What is Myth?
Part 1: Let’s Forget the Scholars
Myths are stories about divine realities. Encoded within myths are themes of transcendental truths. As a subset, mythic speech comprises words that resonate with truth; words that “ring true.”
Let us dismiss the sense, in common parlance, that myths are mistaken or false explanations and deceptions.
Myths are records of Primordial Traditions and, as such, they defy complete definition. While myths serve many cultural functions I wish to accent their transcendental and Traditionalist components. Myths are considered absolutely true by their sources.
Defining myth has bedeviled western scholars since at least the 19th century. From Frazer’s ritual theory to Malinowski’s Functionalism; from Freud’s and Jung’s psychological interpretations to Levi-Strauss’ Structuralism; no one theory appears to adequately encompass all of myth (see attached Addendum below for more examples). While a number of theories or schools have been advanced, none completely define myth. Each view falls short of a comprehensive definition. Whenever myth is defined there seems to be a “something more” quality or remainder that falls outside the definition. Myth defies absolute definition.
Let us set aside the scholarly pursuit of a complete definition of myth except to agree with those who conclude that myths are a rough composite of all definitions. In other words, each attempt at definition contributes some essential insight into the nature of myth. Let us acknowledge academia’s good work in contributing to our understanding of myth, offer thanks, and give it no further notice. Let us move beyond the academic debate.
I won’t pursue a scholarly exercise that exhaustively defines myth. Rather, I prefer to develop a “spiritual exercise that looks at myth as a way to access personal meaning through revelation.” Let us, therefore, treat myth as a comprehensible code of spiritual conditions.
Addendum: More Definitions of Myth
Among many more attempts to define myth, a very rough, partial sketch follows: E. B. Tylor suggested myths were the pre-scientific explanations of natural phenomena. Max Muller advocated a linguistic theory in which all myths involved a “disease of language.” The nature of this malady was the reification of an abstract quality into a concrete one; adjectives describing a natural event became personified into a god or goddess. James G. Frazer advanced the view that myths arose to explain rituals. Malinowski posited a Functional theory of myth in which the purpose of myth was legitimization of the social order. Mircea Eliade posited the primacy of myth over ritual and that the retelling of myths allowed a return (“eternal return”) for the hearer to primordial realities. Levi-Strauss advocated the Structuralist view of myth as a process of resolution between interacting and opposing themes. Freud, in analyzing the myth of Oedipus, thought myth was about sexual anxiety and, more broadly, that myths were the dreams of a society. Jung posited that myths were the record of a culture’s collective unconsciousness exhibited through cross-cultural archetypes. Joseph Campbell sometimes used Jungian terminology, but at other times seemed more transcendental (not related to the 19th century American Transcendental movement). Very much earlier, the Greek theorist Euhemerus suggested that myths were poor recollections of actual historical persons and events. In the retelling, a story became increasingly inaccurate, but was based in a factual event in the past. Gods and goddesses, for example, were actually historical persons of great achievement.
The above list does no justice to each scholar, but perhaps suggests the futility of attempting a rigorous, exhaustive definition of myth. There have been many more attempts to so define myth.