Fiction. A story that is not true. A false explanation of something. Mere entertainment. Ancient.
Such are just a few of the words students from my “Chronicles of Narnia” class used to describe their understanding of the word “myth.” This differed little from the words students used when asked their definition/understanding of myth the previous fall semester. I expected this, for myth has no place in our modern culture except in our works of fiction.
Or maybe as a synonym for “lie.”
The Myth of Autism. The Myth of America’s Decline. The Myth of Innovation. The Calorie Myth. The Charisma Myth. The Great Cholesterol Myth. Just six book titles in the top twenty when I entered “the myth of” into amazon.com’s search. Put the word “myth” in your title and you’ve got something. Why? Because the term “myth” intrigues us, touches in us something primal, curious. Ironic since most of us take it to mean “lie,” exactly what such book titles imply.
So what then is truth? History? Reality? Non-fiction?
As opposed to myth, fantasy, fiction?
In a recent search for literary agents, I found the most sought after works are works of fantasy, a genre of fiction of course, many (if not most) making ample use of myth. Why if myth means lie? Because myth touches something deep inside us, resonates with us, moves us in ways “history,” “reality,” and “non-fiction” cannot.
But does myth really mean lie?
No, not at all. Derived from the Greek mythos, myth simply means “story.”
Ah! Maybe you nod your head, maybe now you get an inkling of why myth moves us. Why? Because we tell stories. I pose to my classes a simple question: If your mother asks you what you did over the weekend, are you going to tell her what you might tell your friends? Maybe, maybe not. Probably not, say, if you did something you know she would not approve of. Maybe you’ll just tell her you hung out with some friends. That might be true. But what you didn’t tell her–and what you told others–is that you did go out with your friends and got a tattoo. Simple example, sure. But what we have here in both cases is a story. By all intents and purposes the “facts” in both stories are true. What has one done? One has told a story. We are always telling stories, no matter how “factual” our account may or may not be, or to the degree to which those details are divulged. In addition to being our own storytellers, we are our own editors as well.
Same goes for our history books, same goes for our media–our supposed objective, fact-relaying news outlets. Stories, stories, nothing but stories.
Our word “fiction” is derived from the Latin fingere, meaning “to shape, form, devise,” itself derived from the Proto-Indo-European dheigh, meaning “to build, form, knead.” What do we do when we story, when we talk about anything? We give shape, form to ideas, our lives. Our lives are fictions. Our lives are myths. Moreover, there was no linguistic opposite to the Latin origin of “fiction.” That is to say, no such thing as non-fingere, no such thing as “non-fiction.” Without fingere, without fiction, we could not even shape the idea we describe through the use of words.
Truth, reality, non-fiction, history–they are all myths.
So what is mythology? Mythologies are networks, webs. Myths and mythologies are the stories a people told to give shape to their worldview, their cosmovision–myths make concrete what is abstract. Myths are a given culture’s truth about the world in which they live. In other words, myths are “true.” Myths are truth.
What, then are the myths we (speaking as an American) live by? How do we define our “truth?” The two that come to the forefront of my mind are science and progress. Such, in my understanding, are modern globalizing society’s root metaphors, governing how we see the world, ourselves in the world, and how we relate to that world. Now I do not want to open that whole can of worms at this point–maybe in a later post–but suffice it to say, we might ask ourselves, if we think about the current state of our world, whether or not these myths are healthy for ourselves and our planet.
But I digress…What does all this mean for me? For you? For ourselves as people living on this planet as best we can?
How often do we think of our lives as a sequence of events, some minor, some major? When I define my life by my “history,” by a sequence of “facts?” Sounds pretty boring to me.
But what happens when I see my life as a myth? All of a sudden it has characters (“I” just being one of the many), it has plot, it has conflict, resolution, more conflict, more characters…Soon I may see “my” life transcends time, transcends space. Doesn’t that sound a lot like myth? Isn’t our modern fascination with these ancient stories, these myths, due, in part, to their ability to transcend time and space?
This is what people like Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and James Hillman wanted to teach us–that are lives are myths and in their own ways, each said that our neuroses, our sufferings, our feelings of meaninglessness are symptomatic of our inability to see our lives as mythic. Our lives are stories, not a sequence of facts.
So what is the human race comprised of?