Home The Significance of Myth

The overly rational human being has lost her dreams – she has lost her myth. Or has she? It's about time we sort things out in the old tradition of tales and myths, its meaning and function, and where rationalism really leads us.

The concept of myth here is not used according to the popular, modern definition, which usually describes it as "a false story," a lie, or an incorrect stereotype. In theological contexts, 'myth' is rather defined as a divine event concerning the creation and destiny of the world, the occurrence of man and the order of society, and so on. Myth is never bound by time or space – which connects it to human dreams – and its attributes are symbols and similes, which demand interpretation.

The word 'myth' has, appropriately enough, been used in its modern form since the end of the 18th century, i.e. a time when rationalism and secularisation had made themselves felt in Christian Europe. The rationalism during Euhemerus' 4th century BCE explained how the worship of gods comes to be when historical kings have become placed on a pedestal to such a degree that they are seen as beings of divine descent. This rationalist account on how religion has a strictly historical origin, took place during an age when Greek philosophers already had begun "secularising" and rationalising the culture of the Greek archipelago. The collapse of ancient Greece was soon a fact.

A more intelligent interpretation of the origin of myths discusses the strong connection between the derivation, structure and design of myths on the one hand, and man's unconscious mind on the other; our collective consciousness, which rules much of our predestined biology, creates our myths and tales, as a template for getting the best out of a people's potential. Narration occurs when man tries to comprehend the universe and its creation. Such behaviour may have an evolutionary origin, which only let societies that gathered around a long-term objective with descriptive myth to survive.

Modern man, however, has immense troubles relating to the mythic. Certainly, she doesn't deny that more than what is purely rational exists – she even admits how difficult it is to understand "the other" – but her thoughts make great distances between us and the archaic "aid", which we nowadays know as myth or tale. The acknowledgement mentioned has a double-edged attitude: one half of man sniffs with some contempt at what appears to have no function (thus we seem to deny a function to a need we ignore), while the other half (perhaps more unconsciously) at least respects it. But how much is pure ignorance? How much is apathy? How much is fear? If some people so obviously are seekers, but nothing happens, are they then completely indifferent to their destiny? Perhaps it is only a trend, where spiritually disoriented people no longer have any secure foundation on which to stand, and therefore don't know where to move or what to do.

Now, it turns out that much in society has a clear mythical structure after all. Besides, an uncertainty is uncovered regarding the question of what myth really is; not until modern people get questioned regarding the possibility of one or the other phenomenon in today's society being linked to myth, they become aware of the possibility just mentioned, and sometimes fully confirm it. Ironically enough, this is occasionally most characteristic to myth; it is so collectively widespread and common, such a natural part of society, that it because of this never gets regarded as such. The same irony clarifies how it is not until we rationalistically review and examine the patterns, that we learn about how it really is a matter of myth. Before that, we don't even know about the concept itself; in the same way that indigenous peoples don't have a word for 'work' – since what we consider to be work is just yet another of many natural actions in their everyday life – or don't have a word for 'nature' – since they feel they are an undisputed part of it – there is hardly ever a clearly defined word for 'myth' for a people who lives according to one. Because we still have myths to this day.

A particularly natural and unaware (?) symbolism characteristic of its time which has arisen in modern man is the one we see mainly at the end of the thrilling movies of pop culture of today. A most commonly occurring and clichιd scene shows how the hero in the movie is placed to deactivate a bomb of some sort, or must hinder an accelerating train or bus low on brake fluid or some other random heavy collective vehicle from rushing down the chasm a few miles away. Of course, at the very last moment our hero manages the astounding achievement of preventing a catastrophe. A millisecond before the explosive charge detonates and blows the globe to smithereens he enters the correct combination. Without much more than a millimetre of space left, he manages to get the truck with all the schoolchildren in it to stop right at the edge of the deadly precipice.

So, what does all this mean? Modern man unconsciously senses how her civilisation is on the verge of a breakdown, at the same time as it accelerates with its more and more effective technology down towards the chasm. Our Earth – our world as we know it – is at ever increasing speed on its way of decaying from inside because of overpopulation, egoism of the individual, pollution etc. – all the "dark" sides of the world, which cause anguish at the back of the head of every soul. It also causes a myth. This myth is an expression of modern man's need of a hero, who saves civilisation from collapse and ruin. The accelerating train symbolises our society as a whole, with panicking passengers, who in their wishful thinking sees an unafraid and competent individual do the right things at the right time in order to "save" humanity. The same goes for the symbolism of the ticking bomb in which our hero just before the ultimate collapse saves us.

This could seem like an over-the-top advanced metaphor, which doesn't occur without thoroughly thought-through material. But, as Jung and others have shown, our unconscious easily produces examples of sophisticated symbolism just by engaging inherent needs, feelings and archetypes, more focused and honest than the labyrinthine trains of thought which constitute our purely rational conceptions. Here, however, we only discuss a pop culture phenomenon; there are of course similar symbols (or at least metaphors) "deliberately" applied in different forms of art today. But the "at the last moment" symbolism seems to be an outlet typical of the domains of the unconscious, and seems to appear mainly in the area of pop culture.

An interesting comparison between olden times and modern days is the essence in old and new tales, what distinguishes their essential contents from each other. The purpose of the old folktale has among other things been to, through metaphors and symbols, serve as a guide for an ideal, deeply rooted in former societies' functions. "Cinderella" was about the development of the inner self, and the endeavour towards higher ideals (a sort of "refinement ritual"). These old narrations are of course still with us to a point, and are still very popular among many (in different guises, however, harking back to what consumerism can cause a culture of folktales), but the new production of tales, which modern man reads to her children, seems to have a completely different purpose and a very different way of expressing itself.

