What is a myth? That’s a question that rarely stays answered for long. In my own experience, I’ve rarely been able to settle on a single definition of myth that covers all of its many uses. The situation today is more complicated because myth was redefined in some scholarly circles during the 20th century, such as in the work of the French philosopher Roland Barthes.
The modern thinking about myths describes how they grow out of our instinctive ability to use symbols, the bedrock of human culture. A marriage ceremony symbolises the promise of fidelity; a religious image symbolises a whole body of beliefs and morals; wearing shiny pieces of cut stone and worked metal symbolises wealth and status; certain letters before a name symbolise gender, relationship or expertise, and so on and so on.
Myths evoked in literature are essentially a symbolic use of narrative. For example, in many traditional European stories, the hero is often a symbol for a certain code of conduct: men should be brave, chivalrous, defend the weak and put personal honour before all else. This is never explicitly spelled out in the tale, but symbolically suggested by the actions of the hero.
Such tales present these values as part of the natural order of things: there is a perfect type of man; dragons are always bad and should be killed; princesses are always weak and need rescuing; fighting is good and should be done well, etc, etc. This is just the way of things, to be taken for granted like the rising of the sun. These make up a myth, in this case the medieval myth of the knight in shining armour.
In the modern definition, myths aren’t stories. They’re certainly closely related, but only in as much as myths use stories. As with the male hero being a symbol for a code of conduct, myth is what lies below the surface of a narrative. It’s a deeper meaning that, if we accept without question the values it expresses, can influence our attitudes without us even realising it. That is essentially the mechanism by which religion, advertising and propaganda work.
But of course, myths can also become outdated. As culture evolves, older myths are inevitably challenged and discarded. Certain myths are considered good or bad or anything in between depending on who you’re talking to. One thing is certain, myths can unify as much as divide.
We rarely question how such myths are created nor how they’re used, and experiencing myth is rarely considered a conscious act. We often think of myth as something that happens to us, stories that are told to us, not something we can do ourselves. That’s mainly because we’ve come to think of myth as something outside of ourselves, old stories created in ages long past.
But we can also try to approach a myth consciously, paying attention to how it’s evoked, what kind of assumptions are contained within it. We have a choice, we can either be used by myths — become an unconscious conduit through which they are spread — or we can try and see them for what they are. In this way we begin to interpret the, to hold them to the light and try to see their shape.
The more we seek to interpret myths, the quicker we discover that not all stories are worthy of our attention. Some stories just aren’t intentionally symbolic, while others strive to be. This focus on symbolic meaning is, after all what identifies mythic stories. It’s for this reason we can say that in reality, a myth only ever arises out of an audience’s engagement with a story. Perhaps then a storyteller’s job is to encourage that process, not hinder it.
A good example of mythic storytelling is The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. In them we can see the mechanics of symbolic narrative and how myth can work. But it must be stressed at the outset that there is no real certainty any author can successfully evoke a mythic response in an audience, fundamentally because myth is something that happens within the audience’s experience, not within a text. The only thing an author can do is try their best to understand the audience they wish to create for, and seek to evoke those myths that resonate with them.
For example, let’s assume an audience we wish to write for is interested in what we might call deep ecology. On a mundane level they are environmentally aware, support sustainability and respect nature. On a deeper level they believe that human consciousness should, in a perfect world, be deeply embedded in nature. Within this particular sub-culture, these values make up a myth often referred to simply as The Land.
The Land is a myth that draws on some very old cultural strands, often pagan in orientation, and mostly delivered to our age through 19th century Romanticism. Today, this myth expresses a yearning for connection with something felt to be lost in modern culture: a nativeness, a wildness, an honouring of an ancient human perspective that sees itself as part of Sublime Nature, not above or separate from it. The Land often has an Eden-like quality. It’s the Promised Land we modern humans are struggling to return to.
But to return implies some kind of redemption, and in the myth of The Land, that redemption begins with an acknowledgment of the problem: humanity has apparently divorced itself from what is best described as natural consciousness. Our consumption-driven culture is self-destructive, creating a society that divorces us from our life-supporting environment, leaving our natural souls to wither in the light of a sterile, technological glare. Modern, main-stream consumer culture (which has the same traits all over the planet, East and West) drives us to reject our original, natural humanity.
In that sense, The Land expresses an existential crisis, one reinforced by the environmental realities of the modern era. If climate change research shows us anything, we are fast approaching an ecological disaster that threatens life as we know it. In the myth of The Land, this ecological disaster is a symptom of our disconnection from the spiritual ground of our being, the Living Earth. It’s a myth that encompasses not only a crisis in individual, but also in collective existence.
