What is Myth?
Part 3: Myths are “True Stories”
This post quote: “If rationality is only a part of total reality, then it’s probably irrational to expect it to explain all of reality.”
Continuing from “What is Myth? Part 2,” let’s take a quick break for a story. A very long time ago I heard the following: Once upon a time there was a man who learned that a spiritual teacher had moved nearby. Excited, he ran to the teacher and blurted out “What happens after death? Is there life after death?” The teacher made no reply. The man insisted, “Do we live after we die? Do you go anywhere after you die?” Again, silence. The teacher offered no answer to the man’s question and tried to beg off. The man, persisting, loudly, exclaimed “What happens to you after you die?!”
The teacher stepped away from the man’s presence, looked back, and said: “Ask your question to someone who is going to die; I am going to live!”
Myths are not only stories, but they are sacred accounts that can reveal our spiritual assumptions about our divine realities. And, our subset to myth, mythic speech is words that uplift and spiritually transform. Both myth and mythic speech can bring us clarity. With clarity comes purpose.
Now, let’s continue our exploration of the meaning of Myth.
Etymology, the root meaning of a word, has always fascinated me. The hidden jewels of a word’s wealth may be uncovered by contemplating its literal meanings or etymological ancestry. For example, the word “transcendent” has Latin roots that mean “to step beyond.” Another, “sacrifice,” also with Latin roots, means “to make sacred.” In Mythosophy, we suggest that the wisdom gained from myths may help us step beyond present limitations into a greater consciousness. And, when we sacrifice, we are not just giving; we are giving up a part of ourselves (that which we hold most dear) to clear a space within for the emergence of new consciousness. Giving is living, literally. Sacrifice allows transcendence; transcendence brings new awareness; new awareness gives wisdom as it grows into full consciousness. Giving birth to new consciousness is a sacred activity and we as humans are constantly endeavoring to do so; often unconsciously.
Etymology can help clarify a word’s original sense; its primordial essence. Similarly, myths can help us understand primordial essences of consciousness. These we may then choose to adopt. If Mythosophy is a type of Insight Meditation (or contemplation) on Myth (perhaps, as suggested, a “Vipasanna of Myth”), then what insights may we glean from the etymology of “Myth?”
Myth comes to us from the Latin mythus which is a later form of the earlier Greek muthos. Muthos means “story; report, account, tale.” But what kind of story? Myths often appear as a compilation, perhaps a “jumbled heap,” of cultural values deemed crucially important. Typically, they are authoritative accounts about origins; how the world came to be, humanity’s role, and the ordering of relations with the divine and nature. Originally, all myths were orally transmitted by experts (poets, bards, etc.). They were considered absolutely true by the cultures that told them.
If myths are stories, then what about legends, fables, folk tales, and fairy tales? What are they? Very briefly, legends are stories with more historical roots. A very great hero or historical event became legendary in the retelling. Fables, folk tales, fairy tales tended to be more pure entertainment and, typically, not deemed as important or crucial as myth, but that is not to say that many messages of truth were not also conveyed. Folklore means “folk wisdom.”
By analogy, if myth is the stage and plot for a theatrical play, then legend, fable, folk tale and fairy tale are characters within the play. They add more color, drama, and interest, but they exist within the over-arching structure of myth; the plot and theater itself.
As a play presents a point of view, so does myth operate and function. If mythology is the study of different cultural viewpoints, then a particular body of myths offers and clarifies a specific point of view.
It is correct in mythology, the study of myth, to separate myth from legend, fable, folktale, and fairy tale. They are different in kind and purpose. However, in Mythosophy, the wisdom of myth, I refuse to separate them out. Here’s why. Most, if not all, story genres were originally transmitted as part of an oral tradition (historically, most societies have been pre-literate). As such, they were a performance art typically enacted and reenacted at informal gatherings or high ritual occasions. The experience of all these stories, when properly performed, have the effect of transporting the hearer to another realm. Additionally, while myth, of itself, is really serious “stuff,” the comparative frivolity of fable, folk tale, and fairy tale still very often involves contact with the divine and the transcendent; that which is beyond this realm. Thus, many stories that fall well short of the high status of myth should be part of Mythosophy. In short, story facilitates transcendence.
So, what is the “truth” of the story at the beginning of this post? I don’t know if the story has a historical basis; I first heard it in conversation many years ago. Regardless, look at the different emphases within it: the questioner focuses on direct answers and death; the spiritual teacher, on subtlety and life. Right, …and? So? So, there are limits to reason. Perhaps, direct answers to certain questions are not rationally accessible, but may be known through “extra-rational, supra-rational, or non-rational” means. Look at the Buddha’s answers to a similar question about life after death posed by the rationalists; the question, Buddha said, did not apply or “fit the case” to the reality. The answers to some questions may first require a transformation of being rather than be made to fit into logical categories. A shift in perspective is needed away from the rational and objective and toward the subjective and “trans-rational” to comprehend an answer. In our story, the spiritual teacher steps away from rationality (and rudeness). As the tale portrays a shift in perspective, I suggest that Mythosophy can help us in this transformation; to perceive and express ourselves within the greater truths and ideals of myth.
If rationality is only a part of total reality, then it’s probably irrational to expect it to explain all of reality.
Myth means true story. So let’s ask “What is my true story?” Your myth will bring you clarity. Your clarity will bring you purpose.