This is the second installment in my series about myth. (See here for the first one: “It’s Exactly the Same Story!”). In this one I’ll try to define myth in preparation to looking at the Biblical examples. I found I could continue to make use of The Great Gatsby, which actually started out my research, and some other fun things as well.
The upcoming release of the new Darren Aronofsky film Noah (March 28), is giving rise once again to talk about myth in the Bible. Is the story of Noah true? Is it a myth? Is myth simply the same as “a false story”? Is it the same as allegory? How would this affect the meaning? Bottom line: did anything in the story of Noah – or for that matter, in the book of Genesis as a whole – really happen? These questions are subject to constant speculation. So this will be be a good place to continue our discussion about myth. Which brings us to the question:
Just what is a myth,anyway?
What is A Myth?
The New Atheists (and old ones as well) have no difficulty answering this question.
“A myth,” they say, “is a made-up story, a fairy tale, with no basis in reality. Every story about religion is equally false, from the story of Zeus to the life of Jesus.”
On the other hand, many Christians are aware that myths are religious stories, but think of them as stories of false religions, while the stories of Judaism and Christianity, being based on true revelation are true stories. Hence, myth for them is synonymous with “false story” or “fiction.” This is why they get upset when they hear that the story of Adam and Eve is regarded as myth. Atheists, on the other hand, simply assume that all religions are false, and hence all myths. The two groups believe that myths are false, but for different reasons.
One thing these assumptions tell you right away is that neither group knows very much about myth.
Ethnologists and other theorists about myth, on the other hand, have often thought a great deal about the definition and meaning of myth — as have other writes and many ordinary people. Some examples:
“In common parlance, a myth is an ‘old wives’ tale,’ a generally accepted belief unsubstantiated by fact.”
–David Adams Leeming, The World of Myth (3)
“Mythology is the study of whatever religious or heroic legends are so foreign to a student’s experience that he cannot believe them to be true. . . . 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.”
–Robert Graves, “Introduction,” New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (v)
“Myths are things that never happened but always are.”
–Sallustius, 4th cent. A.D. (quoted in Carl Sagan’s Dragons of Eden)
“‘The thing you should all remember,’ said Mrs. Dancey, my teacher, ‘is that myths never really change. Sometimes they’re garbled and they certainly appear in different guises to different people who recount them. But the basic legends don’t alter. We’re talking about truths.’”
–Edward Bryant, “Good Kids”
“The Myth, in a primitive society, that is in its original living form, is not just a tale. It is a reality. These stories are of an original, greater, more important reality through which the present life, fate, and mankind are governed. This knowledge provides man with motives for rituals and moral acts.”
-Veronica Ions, The World’s Mythology (6)
There are more here.
The most broadly encompassing definition, the one that I will use for now, is similar to the last one, by Veronica Ions: myths are the “foundational stories” or “world-explaining stories” of a people or religious group. Myths in all religions describe the origins of the cosmos, the gods, humanity and many things in nature. Often they tell of the origin and beginnings of the tribe, ethnic group or people itself. They are the ancestral, primeval stories. They are usually the stories already being told before the official chronicling began. They shade from history to pre-history, and back into the mists. A radiance surrounds them.
Put together, these stories about a particular people or religious group make a mythology. Sometimes they mingle in the telling with later chronicle or history. Tolkien’s mythology (though invented) follows this way of telling. This aspect of stories have been adopted in the language of modern television and cinema, where almost every show has a “mythology” – a fancy word for “backstory” or “what happened in the world of the series before the opening credits of the first episode.” A mythology in this sense, sets up the fundamental rules of the world and its stories. It can include clues to much that might happen in future story arcs or episodes.
Myth and Allegory
Inasmuch as myth is, among other things, a literary genre, it must be separated at the very beginning from another genre: allegory.
Christians tend to refer to the Adam and Eve story in Genesis as an allegory, because they are very uncomfortable with the idea of myth, which they see as something false and pagan. This is the result of misunderstanding and only leads to confusion. To begin with, allegory is always a fictitious story that “stands for” some other story or reality. It is always less real than reality it purports to be talking about, as C. S. Lewis points out. Allegory begins with something, usually an inner reality, which it is difficult to talk about in words, so a story and characters are constructed to elucidate it. Allegory actually began with something called psychomachia or “spiritual warfare” in which personified virtues and vices (Patience, Ire, etc) war against each other as a way of showing the conflicts of the soul.
In other words, while myth might be said to be an embryonic form of history, allegory may be the earliest adumbration of the psychological novel. I don’t have much room to talk about this here, but read Lewis’ Allegory of Love, for a complete history of the subject from ancient times through the Renaissance.
Myth and History
There have been, however, a number of recent developments in the study of myth that I think are misunderstandings. One of the primary theories about myth is that it is entirely rooted in ritual and hence completely apart from any historical memory. True, there are a number of myths with this character. This has apparently led many ethnologists and students of myth to think that actually trying to claim any kind of historical truth for any myth is to violate its nature. Joseph Campbell was big on this. Myth for him was a story in an imaginative or timeless realm that gave a path toward psychological and spiritual healing. Claiming the myth for the factual realm as with Christianity is to kill it, and make it a matter of the past only, a museum piece (Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2nd ed. Princeton: PUP, 1968, 249). He also thought that historicizing myth replaces life-giving story with theology, which is a source of divisiveness, even violence. He was actually addressing this primarily at Christianity.
