Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

Myth: A Defintion

Posted by Randy Hoyt • Jul 1st, 2008

Journey to the Sea is a new online magazine devoted to the study of myth. Because the English word myth has many different meanings and connotations, I thought it would be useful to describe what it is we are devoted to studying in the books we mention and the articles we write for this site. Consider this merely a working definition, something to get a discussion started; we will no doubt need to revisit this periodically as the site evolves.


Ancient people told stories of the beginning of the world, wars among the gods, quests of heroes, and other events beyond the realm of our everyday experience. These stories are often called myths. Many people today discount these stories as historically and scientifically inaccurate, good for little more than entertainment or amusement. But dismissing these stories as simply bad history or bad science causes people to overlook the significant role these myths have played throughout human history and miss what value they might still offer us today.

Joseph Campbell, a noted mythology scholar, described four functions of myths. They awoke in mankind a sense of awe and wonder at the mysteries of the world (the mystical function). They described the shape, composition, and origin of the universe (cosmological). They communicated and justified proper social structure and behavior (sociological). They carried the individual through the various phases of life, from birth through maturity to senility and death (psychological). (Pathways to Bliss 6-9)

For centuries, these stories guided people through these four functions to live fuller and more satisfying lives. Karen Armstrong, an author of numerous works on comparative religion, summarizes the overall function of myth with these words:

A myth is essentially a guide; it tells us what to do in order to live more richly. […] A myth is true because it is effective [in this], not because it gives us factual information (Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth 10).

Many myths, like those of Balder and Prometheus, come from ancient secular traditions that are no longer active, while others come from religions practiced to this day. The sacred writings of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism all contain such stories. While believers of these faiths might be inclined to see their stories as facts and not as myths, the Christian apologist and literary scholar C.S. Lewis has observed that these two terms are not contradictory. He believed that the myths of his own religious tradition were historical facts, but he insisted that they also contained the quality of myth:

The heart of Christianity is a myth. […] The myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be a myth […] is also a fact. […] Christians need to be reminded that it carries with it into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth. […] Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our own theology (“Myth Became Fact” 66-67).

I look at the story of Job from the Bible and a story of Moses from the Qur’an in another article from this issue, God and Man: Two Western Themes, and we will be exploring stories from other religious traditions in the future. We in no way intend to diminish or insult any religious tradition by including its stories within our study of myth.

These ancient myths can still teach us a great deal. Like all great art, myth transcends time and culture. C.S Lewis offers the following description of how myth can affect us today:

[Myths] give us (at the first meeting) as much delight and (on prolonged acquaintance) as much wisdom and strength as the works of the greatest poets. […] It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt. […] It gets under our skin […] and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives. (Phantastes xi)

I believe the key to understanding the effect myth can have on us lies in Lewis’ word beyond. Myth pushed our ancestors beyond their everyday lives to a different reality, a higher plane of existence, such as the land of the gods. From there, they could look back on their own lives with a perspective that challenged them to rise above a mere animal existence and fulfill their human potential. We can still find in these myths inspiration to do the same.

Ancient mythologies and religious texts are not the only source of such stories available to us today. The genres of fantasy and science fiction are well-suited to send us to other worlds — if not to the land of the gods, at least to the lands of wizards and elves or to galaxies far, far away — and dramatically change the way we look at our own world. Laura explores some mythical aspects of Orson Scott Card’s fantasy in another article from this issue, Magic in the World of Alvin Maker: Seventh Son.

When we use the word myth throughout this site, we mean stories contained in ancient mythology, religion, and contemporary fantasy and science fiction that typically involve some other world or plane of existence. When reading these myths and writing the articles on this site, we seek to experience the enjoyment and strength they provide and to learn more about them and how they work.


References

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3 Responses »

  1. You have laid out an excellent definition of myth, and your sources give a great context for what more you have in store. As we’ve discussed many times before, I completely agree that myth is very crucial to our everyday lives. Too many people dismiss myth and story far too easily as things for children. Both Pan’s Labyrinth and The Brothers Grimm do a great job of showing the foolishness of that, even if they are considered fantasy themselves. I’m looking forward to the additional articles and the future issues!

  2. I like some of these interpretations of what myth is. They are all in the connotation of a story. Myths exist in families and other structured groups. There are myths about a member of a family who did this or took care of everyone or was the smartest and then when someone can be objective they can see it is a myth – someone else was the smartest.

    In other words the myth is a lie. The myth could be an exageration. The myth can be the opposite of exaggeration, again a lie. So it is similar. I don’t know if I am making sense.

    Would welcome any comments.

    Helen at hlobosco@sbcglobal.net

  3. I too like this definition of myth and how you tied it to science ficiton and fantasy, both of which I am a fan of.

    I enjoy myths as well. There are the oldest stories on Earth and they’re still being told today in one form or another. It could be they are meant to make the unknown seem knowable.

    I also like that you view the myths themselves and not tie them to any religion. I think this diminishes the impact of myths and what they can teach us if you take them too seriously.