This was a great “discussion” on email. David and I wanted to capture it on the website. I have tried to find and include all the contributions but, since they were in so many emails I may have missed some. If I missed yours please send me an email and I’ll add it or you can post it as a comment.
Contributions about Myths
At first blush, drawing upon “a myth is like smoke on the water”, Prospero comes to mind with his“We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.”
God, in its many forms, is almost a universal myth that came out of the desert. But it does not seem to have helped humanity over the years. Some years ago there was an article in my college magazine about a professor there who had grown up in a large Catholic family and had studied long years to become a Jesuit priest. But somewhere along the way he lost faith in the myth of God and wrote “All God talk is nonsense.”
Borrowed observations about myths:
Cronus liked to eat babies.
Narcissus probably should have just learned to masturbate.
Odin got construction discounts with bestiality.
Isis had bad taste in jewelry.
Ganesh was the very definition of an unplanned pregnancy.
And Abraham was totally cool about stabbing his kid in the face.
• Zeus once stuffed an unborn fetus inside his thigh to save its life after he exploded its mother by being too good in bed.
• The entire Egyptian universe was saved because Sekhmet just got too hammered to keep murdering everyone.
• The Hindu universe is run by a married couple who only stop murdering in order to throw sweet dance parties…on the corpses of their enemies.
• The Norse goddess Freyja once consented to a four-dwarf gangbang in exchange for one shiny necklace.
I was living in Floyd County, Kentucky, poor country, lots of strip mines. On appropriate occasions the women of the “holler” would make a patchwork quilt, a mosaic. Each woman made her own patch, yet they all fit together into something beautiful. They were hung on walls; spread proudly on beds. They were always appreciated. No one ever asked what they meant.
Our myth is the story we tell ourselves about who we are, because the science of who we are is too hard. This definition has found a surprising application in technological psychiatry: http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/cpb.1998.1.169
And Richard’s definition appears to leave a lot of room for myth making in our contemporary society:
- AMYTH IS A STORY TOLD ORIGINALLY BY ONE STORYTELLER. SOMEBODY CREATES THE STORY FOR THE FIRST TIME. NOBODY CAN REMEMBER WHO.
- AMYTH IS LIKE SMOKE ON THE WATER.
- AMYTH IS A STORY RECITED ORALLY FOR COMMON FOLK TO ENJOY AURALLY.
- AMYTH IS TOLD BY A TELLER WHO WILL FEEL COMPELLED BY ARTISTIC SELF-RESPECT TO ALTER THE WORDING OF THE STORY (HOWEVER SLIGHTLY) EVERYTIME IT IS TOLD. EVEN THE SAME AUDIENCE WOULD NOT KNOW THE DIFFERENCE OR CARE ABOUT ACCURACY.
A myth is a story which will not go away.
Myths can also be convenient stories about inconvenient truths, to paraphrase Richard Smaby’s offering. Those who continue of espouse the myth of America’s exceptionalism need to sit down in a darkened room in front of a glowing fireplace with a nice glass of warm port and listen to some of the gorgeous music that you folks have suggested, followed by John Lennon’s “Imagine”. A myth I would wish to be told at some future time is that that really happened and from that day forward the change in our national and international behavior soothed the tension all across the earth. Then, of course, there would be those who would argue that America’s exceptionalism really exists and has thus been proven. But the music, the fire and the port would still be a lovely experience.
I do have to wonder, though, what would happen in a room full world leaders each banging away on his/her own timpani . . . .
A myth is an ancient story that is at once science, history, literature and entertainment.
If the myths are of African, Native American, or Aboriginal origins, they are considered primitive and are largely unknown outside those cultures. If the myths are of Greek or Roman origin, they are considered to be classical and of continuing importance because they have been alluded to by artists throughout Western history.
As the demographics of America change, particularly over the next 30 years when Caucasians will eventually represent less than 50% of America’s population, one of the burning questions will be why our educational system favors studying one set of primitive beliefs over all others.
A myth is a pre-literate lie created to tell truths about our world and the people in it.
Myths seem to have a beginning, but no ending. They can help us through difficult times and just as easily lead us astray. They can cloud our minds and motivate vicious behavior. They can hide the truth and hurt whole societies. They can entertain and lead us toward thoughtful discussions. It’s hard to imagine what else can have so many varied qualities.
