Several eminent scholars of the last century once believed that the myth was a higher form of reality, or even a means of examining reality. This view affected their works profoundly, and their understanding of the world. It did not merely affect them, however. It continues to affect many, including myself.
In their view, a myth is like a prism through which to view the light of truth. A myth is a magnified, diffracted part of reality. In my experience, this is the most precise definition and the most satisfying way of understanding myth.
But how do we typically define “myth?” Often as fanciful fabrications that have little or no bearing on reality. The Greek myths are just entertaining stories. The Norse myths are just good tales to tell around a fireside. They’re just for fun.
When we say something is a “myth” we are usually trying to dismiss something out of hand as being obviously untrue or disconnected with reality. But is it?
The etymology of the word is from the Greek word “muthos,” which has a wide variety of possible translations. One of the most literal, and awkward, translations I have found is “authoritative speech act.”
It could refer to a simple narrative act in which a series of connected events are recounted in order, though the particular events are recounted such that they convey something that is more important than the facts themselves. The exact details of a joke or a funny story aren’t necessarily all that important as long as the punchline is clear.
A “muthos” can be a story, and the facts of that story may be 100% true, or they may not. It simply refers to a type of speech-act.
A myth need not necessarily be “untrue.” Myths, while containing many elements that might be irreconcilable with scientific truth or the obvious workings of the universe, are not about the fantastic elements. But I will elaborate on that later.
Firstly, I want to point out the importance of myth to culture in general. Operating on the basic definition from above, a myth, however fantastic, is what may define entire nations. The Greeks are largely defined by their myths, as the Romans and Scandinavians are defined by theirs. Greece has Achilles and the Trojan War as a vital part of her definition, as Romulus is a part of Rome’s definition.
A myth can also be common to a much smaller group of people. Speaking from personal experience, my college social group has a traceable lineage that lasts several generations of students.
Part of what defines us as a community is the story-telling about previous generations of students. We have a common mythology among us, based on true stories about other members of the group who have moved on in their lives.
Another part of what we do as a group is pass on the stories to new generations of students. The community myth defines who we are together, and even a part of who we are as individuals. So even a relatively small community can have a common mythology, which my group calls the “lore” even though much of it is no more than ten years old.
The exact details of many of these stories are varied, but the basic themes are the same every time. Myths may change in detail, but the theme often remains the same.
In a much more abstract sense, mythologies exist as means of understanding something that may not be explicitly stated in the details of the story. They are conveyed by the details working together. These are the “themes” that I mentioned before.
As a lens for looking at certain aspects of reality, myth is unique. It is through the use of myth that the most powerful stories are told; the stories that really matter.
The words of Samwise Gamgee in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (from The Two Towers) come to mind:
“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end…because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing…this shadow. Even darkness must pass.”
Sam draws comfort from the great stories. Those stories, true or not, are what give him the courage to continue living out his own myth.
The point of the stories is not the facts of the stories themselves, though they are important, but rather that the stories are hopeful and tell him that even darkness must pass. He doesn’t bother recounting any of them, but merely the overarching theme of them all, and the reason why they matter.
The stories that “really mattered” are the ones with the happy endings, the stories full of hope despite darkness. The stories that fill you with despair and then hope.
Even in ancient pagan mythology, redemption and rebirth are recurrent themes, and safe arrivals through darkness and danger. Even the most gruesome tragedies like the Oresteia nevertheless end on a note of redemption and renewal. Odysseus passes through seemingly impossible dangers and returns to Ithaca, and redeems his household from the troubles of the last twenty years.
For that reason, the stories and myths matter.
This is perhaps the most penetrating observation of all: that is what the Christian story is. All myths or stories, the ones that really mattered, are all pointing to the ultimate “myth” that is the Christian story.
Christ came down to a darkened, despairing Earth and gave Himself as a sacrifice to redeem it and redeem sinners. As His people, Christians live out this “true myth.” Christians are living in that final reality. Christ Himself is the hope that the darkness will pass eventually, and that the world can go back to the way it was, despite the fact that there is so much bad happening even now.
This is, in fact, the purpose behind much of Tolkien’s work, as well as that of C.S. Lewis. Those scholars believed that the true purpose of any story is to point us to this ultimate reality. That even darkness must pass eventually, and it will pass because of the ultimate story: the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
All myths and stories are simply a fragment of this ultimate reality, and properly considered, bring us before the source of stories Himself, and to a greater understanding of ourselves as the subjects of this story as those who are redeemed and await our renewal at the end of the ultimate story.
*I deliberately avoid using the term “mythology” to avoid any difficulties in my meaning. Mythology has an etymological meaning that is apparently different from its common meaning. I wished to avoid that confusion.