Wednesday, November 7, 2018

What is Myth?

I recently cut this from the Introduction to my Orphic Hymns book (gods, I hate editing!). It's a short essay on the nature of myth.

What is Mythology?

As with so many things of real value, defining what exactly we mean by “myth” is a tricky thing. Myths are, of course, a kind of story The ancient Greek word μῦθος (mythos), from whence we derive our English “myth,” meant originally only “story” unencumbered by the complicated connotations of our modern usage. And yet, as we use the term today, not every story is a myth. I understand there to be, roughly, five criteria which distinguish myths from other stories:

They derive their “authority” from tradition and “for this reason they are not subject to rational examination by the audience”. They are not intended to be empirically verifiable, and do not try to make falsifiable claims about the world.

They are teaching tools, and provide actionable information about cosmology. They are often stories that have “morals”; however, unlike fables, they are not only rhetorical devices for those morals, but rather include complex descriptions of truths about the nature of people, the world, and the “proper” relationships between them. Myths have a clear point of view, and they want you to have it too. They are “capable of surpassing any form of rational persuasion.”

They take place in an extra-historical setting, once upon a time, although they are sometimes presented as historical. This distinguishes myth from legends, which are (possibly fictionalized) tellings of actual events and real people. Myths, however, do place themselves, as stories, in a historical context of older stories. They “go back to older, explicitly indicated or implied, real or fictional oral sources.”

They include supernatural elements, such as gods, magic, or archetypal heroes. This too distinguishes them from legends, which are largely “realist” in tone.

They have a special sacred character, and are not purely entertainment. They are often ritually re-enacted, and it is believed that just telling them can have impact on the world. This distinguishes myths from folktales, which are, effectively, secularized myths, often beginning as the remnants of a conquered culture’s myths. For example, Jakob Grimm wrote extensively on his belief that the folk tales he collected contained hints at pre-Christian Germanic myth.

Myths answer questions like “Why....?” far more often than questions that begin “How...?” In Homer, the word μῦθος (mythos) is used almost interchangeably with λόγος (logos) to mean, simply, “that which is told”. However, when they are distinguished in Greek epic poetry, “logos denotes not rational argumentation, but rather shady speech acts: those of seduction, beguilement, and deception.... Mythos, in contrast, was the speech of the preeminent, above all poets and kings, a genre (like them) possessed of high authority...”

And here we find what is, to my mind, the central idea necessary for understanding myth: “Myths are things which never happened, but always are,” says Sallustias, a fourth century Latin poet and counselor to Emperor Julian the Philosopher, and he speaks what we all know to be true. The way we understand a myth to be true or false is very different than the way we understand the truth of other kinds of speech. I wish I could unwind this special kind of truth for you briefly, but I do not think a brief discussion of it is even possible. In modern English, we often use the word “myth” to mean something that is completely false, a fabulist lie. However, just as often, we treat myth as a sort of primordial story which is truer than true. “...[P]rimeval philosophy, or rather the wisdom that preceded it, did not grow out of the negation of myth, but was born from its depth. Unfortunately, the development of philosophy did not lead to continually more perfect cognition and penetration of wisdom, but to the contrary--to its degeneration...Wisdom takes its root from madness.”

Greece, a highly literate culture, produced no “sacred texts” in the way we understand that term. The holy stories and myths were known to all, in a multiplicity of forms, constantly retold and rewoven by nursemaid and poet, dramatist and priest alike. Perhaps the most archetypal of all Greek writers, Plato, engages in just this sort of retelling. Plato tells traditional myths, often in greatly modified forms, but he also invents new myths as both teaching tools and rhetorical devices. And yet, not all of Plato’s story telling is myth: “The myths Plato invents, as well as the traditional myths he uses, are narratives that are non-falsifiable, for they depict particular beings, deeds, places or events that are beyond our experience: the gods, the daemons, the heroes, the life of soul after death, the distant past, etc. Myths are also fantastical, but they are not inherently irrational and they are not targeted at the irrational parts of the soul.”

At no point in Greek history until the coming of Christianity, would a Greek have understood what was meant by a question such as “Is this a true myth?”. All of the great stories were known in several versions, and this variety of forms continues to this day. The goal of this book is to neither revise nor to reconstruct ancient myths, but rather to add new tellings into the tapestry that is Greek myth. As the Orphic Rhapsodic Theogonies have it: “Take the fragments scattered in the texts of those who unwittingly hid them. Arrange their content in a mighty poem, easy to understand for the pious, yet obscure to the profane, that it might give solace once again to the souls of virtuous mortals, of yours and future generations, who are able to perceive the beauty concealed within the story it tells.” It is for this reason that I have chosen to use the word “mythopoet” (μυθοποητιᾰ) for myself, and for my ancient colleagues, rather than the Greek ῥαψῳδός (“rhapsode” or “stitcher of songs”) or the English “bard.” A rhapsode was a professional performer of epic poetry, a wandering storyteller. While they performed other works, including those of Hesiod, they were often also called Homeridai, because Homer’s epics were their main recitations. Rhapsodes were primarily performers rather than authors, although most noted rhapsodes (like Hesiod) also composed original works. Moreover, both rhapsodes and bards sang their recitations, rather than simply speaking them, although the differences between singing and what we would call “spoken word” were not as distinct in the ancient world. As must be evident from the fact that you are reading a book I’ve written, I understand myself primarily as an author, rather than a performer, and so I have settled on mythopoeia to describe the activity in which we’re currently engaged.

The English word “mythopoesis” comes from the Greek μυθοποιία, and literally means “myth-making”. The second part of the word, “poeia,” is the root of our English word “poetry” but in the ancient word, the line between poetry and prose was a fine one. Historically, “mythopoesis” was an obscure technical term, describing, as Victorian historians would tell it, that period of time when humans made myths “instead of science” to explain the world around them. However, in 1931, J. R. R. Tolkien popularised the word with a poem titled Mythopoeia, which was a direct response to his frenemy and Oxford colleague C.S. Lewis’s skepticism about the value of myth. Lewis (at the time, although his views softened with the wisdom of age) believed that myths are "lies and therefore worthless, even though 'breathed through silver.'” Tolkien replied in verse:

You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are `trees', and growing is `to grow');
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star's a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, Inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.
He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother's womb whence all have birth.

Like Tolkien, I believe that Creation is an ongoing affair, that moment by moment, word by word, we each breathe ideas into being. Tolkien was a male, nominally Christian, British aristocrat writing in the 1930s, and his view of the world, like our own, was heavily shaped by his lived experience of it. I write as a pagan Jewish-Greek-American feminist, witch, and all-around freak, and I’ll go even further than he did: I say that the mythopoet, like the bard or the rhapsode, speaks for those who have tongues only of flame, and writes for those whose hands are the bare winter branches. For me, mythopoeia is an essential part of my relationship to the gods, the Land, the ancestors, and the World, both here and in the Other Place. It is my great hope that the hymns and commentary I will share with you here will help you to find your own voice and tell your own stories.

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