The word myth gets a bad rap these days. What with urban myths and the Myth Busters, the word has developed into a sarcastic, pejorative term with little real meaning. It’s a catch-all for anything that is deemed false. But this definition is rather recent. It wasn’t until the mid 19th century that the word took on the meaning of untrue story or rumor. 1 The Greek mythos, the etymological ancestor of our English word, meant speech, thought, story, anything delivered by word of mouth.
Of course, this is an all too common result of linguistic laziness. It is much easier to use one word for a whole slew of meanings than to actually think and use a word that is more accurate, a word with nuance of meaning closer to what we are trying to say. In other words, when something changes (as the meaning of myth undoubtedly has) let’s change the word we use for the “new” thing rather than perverting the meaning of the original word which is no longer applicable! Here’s a couple of suggestions:
Myths are “stories about divine beings, generally arranged in a coherent system; they are revered as true and sacred; they are endorsed by rulers and priests; and closely linked to religion. Once this link is broken, and the actors in the story are not regarded as gods but as human heroes, giants or fairies, it is no longer a myth but a folktale. Where the central actor is divine but the story is trivial … the result is religious legend, not myth.” 2
If we don’t change our words with the changing meaning of the underlying idea, our words are diluted to the point of becoming hackneyed, clichéd, platitudinous, vapid, commonplace, stock, conventional, stereotyped, overused, overdone, overworked, stale, worn out, timeworn, tired, hoary, unimaginative, unoriginal, uninteresting, dull phantoms that fade into obscurity.
Granted, “The Old Wives Tales Busters” or “The Things I Read On The Internet Busters” doesn’t have quite the same ring but they really are not busting myths! But the diluting effect on the word’s meaning is far-reaching.
There are other ways of defining myth, ways that get back to the words origins. These ways are overshadowed by the trite meanings of today but these ways are still valid and bring myth back to life and back to a living presence in our own lives. Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung were proponents of these definitions, as are some contemporary people like Wolfgang Geigerich, a Jungian analyst. I’ll paraphrase what these people have to say about myth:
Myths are not “untrue.” They may not be scientifically “true” but they are “psychologically” true in that they describe inner life.
Myths are the revelation of a divine life within.
Myths spell out the logic that factually governs a people’s lived life. They are the outer expression of the meaning that is. ( By the way, religious practices, doctrines, or dogmas and the elaborate systems of metaphysics serve exactly the same purpose.)
Myth is important to us, today, even though we may not recognize it or we call it something else. I remember the struggles I had as a child trying to live within the myth of Christianity. Remember the definitions of myth I gave above. I’m not saying Christianity is false in any way. Christianity “spelled out the logic that [was supposed to] factually govern my lived life.” If I do this thing and that thing then this other thing and that other thing will happen. But it just didn’t “work” for me. So I gave up that myth. Now, I am struggling to define a new myth for myself because I feel literally lost without one. This lost feeling is often interpreted as a “mid-life crisis.” But what is a mid-life crisis? It’s when you start realizing that the logic you were using to factually govern your lived life isn’t working any more. I had a mid-life crisis when I was 18! I had another at 40. I think I’m having one right now!
We must return to a working definition of myth that is worthwhile. We need to attach ourselves to an existing myth or consciously create a new one that will provide us with some governing logic. We are lost without it.
What is the myth you live by?
I’ll leave you with a short video of Carl Jung talking about the necessity of myth: