What is Myth? (Notes from a short presentation)

Just for a moment, have a think to yourselves about your own definition of ‘myth’ – how would you define the term? What does it mean to you? Once you’ve had a moment to think about it I’ll ask for a couple of quick examples.

Ok, so from the very beginning we can see that we have a range of different definitions, each with a specific area of focus. Everyone has picked up on different aspects of myth, and different explanations for the functions and purposes of myth. But all of these different definitions clearly revolve around the central idea of ‘stories.’ Stories are undoubtedly the key feature of myths – they are all stories, after all – from the story of the creation of the world as presented in the book of Genesis, to the stories of Zeus and the gods from Ancient Greece, or the tales of the heroes and gods of Norse tradition, and the origin myths of the Hindu deities, for example. This basic definition of ‘myth as story’ is also echoed in the etymological roots of the word myth itself, which is derived from the Greek word muthos, meaning a ‘speech’ or ‘story.’ The Greeks also sometimes contrasted muthos with logos, which is usually understood as referring to ‘reason, argument and discourse.’ Historian of religion Jeffrey Kripal notes, however, that although the two words might appear to be contradictory, in fact both are intimately connected. Indeed, both words also have the basic definition of ‘word.’ It is from the combination of these two words that we get the term ‘mythology’ – a discourse on myth – which is what we are doing here.

It is far too simplistic, though, to think of myths as ‘just stories,’ indeed they are much more than this. Let’s think very quickly about two well known stories. Is the Lord of the Rings, a myth? Is Star Wars a myth? Certainly they both poses many of the epic features of myth, and they also partake of key structural patterns and motifs (of which we will hear more shortly). But are they true myths? Suggesting that myths are simply stories usually comes with the assumption that they are ‘made-up’ (much like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars are well known to be), and with this comes the understanding that they are by necessity ‘not true.’ Indeed, this is the most common popular usage of the term ‘myth’ today – a myth is something that is not true.  We know, for instance, that the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars are not true, they are works of fantasy fiction and their creators are easily identifiable, and no-one has ever believed that they were real, or that they are accounts of a actual events that took place in primordial times (well, perhaps some people have). But this is not the case with myth.

Mircea Eliade (an influential historian of religion), notes that the tendency to interpret myth as little more than ‘make believe’ developed along with the emergence of the positivist rationalism of Enlightenment science in the Eighteenth Century, when the categories of Myth, Folklore, fairy tale and Fable were combined and confused, thus denigrating the importance of myth as a means of understanding the world. The structuralist anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, echoed this observation when he wrote that in the 17th and 18th centuries ‘it was necessary for science to build itself up against the old generations of mythical and mystical thought’ (Levi-Strauss, 2006, p. 4) through turning its back on these older ways of conceiving of the world in order to constitute itself as the dominant epistemology of Western scholarship. Empiricism overtook myth as a means of rendering the world intelligible to the human mind, especially in the West.

So, the understanding of myth as essentially false, as untrue stories, is really quite a recent development in the history approaches to Myth (we might call it a ‘modern’ understanding). But, Myths are not ‘just stories,’ and should not be understood as necessarily ‘false’ or ‘untrue’ if we wish to critically engage with and understand them. In fact, one of the defining features of myth is often held to be the fact that, for many, the great myths were at one time believed to have been true, and this is something that cannot be ignored in the study of myth. It is an essential part of what makes them what they are.

Prior to the emergence of Enlightenment rationalism, then, and certainly in Classical and traditional cultures, Myths were thought to express sacred truths about the nature of the world. Eliade writes that: ‘one thing strikes us immediately: […] myth is thought to express the absolute truth, because it narrates a sacred history’ (Eliade, 1960 p. 23), of events that took place in a mythic time, distinct from historical time, that still continue to influence the world in the present. So, the ‘Sacred’ is a defining characteristic of myth, and might serve as a useful way of distinguishing between myths and other kinds of fantastic stories, like the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, which are understood as predominantly secular.

The sacred truth of myth is nowhere more evident than in the capacity of myths to express an ordered view of cosmological reality. Cosmogenic, of cosmogonic, myths, for example, explain the origins of the universe (or universes), and its inhabitants (including the gods), and tell us why the world is the way it is, how it ought to be kept, and explain the role of human beings within creation and in relation to the gods. In essence, then, creation myths tell us what the world is like, and why it is like this. They establish the limits and extents of a particular cosmological scheme, and in many ways define what is real for a particular culture. Creation myths can also usefully be thought of as creating meaning and order from non-meaning and disorder – creating cosmos from chaos – rendering the seemingly chaotic observable universe comprehensible to human thought. Such myths, therefore, serve an eminently practical function through grounding human existence in a wider network of meaning and understanding – giving us a place and purpose in the world.

To begin our study of myth from the perspective that they are not true, therefore, would be to immediately miss the point (this predicament is something I have been working on in my own research on the paranormal and specifically on contemporary Western spirit mediumship, the scholarly study of which is similarly blighted by the academic consensus that the paranormal is ‘not real’). In a sense, then, it could be argued that myths establish the foundations of the cultures within which they emerge, in Eliade’s words ‘myth happens to be the very foundation of social life and culture’ (1960, p. 23), and it is for this reason that he defines myth as ‘the expression of a mode of being in the world’ (1960, p. 24). 

