What Is Myth?

What is myth? In our modern vernacular, we use the word interchangeably with “fantasy,” “superstition,” or even “lie.” We enjoy reading Greek myths, which many curricula require. However, in our modern classrooms, we experience these stories very differently from the way Greeks did. For them, the myth was, if not fact, a vessel for communicating transcendent truths. It was believed. A myth read by a modern can be dissected and all its parts appraised. We can read it like it is a lesson trying to teach us something, or as a nice piece of writing which we find entertaining, or as a historical document with revealing cultural insights, but the full value of its story is invisible unless we confront it as people inside it, not as historians or scholars outside it. While there is value to scrutiny, we come nowhere close to understanding myth like a Greek, because we are not Greeks.

We do a further disservice to myth by categorizing it as its own type of genre. In one sense, we can speak of myth like we speak of allegory, comedy, or tragedy—a form with its own unique symbols, motifs, and themes, and demanding a certain posture from the reader. But defining myth this way does not get to the heart of its difference from mere fantasy. Myth differs from other genres because it is not aware it is false or purely literary, even when it is. By contrast, C.S. Lewis knew that the fantasy of “The Chronicles of Narnia” originated in his own mind.

It may strike us while reading the “Theogony” that at some point someone believed in a toga-adorned god who cast down lightning bolts from atop his mountain. But this is as easily dismissed as the child who believes in Santa Claus, for we only marvel at the fact that it was believed: not in the fact of the real marvel, a toga’d god. Here we mistake the nature of myth, for there is a distinction in understanding something was (at one point) believed, and understanding something is believable. We must not approach myth the way we approach “The Chronicles of Narnia.” The latter was meant to be unbelievable; that is part of its value. Lewis was not suggesting Narnia was a real place, nor was he encouraging us to spend our days pushing on the backs of wardrobes. That would be an abuse of the story which is better off being understood from the outset as fiction. Fantasy may invade the soul, but myth invades history and claims some degree of authority. The gods are not in your mind only but on an actual mountaintop.

A series of myths taken together constitute a mythology. In the original Greek, the word muthos meant “fable, falsehood,” but also meant “a true narrative.” The ancients defined it as a story that could be either true or false; moderns are wrong to believe it can only be the latter. A myth, therefore, in its original meaning is neither a factual historical account nor a purely allegorical fiction, nor is it a mixture of historical facts and lies. Rather, it is a narrative embodying higher truths: philosophical teachings which are inherited by a particular people (in our case the Greeks), and usually drawing from seminal episodes in that people’s history (such as the factual city of Troy and its downfall). The details of this narrative are largely lost, and this forces the hearers to speculate and attempt to work out the narrative for themselves.

Why does this matter? All human beings share an innate desire for story. We, all of us, not only enjoy them but wish to be in them. Stories teach us who and why we are. The story is how we know our place, identity, and role in the world. It brings all things—both us and non-us—together into a communal narrative. Literary writing is the product of an author in search of characters, but we create myth when we are characters in search of an Author. We wish to be told how to be. Unlike Narnia, which is about characters, a myth is about you, where you come from, and why you are. A mythology is, in a nutshell, an “everything story.” If you will: not a story, but the story.

This matters because people still believe in a the story. People still want to believe they are participants in a mythology. We Christians certainly do this. We say everything had a beginning (creation), a climax (the cross), and an end (revelation). Once we have done so, once we recognize narrative, we have mythologized. Modernity finds itself quite ready to mythologize. For the progressive, for example, modern man makes himself a character in a sweeping evolutionary epic. It begins with a bang and ends with a whimper, and while he may be puzzled over whether to revere or ridicule the primate, modern man is the climax in this tale. Very few people who believe in biological evolution understand it; they aren’t scientists. But the common man can grasp the big story, and it is quite a glorious one. Perhaps no one has developed the materialist mythology better than Carl Sagan. Frequently, he gave material objects divine-like stature—referring to the oceans as the womb of organic life, apple pies and teeth being made of “star-stuff,” and even explaining the soul as “a way for the cosmos to know itself,” since we are just a part of the cosmos. Most scientists will claim such statements are philosophical and therefore outside the science department: however, they will also admit the claims are believable, either true or false.

More importantly, such statements express the human desperation to be attached to something beyond itself. As Lewis famously said, “We read to know we are not alone.” I have said much about what myth contributes to the individual. But this is only because story has to do with the transcendent, for every story is more than its characters. At the end of the day, most people want only to know how to be human. We are to take the warning in 2 Peter 1:16 that story is no substitute for truth and doctrine. However, narrative can still be a tool for evangelism. Who better to tell people who and why they are than Christians? Why must scientists and historians be the only apologists?

Now the Bible is not pure myth any more than it is pure laws or poetry. It is Revealed, and therefore rejects the mythic possibility of being untrue. However, it nonetheless contributes an “everything story” which in the secular realm can be quite effective. But the trick to myth is we must approach it, not from a position of doubt as the skeptics do, but from a position of belief as faith does. Unless we read the myth believing it is something believable, we won’t actually be reading the myth. Only some fantasy.

Originally appeared in the Center for a Just Society.

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