Modern biblical scholar Burton Mack, who thinks Christians themselves made up the myth of the Christ out of the simple sage named Jesus, has even claimed: “No other religion demands that its adherents say they believe in their myth.” (The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins, Harper Collins, 1994, 2013; Kindle book loc. 427)
Experience of myths can easily show that these ideas are erroneous. Perhaps no one “demanded” that people believe in their myths, but at the earliest stage of religion, people almost always did believe in them. And many of the most inspiring of mythic images come from stories that are actually true. At least they are historical events writ large: the Trojan War is an example. The original poetic myth sung by Homer in the Iliad, presented gods and men interacting in the same story. But that doesn’t mean everything in the story is false. Many historians grant that the Trojan War actually took place. The Greek god of healing, Aesclepius, is believed to have been based on an actual historical physician (though the first mention of him by Homer in the Iliad is many centuries after he is said to have lived).
Lewis in particular has a great answer to Campbell. He points out that the Gospels are in fact both myth and history, because while the story they tell does have similarities with those of the myths, it is unique in that unlike the myths of other dying and rising gods, it is undeniably historical, with place and time (“under Pontius Pilate”) credibly established. The Gospel is myth incarnate in history. This idea deserves a complete investigation, which I hope to write someday.
Of course, a people’s view of myth changes with greater sophistication, learning, and philosophical knowledge. This is true of ancient Greece. Philosophical speculation, and the metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle led people to lose literal belief in their gods. How did the gods fit into the new understanding of the world? Generally there were two directions: The first direction is toward history, and is exemplified by the third-century B. C. writer named Euhemerus believed that mythological characters, such as Hercules, were real historical people who were ignorantly worshiped as gods after their deaths.
The second way — a process that was already well on the way by the end of pagan antiquity — was to treat the gods as allegorical representations of the many aspects of nature. To speak of the sky-father and earth mother goddess as his wife, merely means that the sky, by its rain, makes the earth fruitful. Later poets employed gods as allegorical figures in poetry. For Statius, Mars is no longer a god or even a historical figure, but simply a personification of war.
By evoking allegory, however, writers were changing a myth into another kind of story, and getting away from its real nature. Did they do the same when they historicized myths? It could be argued that myth is not as far from history as allegory is.
But for the moment, let’s continue examining myth as a literary genre. Lewis has actually been one of the great helps in my thinking about myth in general. He thought of myth as a literary form which can encompass both the stories of primitive peoples and sophisticated modern literary works. Among the latter, he lists Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Wells’s The Door in the Wall or Kafka’s The Castle. In some cases, it doesn’t even need words, but can be transmitted by images. (For more, read the entire treatment of myth in Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism).
Myth as a Literary Device
Once myth has been separated out from one’s whole world view, it can become a literary device, consciously evoked by writers. Here is where The Great Gatsby comes in again. The book makes a specially powerful use of a particular myth that we might call The Myth of America, that is America as the undiscovered continent, yearned after as an ideal land, an uncorrupted paradise, mingled with the idea of a land of hope and opportunity for emigrants.
You needn’t be an American especially to understand and appreciate this myth. Just the other night, I re-watched the interesting film The Madness of King George (1994) where King George III (Nigel Hawthorne) says: “I’ve had no peace of mind since we lost America. Forests, old as the world itself… meadows… plains… strange delicate flowers… immense solitudes… and all nature new to art… all ours… Mine. Gone. A paradise… lost.”
It should be noted that King George III was not speaking of a fairy tale or allegory. The land England had lost was perfectly real, and many of the things he said about it were true. His view of it had all the qualities of a myth nonetheless, and I think if you had asked him, he would have recognized that.
But here is the myth of America as Fitzgerald imagines it. The narrator, Nick, is speaking at the end of the book:
. . . and as the moon rose higher, the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here, that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes, a fresh green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the greatest of all human dreams. For a transitory enchanted moment, man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there, brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out Daisy’s light at the end of his dock. He had come such a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. But what he did not know was that it was already behind him, somewhere in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning-
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (chap. 9).
Though last year’s movie version of Gatsby had no place for these musings, they are an effective summary of the novel’s themes (of course, themes can’t be filmed that easily).
The Dutch sailors Nick mentions were, of course, perfectly real historically, and even prosaic: explorers looking for land for farms and raising cattle. But he was able to evoke these facts as much more than just facts.
Nick is speaking of Gatsby’s unobtainable desire for Daisy, in relation to that other dream, the Myth of America. The Dutch sailors were unexpectedly infected with that unobtainable dream and desire, even though their original desires may have been mercenary – they are a good complement to Gatsby, in whom that mercenary instinct for financial success was mingled with another desire, and a “capacity for wonder” in contemplation of Daisy.
Another point of reference to myth (though perhaps not one Fitzgerald intended): When we try to grasp our desire, we always seem to just miss it; we think we are straining toward the future, but we are really “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” This is incredibly suggestive of our relation to myth itself, which Lewis saw as a means of grasping what can’t be grasped with the intellect through the experience of story; “past” and “future” have little meaning here. Myths partake of the timeless even when they are in time.
Here is a great example of evoking a myth as a conscious literary device. This suggests it would be useful to explore the possibility that one or more of the authors of Scripture, living at a time more remote from the origins of the myths, may have evoked a myth to comment on the story he is telling, on other works, or on myths themselves.
Which of these ideas about myth were used by the authors of Genesis? Where did they fall on the sophistication scale between literal belief, allegory and literary evocation of myth?
That’s for next time.