The Role of Myth

Seems folks are knocking myth around lately. Not so much using the word myth necessarily though some do. It’s more an evacuation of confidence on what the role of myth is and ignoring the fact that myth is a major pier in the lives of culture, religion, business and even an individual life.

Mariner has written often that religions around the world which emerged between 7000 BC and 800 AD (virtually all of them) adopted pseudo-historical principles to guide H. sapiens’ accountability to be human. A raccoon doesn’t need to learn how to behave like a good raccoon; it has no choice. Humans need instructions and acquired them by observing the effects of human behavior and the ecosystem over many thousands of years.

It was noticed that some parts of behavior were constructive, some destructive and some were beyond human influence.  Written language, when it existed, was not sophisticated enough to document esoteric, largely emotional and quizzical experiences. The best conveyance to describe these observations and solidify them as rules to live by was to tell stories – stories with melodrama and stark cause and effect just like today’s television. These stories were cultural treasures used as myths by which to live rather than instantly satisfying the same momentary emotional need we have today – without having to learn the substance behind the TV show like our ancestors did listening to their spiritual and cultural leaders.
When writing finally caught up, these stories were written down and codified. There was no reason to doubt them; it was just a more efficient way to replicate and distribute them. The power of written language enabled specialists in these stories to become political and even dictatorial. The specialists are called gods, kings, popes, imams and priests among many other glorifications.

Meanwhile, over the same millennia, culture broadened into specialties like commerce, tribal authority, standing armies, wealth, and other distortions which seemed always to evolve from mythic stories of bad human behavior. Mixed in were these powerful myths about how humans best should live; cultures set these myths aside as a reference rather than as a guide. The ‘reference’ came to be called religion.
Most of the time from about 300 AD to the present has been a continuous conflict between religion and each of the other cultural specialties, even between religious groups. Step on the sidelines for a moment to consider what exists today:
Global corporatism has its own guide focused on optimized profit which pays little heed to other cultural accountabilities; global nationalism has its own guide focused on tribal independence and authority which pays little heed to actual living conditions and ethnic equality; militarism has its own guide focused on domination which pays little heed to the value of life; economy has its own guide focused on greed which pays little heed to equality and fairness; religion has its own guide focused on superior authority which pays little heed to the mythic virtues ordained by their distant ancestors.

Back on theme, the specialties of culture are supposed to change as situations change to maintain their role in culture. Even religion for the most part, as its own cultural specialty, changes along with the other specialties. The sum of each specialty’s behavior equals the sum of the entire culture. How does one sort out the role of myth?

A myth is something one believes in as an absolute value unaffected by any other knowledge, rule, or condition. Mariner has a story he tells frequently about the woman who, when roasting a ham always cut a sizable piece off the ham before roasting it. Her young daughter was watching one day and asked, “Why do you always cut off a piece of the ham?” “Oh, I don’t know,” the mother said, “It’s how your Grandma always does it.”
On a later occasion, both of them visited Grandma. “Grandma,” said the little girl, “Why do you always cut off a piece of ham when you roast it?” Grandma replied “The pot’s too small.”
Myths shattered while you wait…

This cute story about a clean and simple myth held by the mother is useful for realizing how myths evolve over a long period of time (many modern religious stories took thousands of years to become mythic). It also is useful to highlight how dreaded scientific fact can raise havoc with a myth’s standing. Once new information reveals a fact that is subject to interpretation, the myth possibly may lose significant value.

Myths are not habits. Myths are representations of deep rooted values that guide one’s existence. A myth answers questions so ethereal that it is impossible to know self-worth without it. Why do we exist? The dominant reason in most religions is that we are here to make our reality better; we are here to make it better through intense commitment and respect for all living things. At some point, emotion becomes a bridge through art, service, and compliance. If an individual relates to the myth strongly enough, the individual is said to have faith.

Myths can be self-assumed. In the movie Fences, Actor Denzel Washington plays a poor African American (Troy) who had a severely damaged childhood. He finally leaves his abusive home at fourteen, later committing a murder and doing prison time. Upon release, Troy determines to have a ‘normal’ life and live successfully. Being damaged by his early experiences, he adopts an emotionally deficient belief that with a few rules focused on simple, superficial obligations he will be normal: always be employed, always keep food on the table and always provide cash to his wife and a roof over the family. This is an intense myth with no room for emotional reasoning. It is a myth of his own creation: it can never change, no new experience will ever change it, and if he violates it, he will turn into an absolute failure unacceptable to himself. The myth is the best he can muster to maintain personal worth.

Shoring up belief in self makes it a myth. Absolute belief makes it a myth. Troy’s unflinching adherence makes it a myth. Withstanding reality makes it a myth.

What can be learned through the mother and Troy is that the vehicle through which the mythic value is conveyed, be it a pot and a ham, or a series of acts in life, the myth need not be scientifically provable. Myths are the seeds of faith that deliver us from being a raccoon. Being a creature sensitive to esoteric values and the ability to have extensive communication and affiliation with others requires humans to know “what is the right thing to do.”

The short version of this post is to establish a set of myths that give direction to the big questions in one’s life: Why is – birth, death, love, companionship, responsibility to others including the Earth’s habitat for life itself. What does it all mean? How does one live in compliance?

Start your search with the myths behind religious parts of culture but don’t be afraid to construct your own. Mariner senses, for example, that the Marine Memorial raising the flag over Iwo Jima and the story of sacrifice in that battle has been accruing mythic value representing loyalty and commitment to the USA.

The mariner always has felt that science does an injustice to mythology when it weakens the scientific reality but does not pay homage to the true reality supported by the myth.

Ancient Mariner

One thought on “The Role of Myth

  1. This is almost too big to ponder. We hardly know the myths we live by, as we do not think of them as myths. Maybe this is one of your points. It makes me examine my own life for clues about the structures I have built. We think the entire culture shares our mythos, but of course that is not true. It is most obviously not true as we enter this new world of presidential politics. Sorry to remind Mariner of that, since I greatly appreciate this post that does NOT go into politics!!

Leave a Reply to Marty Cancel reply