Defining mythos is a little more tricky than defining logos. The idea of myth is loaded with negative connotations, especially for the religiously minded individual. So I am going to try to be as thorough as possible to make clear what the word actually means and what I am saying and not saying. Let me be perfectly clear: the definition of myth is going to be controversial to some. My plan is not to stir the pot and offend sensibilities. I want us to be on the same page as we move on into the meatier part of our discussion of these two ideas.
For starters, myth does not refer primarily to false stories from long ago about giant, angry, jealous, sexually frustrated sky gods and goddesses fighting and loving and searching for each other. Myth doesn’t even necessarily refer to that which is inherently false. Myths are the traditional stories of the early history of a group of people. Let’s take some time to unpack this a little more.
Until the modern era, when people told and retold their history, they were not primarily concerned with the timeline of literal, actual events that happened and recounting them with perfect, historical accuracy. History tends to repeat itself and, to use an old cliche, hindsight is always 20/20.
It used to be that people told their stories with the intention of bringing to light the lessons to be learned from a past event and to make clear that all stories are everyone’s story in some way. History was told in broad strokes and in such a way that made the listener not just a part of the story, but so that they could see their own life represented symbolically in the events of the past, in the present.
A prime example is the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience and subsequent expulsion from Eden.
The story is familiar. God created man and woman and placed them in a fertile garden to care for it and each other. They were given, essentially, a choice between living a long and happy life or a life filled with hardship and pain and an early grave. And the choice between the two was a simple as choosing not to eat from a certain tree.
The story ends in familiar tragedy as the man and woman are kicked out of paradise to fight for their own survival and the survival of their family.
When this story was told, though, it wasn’t told in such a way as to recount the origins of humankind. It wasn’t a systematic breakdown of past events. All of us have the choice to live a life of purity and, therefore, joy and completeness or a life of struggle with ourselves and our fellow man. The story may have occurred, just as Israel crossed the Red Sea or the Maccabees tried to revolt. But that wasn’t the point. The point of the telling of the Eden story (or any other story) was to teach the listener about themselves and impart wisdom about life.
True stories took on the character of myth as people saw themselves in the characters and events being spoken of. This is why the Greek gods were so angry and sexually frustrated. Many people are these things, and all people can relate to the stories at some level and see themselves in the lives and choices made by the gods.
But this is not how we have to come to understand myth. A second definition, and the one mostly commonly used, is “a widely held but false belief or idea”, which we will unpack next time.