In dealing with some of the early chapters of Genesis, I’ve been writing about myths. Nowadays, the word ‘myth’ is often applied to statements, or claims, that are thought (and /or said) to be untrue. Recently, some people said it was a ‘myth’ that, during the pandemic lockdown, boozy parties were held in 10 Downing St. To anyone interested in the original meaning of myth, I’d recommend pages 3-10 (The Functions of Mythology), in “Pathways to Bliss : Mythology and Personal Transformations”, by Joseph Campbell, (New World Library). You’ll find there, a helpful outline of four fundamental raisons-d’être of myth.
In this brief post, let me just say that, in the beginning, myths were particular kinds of stories – ones that dealt with gods, goddesses and other supernatural beings; their relationships with one another and with human beings; and their impact on us and on our world. They weren’t the work of identifiable individuals, but arose and evolved as creations of the collective human imagination. They therefore tell us about ourselves, and our shared human situation, whatever time or place we live in. In addition, therefore, to a local application, they have a universal significance, dealing with such matters as life and death, transience and immortality, love and hate, peace and war, power structures, the world of nature etc.
They’re to be distinguished from legends and sagas, which may well have a distant, now lost, historical origin. Possibly there was a King Arthur, but what we actually ‘know’ about him is negligible. Similarly, folktales are stories chiefly told for entertainment, which can suggest a simple lesson or ‘moral’. They often include magical beings and happenings, but in a manifestly playful context.
What we’re inclined to forget, or to ignore, is that myths were originally part and parcel of religious thinking, and so we have innumerable, world-wide creation and flood stories, gods coming down to earth and humans going up to heaven, angels and demons, virgin mothers and dying and rising gods and so on. Different peoples evolved their own versions of that common stock of basic imagery, which purported to explain their ‘sacred’ origins, and the hallowed nature of their social structures, values and laws. They gave people a sense of meaning, of belonging to one another, and of the legitimacy (in their view) of their religious and political leaders.
My personal opinion, for which I make no claim of its being ‘the one and only right one’, and which I share with, but would never force on, others, is that religion is at its most meaningful and helpful when it, and its sacred books, are read through the lens of myth, symbol, picture and metaphor, with putative ‘historical’ or ‘factual’ indications regarded, chiefly, as either outer frameworks providing shape, or inner mechanisms aiding coherence. The vital and enriching questions are not, did it happen in human history, but does it happen in human experience.
To me, a problem of long standing in our world is that many people regard their own religions as fact, but the religions of others as myth, a recipe, as we know to our cost, for division, suspicion, dislike, fear, hatred and violence. I take the view that religion is about that which is transcendent, which is out-with our human dimensions of time and space. It can only be intuited, or experienced, in meditation perhaps, or in contemplation of great music, art or literature (including the Bible), or in meaningful moments of sudden illumination and awareness, personal and inter-personal, in solitude or in the midst of the ‘natural’ world.
It cannot, literally, be described in terms borrowed from our everyday ‘reality’. Any such terms can only be ‘likenesses’. The Buddha, instead of preaching, once held up a flower – why? Because it’s possible for awareness of a flower to ‘open out’ into an awareness that’s all-inclusive in the fullest sense, but which is beyond the reach of any words. It is, as an old saying puts it, better felt than tell’t. But that familiar friend-cum-enemy, space, begins to run out. There is more I feel the need to write, but it must wait until next time …