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.
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.