Read an Excerpt
WHAT IS MYTH?
What is myth? Let’s begin by telling one.
Centuries ago in China, a young boy asked his grandfather how the world was created. The grandfather responded in the same way that his own grandfather had many years before:
Once there was only a great chaos, Hundun. There were two emperors: Hu, the Emperor of the Northern Sea, and Shu, the Emperor of the Southern Sea. When they found Hundun, he was an incomplete being, lacking the seven orifices necessary for sight, hearing, eating and speech, breathing, smell, reproduction, and elimination. So, zapping him with thunderbolts, they bored one of these orifices every day for seven days. Finally, Hundun died in the process.
The names Hu and Shu combine to form the word Hu-shu, or “lightning.” Thus the work of creation began when lightning pierced chaos.
Within our own century a strikingly similar view of the creation was presented as a scientific theory. Harold S. Urey, the 1934 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, speculated that the origins of life might have been in the action of some kind of energy, perhaps lightning, on the primordial atmosphere of the earth. Whether or not Urey was familiar with this Chinese myth we do not know, yet his explanation echoed the one told by the Chinese grandfather.
In 1953, a graduate student of Urey named Stanley L. Miller put this theory to the test in an experiment. He prepared two glass globes, one of which contained the gases believed to have composed the early atmosphere of the earth, and the other to collect gases formed as a result of his experiment. He activated the gases with “lightning” in the form of 60,000 volts of electricity. To his surprise, some of the materials that gathered in the second globe included nucleotides, organic components of the amino acids that join together to make DNA, which is the basic building block of all life. This was the first time that nucleotides had been produced in any manner independent of a living organism.
On first reading, the Chinese myth sounds quite primitive. It is anthropomorphic; that is to say, the characters are natural forces personified. The two elements that form lightning are referred to as “emperors,” and chaos is portrayed in human form. This “primitive” myth, however, converges with advanced and sophisticated speculations on the origins of life. This becomes our first clue as to what myth is. It is the earliest form of science: speculation on how the world came into being.
To the man on the street, however, the word myth brings to mind lies, fables, or widely believed falsehoods. On the nightly news, a health expert speaks of the need to “eliminate commonly held myths about AIDS.” In this context, myth is used to mean “a misconception”—in this case, even a dangerous misconception. But myth, in the sense that we use it in this book, often stands for truth. A myth is often something that only begins to work where our own five senses end.
If myth were only a collection of stories, of falsehoods, why then does it continue to fascinate us? Why has myth persisted for centuries? As we shall see, a single definition of myth is never adequate, for it is many things operating at many levels.
As we have seen, myth is the first fumbling attempt to explain how things happen, the ancestor of science. It is also the attempt to explain why things happen, the sphere of religion and philosophy. It is a history of prehistory, telling us what might have happened before written history. It is the earliest form of literature, often an oral literature. It told ancient people who they were and the right way to live. Myth was and still is the basis of morality, governments, and national identity.
Myth is hardly the sole property of the “primitive, prescientific” mind. Our lives today are saturated with myth, its symbols, language, and content, all of which are part of our common heritage as human beings. Fables, fairy tales, literature, epics, tales told around camp-fires, and the scriptures of great religions are all packages of myth that transcend time, place, and culture. Individual myths themselves are strikingly similar between cultures vastly separated by geography. This commonality helps us to recognize the beauty of the unity in human diversity: We share something with all other peoples in all other times.
Now we can begin to make some very general statements about myth.
Myth is a constant among all human beings in all times. The patterns, stories, even details contained in myth are found everywhere and among everyone. This is because myth is a shared heritage of ancestral memories, related consciously from generation to generation. Myth may even be part of the structure of our unconscious mind, possibly encoded in our genes.
Myth is a telling of events that happened before written history, and of a sense of what is to come. Myth is the thread that holds past, present, and future together.
Myth is a unique use of language that describes the realities beyond our five senses. It fills the gap between the images of the unconscious and the language of conscious logic.
Myth is the “glue” that holds societies together; it is the basis of identity for communities, tribes, and nations.
Myth is an essential ingredient in all codes of moral conduct. The rules for living have always derived their legitimacy from their origins in myth and religion.
Myth is a pattern of beliefs that give meaning to life. Myth enables individuals and societies to adapt to their respective environments with dignity and value.
LANGUAGE AND MYTH
Our language is permeated with terms taken from the myths, especially Greek and Roman myths, that we use daily without ever thinking of their origins. To drive into the city, you may have to deal with the chaos (from the Greek myth describing the primordial state of things before creation) of traffic, while listening to the top-40 song “I’m Your Venus” (from the name of the Roman goddess of beauty) or thinking about buying Nike (named for the Greek goddess of victory) athletic shoes or perhaps a Mars bar (named for the Roman god of war). No doubt the tires on your car are made of vulcanized rubber (from Vulcan, the Roman patron god of metalworking). On your journey, you may pass a museum (named in honor of the Muses, patroness spirits of culture in Greek mythology); perhaps next Saturday (named for Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture) you will find some time to stop in.
The news comes over the radio. In Europe (named for Europa, a mortal woman who had a liaison with the Greek god Zeus), preparations are being made for the Olympics (a modern revival of the games held at Olympus, the home of the Greek gods), even as diplomats in London (named for Lugh, a Celtic sun-god) are discussing what will happen to all those Thor (the Norse thunder god), Titan (named for Greek giants), and Jupiter (the Roman name for Zeus) missiles.
When you are at the office, a moody co-worker may be described as mercurial (from Mercury, the Roman messenger of the gods). You may have erotic (from Eros, the Greek god of sexual love) thoughts about someone with whom you work. However, in these harassment-sensitive times, making an amorous advance to a colleague might prove the Achilles’ heel* to your otherwise honorable career. You may even be concerned about venereal disease (from Venus, the Roman love goddess). Oh, what the hell (from Hel, the guardian of the dead in Germanic mythology).
Modern technology allows almost instant communication around the world via fax, phone, and modem. But, whether you live in Lyons, France (named for the Celtic sun-god Lugh); Athens, Georgia; or Gimli, Manitoba (for Gimli, the highest heaven in Norse mythology), you are also linked to centuries past by myth.