On The Correct Understanding Of Myth, Mythos, And Mythology

Something I have been meaning to do for some time now, is set out in grander detail the true meaning of the term Myth – and how ‘Mythology’ is NOT a synonym for ‘Fantasy’, ‘Fallacy’, ‘Falsehood’, ‘Fiction’. And, from there, segue into speaking about the concepts of ‘Mythic Truth’ relative to the more ordinary, mundane, and decidedly ‘sidereal’ kind. And how all of this intersects with the vexed matter of Scriptural Literalism (something warned against, as it happens, by an array of Hindu sages of yesteryear). 

However, I am aware that I have a bit of a .. piquant way of putting things; so I decided to go about this in a rather different way to usual. By bringing together some excellent explanatory quotes from a number of leading minds whose views I respect; with a light bit of interspersed commentary to help weave them together into a cohesive whole. 

So to begin with … what is a Myth, what is Mythology? 

Well, at its simplest – the former is a story, the latter is a conceptual rubric; both of which assist with our navigation of the world around us, our perception of what’s actually going on, in ways that are meaningful. Both to us (i.e. how we perceive things that aren’t initially to do with us), and about us – that is to say, making us meaningful to the eyes of others (or even, for that matter, to ourselves). 

Now, none of that means “falsehood” – although it can be something that might look a bit like a fiction dependent, to quote Obi-wan Kenobi, upon one’s point of view. Funny thing about fiction, though – it rarely resonates well without at least a foundational kernel of truth; and certainly sans some ethic of relatability. 

The best Mythology, the stuff that really does deserve the Capital M Myth(-Os) treatment, resonates in such a way with the immanent and the embedded fundamental realities of the universe that it is, in essence, more true than mere human happenstance that we can observably record with a cellphone camera nor crude, eye-witness account circum-scribed some years later. 

As Neil Gaiman put it: “Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.”

Which does not quite answer the functionalist question of just what a Myth is. 

If pressed – and we are pressed for space before I begin bombarding you with the far-brighter glimmering-gleanings of more illustrious names than I – then I would probably postulate that : 

Myth being what turns otherwise indecipherable squiggles upon a page into a map, sentences; the thing that guides our interpretation and our understanding – enables us to make sense of otherwise unconnected data-points that we may not even be able to tell are data-points. A means for interpreting, understanding, even perceiving, guiding our progress through this Reality of ours. In fact, Creating that Reality for us to experience – whether singly, or more properly, communally. 

In that sense, it is an overcoming of the problem of the gaping gulf of intersubjectivity between us and not only our fellow-men of the community, but with the rest of the universe itself. 

As Sam Keen puts it: 

“Myth is the system of basic metaphors, images, and stories that in-forms the perceptions, memories, and aspirations of a people; provides the rationale for its institutions, rituals and power structure; and gives a map of the purpose and stages of life.”

Now, the best way to understand this, I suppose, is to take a look at the ‘alternative’ – the Mythless World. And there’s an earlier Nietzsche-sourced aphorism I turned into an article in that direction. But that is not where we are going to go for this one. 

Rather, it is to the beautiful mind that is (I definitely do not say ‘was’) Terry Pratchett. To quote from Hogfather:

“”Now tell me ..
“Yes! The sun would have risen just the same, yes?”
“Oh, come on. You can’t expect me to believe that. It’s an astronomical fact.”
“Really? Then what would have happened, pray?”

He’s referencing, of course, a bit from C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: 

“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.”

But Pratchett, as is his wont, takes things further. Much further. His point, in effect, is that in the world bereft of the ‘imaginative’ understanding that also undergirds our perception of Myth – we are not human, there is no space, no sphere for ‘humanness’. There is only cold, hard, unfeeling data sans meaning. As he so memorably puts it – ‘Imagination, not intelligence, made us human’.

