Mythology – What Purpose Do Myths Serve in Society and Culture?

Joseph Campbell once recalled a radio interview in which the host dismissed myths as lies. Campbell argued with him, trying to persuade him that myths were more like metaphors that guided and comforted people, giving them a sense of connection and belonging. But the man insisted that no, they were lies. And this view is widespread, even among academics. Many will even contrast myth with science, claiming that the second has liberated us from the first: mythology is irrational and primitive, science rational and progressive. Such a narrow, unimaginative attitude is regrettable. Human beings are myth-making creatures whose mental health suffers when this is denied.

What Is a Myth?

At the simplest level, a myth is an attempt to make sense of things. Human beings find themselves in a strange, dangerous world over which they have very little control. They wish to know what that multicoloured arc is in the sky, why the ground sometimes moves and shakes, why mountains spew hot liquid, and so on. Most of all, they wish to understand why there is something rather than nothing. Where did this strange world come from? Myths are stories that explain such things.

But myth involves a great deal more. In a sense, it cannot be escaped. The great mythic stories are being acted out all the time. Freud, for example, even named his most important theory after a mythic character. Every little boy, according to Freud, goes through a stage in which he loves his mother intensely and wishes to possess her for himself. In turn, he resents his father and longs to remove him altogether – even fantasising about his murder. The Ancient Greek dramatist Sophocles wrote a play about the mythic figure Oedipus, who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. According to Freud, every small boy unconsciously re-enacts this mythic drama! Biographers often remark on the way great historical figures seem to live out a myth. Take Oscar Wilde, for example, whose success, hubris and fall in itself resembled a Greek tragedy. He begins life as a shy Irish boy, becomes a brilliant student at Oxford University, gains a reputation as a dazzling conversationalist, writes plays that captivate the London theatre, becomes involved in scandal, refuses to flee England, is arrested, tried, imprisoned, and humiliated.

The Loss of Meaning

The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung once said that he was astonished by the amount of suffering human beings could endure. They only give up, he added, when they feel that such suffering lacks meaning. Of course, Jung was basing these observations on the European and American patients he had treated. In a sense, they were casualties of the modern world. For 2,000 years, Christianity had been at the centre of European life, forming what Post-Modernists call a ‘Grand Narrative’. With the birth of modern science in 17th century France, England and Holland, people had begun to question these beliefs. By the late 19th century, this loss of faith was reaching a crisis point. And the sense of nihilistic despair it led to is reflected in European literature. In 1859, Darwin had published his Origin of Species, and in 1867, perhaps with this work in mind, the English poet Matthew Arnold wrote a poem titled Dover Beach in which he compared the ebbing tide to “the sea of faith” which was “once, too, at the full” but now, Arnold writes, “I only hear/ Its melancholy, long withdrawing roar.” In the 20th century, Yeats wrote that “the centre cannot hold”, while T. S. Eliot described Europe as a spiritual ‘waste land’. And countless other 20th century writers, from Sartre and Camus to Hermann Hesse and Aldous Huxley, made this loss of faith the central concern of their works. The devastating effect such a loss can have is perfectly captured in the writings of Philip Larkin, whose poems record the depression, emptiness and despair that follows.

How Can Myth Help?

Closely related to the loss of faith has been the rise of individualism. People are ‘ego-conscious’ or ‘ego-centred’ like never before. And yet, the idea of a unique individual, with his own distinctive inner life, is a relatively modern one. In 13th century Europe, for example, the Catholic Church dominated everyday life, giving people a sense of meaning and purpose. At the same time, they identified more with a particular role (as a peasant, for example, or a knight) than with an egoic self. Today, the opposite is true: people have lost a sense of faith while at the same time they feel more isolated and cut-off than ever before.

Every group has its myths, from a simple African tribe to a modern nation state. The USA is a good example. America’s great myth is that of the ‘West’, meaning not only an actual place but a sense of freedom and rebirth. If things get bad, you can simply take off for the horizon. Over time, certain figures come to embody this myth: the cowboy, for example, or the rootless, train-jumping hobo of the Great Depression. When identified with such myths, the individual can escape a sense of isolation and connect with those who share his identity. In other words, his little ego is swallowed up by the myth.

The greatest American novels, like Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby, play with this myth. Huck sets off down the Mississippi on a raft and then, at the end, sets out for the west because he is so tired of ‘civilization.’ Fitzgerald’s novel is more critical of the myth, exposing the hollowness of it all. Jay Gatsby rejects his poor farmer parents and attempts to reinvent himself, posing as an English gentleman, an Oxford graduate who wears a cricket sweater and addresses people as “old sport.” But his attempt fails. The rich hate and reject him, leading ultimately to his death. When American schoolchildren read and absorb such novels, they are discovering who they are, just as the young in an Amazonian tribe must learn the mythic origins and legends of their people.

Some novelists have tried to capture the mythic quality of ordinary life. Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, demonstrates how a single, uneventful day in the life of an ordinary, unremarkable man, is itself grand and mythic. The novel draws a parallel between the actions of Leopold Bloom, a middle-aged salesman from Dublin, and the adventures of Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s great mythic poem. Though the novel is itself a comedy, Joyce’s point is that even the most ordinary of days in the most ordinary of lives has mythic resonance.

Myth bestows meaning. It teaches people who they are and where they belong. Above all, it frees them from a sense of meaningless isolation.

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