‘Myth’ is a word that is bandied about quite often in the humanities. Scholars discuss ‘mythic discourses,’ ‘comparative mythology,’ the ‘symbolic resonances of myth,’ and dichotomize ‘myth and history’ or ‘myth and science’ or ‘rational thought and mythic thought.’ Somehow, it seems to me, all our discussion seems to fail to grasp the essential importance of ‘myths’ and what they mean for our understanding of reality. Are they really just resonant fictions which somehow appeal to the human psyche? Do they merely entertain, or offer ways to express desired mental constructs? Or can they (do they) reveal something about the true nature of reality? In other words, can theology or a worldview make use of them for more than just persuasion? Can a myth be simultaneously resonant and true? Can it reflect something more than the methods of human thought?
These thoughts come to mind because they have much implication with my research, and with the struggle to understand how to understand the biblical texts, and, ultimately, to understand ‘ultimate truth.’
For instance, let us for the moment assume that the narratives in Genesis (from creation to the patriarchs) are simply a mythic construct designed to reveal the self-understanding of a landless ethnic religion (post-exilic Judaism). If this were the case, how do they stories relate to reality, beyond their role in the construction of self-identity? Do they have the ability to reveal ‘the truly real’ before they effect reality by their appropriation? What if, rather, they are semi-historical, and the narrative has merely been molded to conform to certain heroic or mythic archetypes—how does that effect its function as myth? How does it affect its relation to the true?
To be more specific: the world in which we live logically had to come into being somehow, at some point, and for some reason. I think about the various views on the origins of the universe one finds in, say, Genesis, versus evolutionary Darwinism, versus Zoroastrianism, versus Norse mythology. The scientific, philosophic, and theological implications behind all those ‘myths’ are quite different. Strangely, all of them have some kind of appeal to them, even though they are essentially mutually exclusive, or, rather, the reformulation required to reconcile them destroys the ‘mythic’ coherence (and satisfaction) of the narratives. What if one decides to chose one of them over another as a more ‘factual’ account. Where does that leave the other accounts? Are they false? Do speak about a different sort of reality, or a different aspect of reality other than cosmogony? Specifically, why does Norse mythology appear to be so compelling even when one does not believe in the existence of the Norse gods? Why do aspects of it strike one as, well, so profound?
CS Lewis somewhere once remarked that myths describe aspects of reality that can’t be adequately spoken; he compared myths to the Greek myth of Orpheus. He *did* get his wife back, until he turned around and looked at her, and she vanished. This is essentially a metaphorical interpretation of myth. Is that all myth is, fancy, narrative metaphor? I’m not sure that exhausts all of it. I’d be appreciative of any thoughts…Jason M. Silverman 28 February 2008