So having defined it, how could an author evoke it?
Myths tend to express absolute values. It’s the coherence of those values that can give myth its power, its ability to shape our world-view, at least in those moments when we’re immersed in a tale.
Two such absolute values in The Four Branches are honour and her reflection, shame: both motivate important events, ultimately shaping the actions of the characters. In the imagined world of the tales, such values are as hard and pervasive as any natural law.
Honour and shame compel different responses in The Four Branches: compassion in Rhiannon as she acknowledges her midwives’ shame; grief in Branwen for the tragic war that arose out of her shaming and subsequent attempts to restore her to honour. Likewise, over-sensitivity to honour and shame causes destructive fury in Efnysien, and a lack of sensitivity to the very same values causes a callous folly in Gwydion. These are all very varied responses to the universal constants of honour and shame.
If we take The Four Branches as our model, our new tale would be founded upon similar absolute values. These absolutes will provide the true north of the mythic landscape, the direction by which all other directions are known. Absolutes point the way along the pilgrims path that characters either progress upon or are turned away from.
Fundamentally, these absolutes rest upon a sense of the sacred. They can only be absolute if they are treated as sacrosanct within the imagined world of the tale. They can never truly be violated or undermined, only deferred or delayed. They exert a pull upon all who live in the tale’s universe, pervading the common understanding of the characters, their intuitions and behaviour.
Even though such absolutes are fundamentally impersonal in nature, they affect the personal lives of good and bad alike. Just as Lady Justice is blind, these apparent ‘natural laws’ don’t see personal circumstance, they simply operate without discrimination. They are presented as perpetually imminent, woven into the fabric of a tale’s world, yet almost exclusively expressed through individual lives.
In this way absolutes can define a sacred direction in symbolic narrative, and those absolutes will vary depending on what myth the author wishes to evoke.
To consider this quality of myth in terms of The Land, one clear path to an absolute, sacred and transcendent value is found in the Earth. As the source and container of our lives and our deaths, the cradle and grave of our evolution as a species, the Earth is perhaps an Absolute amongst human absolutes.
In a very physical sense, all that we are as a species is derived from our interaction with the planet’s diverse environments. Even our culture, our non-physical realm of meaning, evolved in response to the same drives that shaped our bodies. To this day, dance is a frequent medium for courtship, art a re-visualising of the sensual world, story a person’s journey through time.
The implication is that the Earth is not only a basis for biological life but is one of the main roots from which human meaning grows. Human culture derives some of its core meanings directly from the Earth. How could it not? The fact that we are soil-coloured to the core, even in how we create meaning, reveals us to be little more than another apple on the Great Tree.
Of course, the metaphor breaks down when we consider our very modern ability as a species to either totally invigorate or annihilate all life on Earth. Apples tend not to wield such vast powers of life and death. There is absolutely no humanity without Earth, but likewise humanity now has power over the absolute destruction or survival of life as we know it. At least, that’s what the climate crisis suggests and all-out nuclear war promises.
And here the absolute value of the Earth is accompanied by two other diamond-hard absolutes, perhaps the most powerful concerns of the modern age, Survival and Destruction. Think of any of the doomsday movies that have been released in recent decades: they all play on this very human power. This is the dark side of the myth of The Land, the essential fear of apocalypse, an ancient anxiety re-born in the Anthropocene.
But in the modern myth of The Land, Destruction takes on a whole new meaning. In older mythic contexts, Destruction was sometimes considered a transformer, a necessary part of the life-death cycle. But this new type of Destruction is not only the death of all life on Earth, but a total break in the natural cycle: no new life can achieved after the transformation of this death.
If ever a human condition needed sanctifying through myth and symbolic narrative, then it would be this one. It is a new Destruction that gives no quarter, that lets out no light. Many have already concluded that Death is a teacher of wisdom, but this new Destruction will not ever result in anything so beautiful.
The myth of The Land requires us to invite this new Destruction in, to let it cause fault lines in the geography of the tale, to let it shape the narrative as the total antithesis of Survival. How can we hold this directionless direction, grown from a centre that cannot hold? The Earth can no longer contain this type of death as a part of its evolutionary cycles, and so it is a solely human problem, requiring us to take responsible for our greater body, for the Tree of all Life. If the myth of The Land is to express hope, then it must give birth to tales about that moment of human maturing.
One thought on “What is mythology?”
Fascinating post, thank you!