The Perspective of Mythology

Human beings seek meaning—in our lives, in the larger world around us, and in life itself. It seems evident that myths arose as a premier tool in our continual search for meaning.

“What we have today is a demythologized world. And as a result, the students I meet are very much interested in mythology because myths bring them messages.”  Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth.

Myth uses metaphors, imagery, and symbolism as the vehicles of conveying meaning and complex ideas. Much like poetry, myth’s premier tool is metaphor.One of the easiest ways to think about how metaphor works is to picture matryoska dolls.  Each large doll contains smaller yet distinct versions that neatly fit into the whole. Each part and the whole relate to each other. In the same way, metaphor offers us layers of meaning that relate to a unified whole.

Russian Matryoska dolls
Russian Matryoska dolls.

“It’s been said that poetry consists of letting the word be heard beyond words, And Goethe says, ‘All things are metaphors.’”—Campbell, The Power of Myth.

Let me give you an example:

The night was a crow with giant wings that swiftly flew toward us as we stood on the hillside watching the sun set.  The metaphor here joins crows with the onset of night. There are obvious natural links here: blackness, speed, and the realm of the sky. The symbolism that the metaphor hints at expands within a mythological context.  Crows in myths are often used as guides for souls to the underworld.  The underworld, dark as night, dark as a crow, was also viewed by several cultures as residing in the night sky below the Earth–hence, the place under the world. If you have been around actual crows, you know they are highly intelligent and communicative and they know nearly everything that goes on in their landscapes. These qualities would be ideal for a guide to a region that was unknown to you.

Human beings used to convey these layers of meanings in our speech all the time.  Metaphors are a language suitcase–packed with allusions, symbolism, and facts that link various concepts together. In very ancient times, all of our myths were oral.  We listened and imagined in the theater of our mind. Children listening to myths would not have known about all the layers at first.  To them, linking the crow with the night sky, would be a first step in paying more attention to both crows and the inky blackness of night.