It is interesting that today the use of the word “myth” has a pejorative nature about it. We call something a myth when it seems factually untrue and deliberately designed to mislead. To so misuse the notion of myth is to do it a great injustice.
The ancient Greeks made the distinction between Mythos and Logos.
Mythos was a story or a series of story that were allegorical in nature pointing to deep inherent truths. Most of the major religions have used mythos to teach us their underlying principles. In this vein we have Arjuna’s dialogue with the Lord Krishna, Moses parting the Sea of Reeds, Jesus’s account of the good Samaritan, Muhammad’s night flight from the Temple Mount to the throne of God and innumerable stories and parables that have been evoked to help Mankind come to grips with spirituality.
In contrast with mythos, logos is the manifestation of reason and logic.
In the minds of the ancients these were in fact two ways of approaching truth.
Logos approaches truth directly trying to elucidate facts and dealing with such facts with reason.
Mythos on the other hand approaches truth indirectly. It evokes truth through analogy and metaphor. But contrary to modern thinking mythos was still devoted to seeking the truth.
As religious historian, Karen Armstrong has pointed out, most of the major world religions were consolidated in the so called Axial Age (c. 800 to 200 BCE). Whilst Christianity and Islam arrived later on the scene they were derivatives of Judaism which was largely established in that period. All of these religions relied on mythos to propagate their fundamental ideas. But toward the end of the Axial Age mythos was beginning to be challenged. Paradoxically this challenge was being lodged by the Greek s themselves through some of the deliberations of their pjhilosophers.
Whereas mythos requires emotional engagement and some sort of mimesis to make sense, logos tries to establish the truth by means of careful enquiry that appeals only to the critical intelligence. In this way the symbolism of myth is overlooked without which it makes little sense. Just take for example one of the myths of Judaism related above, the escape of the Jews from Egypt culminating of the destruction of Pharaohs’ army by the resurgent sea after Moses had parted the waters to allow the Israelites to cross. Whilst historians dispute the facts of such an event, they largely miss the point. Immersion in water was traditionally used as a rite of passage. Middle Eastern mythology is replete with stories of gods “ parting the waters”. In a time when the Israelites were forming their particular brand of monotheism, their god had to be shown to be at least as powerful as his competitors. The crossing of the Sea of Reeds was a symbolic rite of passage, not for an individual but for a whole people. This was important at a time when the Israelites were struggling to establish their identity. So whilst I have no doubt that a historical Moses never existed and that there was no escape from Egypt under his command, it is wrong to say just because the historical truths of these exploits are doubtful that the story does not contain symbolic truths about the establishment of Judaism. This, as I have tried to point out, is not how mythos operates.
But the first assault on the power of mythos was launched by Plato and Aristotle.
The Greek tragedies were good examples of the power of mythos. Some writers have suggested that the Greek tragedies in fact mirrored the process of traditional initiation rites. They forced the audience to face the unspeakable and to experience extremity. It resembles in some ways the ideology of sacrifice because it leads to catharsis, an interior purification resulting from the violent invasion of heart and mind by the emotions of pity and terror. But the final result was a growing empathy for our human fellows that had to endure inordinate emotional and psychological difficulties.
But Plato took issue with the tragedies. He abhorred their emotionality and felt they fed the irrational part of the soul. Engrossed in logos he maintained that only logical discourse brings true understanding.
Aristotle had the same misgivings. He read the myths of his culture as though they were philosophical tracts that made no sense in a rational way.
But despite the misgivings of Plato and Aristotle, logos failed to impact unduly on the Greek religions.
As Karen Armstrong has written:
Greeks continued to sacrifice to the gods, take part in the Eleusinian mysteries, and celebrate their festivals until the sixth century of the Common Era, when this pagan religion was forcibly suppressed by the Emperor Justinian, and replaced with the mythos of Christianity.
Interestingly, it was the Arabs who preserved the notions of logos articulated by Plato and Socrates. When the works of the Greek philosophers were translated into Arabic in the eighth and ninth centuries, some Muslims even tried to make the religion of the Koran a religion of logos. They were called the Faylasufs and they wanted to purge Islam of what they regarded as primitive, mythical elements. They had little success in this regard because it was difficult to resolve the notion of an impersonal deity, that the rational logic of the Greek philosophers advocated, with the more personal god of Judaism, Christianity and Islam who was wont to intervene in human affairs.
