Myth: True or False

Are myths true?  Or are they false, a lie?  The answer, you might think, must have been settled ages ago. However, discussion on whether a myth (or myths in general) is or isn’t true continues to percolate up from our collective ponderings. Like the chimera pictured above, oftentimes, myth or mythical is viewed as fantasy rather than reality.

Recently, on the Oxford University Press blog, Dr. Robert A. Segal, who has written a good deal about myth, posted a short piece entitled “In Defense of Myth.” The defense Segal raises on behalf of myth isn’t about its applicability to our lives, (although he does mention how others view that aspect of myth), but rather, that his defense is about the veracity of myth.  Is myth true?

Cheered by the promise that Segal appeared to be offering his viewpoint, or rather defense, that myth is true, I was heartened to read his statement that,

I myself am no evangelist for myth, and I am open to all theorists. But I do get miffed at one view of myth: that of myth as simply a false story or conviction, one to be exposed and dismissed.

And yet, the defense quickly peters out into a rather feeble (to my reading) retreat wherein Segal backs away from defense, to batting about the opinion that it doesn’t matter if myth is true or false, but rather that is is useful.

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Thus, after raising the question, Segal ultimately and unsatisfactorily leaves it on the table. I admit, I was surprised and disappointed. I wished he would have made his defense clearer or more substantial.

In contrast, the late anthropologist Jean Pierre Vernant is quite clear that our confusion on whether myth is true or false is a characteristic of Western thinking. He states that,

The concept of myth that we have inherited from the Greeks belongs, by reason of its origins and history, to a tradition of thought peculiar to Western civilization in which myth is defined in terms of what is not myth, being opposed to reality (myth is fiction) and secondly, to what is rational (myth is absurd). If the development of the study of myth in modern times is to be understood, it must be considered in the context of this line of thought and tradition.

I appreciate Vernant’s distinction, because he asks us to take a deeper look at myth and mythic features. For example, at face-value, the chimera is “absurd.” If one did not know much about myth, metaphors, or ancient symbols, it would be understandable to look at this creature and conclude that it was sheer ancient Greek imagination at work.

However, chimeras were succinct mythic visuals that symbolized the seasons. Ancient Greece, like other parts of the Mediterranean region, recognized just three seasons. The three animals represented those seasons as well as prominent constellations associated with them. So, are chimeras a fantasy? In the sense that they are a visual metaphor, no they are not fantastical at all. Instead, a chimera is a visual of both actual and mythic time.

So are myths true? My viewpoint is that much of indigenous, archaic, and even ancient myth is true. To discern that truth, however, linguistic and visual metaphors need to be considered as well as knowledge of the peoples, lands, and customs. To literalize or concretize a myth or any of it’s mythic elements, is typically a sure-fire way to dismiss it as false.

Apparently, the question of whether myths are true or false isn’t going to fade away like morning mist. I invite you to look at my visual presentation “Ten Lies You Might Believe About Myths.” As always I welcome your thoughts on the topic.

2 thoughts on “Myth: True or False

  1. I like the way you speak about myth as true where truth needs to be dug from the linguistic, cultural and historical knowledge of the people who hold such a myth and not to look at it from a rational and critical perspective in the same way we look the material universe. After all, there is a mental and emotional universe that is only marginally a close reflection of the material one.

    Since quite early in my life I have lived in a myth filled world. I heard them from my mother who entertained me before I went to sleep under star filled skies when in summer we used to sleep in the house courtyard before the advent of air-conditioning to the Arab Gulf states. She explained to me many things in life through myths she inherited from her mother and other folks and had believed in literally. I also heard them from our teachers who were keen on our proper religious upbringing.

    I also had the fortunate experience of being transformed by a personal myth (please read about it in my comment at the post http://blog.oup.com/2015/09/religious-belief-natural-causes/ ) This personal experience prompted me to think in a different way about religious myths and religion itself (which is structured around and is sustained by myths) and led me to believe that religion was something humans have unconsciously discovered in the process of their cultural evolution to work as Archimedes’ lever (which could lift, no less than the whole Earth) that can lift its adherents from being downtrodden and subservient to being powerful and uplifted despite all circumstances (please read about this in my comment at the post which prompted you to post your present entry http://blog.oup.com/2015/10/in-defense-of-myth/ ). There is much selective advantage in this to explain why religions have been very ubiquitous throughout all times.

    Recently I have discovered that I have been unconsciously using myths in powerful ways in my personal and business life, for my own transformation and for transforming the way I look at what is happening around me. This has given me perspectives beyond what the ‘actual and factual’ circumstances are dictating on my capabilities and to my literal scientific mind that enabled me, when I appeared to have fallen, to stand up again and walk on with a higher spirit and positive expectations.

    I am writing to explore the possibility of evolving this powerful tool that would build and sustain a mythic mind (which I shall venture and call it the Archimedes’ psychosocial lever) that is not in conflict with the rational and scientific mind which seems to be the dominant one nowadays. I want to explore a way for the two minds to work side by side rather like the two halves of our brain where the left half more or less specialises in the linear, linguistic, logical and rational sides of an issue while the right half takes care of the holistic, artistic and emotional side of the same issue. I am not here pairing the mythic with the right half of the brain and the rational with the left. I am just using the functions of the two halves as a metaphor for what we need to come up with, as the mythic mind will also resort to using linguistic, logical and linear narrative of events.

    1. Jabr, I appreciate your thoughtful reading and comments regarding my post. As you allude here and also relate in the link you included, myths as well as transformative stories carry a good deal of power to shape us and our lives. Your personal story of algebra, your name, and your sense of self is quite wonderful. Many myths as well as folktales note the magic or mythic power of a person’s name. I invite you to read the meanings behind two of my names.

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