Monday, February 27, 2006
It is curious to me that so many people visit this site (over 10,000 a week now) with an assumption that they know what myth is and what it is about and therefore that they understand the purpose behind this site. Like many words that we use so casually in daily life, we don’t stop often enough to examine our preconceptions about what that word actually means or whether or not we are accepting a superficial understanding of the word. Deeper contemplation brings out a richness of meaning and potentiality.
Early on, I attempted to write the “what is myth” blog but I was never completely satisfied with my attempts. Part of that had to do with my own evolving understanding of the potency of the myth and image, and the essential poetic nature of mind itself which always seems to imagine itself as part of a story. Take story away from humans, and there is no humanity.
Yet, no word seems as loaded with misconceptions and misuse as the word myth. It’s most common usage in everyday life is as a synonym for lie or falsehood. It shows up constantly in the popular press, the myth of this and the myth of that, implying the falsehood of a situation. When I speak to what I call a "mythically secular audience", which is mostly everyone, the first answer I typically get to the question, “what is myth” is that myth is a falsehood.
That idea comes to us from Plato himself, who divided the realm of thinking into mythos and logos. The mythic or muthos had, according to Plato in the Republic, an element of falseness (pseudos) to it. But that idea of falsehood, according to Penelope Murray in her essay in a great collection of essays, From Myth to Reason, is not so much about whether something happened or not, whether it was factual. Rather, writes Murray, it is whether the myth is overly contaminated by a poetic license that does not accurately represent the truth of nature of things. Plato felt strongly that the poets must be controlled in a society. He had no problem with falsehood of a muthos per se if that muthos gave instruction as to how one is to live an orderly life and the myth served a purpose for society (for instance the myth of Athenians that they all came from the seed of Hephaistos is useful to the city of Athens).
The second answer I get is that myth is about the old gods and goddesses; that it is in fact the stories of primitive religions. Therefore we can talk about the myths of the Greeks and in fact enjoy the richness of their stories because they are part of long-dead religions that have been replaced by a superior monotheistic myth. Or, we can look at African or Hindu, or Native American myths as evidence of a more primitive mentality that must (and will) evolve to something more enlightened as the West educates, colonalizes and assimilates the world into a global culture.
It is perfectly fine to speak of the myths of Aphrodite or Apollo. It is also legitimate to call the stories of Oshun and Yemenya or Shiva, or Changing Woman, myths because they are the stories of other, less enlightened people. “Nymphs and stuff” are fine to point at as myths, but believe me; you will get crucified if you talk about the myths of Jesus and Mary. Or yet worse, just mention the myths of science and philosophy and see how people react.
This is because thinking in the West has long been divided and polarized between what is myth (muthos) and what is logic (logos). Glenn Most defines this polarity in his essay, “From Logos to Mythos,” also published in From Myth to Reason:
Mythos: a traditional, narrative, anthropocentric view of the structure and meaning of things.
Logos: a more progressive, logical, mechanical kind of account.
The idea of a progressive movement of thought from mythos to logos is one of the central, implicit beliefs of Western culture. Mythical thinking represents a more primitive idea, less conscious, less evolved. While the rationality of logos illustrates the superiority of a culture. These two contradictory ways of thinking are represented by a German scholar Wilhelm Nestle’s influential yet superficial analysis of the difference in these two ways of thought which help humans establish meaning in their world. Most quotes Nestle’s 1940’s work:
Mythos and Logos--with these terms we denote the two poles between which man's mental life oscillates. Mythic imagination and logical thought are opposites. The former is imagistic and involuntary, and creates and forms on the basis of the unconscious, while the latter is conceptual and intentional, and analyses and synthesizes by means of consciousness.
This polarization into two ways of thinking, places myth into an unconscious realm, which is obviously inferior because it is not consciously synthesized. This idea takes up the notion that consciousness and unconsciousness are also two polarities, with consciousness taking on the dominant, superior role.
Myth then becomes the primary vehicle of what remains unconscious and dark, primitive and unevolved. As long as we believe that myth and imagination are opposed to and in disagreement with logic, we will continue to discount the importance of myth and remain split in the value of our thoughts. We will also dismiss the importance of the poetic in life, the imaginings that occupy most of our thinking, but which rarely get recognized.
But, I don’t experience human thought as a polarity. Human cognition is made up of an ever weaving back and forth of conscious and unconscious experiences. One cannot easily separate them into one field or the other. Mythos and Logos also cannot be separated into specific spheres. There is always a mythos in the logos, a story beneath and behind the logic, an unconscious element in whatever we do and think consciously.
Humans think in poetic images and then form narratives from those structures. Think about the way you dream. The images come first and then the mind organizes them into a narrative structure. That is also how we tell stories. Those narrative structures form the basis of our personal and cultural lenses. There cannot be a single logical thought or scientific idea that does not derive from a poetic image.
Myths are the narrative structures of our poetic images. They are the dreams we weave and unweave at night, recombining them into new narratives. Myths always contain truths, but those truths are not factual, they are fictional and yet true. They are imaginal and they contain great experiences of meaning.
Like dreams, myths don’t really have a temporal structure. They exist outside of the rules of time. That is why a god can father a child on his daughter and that child becomes the god himself. Outside of time, ex –temporal. That existence outside of time is important to the life of the myth because it allows us to rearrange the images that make up the narrative structure into multiple forms. It allows us to poeticize and re-imagine the story. Myths allow us to see the world as a kaleidoscope, rather than a fixed plane of vision.
What is myth? It is the basic narrative structure of human thought. Myth is what drives our cultures and our lives. It is the very ground of our thoughts and our actions. Although it has been trivialized and dismissed in a culture whose insistence is on the factual and the logical, I cannot imagine a topic more important than myth.
posted by Maggie @ 9:02 AM permission to reprint the essays of Maggie Macary has been granted mythopoetry.com by the executor of the estate of Maggie Macary. mythopoetry.com wishes to thank Doug Macary& Martin Macary for their generousity in making her essays available to you.