What is a myth?
The word "sunrise," like the word myth, gives meaning to human perception, even though we know that the sun does not literally flame upward into the sky each morning from below the eastern horizon. Yet the myth says that each new day the chariot of Phoebus is bore aloft, pulled by winged horses snorting fire from their nostrils, their hoofs cutting through the clouds. Like the concept "sunrise," myths transcend actuality and therein help us systematize the mysterious and profound.
And like dreams they create order and an extraordinary living truth about the culture that creates them. Myths give physical shape to human consciousness, experience, and belief. Myths tell us what's important to know and therefore are charged with a special seriousness. Stories / plot / mythos: these are the narrative shadows in the cave.
On the street, people commonly refer to a myth as a story or belief that is not wholly true. They say, "That's a myth." However, myth refers to mythos, a story or plot that provides structure and order within a society. Throughout antiquity until this very moment, we continue to inhabit stories in order to find reliable ways of living. This is the context of mythology--the study of myth--in the humanities.
Do you believe that Athena was literally born out of the head of her father Zeus? Some people may insist on reading the story in a factual way, thus giving dimensions of the fantastic to the gods. Yet, the story of her extraordinary birth is also the story of wisdom--metis--usurped by the
devouring, patriarchal father(Goya). The politics of human interaction, the reaches of homo sapiens behavior--stories of men, women, and marriage vows kept and broken--tell us about how we treat each other. In mythology, stories are sometimes best understood as allegory, particularly at the level of culture, giving structure to humanity and civility, helping us imagine something spiritual beyond the basics of human survival--food, sex, love, and war. Myths do more than provide lessons and entertainment. Myths function at the level of the heart, and at the level of structure in the realm of omniscience, transcendent of things carnal. Myths are stories that evoke archetypes: the hero, the prophet, and the poet. In the ancient world and in contemporary cultures, mythology is poetry, politics, religion, culture, and more; mythology encases the human vessel. Therefore, the stories / myths are never false because they embody truth.
1. Myths are sometimes theatrical in the West. For instance, Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" expresses the vision of the philosopher, and helps us recognize the mind of the bard, the prophet, the priest, and the hero/ warrior. The story tells of the hero's relationship to divine knowledge--the cosmos--and suggests the significance of destiny as an intermediate between gods, women, and men.
2. Other stories tell us about our relationships with the natural world, giving shape to the unfathomable and overwhelming forces in nature.
3. And stories help us define humanity so that we may discover and develop a potential for civility during times of callousness and war.
Homo Sapiens seek to control and have power over all aspects of life on this planet. Myths tell us how that power and control can be won or lost. The quest for significance and order is the foundation of human culture. Myths make the world coherent. The topic of human organization begins with mythology or, at least, we can begin by asking if the very nature of human taxonomy originates in mythic stories. In Genesis, Lord God asks Adam to participate in the naming of the creatures, an ancient precursor to Linnaeus (1707 - 1778) who developed Binomial Nomenclature. Mythology like science evokes organization, in mulitiple ways. For instance, consider the number three as a mythic number, a triad, a number present throughout time as a cognitive formula of the human endeavor. Joseph Cambell says that the male heroic quest itself involves three parts: departure, fulfillment, and return. We see this in Homer's Odyssey and the earlier Sumerian/Mesopotamian literature as depicted in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Narratives themselves have a beginning, middle, and end. The Holy Trinity in Catholicism, the three branches of American government, down to the three blind mice and strikes in baseball, our systems tend to demonstrate our fascination with mythic human organization. Historians divide history conveniently into three epochs: ancient, medieval, and Modern. And Western thought is initially categorized as Hebrew, Greek, and Roman. The workings of the number three give shape to human life and civilization. FBI, CIA, USA, WSU, AT and T, MSN, IRS, and man, woman, and child, mind, body, and spirit, id, ego, and superego and the THREE AGES OF HOMER--it seems as if the whole process of becoming civilized and acquiring instruction in the nature of life utilizes the triad.
So in keeping with this MYTHIC tradition, I divide the study of myth into the three following categories: 1) myths tell us about our relationships with each other; 2) myths tell us about our relations with the natural world; and 3) myths tell us about our relationship with the cosmos, god or gods.
The narrator is the self. The very first story is a personal narrative.