We would go in a somewhat different direction, in that ‘imagination’ may imply flights of fancy and flourishes of falsehood. This is not that. In the religious realm (where, it should not surprise any to learn, we make our home) – the acts of ‘imagining’ are not there to produce something false. But rather, to help us to see beyond the end of our nose. It is not non-sense, but an additional sense. And the most important of all – the one that helps us to make sense of the world around us in more than the most purely animalistic of limited perceptional frameworks. 

It shows us the patterns that are around us, and importantly how we fit in. Perhaps even, as I have explored in some of my previous work in this field, to begin to work with the myths that we find ourselves a part of – rather than being doomed to be rode roughshod over the top of via poorly invoked forms of same, as was the case with Pakistan’s careless invocation of Central Asian warlords for its military hardware nomenclature, for example. 

But I promised you quotes from others, so on with the show! 

Mircea Eliade: 

“For the past fifty years at least, Western scholars have approached the study of myth from a viewpoint markedly different from, let us say, that of the nineteenth century. Unlike their predecessors, who treated myth in the usual meaning of the word, that is, as “fable,” “invention,” “fiction,” they have accepted it as it was understood in archaic societies, where, on the contrary, “myth” means a “true story” and, beyond that, a story that is a most precious possession because it is sacred, exemplary, significant. This new semantic value given the term “myth” makes its use in contemporary parlance somewhat equivocal. Today, that is, the word is employed both in the sense of “fiction” or “illusion” and in that familiar especially to ethnologists, sociologists, and historians of religions, the sense of “sacred tradition, primordial revelation, exemplary model.” … the Greeks steadily continued to empty mythos of all religious and metaphysical value. Contrasted both with logos and, later, with historia, mythos came in the end to denote “what cannot really exist.” On its side, Judaeo-Christianity put the stamp of “falsehood” and “illusion” on whatever was not justified or validated by the two Testaments.”

And he’s correct about that. One of the ways in which certain forces have attempted to cut us off from the mythic understanding – to de-sacralize the world, in essence – is to ‘revalue the values’ around the very word, the concept of Myth and Mythology. [A sad trend, we must note, that Christianity has also ultimately fallen victim to itself]

It now is abjured as ‘falsehood’ rather than ‘explication’ – and so therefore, it accomplishes the dual effect of driving many people away from engagement with myth on the presumption that it is fiction … and many more away from engagement with myth, on the presumption that invoking the name ‘myth’ renders something ‘fiction’. 

This latter hinderance I have encountered dozens upon dozens of times with understandably annoyed Hindus who have sought to castigate me for saying “Hindu Mythology” – insisting that I ought to say “Hindu History”, because “Ithihasa” [a term for some of the great Hindu Epics] literally means ‘That Which Happened’. 

Something that causes quite a problem when some of the textual details in these Epics … do not at all accord with a scientifically verifiable accounting for, say, the evolution of humanity or the chronology of human civilization and the development of agriculture, let alone certain vexed questions around Indo-European migration onto the SubContinent ; and which causes further issues when it comes to particular details of this or that version of an Epic not matching harmoniously with what’s presented in other canonical texts. 

Indeed, the trouble with this form of insistent scriptural literalism is twofold – that it reduces fundamental details of divine truth down to questions of, in effect, typography and matters of accurate transposition by scribes rather than serious theological inquiry … and second, that it means we miss the point of these myths in their proper explanatory context. 

We are focused, in other words, upon the wrong kind of True. And there are actually remarks of exactly this kind within the Hindu canon itself … that the simple-minded man will be amused reading tales of monsters being slain, whilst the proper and true sagacious sort will grasp the underlying meaning to the symbols employed, and harvest the bountiful wisdom to improve himself and those around him by looking past the easy beguilements of literary flourishes. 

But I digress. More upon that some other time. 