Arguing along the same lines, and somewhat more recently, Jeffrey Kripal has suggested that cosmogonic myths are amongst the most important forms of myth in that they are often both ‘descriptive’ and ‘prescriptive’ accounts of the universe for the cultures that develop around them. They tell us why the world is, and how the world should be (descriptive), and how we should act in it (prescriptive). He writes:

‘This is why creation myths, far from being some kind of objective or scientific snapshot at the beginning of time, display a very strong tendency to “slip in” all sorts of cultural values and activities that are specific to the particular culture telling this particular story’ (Kripal, 2014, p. 120)

Creation myths, therefore, both create and sustain systems of culture, belief and practice.

In addition to creation stories, myths also take on a wide variety of other forms. In fact, according the the Motif-Index of Folklore in Literature there are somewhere in the region of 2,400 distinctive mythic plot lines (Kripal, 2014, p. 120), and for those who are interested in finding out more about these, there is a useful version of the Motif-Index available to view for free online (http://www.ruthenia.ru/folklore/thompson/index.htm). Its a pretty hefty read though.

Obviously, we don’t have time to discuss all of these variations of narrative and theme now. For the purposes of this brief introduction, we will instead very quickly look at just two of the most common forms of myth: hero quests and trickster myths, as we have already mentioned cosmogonic myths.

Hero myths are amongst the most widely analysed and discussed myth forms. They are also amongst our oldest known stories, dating back at least as far back as 2,100 BC, the rough period during which the Epic of Gilgamesh was etched out on clay tablets in Cuneiform script, in ancient Mesopotamia. This ancient story tells of the King Gilgamesh’s adventures with his hairy companion Enkidu. Together they fight demons and monsters until Enkidu is killed. Gilgamesh then goes on a quest to find Utnapishtim, the immortal survivor of a great flood (much like the Biblical Noah). Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh of a magical plant that makes the old young again, but on returning home the plant is stolen by a serpent, but Gilgamesh nevertheless returns home a wiser man.   

Joseph Campbell was one of the leading theorists on the hero myth, most notably in his hugely influential book The Hero’s Journey. According to Campbell hero myths frequently follow a very ancient and distinctive plot line, which he has briefly summarised as follows:

‘A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from his mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow men’ (Campbell, 2003, p. 28).

We can clearly see here the influence of this story arc on modern tales such as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien was himself a scholar of Anglo-Saxon myth), as well as on the Star Wars saga (George Lucas drew inspiration directly from Campbell’s work while writing the first Star Wars films in the 1970s, and they became close friends). 
Ok, so now we have briefly introduced cosmogonic myths and hero myths. Next we will very quickly look at trickster myths.

Trickster myths feature the archetypal character of the ‘trickster.’ The trickster is a character who, although taking on different names and forms in different cultural systems, nevertheless performs a similar role of challenging, breaking down, and taking apart the accepted order of things. Jeff Kripal defines the trickster quite nicely as ‘a mythical embodiment of that human ability to laugh at, and thus to transcend, one’s own most cherished beliefs and assumptions’ (Kripal, 2014, p. 124).   

Trickster myths occur throughout the world’s cultures, and a particularly good example of such a character is found in the myths of the Winnebago people of North America, who tell stories of a being known as Wakdjunkaga (literally meaning ‘tricky one’), who is a liminal character possessing no fixed form (even blurring the boundaries between categories such as ‘male’ and ‘female’), and is often associated with the hare, spider, raven and coyote. Stories of Wakdjunkaga are often comical, he breaks taboos, is rude and grotesque and very often gets into trouble through his own bumbling antics. Nevertheless, he remains a major culture hero for the Winnebago, and his adventures serve to reinforce important cultural taboos, rules and limitations while simultaneously transcending and mocking them.

Other examples of trickster archtypes from different cultural contexts include Hermes in ancient Greek myth, Eshu-Elegba in Yoruba myth, and Loki from the Norse tradition. There are many other examples to. So that’s trickster myths very briefly summarised in a nutshell.

Ok, so to conclude this brief presentation, what is myth? For me, a myth is a story that tells a sacred history, that explains the origins of the world and the role of human beings and the gods within creation, and that still has relevance today in that it forms the foundations of cultural systems. But that’s just me.
Here are another couple of influential definitions of myth for us to ponder until we have the opportunity to look at some more specific theories and approaches. Based on his fieldwork amongst the Trobriand Islanders of Papua New Guinea during the first world war, Bronislaw Malinowski (who we will hear more about in the session on functionalist approaches to myth), defined myth in the following terms:

‘Myth […] is not merely a story old but a reality lived. It is not of the nature of fiction, such as we read to-day in a novel, but it is a living reality, believed to have once happened in primeval times, and continuing ever since to influence the world and human destinies’ (Malinowski, in Dundes, 1984, p. 198).

This definition is from the poet and scholar Robert Graves, and moves towards thinking about what myth does, as well as what it is:

‘Myth has two main functions. The first is to answer the sort of awkward questions that children ask, such as:  ‘Who made the world? How will it end? Who was the first man?  Where do souls go after death?’ […] The second function of myth is to justify an existing social system and account for traditional rites and customs’ (Graves, 1972, p. v).

Just some food for thought.

References

Bowie, F. (2002). The Anthropology of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Campbell, J. (2003). The Hero’s Journey. Novatao: New World Library.

Dundes, A. (1984). Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Eliade, M. (1960). Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries: The Encounter Between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities. London: Harper Torchbooks.

Graves, R. (1972) ‘Introduction.’ In New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. London: Hamlyn.

Kripal, J.J. (2014). Comparing Religions. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons. 

Levi-Strauss, C. (2006). Myth and Meaning. London: Routledge.

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