Mythology

Mythology is the study of myths. A myth is a story that has significance to a culture (or species), a story that addresses fundamental and difficult questions that human beings ask: who and what am I, where did I come from, why am I here, how should I live, what is the right thing to do, what is the universe, how did it all begin?  Myths are stories that are peopled by great men and women; by forces of good and evil; by animals, large and small; by trees, the sea and the wind; and by giants, gods and other supernatural beings.  Greek and Roman mythology comes to mind, Zeus/Jupiter the top-god, a bit of a womanizer he. Norse mythology comes to mind, with its stories of a powerful Thunder god named Thor and a trickster named Loki. German mythology comes to mind, with its Twilight of the Gods, its Gotterdammerung, where the gods destroy the entire universe, only to begin anew in a thousand years or so.  Every cultureís pantheon of mythic characters was the super-family that every man and woman of that culture was born into; these creatures were as familiar as their parents and grandparents, their siblings, and their aunts and uncles and cousins.

The seeds of a mythic story run deep. 

Myths were before art was, before language or the written word.  The Cave paintings at Lascaux and Alta Mira are some 30,000 years old.  Were these paintings just stick figures representing a bunch of men and bison and bears and deer?  Might there have been a need to paint these paintings?  For luck in the hunt, for food, for survival.  Wouldn't these folk have invoked some kind of magic to aid and protect them in the hunt?  Were these artists talking to the gods?  Were they beseeching aid from the perils of living in those dark times?

Myths sprung up before religion.  Every religion's stories are retellings of universal mythic themes.  The Creation of the World, the first Man and Woman, Heaven and Earth, a great flood, stories of heroes and heroines and dragons and serpents.  A culture's mythos IS the storied foundation of the culture. 

The great mythic themes were known before literature.  All great works of literature are based upon mythic themes or stories.  Noah's Ark, Jonah and the great fish, Moby Dick, and even the movie Titanic are all stories about man's struggles with the seas {the unconscious?}).  Myths and mythic symbols are the elementary particles of imagination and creativity.  The cultural historian Jacques Barzun has said: What links myth with Literature is ... the Imagination.

Myth is before philosophy and science.  The same questions that our religions used to ask, now our philosophies and our sciences try to answer.  We may be an enlightened, technological society but we have the same needs as ever: protection, warmth, food, sex and love and children, happiness, doing good.

Aren't we still fascinated by the truths of these mythic stories and by ancient peoples' need for magic in their untamed world?  And don't we still cry out for magic in our (apparently) rational world?  Don't we seem to crave mystery more and more to counter our apparent understanding and mastery of the world?  Are we meant to be totally rational, are we meant to be machines?

A culture's mythology is a powerful tool for psychology, casting light on the culture's shared unconscious. There is no better way to understand a culture deeply than to know and appreciate its mythos, its stories, its dreams. Indeed, many of the symbols in our dreams are universal (Jung's archetypes), or at least culture-wide, symbols whose meaning is invested in the mythic stories that they inhabit.  And there are those who believe that these symbols and these stories are encoded in the very cells of our species' DNA.

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But for many, if not most, mythology is the study of old, meaningless and untrue stories ("that's just a myth").  The problem for Americans and many in the West is that so many have no idea that their mythos is just that, stories that inform their culture, not necessarily historical truth. For many, the Bible, the main source-book of the Judaeo-Christian mythology, is the revealed word of God, and other religions' stories are "no more than myths," just some stupid fiction believed by ignorant people. Obviously, the same can be said of the Koran for Muslims.  The wars fought over who owns The One Truth are without number in human history; the hatred engendered over whose God is the real God seems no closer to solution than it was one-thousand years ago.  But few have ever hated or killed or fought a war over his culture's myths, its own stories; it is over the truth that men kill each other.

Trekkies recall the rules under which the crew of the Enterprise will explore the Universe, with respect for alien cultures. Mythologies teach respect for alien culture. "These are my people's stories, I'd like to hear yours"; rather than "this is what happened, if you don't believe it, you will toast in Hell forever, and we'll help you get there." Too-strongly-held religious views makes non-believers somehow less worthy of the label "human," worthy, instead, of salvation through coerced conversion, or death, for their everlasting soulís sake.

Mythology, on the other hand, makes other peoples interesting, the bearers of more fascinating stories to listen to around the campfire of dazzlingly bright colors, languages and customs.  Lovers of myth have many books to read, and all of them are entertaining, if not wondrously enlightening.  I personally would feel poorer if I only had one book to read, only one lake to dip my toes into and to drink from, only one church, temple or mosque that was the handiwork of God.

It is the diversity implied in the idea of Mythology, not the exclusive Truth of one's own religion's stories, that can save us, finally, from our mad addiction to kill those whose brotherhood we are blind to.   Myth makes clear every culture's similarities (e.g., a Resurrection story is common among world mythologies, as is the secret royal blood of its hero) as surely as it insists on each culture's uniqueness.  Only men of tolerance and good-will, who love hearing, and telling, the stories -- not the whim of a jealous tribal God -- can save us for a future that is rich enough to experience and celebrate all of its old mythologies, and secure enough to help us sew a new, more inclusive and planetary mythology, suitable to our times and to a future.

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