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What is myth?

June 5, 2019

Whadaya mean, that’s a myth? Or at least what do I mean by that?

I. “Myths” are stories (narratives) that members of a group with a shared mythology tell each other. We tell them verbally, but also, in a sense, nonverbally, in that we live their themes, plot lines, characters, images, received truths. These stories and behavior patterns communicate, generation to generation, thoughts that we consider to be the most true and most valuable truths known by our group. These stories and truths are about ourselves, our group, and help identify our group. For instance, how we came to be, what we’ve gone through, who our heroes are, what we value, what our fate will be. If it’s really a myth of ours, we don’t think of it as a myth (in fact we normally use that word to say that some idea is untrue but all too frequently believed to be true). We don’t think of our myths as fiction, or “just a story,” we think of them as history, fact, truth, wisdom. We live our mythology, without even much thinking about it–except when we are telling our stories.

Being a bit more academic about it: mythic stories are one form of the oral culture, “folklore,” of a people, a folk (volk).  All peoples talk among themselves, and therefore all develop a lore.  Some other forms of lore are legends, jokes, song lyrics, children’s rhymes, tales such as animal tales (e.g. Brer Rabbit) or ghost tales. Wherever people talk (at “the water cooler,” over the dinner table, at the bowling alley), they share lore. Thereby the lore is passed from person to person and from generation to generation.  The most liked (valued, repeated, because useful—entertaining, educational, and/or wise) specific examples become fixtures of the culture for long periods; they become part of “the oral tradition.”  Like everything, they go through changes, including conscious inventions, inevitable errors as in a game of “telephone,” or memory lapses, that produce “variations.” Sometimes a talker will borrow an element from one story to fit into another. But the basic story or song is recognizable.

Some talkers are especially talented—someone with “the gift of gab” tells jokes or stories especially well.

Mythic stories, because they tell the very skeleton, organs, and skin of a culture, the look in the eye, the stance of the body, without the people even being conscious of their bodies, are a people’s grand gestures that reveal their souls.

The truths and wisdom in myths aren’t universally truths or not—or at least the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, because they are expressed in stories. The people story their shared thoughts in this way because, rightly or wrongly, they believe them to be true and wise.

Looked at from outside a culture, by someone of another culture, the myths are recognized as such, and might be analyzed for the ways they fall short of human universality or factuality; but for the people who tell them as tradition or history, they continue to be True.

Because of the power of the shared thought, tradition, history, values, belief, and faith told in myths, people form their behavior patterns and codes, even their institutions in accord with their myths.  We live our living myths. For instance, a culture’s criminal justice system will be variously affected by whether its religious mythology includes stories of radical change of an individual from blindness to sight, darkness to light, sinfulness to grace. Rehabilitation, anyone? Or just punishment?

Sometimes there are competing or even clashing myths within a culture, maybe especially a pluralistic culture, or a culture that has been wracked by civil war, like America. Sometimes we are still living a myth that we no longer believe to be truth, if we think about it. Then we risk living un-consciously, and we need to be more self-reflective and raise our consciousness.

II. It’s the mythology, stupid.  (It’s the humanity.  Stupid.) Re-emphasize: If, for us, it’s part of our mythology, a mythic tale about ourselves, we tell the story in a variety of verbal forms and circumstances, and we live its patterns, outwardly (in our social and institutional behaviors) and inwardly (in our conscious and unconscious mental processes).

III. So in the context of this novel (another form of narrative) about the psychopathologies of American democracy, I need to address the relationship between mythology and psychology, and between American mythology and history. To imagine the logos, the logic, of the soul, of its pathos, and of our storying our identity. Maybe I’ll get to that soon.

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