Myth, Mythology, And Meaning: Addressing The Essence Of Reality Within Mythological Narratives
Updated: Feb 3
By Parvathi Vijay
The etymology of ‘Myth’ may be traced back to the Greek word Mythos, entailing a spectrum of definitions, ranging from ‘word’, all the way to ‘saying’, ‘story’ and ‘fiction’. This disputed definition of Myth is further complicated as its present English usage adds to the ambiguity of the Greek word. Myth, in the English language, often implies beliefs and ideological assumptions that have been wholeheartedly accepted as the truth by a few but are dismissed as half-truths or just fabricated stories, by others. These include the many ‘Myths’ of Aryan supremacy or the plethora of conspiracy Myths that revolve around the death of Subhash Chandra Bose. It may also entail stories, characters, and objects which are completely fictional in nature, with absolutely no basis in fact or logic. Consecutively, en masse, the plot of almost any work of literary fiction may be deemed a ‘Myth’. It may also be used more loosely to refer to an ideological belief when the said belief is the object of a quasi-religious faith; such as the Marxist eschatological Myth of the withering away of the state. (Gabriel & Žižek, 2010).
Following the old school thought of European anthropologists, Rene Girard believes that Myths are the narrative corollary of ritual (Andrade, 2020). A Jungian definition of Myth pivots itself upon the expression of “characters and stories that are encoded into the human species in prehistory, and therefore express universal concerns” (Jung & Segal, 1992). Here, Myths are primarily acknowledged as oral traditions. The attempt to define Myth in itself, however seemingly intractable a proposition it may be, serves to highlight the very quality of the stories that make them so different from one another.
The controverted validity of Mythos may be contrasted with logos. The latter of which refers to reason and logic. The culmination of Mythos and logos, (story and logic) resulted in the popularisation of Mythology, denoting not only the study of Myth but also the framework of Myths belonging to a particular religious or cultural tradition. With that said, ‘Myth’, in its widest connotation encompasses almost any collective belief which may or may not have its foundation on the supernatural.
Epistemological Advancement in Mythology
Genealogies of cultural ontology often trace back to Myths. While one can imagine the absence of a theist inclination in cultures, it is unlikely for one to come across cultures without Myths. Subsequently, as the field gained recognition from multidisciplinary backgrounds, Avant-Garde methods of analysing Myths came into existence. The growth of philosophy in Ancient Greece gave birth to the concept of allegorical interpretations of Myth. Theist cultures, for example, often pivoted on the hunt for deeper meanings hidden below the surface of Mythical texts. An example of the same would be that given for the Iliad (Homer et al., 1998, verse 67; Buxton, 2020). Referring to an episode in which the gods fight each other, commentators often explained the hostilities between the gods allegorically as an opposition between elements. i.e., dry against wet, hot against cold, and so on. This commitment towards excavating the pre-asserted meaning of life exacerbates the schism between varying hermeneutic differences within the same text. This approach was followed by a boom in the use of ‘rationalism’ to connote the scrutiny of Myths. This approach was adopted to make sense of the statements contained in them, without taking literally, their references to gods, monsters, or the supernatural. This was similar to how the ancient writer Palaiphatos interpreted Skylla; the bestial and cannibalistic creature that attacked Odysseus’s ship from Odyssey, as simply the name of a pirate ship. A long-lasting theory in the history of the interpretation of Myth was Euhemerism, as per which certain gods were originally great people immortalized owing to their acts of benevolence towards mankind. This practice was incorporated by Christians, wherein Myths were taken from the pagan past into a Christian framework whilst dampening its out-of-the-ordinary realm of reality, i.e., the gods became ordinary humans (Roubekas, 2019).
