Is mythology useful in the modern world?

2009 October 27

Stu and I collaborated to draft this summary of one of our October discussions. While not strictly accurate, this version has the benefit of conveying the give-and-take spirit of Socrates Cafe. And, as this very discussion addressed, sometimes you need to use a fiction to tell a deeper truth. I’ve taken some liberties with rearranging the order of comments and articulating some points that were implied by the discussion but not made explicit.

[Where the question came from: In her new book The Case for God, Karen Armstrong argues that religion and mythology have to go back to their pre-17th century roots if they are to remain relevant. That got us interested in discussing the role of mythology today. ]


First, let’s ask: What is a myth?

Well, our common conception is that a myth is a very old story, from an oral tradition, such as that of the ancient Greeks. Mythology isn’t about facts. It’s not history. Myths explain the ‘why’ (if not accurately the ‘how’) of the events and ways of the world.

You say a myth isn’t about facts, but don’t some myths purport to explain the natural world as a scientific theory might? I’m thinking, for example, of creation myths and myths about weather gods. Aren’t they intended to be actual descriptions of the beginning of the world and the forces that rule it?

I’m not sure that the Genesis story is meant to be taken literally. It’s a fiction told to tell a deeper truth, or at least raise a deeper question, for example: What is humanity’s place in nature? In this sense, Social Darwinism might be considered to be a modern myth: Although social Darwinism makes use of scientific theory (Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection), it is not itself science. It takes some facts about the real world and uses them metaphorically to conjure a myth about human nature (‘survival of the fittest’ in society) as well as humanity’s relationship to the natural world.

So is mythology a sort of category mistake? The suborning of facts and science to tell just-so stories that reinforce a culture’s prejudices?

Only to the extent that all metaphors are deliberate category violations. Properly used they help one understand a new situation. Metaphor isn’t intended to explain the actual way the new situation works, but instead offers a workable mental model that avoids unsound trains of logic. (At least when used in good faith: Plato banned the artisans of metaphor—poets—from his Republic. He saw poetry as a form of propaganda.)

Would you say that modern conspiracy theories—alien abduction narratives and world-control-by-secret-cabal theories—are also modern myths, useful or otherwise?

Conspiracy theories purport to be about a factual (if hidden) truth. They seem to be trying more to be like history than like myth. Myths aren’t about exposing cover-ups and correcting the public record.

OK. We’ve examined our conception of what a myth is. Now let’s ask: What does it mean for a myth to be useful?

For starters, myths may act to facilitate shared cultural connections, which in turn provides a sense of emotional connection and meaning that humans clearly crave. Religious myths may also provide comfort and a certainty that calms the mind and its fears in the face of an uncertain world. In a similar vein, a mythological explanation can be inappropriately substituted for a scientific explanation: The myth ‘satisfies’ curiosity, preventing or redirecting further examination of some event or practice that might embarrass authorities. But, on the positive side, myths can offer a roadmap to life’s challenges: how to fix a problem, how to live the good life, how to navigate life’s many transitions.

Can you give an example?

Yes, the Hero’s Journey is a recurrent form of myth (for example, The Odyssey) that speaks metaphorically about how a person makes the transition to adulthood by enduring and meeting a series of challenges. These are more sophisticated myths, or interpretations. On the simpler side, a  myth often has some moral to teach, especially if targeted toward children. Myths can help a child internalize a culture’s values leading ultimately to more prosocial behavior. The Santa Claus myth, for example,teaches children to believe an invisible observer is always watching so they begin to control impulsive or socially undesirable behaviors. Thus myths act to smuggle in values and beliefs, like “Bad deeds will be judged by an all knowing being and then punished.” Rituals around the Santa myth encourage kids to actually try out prosocial behaviors: We leave gifts of milk and cookies for Santa, modeling reciprocity; children have to wait to open their presents, modeling patience and delayed gratification; the youngest child is often serves as gift-distributor, modeling service to others. But myths are hard to control. They take on a life of their own. So the Santa myth has also become saturated with crass consumerism.

Doesn’t the Santa myth have a weakness shared by a number of other badly-shaped myths? It is falsifiable. It claims that Santa actually exists. It begins to crumble when, as a kid, you get more than or less than you deserve. What is the explanation? Perhaps the invisible watcher is mean, unfair, or insane. And when kids find out Santa doesn’t exist, they may doubt the reality of the myth’s moral lessons as well, or even come to believe the myth to be a fantasy invented to control them.

That’s possible. But this is also possible: When children mature and learn that Santa IS just a myth, they learn to deal with the disappointment—maybe even heartbreak—of having something they fervently desire to be true shown to be false. It prepares them to cope with this very human experience.

