I lament the fall of the once mighty myth. Myth is about so much more than a non-factual story or colloquialisms about erroneous beliefs. We need myths to help articulate powerful truths about ourselves and the world in which we live.
You’ll sometimes hear someone responding to a misconception about a particular situation, circumstance or topic with “Oh, that’s just a myth!” That’s because, unfortunately, the term “myth” is often used colloquially to describe a commonly held, yet erroneous belief or falsehood. The term has been used in this manner so often and for so long now that it’s become an accepted definition to view it as indicating a misrepresentation of the truth. But to borrow from the colloquialism, it’s a myth, what they say about myths.
While it might be true that myths often contain elements not totally accurate or based in fact, it’s a misconception to regard myths merely as fantasy or pure fiction. The word ‘myth’ comes from Greek and Roman words meaning “story.” However, myths were not just ordinary stories. They were stories with profound messages, often used to explain a culture’s way of life, history, and value system, and also often full of characters or heroes who undertook dangerous journeys to help ensure the survival of their people against a host of threats. Also embedded in the stories were important life lessons and timeless truths about the nature and character of human existence. That’s why it’s such a trivialization of the myth to regard it as merely an untrue tale.
Perhaps no modern writer was a bigger fan of myths and their power to highlight the most essential aspects of being human than Joseph Campbell. His book on the subject and television documentary on PBS with interviewer Bill Moyers is aptly titled The Power of Myth [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. At times during the interviews, Campbell not only extolled the power of myths in past generations to help solidify the identity and mission of various tribes, cultures, races, nationalities, and religions, and praised the trend to include modern myths in such film sagas as Star Wars; but also lamented the lack of newer, more unifying, powerful and encompassing myths to guide modern society and help it reach its best ideals.
The power of myth is even at work in something as simple and elegant as an Aesop fable (moral-laden stories attributed by the historian Herodotus to the Greek slave Aesop). Even though the lowly fable is not as elaborate, encompassing, or geared toward addressing the larger issues of a culture as are most myths, these stories have much in common with the more powerful myths. Given that many of the characters in fables are animals with anthropomorphic qualities, it’s clear that the stories could not possibly be factually true. Nonetheless, there are profound truths or “morals” embedded deeply within the stories that are as valid today as they were centuries ago — which is one reason why they have stood the test of time with respect to their popularity and value.
I for one lament the loss of status of the once mighty myth. And I deplore the use of the term to describe merely an erroneous belief. Myth is much more than that. I also think Campbell was right when he argued that we’re in need of a powerful new, wide-ranging, inclusive, and unifying myth, not only to draw us all together but also to give new meaning to life in the present and coming age. But first we’ll have to adopt a new attitude about myths and we’ll have to debunk the many “myths” about them. And we’ll need to keep in the forefront the powerful truths about ourselves and the world in which we live that we’ve long known and held in our hearts since the dawn of our awareness.