The Structuralist approaches to Myth are based on a Myth-to-language analogy. French anthropologist and philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss (1955) clarifies, "It (Myth) is language, functioning on an especially high level where meaning succeeds practically at "taking off" from the linguistic ground on which it keeps on rolling.” (pp. 430-431). The use of Mythical references in modern idioms and metaphors such as, ‘Promethean narrative’ or ‘Herculean tasks’, is a clear-cut indicator of the impact Mythology has on language. ‘Mythemes’, as Strauss labelled the constituents of what comprises a Myth, were said to function as “bundles of such relations” (Levi-Strauss, 1955, p. 431). Here, the foundation of structuralism is based upon an understanding of the scientific processes which seek to break down complex phenomenaphenomenon from Myths into its components, in an attempt to read into and analyse the relationship between them.
This approach is a break from the ‘Symbolic’ school of interpretation. Swiss Neo-Freudian Psychiatrist Carl Jung (1992), who believed that Myths and dreams were expressions of the collective unconscious, dedicated himself to find meaning solely within the constituents rather than dwelling into the threads that wove them together. Jung asserted Myths were a creative outpouring of wisdom that has been encoded in all humans, either via biological evolution or by spiritual processes. Jungian analysis of classical Mythology would claim that the main gods in Greek Mythology are mere expressions of ‘archetypes’ that are common to human thinking, worldwide. The primary Olympian gods may be paralleled with the different stages of life within an archetypical family. Zeus is the patriarchal head; Hera, the warm and nurturing mother; Apollo, the young man at the pinnacle of manhood and youth, and so on. Jung believed that the tiny specs of reality imbibed within the extraordinary nature of Myths help us gain a better understanding of not only the past but also the present. (Jung & Segal, 1992)
Mythological Significance in Modern Interventions
Myths present a model or a charter for human behaviour. It forms the basis for and alludes to inter- as-well-as intra-communal conduct and mannerisms. A ‘people’s Myth’ reflects, dissects, and enhances the community’s self-image. The study of Myth thus forms a pivot in the study of both; individual socio-political systems, as well as the human culture, as a whole. For instance, In the middle of the 19th century, a newly appointed British governor of New Zealand, Sir George Grey (1855), was confronted by the problem of how to come to terms with the Maori, who were hostile to the British. He learned their language, but that proved insufficient for an understanding of how they reasoned and argued. To be able to conduct negotiations satisfactorily, he found it necessary to study the Maori’s Mythology, to which they made frequent reference. Other government officials and Christian missionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries made similar efforts to understand the Mythologies of nations or tribes to facilitate communication. Such studies were more than a means to an end, be it with the intent of efficient administration, or conversion.
Comparative Mythology is the field of anthropology that analyses Myths from a multi-cultural perspective and compares them with the motive to find shares themes and characteristics. Anthropologist C. Scott Littleton defines it as "the systematic comparison of Myths and Mythic themes drawn from a wide variety of cultures" (Littleton, 1982). By comparing Mythologies from varying backgrounds, scholars try to identify underlying similarities to reconstruct a ‘proto-Mythology’ from which those Mythologies developed. Comparative Mythology has served a plethora of academic purposes. Several scholars have used the relationship between different Myths to trace back in time, the development of religions and cultures, with an intent to propose common origins for Myths from different cultures (Yamada, 2020). One such example could be the Myth of ‘The Great Flood’, which has been a common theme across a multitude of cultures, thus suggesting the likelihood of a major Water-induced calamity that took the world by a storm around a common juncture.
In addition to the aforementioned, there have been several instances wherein Myth has been at par with modern-day reality. One such example would be that of the infamous Myth of Plato’s ‘Atlantis’. The Atlantis Myth is popularly associated with the fate of Thera, a Greek island that was partly destroyed by a volcanic eruption about 3,600 years ago. However, Atlantis is not the only legend of a sunken city. Similar tales have been told around the globe, some of which happen to fall into the realm of reality. Sir John Mandeville’s geographical mapping was correct to a large extent even though his voyages were on Mythical lands (Mandeville et al., 1928). Such Myths provided a platform for similar events to be retrieved and in some cases, even dated. In 1966, Scientist Dorothy Vitaliano coined the term, ‘Geomythology’, denoting it to the science of "seeking to find the real geological event underlying a myth or legend to which it has given rise" (Palmer, 2020).
