A SHORT HISTORY OF MYTH
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IN 1922, T. S. ELIOT DEPICTED THE spiritual disintegration of Western culture in The Waste Land. In the legend of the Holy Grail, inhabitants of the wasteland live inauthentic lives, blindly following social norms without the conviction that comes of deeper understanding.
How could people put down creative roots in the “stony rubbish” of modernity, when they are familiar only with “a heap of broken images” — isolated and unassimilated shards of the mythical wisdom of the past? As he confronted the sterility of his civilisation, Eliot’s narrator concluded: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Only if we piece together these broken insights and recognise their common core can we reclaim the wasteland in which we live.
In our rational society, we have lost touch with the mythical underpinning of our culture. Today “myth” often describes something that is not true. A politician accused of a peccadillo will say that it is a “myth”, that it never happened.
When we hear of gods walking the earth, of dead men striding out of tombs, or of seas parting to allow a favoured people to escape, we dismiss these stories as demonstrably false. In our historical writing, we are concerned above all with what actually happened but when people wrote about the past in the pre-modern period they were chiefly preoccupied with the significance of an event. A myth was an occurrence that, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time. Mythology pointed beyond history to what was timeless.
Mythology is not an early attempt at historical writing and its stories were never regarded as merely factual. In the pre-modern world, there were two recognised ways of arriving at truth, which the Greeks called mythos and logos. Both were considered essential and neither as inferior to the other. They were complementary modes of acquiring knowledge, each with its own distinct sphere of competence.
People used logos (“science; reason”) to function efficiently in the external world: this type of thinking was essential to the organisation of society or for the development of technology. Logos is pragmatic; it must correspond to objective facts. But it could not answer questions about the value of life nor mitigate the pain and sorrow that is an inescapable part of the human condition. That was the job of mythos. If a beloved friend died or if people witnessed an appalling natural disaster, they found that they did not simply want a rational explanation.
Instead they developed mythical narratives which, like poetry or music, brought comfort that could not be expressed in purely logical terms. They also gave voice to more elusive and mysterious aspects of life that have always been part of human experience. Like art, mythology was the product of the creative imagination; it transfigured our fragmented, tragic world and helped to glimpse new possibilities.
Mythology can be seen as an early form of psychology. The stories of gods or heroes descending into the underworld, threading through labyrinths and fighting with monsters brought to light the mysterious workings of the psyche and showed people how to deal with their turbulent inner world. When Freud and Jung began to formulate the quest for the soul, they instinctively turned to classical mythology to explain their insights.
A myth was not true because it was factual but because it was psychologically effective. If it forced people to change their minds and hearts, gave them hope, and compelled them to live more fully, it was valid, because it told us something important about how humanity worked.
A myth was a programme for action. The myth of the hero, which is remarkably similar in nearly all cultures, showed people what they must do to tap into their own heroic potential. The myth of Demeter and Persephone suggested that a disciplined confrontation with our mortality could lead to spiritual regeneration. A myth is a guide; it tells us what we must do to live more intensely. If we do not apply it to our own situation and make the myth a reality in our own lives, it will remain as incomprehensible as the rules of a board game, which often seem confusing and boring until we start to play. If we do not attempt to implement its directives, we cannot assess its truth.
Myth is therefore more than history. It could be understood only in the context of spiritual and psychological transformation. Before the modern period, there was no more conflict between mythology and reason than between reason and art. But during the 19th century, logos achieved such spectacular results in the West that mythos was discredited and reason regarded as the only respectable way of arriving at truth. Even religious people began to assume that the myths of their religion were historical and that their scriptures were literally true.
Our modern alienation from myth is unprecedented, because human beings have always been myth-makers. There is a moving, and even heroic, asceticism in the rejection of myth, but purely linear, logical and historical modes of thought have debarred us from the wisdom that enabled men and women to draw on the full resources of humanity. The most developed and ethically intelligent myths taught people that compassion and abandoning egotism were beneficial and helped them to cultivate a sense of the earth as sacred, instead of merely being a resource. These are attitudes that are sorely needed today. Tragically, because of our lack of mythical expertise, the myths that did emerge in the 20th century were narrowly racial, ethnic, and egotistic, exalting the self by demonising the other. We cannot counter bad myths by reason alone, because undiluted logos cannot deal with such deep-rooted, unexorcised fear and hatred. We cannot completely cancel out the rational bias of our education but we can acquire a more educated attitude to mythology.
Religion used to provide the context for some of the best mythological thinking, but in our time, painters, poets, dramatists and novelists rather than religious leaders have stepped into the vacuum and attempted to reacquaint us with the wisdom of the past. This new Myth series will continue that priestly mission.
Eliot’s poem was prophetic. Mythology — like religion — is an art form. In their attempt to find an antidote to the sterility and heartless cruelty of some aspects of modernity, writers have turned to mythological themes. Like a great myth, a poem, a novel or a play can teach us to see the world differently; show us how to look into our hearts and see our world from a perspective beyond our self-interest; and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world.
The Myths is a series published by Canongate Books, with 33 publishing houses, “in the most ambitious simultaneous worldwide publication undertaken”. In each book, a world class writer retells a myth. The first three — Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth, Jeanette Winterson’s Weight and Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad — are published next week.