Nevertheless the influence of logos provided other benefits. The Arabs, under its influence, were able to make advances in physics, mathematics and medicine whilst Europe languished in the Dark Ages.
In the West, it wasn’t until the sixteenth century that logos asserted its influence. Paradoxically it was subsumed from the Arab scholars that had kept the thoughts of many of the traditional Greek philosophers alive whilst Europe floundered intellectually. But once logos was unleashed it stimulated a revolution in thinking and caused a cultural change that was unequalled in history. This was the Age of Enlightenment. It initiated an epoch of scientific endeavour that resulted in a vast surge of understanding of the physical world. This in turn resulted in huge advances in technology that produced unparalleled benefits for the citizens of Europe and subsequently their various colonies. There was a marked improvement in the standard of living, in health and longevity but it signalled the virtual demise of mythos.
Some time ago, the good Dr Phil recommended that I should read a book titled The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. McGilchrist’s thesis is that in recent historical times, at least in the West, the left brain has come to dominate human endeavour. McGilchrist draws on many fields of knowledge (including modern neuro-science) to support this thesis and I found his arguments quite compelling.
And of course the left brain is endowed with the ability to analyse the world in a rational way. Its activities are dominated by serial, cognitive processes which value facts, logic and rationality. Logos is the child and the prime implementing influence of the left brain.
In the introduction to my little book Augustus Finds Serenity I wrote:
It has always seemed to me that humankind’s most important truths have largely been taught through parable and metaphor. It is as though what matters most to us is beyond reason, and is only accessible by what Darryl Reaney once called ‘another way of knowing.’ Hence, the huge impact of such wisdom literature as the Christian Gospels, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Greek Myths,
Aesop’s Fables, and so on.
(I always find it quite fun to quote myself!)
But it does seem to me to be quite true that if we try to understand the world by only using one half of the available armoury, viz. logos, we are unduly handicapping ourselves.
McGilchrist, who is a Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical Director at the Bethlehem Royal and Maudsley Hospital London and has conducted considerable research into neuroimaging, and is a far more erudite commentator than I am, writes:
I would like to put in a word for uncertainty. In the field of religion there are dogmatists of no-faith as there are of faith, and both seem to me closer to one another than those who try to keep the door open to the possibility of something beyond the ways in which we customary think, but which we have to find, painstakingly for ourselves. Similarly as regards science, there are those who are certain, God knows how, of what it is that patient attention to the world reveals, and those whoreally do not care, because their minds are already made up that science cannot tell them anything profound. Both seem to me to be profoundly mistaken. Though we cannot be certain what it is our knowledge reveals, this is in fact a more fruitful position – in fact the only one that permits the possibility of belief. And what has limited the power of both art and science in our time has been the absence of the belief in anything except the most diminished version of the world and our selves.
The role of myth in ancient times was to bring meaning to the world, to help us deal with our inevitable human suffering and in particular with our mortality. The heroes of mythology were people of courage and daring that set examples for us about how we might live our lives. Whilst mythology wasn’t designed to help us understand our history it was designed to help us understand and deal with our humanity.
The tragedy about mythology, is that once the left brain became so dominant in society, many felt compelled to take the myths as the literal truth even though that had never been the way to unwrap the truths that they held. It is easy to denigrate myths on that basis. (This was, for example, part of Richard Dawkins’ trenchant criticism of Christianity.)
The demise of mythology didn’t dampen our need for heroes, it merely ensured we created rather inconsequential ones. In place of Jason and Ulysses we have had to make do with Elvis, Princess Dianna and a host of starlets and pop musicians whose achievements are little beyond notoriety.
But there still exists a need for myth.
We need stories that tell us how to deal with adversity and how to learn from our journey through life, that remind us of our humanity and our human foibles, that encourage us to be brave, generous and loving. Whilst myths are no longer part of our mainstream in life, we still seek out novels, poetry and films that carry such messages.
Whilst our life is now dominated by logos, we still need to balance it with mythos in order to be well-rounded human beings.