Coming up with a definition of myth is incredibly difficult, because the term’s meaning changes based on context. In other words, out in the world with your friends or your family you might consider a myth as “Something that isn’t true.” We might say, “oh that’s just a myth,” as if to dismiss it. This perception has deep historical roots, which we’ll get to later. Just remember, we tend to reside in an age of reason, or Logos, which was not always so; we once were more inhabitants of the spiritual realm. We have moved to a human-centric world that had once placed a deity there.
Consider this briefly:
Imagine two birds.
It is a particular time of the year, a season, and they are in the limbs of a tree.
One bird shakes its tail-feathers.
The other its beak.
To us what is going on?
It is a seasonal ritual, we say giving it a story. The one bird does this and the other that. And birds are born.
This ritual is based entirely on the sensory world, on the natural conditions of time and space, that time of year, here in this tree.
Rituals, stories, myths derive from this desire, to reflect what is seen, to provide order.
The chief order here is seasonal.
The seasons come in cycles — as do most things in life.
A cycle is round.
The fire pit.
The way we live our lives, the lifecycle, the circle of life.
To explain seasons and love.
Bring in two birds.
To tell a story about life.
Bring in a hero.
Bring in the sun.
The fire pit.
Bring in the lifecycle, the circle of life.
Bring in the circle.
Historically myths are looked upon as stories largely hailing from vanquished religions; a lasting byproduct of taking stories from one faith to be used in another. The story of the flood in the Holy Bible, for example, came from a Mesopotamian myth, predating it .
In Literature, myths are the basis for the canon, in large part providing a seemingly endless supply of plot and structure, characters and conflict; allegory and metaphor.
Many psychoanalysts see myths are archetypical patterns of our psyche, the iconic embodiments of our psychologies, pathologies.
In academic, literary, philosophical — in the humanities the term myth means something all these things and more, but first and foremost as prose composed of an oral tradition which dates to the birth of civilization.
“Myths are universal and timeless stories that reflect and shape our lives — they explore our desires, our fears, our longings, and provide narratives that remind us what it means to be human,” Phillip Pullman writes.
Karen Armstrong, an authority on the history of religion and the author of A History of God, states that myth have three hallmarks — deal with the experience of death; must always be linked to ritual and deals with the “extremes” of our potential.
Now, you can already see that these measures provide context, and with context comes a clearer idea as to what defines a myth. Going on these three a myth spoken of today, as to dismiss something as being false, need hardly be about death; need not be tied to a ritual or be about what we can and can do explicitly.
The text A Short History of Myth already begins to winnow down our definition of what is a myth. A myth helps us understand ourselves, our world and our mortality, she writes. It is a way, symbolically, to talk about what cannot be described — the ineffable. In other words, myth helps us to get a sense of the beyond (beyond our senses, our ability to describe it) — a place we seek to return to, now exiled from it. Sound familiar?
The wonderful aspect of myth, says Armstrong, is that it is a gateway to an event that happened once, but also it is an event happening all the time. For Catholics, the Eucharist sacrament (sacramentum is Latin for sign of the sacred) of the wafer and the wine is a prime example; there is a story behind it, yes, but the story it speaks of IS IT and is happening now and forever more.
Armstrong short history provides us with a good timeline of how myth first dominated then came to be derided in society.
While Armstrong historical look provides us with a sense when and myths evolved over time, the seminal work of mythology goes to Thomas Bulfinch’s Mythology. This is the collection that all other books on mythology must bow. It groups the age of mythology through three periods of specific address — “The Age of Fable,” “The Age of Chivalry” and “Legends of Charlemagne.”
To read the culled myths here is to read the DNA of almost every story or movie that came after it. This is the reference book for writers, journalists, politicians and thinkers. This is the book of Homer, of Ovid and Virgil.
Even though, as we will find out, myth’s power in society has waned considerably, there are still champions of its powers and none more so than the late Joseph Campbell. Mythologist Campbell was famous in his lifetime for such books as “A Hero with a Thousand Masks” and the “Power of Myth.” For him, myths in total contained a message and that the message were clues to the spiritual potentiality of our lives. Myth was the rapture of being alive, he said.
Myths told us not only the meaning of life, and were universal in their telling, but also how to understand ourselves. “Mythological images are the images by which the consciousness is put in touch with the unconscious.”
He hoped that society would regain the magic of myth that once characterized it. He was famous for saying “follow your bliss,” and that bliss took time, but most of all adherence to myth and its expression of the mysterious.