveal a deep insight into human nature. We are story-telling animals and we are far more likely to think and act in response to imaginatively compelling narratives than to logically consistent abstractions about the origins of the universe and the nature of beingno matter how elegantly expressed or brilliantly conceived such rational accounts might be. The Greek philosophers understood this well enough, even if they were squeamish about using “serviceable lies” to communicate their understanding of the truth.
Defining myth is difficult because the word can legitimately refer to so many things. Yet, as is true of any craft, sport, or branch of learning, genuine expertise comes with repeated practice. To genuinely understand what is meant by the word myth, one needs to acquaint oneself with its history and the range of meanings that have been assigned to it and then to test those ideasover and over againagainst actual examples. Doing this, you will soon develop a “feel” for what myth is; but you will also develop a more sophisticated vocabulary with which to discuss these fascinating stories and a well-furnished storehouse of examples to help you formulate your own definitions.
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