This is all very interesting, but isn’t it also true that a myth can be useful simply by entertaining? Isn’t that what so much of Homer is about: Telling a good story?

It’s certainly true that for a myth to be effective, it’s got to be transmitted reliably. And to be transmitted reliably it must be vivid, memorable, entertaining in its own right, and effective on multiple levels. A myth can entertain both by being as simple as it needs to be, and as elaborate as the teller wants to make it. It should offer both a simple lesson and a deeper, more culturally loaded, lesson for the adept or attuned individual to tease out. At one level, the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a symbolic story about chivalry and loyalty. On another, it’s a commentary about gender relations. But it’s also a rollicking kid’s fairytale, complete with adventures and a scary monster. (It’s no surprise that J.R.R. Tolkien authored a translation. What is the Green Knight if not a proto-Orc?)

One Response
  1. Sid from Michigan permalink
    October 27, 2009

    Greetings Seattle – from Michigan.

    My name is Sid.
    A couple of years ago I signed-up with your Yahoo Group
    to get your postings to compare your group to ours to see
    if we could do some things better to increase membership
    and participation. It seems your group is nearly identical to
    ours: about 45 members with eight to twelve regular attendees.

    Our group is the Okemos Socrates Cafe in
    Okemos, Michigan, near Lansing.
    We meet in Schuller’s book store in the
    Chapbook Cafe area on Mondays 7-8:30 PM.
    Ordinary coffee is $1.96 a cup with free refills.

    After reading a recent post of yours to your Yahoo Group I found
    a comment about Social Darwinism and had a comment.
    I frequently use the term myself. I hijacked the term and use it
    according to the definition of it that I have given it for my purposes.
    I’ll explain that below. I request your indulgence with this.

    The below is from:

    “prodigl” wrote:
    I’m not sure that the Genesis story is meant to be taken literally.
    It’s a fiction told to tell a deeper truth, or at least raise a deeper
    question, for example: What is humanity’s place in nature?

    In this sense, Social Darwinism might be considered to be
    a modern myth: Although Social Darwinism makes use of
    scientific theory (Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural
    selection), it is not itself science.

    It takes some facts about the real world and uses them
    metaphorically to conjure a myth about human nature
    (‘survival of the fittest’ in society) as well as humanity’s
    relationship to the natural world.

    Sid writes: (That’s me).
    My opinion of Social Darwinism is that it does not qualify as a myth.

    As I understand it, Darwinists are trying to disassociate
    themselves from the term “Social Darwinism.”

    I believe the term as used today is meant to imply that what happens
    to people in society (society: what people do), can be controlled by
    powerful or influential persons at their will without regard to ethical or
    moral considerations IF they want to do so. Said differently, absolute
    power can corrupt absolutely and the powerless are unable to stop it.

    Social Darwinism, as I use the term, only describes what happens.
    Since nearly anyone today can readily observe what happens when
    powerful persons have their way over others, the “Natural” (?) Selection-like
    result is that the weak can and often do fail and die while the wielders
    of this extraordinary leverage, whether good or evil, survive and thrive.

    Since Will-directed-Intelligence controls the decisions made, in real-time,
    that strips the label “myth” from Social Darwinism because myth tells stories
    from the far distant past as if they were true, in lieu of any proof of their
    as object lessons for us today. Zeus is a myth, Bernie Madoff is not.

    I do not consider those who with premeditation successfully employ
    a method explained as Social Darwinism, as “fit.” In fact, to use power
    to control and direct society without the constraints of ethical and moral
    virtue to be the exact opposite: “quite unfit.”

    I’m wondering if your members might consider this a kind of paradox?
    The paradox being the large burden of persons restrained by a high ethic
    and moral bearing trying to compete with those who can and do employ
    any manner of leverage they have to win at any cost.

    I don’t know anyone’s politics there, but this might be compared to the
    relative perceived advantage of FOX media against the President in the
    present day propaganda war. I’m not trying to excite an argument with
    this, but I’ll take a chance.

    This topic occupies a great deal of my thinking time as you might have guessed.

    I thought the readers in your part of the country might like to read another
    opinion on this topic.

    I enjoyed the Summary of your discussion and the link to the complete
    summary as well. Nice writing.

    I don’t intend to chime-in with comments at every opportunity as this medium
    is difficult and time consuming for me.

    Thank you in advance for reading this.
    It’s 4 AM here so if this rambles – sorry about that.

    Okemos Socrates Cafe
    Okemos, Michigan near MSU

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