- For the computer game, see Myth (computer game).
A myth is often thought to be a lesson in story form which has deep explanatory or symbolic resonance for preliterate cultures, who preserve and cherish the wisdom of their elders through oral traditions by the use of skilled story tellers.
In common parlance, a myth is generally considered a "mere story" -- that is, a story that holds meaning for people, but the narrative of which is untrue. In sociology, however, a myth may be historical or fictional without altering its nature as myth, because the power of myth lies in the meaning and broader truth it conveys, rather than the historicity of the story.
This broader truth runs deeper than the advent of critical history which may, or may not exist as in an authoritative written form which becomes "the story" (Preliterate oral traditions vanish as the written word becomes "the story" and the literate become "the authority"). However, as Lucian Lévi-Bruhl puts it, "The primitive mentality is a condition of the human mind, and not a stage in its historical development." (Mâche 1992, p.8) Myth is simultaneously true at more than one level, for those who tell it, hear and delight in it, and understand it within their culture. Most often the term refers specifically to ancient tales from very old cultures, such as Greek mythology or Roman mythology. Some myths descended originally as part of an oral tradition and were only later written down, and many of them exist in multiple versions.
According to the eighth chapter of F. W. J. Schelling's Introduction to Philosophy and Mythology, "Mythological representations have been neither invented nor freely accepted. The products of a process independent of thought and will, they were, for the consciousness which underwent them, of an irrefutable and incontestable reality. Peoples and individuals are only the instruments of this process, which goes beyond their horizon and which they serve without understanding."
Development and canonization of myths
All cultures have developed over time their own mythology, consisting of legends of their history, their religions, and their heroes. The great power of the symbolic meaning of these stories for the culture is a major reason why they survive as long as they do, sometimes for thousands of years. Mâche (1992, p.20) distinguishes between "myth, in the sense of this primary psychic image, with some kind of mytho-logy, or a system of words trying with varying success to ensure a certain coherence between these images. Not only are the principle mythic archetypes older than all mythological systems, but these systems themselves are still only accessible to a second signyfiying system, that of structural analysis, which rests upon intellectual categories of a rational kind largely foreign to the categories of mythology."
A collection of myths is called a mythos, e.g. 'the Roman mythos .' A collection of those is called a mythoi, e.g. 'the Greek and Roman mythoi.'
One notable type is the creation myth, which describes how that culture believes the universe was created. Another is the Trickster myth, which concerns itself with the pranks or tricks played by gods or heroes.
Joseph Campbell was considered by some people to be the world's leading authority on myth and the history of spirituality.
Roger Caillois (1972) contrasts myths of situations determined from outside by historical events with myths of heroes determined from inside by their psychic life. However Mâche (1992, p.10) argues that, "on this level he [Caillois] refers only to the presentation of images in the form of stories, which in themselves are more ancient than stories, not yet submitted to this kind of distinction."
Myths as depictions of historical events
Although myths are often considered to be accounts of events that have not happened, many historians consider that myths can also be accounts of actual events that have become highly imbued with symbolic meaning, or that have been transformed, shifted in time or place, or even reversed. One way of conceptualizing this process is to view 'myths' as lying at the far end of a continuum ranging from a 'dispassionate account' to 'legendary occurrence' to 'mythical status'. As an event progresses towards the mythical end of this continuum, what people think, feel and say about the event takes on progressively greater historical significance while the facts become less important. By the time one reaches the mythical end of the spectrum the story has taken on a life of its own and the facts of the original event have become almost irrelevant.
This method or technique of interpreting myths as accounts of actual events, euhemerist exegesis, dates from antiguity and can be traced back (from Spencer) to Evhémère's Histoire sacrée (300 BCE) which describes the inhabitants of the island of Panchaia, Everything-Good, in the Indian Ocean as normal people deified by popular naivety. As Roland Barthes affirms, "Myth is a word chosen by history. It could not come from the nature of things" (Mâche 1992, p.20).
This process occurs in part because the events described become detached from their original context and new context is substituted, often through analogy with current or recent events. Some Greek myths originated in Classical times to provide explanations for inexplicable features of local cult practices, to account for the local epithet of one of the Olympian gods, to interpret depictions of half-remembered figures, events, or account for the deities' attributes or entheogens, even to make sense of ancient icons, much as myths are invented to "explain" heraldic charges, the origins of which has become arcane with the passing of time. Conversely, descriptions of recent events are re-emphasised to make them seem to be analogous with the commonly known story. This technique has been used by Right-wing conservatives in America with text from the Bible (e.g. Revelation), and was used in the Russian Communist era in propaganda about political situations with misleading references to class struggles. Until WWII the fitness of the Emperor of Japan was based partly on his mythical distant descent from the Goddess of the Sun.
Mâche (1992, p.10) argues that euhemerist exegesis, "was applied to capture and seize by force of reason qualities of thought, which eluded it on every side." This process, he argues, often leads to interpretation of myths as "disguised propaganda in the service of powerful individuals," and that the purpose of myths in this view is to allow the "social order" to establish "its permanence on the illusion of a natural order." He argues against this interpretation, saying that "what puts an end to this caricature of certain speeches from May 1968 is, among other things, precisely the fact that roles are not distributed once and for all in myths, as would be the case if they were a variant of the idea of an 'opium of the people.'"
Contra Barthes (quote above) Mâche (1992) argues that, "myth therefore seems to choose history, rather than be chosen by it" (p.21), "beyond words and stories, myth seems more like a psychic content from which words, gestures, and musics radiate. History only chooses for it more or less becoming clothes. And these contents surge forth all the more vigorously from the nature of things when reason tries to repress them. Whatever the roles and commentaries with which such and such a socio-historic movement decks out the mythic image, the latter lives a largely autonomous life which continually fascinates humanity. To denounce archaism only makes sense as a function of a 'progressive' ideology, which itself begins to show a certain archaism and an obvious naivety." (p.20)
"For Lévi-Strauss, myth is a structured system of signifiers, whose internal networks of relationships are used to 'map' the structure of other sets of relationships; the 'content' is infinitely variable and relatively unimportant." (Middleton 1990, p.222)
Other uses of the term
Myths are not the same as fables, legends, folktales, fairy tales, anecdotes, or simple fiction, but sloppy usage has blurred the distinctions in many people's minds. The term "myth" is sometimes used pejoratively in reference to common beliefs of a culture or for the beliefs of a religion to imply that the story is both fanciful and fictional.
Myth is often used to refer to a commonly held but erroneous belief. Compare urban myth, the secular mythology of modern culture.
The terms urban myth and urban legend are sometimes used to describe something that is false, but, strictly speaking, those can be either true or false as well.
- Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton University Press, 1949.
- Mircea Eliade. Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. Princeton University Press, 1954.
- Charles H. Long, Alpha: The Myths of Creation. George Braziller, 1963.
- Kees W. Bolle, The Freedom of Man in Myth. Vanderbilt University Press, 1968.
- Elliot Aronson, Timothy D. Wilson, Robin M. Akert, Social Psychology. Addison-Wesley, 1997.
- Mâche, François-Bernard (1983, 1992). Music, Myth and Nature, or The Dolphins of Arion (Musique, mythe, nature, ou les Dauphins d'Arion, trans. Susan Delaney). Harwood Academic Publishers. ISBN 3718653214.
- Caillois, Roger (1972). Le mythe et l'homme. Gallimard.
- Lévi-Bruhl, Lucian.
- Schelling. Introduction to Philosophy and Mythology.
- Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0335152759.