To return to this concept of the ‘Mythless Society’ – the World of Oblivion, as Pratchett phrased it (in full knowledge, I would impute, with the sense of Forgetting bound up with that) – it seems unquestionable that we live, here in the West, in a ‘Mythless Society’. Which we might instead surmise to be the ‘MythSless Society’ – as there is room for but one, which has sought to suppress all the others. 

Sam Keen again: 

“It has been fashionable in the twentieth century not only to debunk myth, … but to pretend that that reasonable and educated people could avoid the embarrassment of religion and the risk of metaphysics by sticking close to demonstrable facts and testable hypotheses. However, in the course of reducing our beliefs and hopes to certainties and proofs, we impoverished and deluded ourselves. The modern anti-myth reduced human life to a story without a point, a tale told by an idiot, a process without a purpose, a journey without a goal, an affair without a climax (Godot never comes), an accidental collision of mindless atoms. … We have hardly noticed that economics, technology and politics have become the new myth and metaphysic. We haven’t avoided myth and metaphysics, only created demeaning ones.”

Or, Eliade again:

“It is only through the discovery of History — more precisely by the awakening of the historical consciousness in Judaeo-Christianity and its propagation by Hegel and his successors — it is only through the radical assimilation of the new mode of being represented by human existence in the world that myth could be left behind. But we hesitate to say that mythical thought has been abolished. As we shall soon see, it managed to survive, though radically changed (if not perfectly camouflaged). And the astonishing fact is that, more than anywhere else it survives in historiography!”

Keen also adds: 

“It is only from the perspective of the outlaw … that we are able to see that mythically informed normality is a form of mass hypnosis.” 

And, for good measure: 

“A society that trains us to specialize in making, doing, performing, and producing neglects to educate us in wonder and appreciation.”

Now our serious business – both here at Arya Akasha, as well as in our personal lives … a quest you may join us upon, if you are willing and able – is the Re-Enchantment of the World. The Re-Mythologization, if you like. Setting free the hostages of the mind and its horizons. An act of Liberation – cognitive and otherwise. 

And that requires a far greater, indeed a far grander understanding of just what it is that Myth in fact is. What these ‘Patterns’ are, and how to distinguish the Supernally resonant ones, from the mere humdrum socially-constructed ones that we must wade through upon our every day-to-day out-in-public basis. 

The religious world-view is comprised of exactly these. Both, as it happens, but built around a solid core of the former. Every Indo-European scriptural-canonical corpus contains just such ‘patterns’; the True events [with a capital T for that sense of Truth that is too true to be easily confined via crude materialistic analysis and conventional scientia nor historiography] ; refracted out as further patterns both appropriate to and understood by, their subsequent, descendant bearers. 

That is in large measure why we Do What We Do. Because these are windows in upon the fundamental Reality, the True Reality – and enables us to resurrect, to revitalize, even to ‘reincarnate’ some of those Patterns. Not just for some certain Indo-European peoples and their reviving mytho-religious corpora; but also to seek to re-immanentize the fundamental, underlying Patterns out into our reality, our sidereal mundane reality, itself. 

Re-immanentization as Revanchism. Making the World Integrally Whole again via Re-integration. ‘Krinvanto Vishvam Aryam’, indeed, as we have so often said. 

The serious study of Myth, in other words – in its proper place and in its proper more-than-historic understanding – enables us to meaningfully participate in the Myth, Do Our Part, and uphold the values, pass on the perceptions, that are vital for a proper life even amidst the dying detritus of the modern age. 

In future installments, I intend to take a more and closer look at some of the other concepts we’ve but briefly touched upon or cursorily alluded to in the above. Things like scriptural literalism (and those aforementioned Hindu caveats AGAINST such, especially in the face of science); Eliadian ‘Eternal Return’ or as we call it ‘Mythic Recurrence’ and the ‘Mythic Resonancy’ conceptry I’ve built out of same. 

But for now, this is enough.

You’ve taken your first step into a larger world. 

A Mythic one. 

Best be perceiving yourself a guide. 

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