1. Perversion of Myth in America- The Nature of Myth
This is the first in a series of posts exploring the distortion of the classical meaning of myth throughout prehistoric and historic times. We will start with the original meaning of myth.
Wikipedia defines myth as “a folklore genre consisting of narratives that play a fundamental role in society, such as foundational tales as origin myths.” Examples of such myths include bible stories of the Jewish and Christian faith as well as stories from various religious and cultural traditions throughout the world. People over the millennia have clung to these stories to explain where we came from, why we are here and where we are headed.
Although these were meant as teaching stories with lessons for those who listened to them and read them, many adherents have taken these stories literally and are offended by efforts to portray them as only stories.
In my reading about myth, I have found Joseph Campbell the most articulate writer on this topic. His thinking is best revealed in a book, The Power of Myth, consisting of a series of interviews with Campbell by Bill Moyers. It almost reads like a meditation on being human.
Myths such as we have considered so far are meant to provide a framework for thinking about humanity, our relationship with the universe, the divine and what human life is about. They were meant to serve as a guide for human living. The original myths were invented and developed by small bands of wandering people and differed widely from one group to another although they often had similar themes. As civilization developed myths became more widely shared by larger and larger groups of people.
All of these myths attempt to create a larger framework for the meaning of being human beyond the basics of being born, living and dying. As Campbell puts it, myths exist “to harmonize our lives with reality in a search for truth, meaning and significance.”
At times over the course of human history, competing myths became the source of conflict between peoples clinging to their own myths which led to persecution, crusades and even wars in the name of the myths people followed. These are deviations from the original purpose of myth. We will consider some of these deviations in the next post.