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the importance and value of myth and mythology

New definitions for myth, sometimes used derisively, have sprung up in some corners of modern society. For example, by differing reckonings, a myth is:

  • Any invented story, idea, or concept.
  • An imaginary or fictitious thing or person.
  • A story, theme, object, or character regarded as embodying an aspect of a culture, as a movie star who became a myth.
  • An unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution.

The last new definition cited above—an unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution—shows just how negative the public's reaction to myth has become. For example, one "myth" that fits this definition is the Nazi myth of Aryan superiority.

In spite of the negative perceptions people tend to have about myth, many of the same people who scoff at myth in some situations admire it in others. They read comic books, see films about superheroes, or follow science fiction stories on television. There must be something about myth that continues to intrigue and attract.

the Not-So-Ugly truth about myth

The new definitions of myth cited above do not agree with the more neutral one offered by The Muse. Yet even myths that fit The Muse's definition have proved hard for some people to swallow. Why?

Certainly, the public is more sophisticated, better educated, and better informed than its counterparts in previous centuries; compared with the ancients, perhaps it's harder for us to take the old superheroes and their unlikely feats seriously. Their stories may even appear a bit silly to modern eyes. For some reason, in our culture, something that is not true tends to be discounted. It may be easy to poke fun at these older tales today because the common perception of myth is of something that's not based on truth, and because the old tales are based on alien value systems and mores that originated in other times and places.

Where myth is concerned, this view is summed up in the statement, Myth is myth.

Yet, the truth is that myth is truth, truth as modern today as it was long ago. Where mythology is concerned, myth is not mythical in the pejorative sense; nothing could be further from the truth. (For more on this, visit Welcome To Understanding Myth And Mythology.)

Our apparent cultural need to see, hear, or read a story as literal truth may account for recent television specials that attempt to rationalize the super-fantastic science that is the basis for movies like Star Trek, Star Wars, Superman, and Spiderman, various comic books, and other contemporary fictional stories.

For some reason, fantasy epics like these, which at the core are myths in their own right, are adored by their vast audiences even though they are as separated from actual science as ancient mythic stories are separated from actual science. These modern audiences seem to be unable to accept myth unless it is presented in a patently factual manner. The admiring public responds to these blockbusters without realizing that they are just as much mythical epics as the trials of Hercules or the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts.

the value of myth

As we shall see in these pages, contrary to popular opinion, in the broad sense myth and mythology are not discredited; and the making of myth is not a defunct activity. There is nothing old fashioned about myths; they are as alive as ever, exerting as much impact on society and the individual as in past millennia. New myths are spawned continually, and there is every indication that myths will continue to alter the course of human events as long as mankind inhabits this planet.

Perhaps myth's importance is underrated because mythology is not easy to understand; it raises all kinds of fascinating, puzzling, tough questions. Yet much that is worthwhile can be learned from unearthing answers to the knotty and profound questions it raises. For example:

Why does myth:

  • Exert a strange, wonderful, and inexplicable power over the affairs of men, a power that compels, motivates, and directs?
  • Seem to perform a vital, essential function in individuals, societies, cultures, religions, philosophies, and nations?

How can a myth:

  • Be taken as literal truth by its adherents even when it contains irrational or implausible elements?

How and why does myth:

  • Project an aura of mystery and awe?
  • Stimulate strong emotions, excite, and draw in the believer rather than promote calm, detachment, or indifference?

How and why does man make myth:

  • Does myth serve a vital purpose or is it an incidental or casual phenomenon?
  • Is mythmaking fundamental to human nature? Why are mythmaking processes active in all individuals, societies, cultures, and nations?
  • Does the mythic process function the same way in everyone, everywhere?
  • Is myth active in the psyche at both a conscious and an unconscious level?
  • How does the mind produce myth and what is the source of the mythical experience?
  • Is there a "myth center" in the brain?
  • Is the capacity for making or experiencing a myth genetically conveyed between the generations? Is it fundamental to human nature or is it culturally induced?

What is the historicity of a myth and how can we unlock its historical messages? When and under what conditions should we take a myth to be serious history?

Myths are stories. How do myths differ from kinds of stories that resemble them, such as fairy tales, legends, and fables?

Specific mythical stories differ from one culture to the next or one nation to the next, yet all myths seem to share common elements. Oddly, many specific myths, mythic characters, and mythic themes closely resemble each other even when they arise in cultures apparently isolated from each another by expanses of geography or time:

  • Can we identify elements common to all or most myths?
  • Can we discern patterns in these elements?
  • Can we identify specific elements in specific myths that are different from each other or that are the same?
  • Can we discern patterns in these differences and similarities?
  • Can we find reasons that might explain how these anomalies came to be?

What's going on today in the science and study of myth? What is being discovered and what are the prospects for future developments?

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