When it comes to books for the youngest, the "tales" take up a sort of simple theoretical practice; books that teach the child to see the difference between a cow and a dog, or books in which the child learns how to pronounce the names which our culture has given these animals, and start getting used to how every object has a specific name, belongs to a particular category (or several), has a definite behaviour, and that it besides all this is firmly connected to a system where our spoken language is transformed into abstract characters, something which hardly belonged to the oral tradition of the old folktales, where only imagination set the limits of the interpretation of the similes of the tale.

For children a little older, there are books with actual narrations, with a definite course of events. In some cases we find morals, mostly about contemporary situations in the lives of young people, with admonitions on how young people should behave. Symbols and metaphors – in the way we know them from folktales – occur very seldom. The fear of the dark, which by the child through a modern tale shall be overcome, occurs in a few cases, but the more complex guides are perhaps only meant for the folktales rooted in older myths that has developed during a long period of time. While the old men and women of the past had ancient traditions – with their eternal truths shaped by many lifetimes of "Versuch und Irrtum" – to lean against when they formulated their narrations, contemporary children's authors don't have much more than our individualist morality to refer to, and so adapt their stories to what many present-day adults are adapted to: the serviceable citizen in everyday bargaining. What this lack of symbolic tales, which speak to the development of the soul, has meant for the modern psyche, is often manifested in tragic newspaper headlines.

Remarkably enough, these children's tales are perhaps the only opportunity for certain adults, in their capacity as children's authors, to discover the world anew. One peels off the modern world's superficial attributes, deconstructs the world into the most fundamental matters, and from there on builds a new myth for children to follow. Therefore, children's books have perhaps become a sort of therapy for adults, rather than a guiding principle for children, especially since children's authors don't seem to keep away from spicing up their stories with puns, symbols and irony that belong to the world of grownups, and that an inexperienced child cannot translate into its own curious and relatively "conceptless" mind.

These children will soon be adults themselves, and the modest knowledge of myths and tales many of them believe they have by then, rarely comes from other sources than the full-length films by Walt Disney. While many during their childhood delighted in seeing these classic tales as entertaining animated movies, about just as many feel deeply disillusioned when they realize that the only things they really know about some of the myths and tales that are a part of their cultural heritage, is what they've seen in Disney's animated popular versions that more or less are exceedingly distorted compared to the originals. Some feel it to be an insult to the heritage mentioned. Thus, much of childhood has been filled with entertainment, and emptied of much of the original symbolism that extended through earlier generations. One can even sense a form of cultural theft.

The void left by the lack of symbolism is usually filled by Disney with a new and different meaning, often a message or a moral that is entirely unfamiliar to the original, and is instead adjusted to what modern society finds relevant at the moment. So when we compare a Disney movie to the myth or tale which inspired it, we often notice how certain events or attributes, that traditionally were essential to the core of the myth, are removed to make way for others, simply because the former are "outdated," provoking to modern man, or a threat to the myths and symbols of modern civilisation. When we, without consideration for the original, erase some and add some, the essence of the traditional myth diminishes, and when remnants of the old symbols go hand in hand with biased, modern motifs, the observant viewer most probably experiences a culturally absurd product.

So what is the actual problem? We live according to one or several myths, don't regard them as such, and they are consequently a naturally integrated part of society, just like myths should be. What then are we lacking? Why do we still feel the way we do? The problem is most certainly rooted in modern secularisation, where the rational and the spiritual have parted ways, where reason has gained monopoly on the human mind and our perception of the world, while myth has become known as a repressed memory and obsolete superstition. All that is naturally interlaced in a society can usually not be discovered in the form of fragments; one simply has no reason to. Not until the human being thoroughly examines the world "objectively," she will become aware of concepts which describe the classified. And this is what's so typical of the rationalist attitude: everything is separated into isolated parts and are categorised, while the organic whole is generally ignored or "forgotten." Myth is, as said, nevertheless still there; apparently, a human society – despite its rationalism – cannot avoid mythical behaviour. But what we experience and are a part of now is all the same a progressive escape from myth, and this consumes us spiritually because this behaviour is equivalent to fleeing from ones own shadow. Myth remains, but so does the spiritual need; the spiritual satisfaction becomes absent.

Once we now have divided the world into the categories reason on the one hand, and myth on the other, a part of the dilemma is that we do not admit our own worldview to be a form of myth itself, i.e. an interpretation of the world. Therefore, we seem to have been caught in the trap where we view our behaviour as undoubtedly objective, when in fact even our worldview is highly subjective. Therefore, we probably behave in a more fundamentalist way than the believers we demonise. Western Christian dualism may, against its own will, have assisted this development, with its separation between secular relativism and catholic universalism. In many respects, it is still an exceedingly Christian myth that we fulfil, however robed in rationalism and liberalism. In other words, this could simply be what happens to a Christian civilisation on the European continent at the end of its cultural life.

Still, there is an idealism longing for myth. How much one understands of it and how much one is willing to do in order to reintroduce it into society as something essential and recognized, varies between people. After all, there seems to be an underlying current which through subtle expressions wants to create something through myth, in practically every medium. How this develops remains for us all to see.

August 14, 2006

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