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The meanings of myth

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By Michael Clark

The word myth has a lot of different meanings, depending on who’s speaking. Myths can be ordinary (like a popular idea), sublime and heavenly or, possibly, something horrible and scary.

Perhaps all contemporary usages share the idea that myth points to something beyond the scientific method. But in reality it’s not quite that simple. Many postmodern thinkers critique science as a modern myth. And scholars like the Indologist, Wendy Doniger, say that most myths contain an inner structure and rationality.

To further complicate things, the pioneering mythographer Sir James. G. Frazer believed that, underneath their colorful imagery, myths are a kind of protoscience.

Literary and artistic types tend to see myth as an artform. But others say that myth is more sacred than the arts because at different points in history myth connects with ritual. To counter that notion, others observe that ritual, itself, doesn’t guarantee the presence of the sacred. And the definition of ritual, itself, is also open to debate. Could getting together with your pals every Wednesday night to watch your favorite Sci-Fi TV show be considered a ritual? This isn’t too far-fetched. Not a few academics see Star Trek as a religion or, perhaps, a mythology. Another point to consider here is that many artists see their practice as a kind of spiritual discipline. So who can really say that myth is more sacred than art?

Myths and Fairy Tales

According to professor T. Henighan,1 the Freudian child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim says that myth:

  • Contains particular heroes with unique names
  • Tells of heroes that are ‘larger than life’
  • Involves majestic and ‘spiritual’ divine beings
  • Relates an often tragic and pessimistic story2
  • Reveals conflict between the superego (i.e. internalized social conscience) and id (i.e. instinctual drives of love and death that seek gratification)
  • Sets unrealistic demands that normal human beings can never fully achieve

Whereas fairy tales are a type of folk tale in which:

  • The names of heroes and heroines are absent or ordinary3
  • Supernatural but not divine beings are mentioned
  • Positive outcomes are the norm
  • Childhood and adolescence figure prominently
  • The actual content (i.e. Oedipal material) is obscured through elaborate symbolism

This, of course, is just one point of view. Specialists hardly agree as to whether myths and folk tales are basically the same or different. Moreover, some contend that myth precedes the folk tale, others, the reverse.

True and False Stories

In Myth and Reality Mircea Eliade maintains that “societies in which myth is—or was until very recently—’living,'” distinguish true from false stories.4

Eliade gives examples from two American Indian groups, the Pawne and the Cherokee. And from Africa he cites the Herero and the inhabitants of Togo. As any good sociologist or anthropologist will observe, however, Eliade seems to naively take existing ethnological research at face value. He says these cultures believe their myths are true stories, while folk tales apparently are seen as morally instructive but false stories.

However, he rightly notes that mythic stories were not universally accepted as truth in ancient societies where different beliefs and philosophical schools competed for legitimacy.5 Eliade is not referring, for example, to ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian myths.

But the idea that all members of a given “living” society privately regard hegemonic myths as true stories is open to question. It would be unwise to assume that mythic beliefs are universally accepted in any culture or, for that matter, subculture. As with the ancient world, external displays of acceptance – among both leaders and community members – very likely could be feigned out of prudence or political expedience.6

Hard to Define

As to a defintion of myth, Eliade says:

It would be hard to find a definition of myth that would be acceptable to all scholars and at the same time intelligible to nonspecialists. Then, too, is it even possible to find one definition that will cover all the types and functions of myths in all traditional and archaic societies? Myth is an extremely complex cultural reality, which can be approached and interpreted from various and complementary viewpoints.7

While there’s no unanimous agreement as to the meaning of myth, this multiplicity speaks to its richness and importance. The following point form list summarizes some of the leading and interrelated theories on mythology. It’s far from exhaustive but hopefully illustrates, among other things, the contemporary relevance of myth.

Psychological

  • Conceals our instinctual and repressed unconscious desires and tendencies (Sigmund Freud)
  • Reveals our “personal infantile history,” particularly with regard to the creators and followers of hero myths (Otto Rank)
  • Reflects transpersonal, elementary ideas (Adolf Bastien) or a collective unconscious revealing through mythic images a deeper meaning in life (Carl Jung)
  • Provides imaginal signposts along an inner and outer journey, helping heroic individuals gain enhanced wisdom (Carl Jung, James Hillman, Joseph Campbell)
  • Mythic thinking may be a survival mechanism for painful ritual abuse but in the negative unresolved instance, mythic thinking may culminate in sociopathic behavior-e.g. the ethical insanity of a Hitler (Chrystine Oksana)

Sociological

  • Codifies, legitimizes and strengthens dominant beliefs, practices and relationships based on power in a given society (Antonio Gramsci, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault)
  • Fosters social cohesion, functioning, development or chaos (Talcott Parsons, Robert Merton, Emile Durkheim);
  • Contributes to egoism, altruism, alienation and anomie (Emile Durkheim)

Cultural

  • Reading myths affords aesthetic charm to the, at times, “stale, flat and unprofitable” task of living (C. S. Lewis, [quotation: William Shakespeare])
  • Provides religious or heroic legends that the audience knows are fictional (Robert Graves)
  • Helps us to meaningfully interpret and transform our world (Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung)