Inadequacies in Mythological Congruence with Reality
The subjective nature of interpretation within mythology points towards a major pitfall vis-à-vis an undisputed reliance to understand the history of ideas is the subjective nature of its interpretation. Mythology has proven to be extremely susceptible to personal bias, especially since most interpretations tend to be from a unilateral perspective. This is exceptionally prevalent in the theme of scapegoating, across Myths. Studied extensively by French historian Rene Girard (1989), who believed that most Myths assured that scapegoats are not recognized as their true self, by distorting the story of the events that led to their death. This is accomplished by telling the story from the perspective of the scapegoats, rather than the victim of the same. Myths will usually tell a story of someone doing a terrible thing and, thus, deserving to be punished. The victim’s perspective will never be incorporated into the Myth, precisely because this would spoil the psychological effect of the scapegoating mechanism. The victim will always be portrayed as a culprit whose deeds brought about social chaos, but whose death or expulsion brought about social peace. A recurring example in Girard’s works to prove his case has been the Myth of Oedipus. According to the Myth, Oedipus was expelled from Thebes for having murdered his father and married his mother. However, the way Girard perceives it, the Myth should be read as a chronicle written by a community that chose a scapegoat, blamed him of some crime, punished him, and once expelled, lived under a semblance of peace that was correlated with his expulsion. Under Girard’s interpretation, “the fact that there was a pest in Thebes is suggestive of a social crisis. To solve the crisis, Oedipus is selected as a scapegoat. However, he is never presented as such: quite the contrary, he is accused of parricide and incest, and this justifies his persecution.” (Andrade, 2020). Thus, Oedipus’ perspective as a victim is suppressed from the retelling of the Myth. A similar analogy finds itself within the story of Medusa. Popular interpretations centre on the Heroic tale of Perseus, the son of Zeus who slew the monstrous Gorgon that is Medusa. However, this version of the Myth exists solely to disavow the cruelty of the gods. It fails to take into account, Medusa’s perspective, the latter of which tells us the story of a woman raped by Poseidon, and left at the mercy of Athena, who turned her into a loathed abomination as means of protection from further harm. The glorification of Medusa’s untimely ‘assassination’ is also an indicator of the same. In the words of the German philosopher, Markus Gabriel, “The world creates images of itself in the activity of our creation of images of the world” (Gabriel & Žižek, 2010).
The Dynamic nature of myths highlight yet another contradiction its wedlock with reality. Myths evolve at pace with society. It is worth noting that the earliest forms of Myths were culturally transmitted via an oral medium. The process of writing down Myths began much later, in history, indicating that even the oldest of verbal Myths are a bi-product of oral metamorphosis. Girard’s study of violence in Myths characterises mythical evolution with the dissimulation of violence against the scapegoat to avoid feeling compassion for the victim. He considers the possibility that the evolution of a Myth may even reach a point wherein the violence is eliminated to its entirety. Girard insists that all Myths are founded upon violence, and if no violence is found in a Myth, it must be because the community made it disappear (Andrade, 2020).
Is Myth merely a social construct?
Taking into account, the epistemological scope of Myth, and the immense work and effort that has gone into the field of Mythology over centuries, it would be nothing short of blissful ignorance to suggest that Myth is completely divorced from reality. The cross-disciplinary study between logos and Mythos is of the utmost importance to cognize and comprehend social communications and mediated culture. As brought into light previously, the purpose of a Myth is to explain seemingly unexplainable phenomena. In the words of the renowned British Folklorist Sir G.L. Gomme, “Myths explain matters in the science of a pre-scientific age” (Gomme, 1892).
Myth is not a simple reality; the study of which ought not to be taken at face value in the socio-anthropological discourse. The concept of Foundation and Origin Myths rose from the need to derive logic from the depths of occurrences. The story woven around the phenomenon was accepted as a fait accompli. This insinuates that while Myths may have been a construction of mankind, their foundation, with its ground held in pursuit of rationale and logic, crosses into the realm of reality as we know it.
Parvathi is a second-year student at the Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts. She is currently pursuing a double major in Political Science and Philosophy with a minor in Biology.
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