“Myths are stories that express meaning, morality or motivation. Whether they are true or not is irrelevant.” (Michael Shermer) According to his website, he is “. . . [the] founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, columnist for Scientific American, and Adjunct Professor of Economics at Claremont Graduate University.”
“Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.” (Joseph Campbell) A Wikipedia article describes Campbell as “. . . an American mythologist, writer and lecturer, best known for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion. His work is vast, covering many aspects of the human experience. His philosophy is often summarized by his phrase: ‘Follow your bliss.’”
How do we deal with the profusion of myth-information? For every positive statement about myths there’s a negative one to refute it or at least to encourage a roaring debate about the stories we tell ourselves. For example the other night when I was just dropping off the edge, my wife Susan woke me and read the following: “Joseph Campbell”, who interpreted myths through Jungian psychological symbolism, “said all the problems that we are experiencing–economic disparity, ecological meltdown, crime, alienation, atomization, war, starvation–are the result of our having no communal myth. A story that unites us, defines us, in relationship to ourselves, other people, and nature. Campbell says the myths we do have are antiquated and irrelevant ‘desert myths.'” She read from Russell Brand’s recent 2014 publication Revolution (p.29). No myth-taking,I trekked through a desert of dreams that night, then awoke, worn out from myth meandering.
What is a Myth?
Humans from many different societies, cultures, and backgrounds always seem to have a fascination with questions such as:
Where did we come from?
Where do we go, or what happens to us, after we die?
Is there any meaning or purpose to our existence?
Are there certain ways to behave, particularly in terms of how we interact with others, that are preferable to other ways? Are some of these preferences so strong that particular behaviors should be prescribed, and violations against these prescriptions sanctioned? How do I decide which behaviors should be prescribed (“good behaviors”) and which should be sanctioned (“bad behaviors”). Why do others sometimes engage in “bad behaviors”? Why do I sometimes engage in “bad behaviors”? What can I do to increase the probability that myself and/or others will engage in more “good behaviors” and fewer “bad behaviors”.
Why do “bad” (sometimes even horrific) things happen to “good people” (people who engage in “good behaviors”) and even to innocents such as babies, while at the same time “good” things happen to “bad people”?
Humans from many societies have formulated narrative stories (Myths) that are used to provide answers to these kinds of questions. For example, almost all cultures have one or more “Creation Myths” that are meant to provide the answer to, Where did we come from?
The varieties of formulations of the Orpheus Myth clearly relate to questions about what happens after death, possible relationships between the realms of life and death, and about how the fact that some of those who we love are going to die should influence our values during life (as related in music, poetry, arts in general, love).
Myths that have been discovered from societies of humans that have been geographically and/or historically isolated from one another are often found to have many similarities, or at least overlapping elements. The most thoroughly developed psychological theory to account for these commonalities is Carl Jung’s Psychoanalytic Theory which proposes that the similarities arise due to the fact that all humans share a Collective Unconscious.
In modern times, Evolutionary Psychology and Neuroscience have provided an, arguably, plausible biological explanation of Jung’s concept of the Collective Unconscious. All humans share a common ancestral history that has molded our brain circuits to provide us with behaviors that are adaptive to survival. The basic argument would be that there are certain ways of thinking (creating Myths) that are easily generated by the brain circuits found in all humans because these ways of thinking have been adaptive to our survival. As far as we know, no other species currently present on the planet has brain circuits that work similarly to ours in terms of creating Myths. (There is some indirect evidence that Neanderthals, with whom Homo Sapiens inter-mated, probably had some similar traits.).
However, I don’t think this scientific finding that our brains have a propensity to generate Myths tells us anything about whether or not the Myths themselves are true or false. Some individuals (who I would characterize as “know-it-alls”) have very strong opinions and beliefs about which Myths are true and which are false. I am content to let them Duke-it-out to their heart’s content, but participating in that does not have much appeal for me, and furthermore I don’t even think the question of which Myths are “true” and which are “false” is a very important question. The important question for me personally is more along the lines proposed by many Existential Philosophers: Which Myths do I find personally meaningful as I try to negotiate through life and confront questions of the type delineated above?