Anthropological

  • A non-scientific attempt to explain natural phenomena (E. B. Tylor)
  • Archaic source of oral stories, history and cultural identity (Micea Eliade, Clifford Geertz)
  • The second stage in mankind’s evolutionary sequence of symbolical, mythical and logical modes of thought (J. J. Bachofen)
  • Directs individuals through important stages of life, in many cultures marked by solemn or sacred “rites of passage” (Karl Kerenyi, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell)
  • Provides communal meaning about ancestors and the afterlife (Carl Jung)
  • Myth is best understood as the sum total of its variants and is a tool that can help solve cultural problems, paradoxes and contradictions (Claude Lévi-Strauss)
  • Offers a grid defined by its own rules of construction. This grid doesn’t explain the meaning of myth in itself but creates a “matrix of intelligibility” which facilitates understanding of the world by revealing structural laws of human thought, communication, interaction and behavior (Claude Lévi-Strauss)
  • Legitimizes beliefs in magic, which for so-called primitives is a kind of protoscience that may be used for practical purposes, such as regulating the harvest (Sir James. G. Frazer)
  • Magic is recognized a kind of myth by so-called primitives, used symbolically to relieve natural anxiety and express their hopes for positive outcomes–e.g. while hunting or fishing in dangerous places (Bronislaw Malinowski)

Historical

  • Provides information about historical conditions, especially about those with the power to create myths (John Noss)

Political

  • May be used as global propaganda (e.g. Marxist Theory of History) and for political agendas–e.g. glorifying oneself and demonizing opponents, as in election-time TV ads (Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Roland Barthes)

Ethical

  • Outlines right and wrong, and inevitable punishments and rewards for dishonorable and praiseworthy acts (Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell)

Pedagogical

  • Teaches individuals how to conform and advance in society, especially in archaic cultures (Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell)

Cosmological

  • Provides a working “map” of the conceivable universe (S. H. Hooke)
  • Relates to a Creation of the World and the subsequent interaction of gods, goddesses, semi-divine beings, human beings, animals, vegetation and the geographical landscape (Donna Rosenberg)

Magical

  • A story designed to evoke magical powers (Jane Harrison)

Spiritual

  • Symbolizes and possibly leads to an awareness of dimensions and beings beyond the mundane world (Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung)
  • Mythic rites and rituals bring forth a ‘sacred history’ within the context of human life (Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell)

Philosophical and Theological

  • Myth arises from incorrect insights, that is, intuitions about ultimate reality (or specific situations) which have not been questioned nor empirically investigated “until no further relevant questions arise” (Bernard Lonergan)
  • A symbolic means of expression through which mankind attempts to answer existential questions-i.e. achieve self-understanding in a world where the transcendental is often seen as immanent (Rudolf Bultmann)

Transformational

  • Recent figures like Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, Joseph Campbell, Mary Daly and Barbara Walker implicitly or explicitly say that their own modern myths (i.e. theories about myth and related cosmologies) contribute to the betterment of self and society

Economic and Entertainment

  • Film, music, videos, literature, TV, advertising, video games and most other forms of popular culture belong here (and in some of the above categories). To mention a few: Kyle XY, X-Men, Harry Potter, Star Trek, Star Wars, The Matrix, BattleStar Galactica, Stargate Atlantis, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Batman, Superman, Spiderman, The Flintstones, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, The Incredible Hulk, Xena the Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the TV Hercules, KISS, Marilyn Manson, Michael Jackson, HALO 3, Super Mario, Avatar (the movie)

Notes

1. Tom Henighan. ITV lecture for English 18.208 (Myth and Symbol) televised at Carleton University, Ottawa: January 29, 1998.

2. This is debatable, particularly with regard to Hindu myth.

3. Cinderella might seem an exception but as ‘Microglyphic’ pointed out at the former Askme.com, she’s renamed as such by her step-sisters. See, for instance the Brothers Grimm variant of the tale.

4. Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality. Trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harper & Row, 1963, pp. 8-10.

5. (a) Anaximander (611-547 BCE) and Xenophanes (570-480 BCE) for instance, directly challenged the anthropomorhpic gods of ancient Greece. And doubts most likely existed among the historically invisible (the vast majority of people who were never famous enough for the history books). Also, in ancient Egypt crudely made statues apparently mocked Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti, likely carved by dissenters.
(b) Military conquerors and occupying powers also influenced local myths in the ancient world. Conquerors would sometimes replace indigenous myths with their own. Other times they would import myths yet tolerate those of the subjugated. Military victors also synthesized their own myths with those of the defeated populations, as in India and Rome.

6. (a) John Noss in Man’s Religions (1957: 45-96) outlines some of the political and socially stratified aspects of pagan worship in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.
(b) A contemporary example might be found within the Roman Catholic Church, where penalties can be harsh for disobedience among the clergy and also among wayward believers (e.g. women ordained as priests).

7. Eliade, Myth and Reality, p. 5.

The meanings of myth © Michael Clark. All rights reserved.

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9 thoughts on “The meanings of myth

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  6. This site has an Impressive listing of ideas regarding the functions of myths and the authors of those ideas. A valuable source for beginning research into any direction the mind cares to wander. Regarding the relationship of myth to fairy tales, it has been my experience that fairy tales often contain fragments of myths that were formerly operative in a culture, but have been replaced by other myths, brought in by conquerors, or accepted through less violent means of cultural exchange. Also, fairy tales have a moralizing quality that myths usually lack.

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