To return to the discussion of variations of myths, once the original story is taken through the whirlwind of especially ideology in the generations to come, myth in its original context can be literally turned upside down and used not as a teaching tool or for entertainment purposes, but as political doctrine (I would say dogma, but that edges even closer towards religion … more on that later). Arguably, every myth, every historical account and every discovery are in one way or another subject to political ideology.
Examples of this can be found in the works of the great Athenian tragedians Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, who did not write myth per se, but incorporated renowned myths into their new quasi-mythology and social commentary. Ironically, their work nowadays is more known and accepted in mainstream culture and schools as true myth rather than Apollodorus’ Library of Greek Mythology for example, which is a real mythological thesaurus.
Further, it must be stressed that ideology per se is subject to each individual (sub)culture, as a means of interpreting the world and identification with its inhabits. As such, ideology can embody not merely economic “ideals”, but political and globalizing doctrine as well. Consequently, we may in fact say, that the western world is living vicariously and indirectly through the remnants of the Greco-Roman ideology that has been passed through syncretic means.
Incidentally, the meaning of ideology has been subject to a similar treatment as has the word myth. Both have been downplayed or have taken on a more negative connotation, perhaps because their seeming straightforwardness is taken as gospel. As much as ideology nowadays is understood a negative, forceful, insular cultural viewpoint, myth in the mainstream is a mere lie, a fabrication. It’s time to dispel the myth of ideology! The so called scientific worldview we live in has become fixated on the facts and formalistic notions, rather than the richer, deeper meaning behind and beyond a specific term. Coincidentally, even the comics are subject to this, just as words like dictator or barbarous, the first originally referred to a person, who took over the reins of leadership in the time of (military) crisis, while the latter was used for peoples that did not speak Greek. Now, arguably, it always seemed to have been a sense of sarcasm and self-righteousness with these two terms, but it’s the modern adaptation of their meanings that have gradually become more negative, if not turned upside-down.
How does this differ from readapting the meaning of myth as I seem to be doing as well? First of all, I try to understand all aspects of the word, before it has been historically remastered or is currently (mis)used. While the meaning of myth as a false tale has become perfectly acceptable, I still cringe at its use. There’s something to be said about reinterpretations and reuse of terms that can be easily overplayed and in Baudrillardian terms come dangerously close to the final simulacrum stage … Honestly, given the fact that most (if not all) stories in any type of medium or art field at rooted in mythology, it’s kind of hypocritical and severely narrow-minded to refer to the essence and depth of what myth is as something merely false.
Maybe that’s a pet peeve of mine, but I’ve always understood the original meanings of theories or philosophies better than all the following reinterpretations that inevitable shape the popular worldview. Buddhism for instance is a perfect example. What this philosophy of life originally meant in India, has been readapted in China and transfigured in Japan in the potentially immediate epiphany of Zen, which was a perfect fit for the emerging bohemian lifestyle of the American West Coast, especially with the rise of capitalism and its immediate gratification …
As much as history as we know it is largely an account of those in power who had the resources, tenacity and temerity to do what they envisioned for themselves, heresy also played a profound role in human development and was consequently responsible for the scientific (r)evolution (or its slow progression in the Middle Ages). Why should myth be so sacred not to be affected by wider cultural changes, if it is in fact a cultural construct? Objectively speaking, it should not; however, the point I’m trying to make is that myth in its true essence is a cultural backdrop, a sacred cultural story that serves a deeper, psychological, metaphorical cause of constantly keeping any culture and its future generations connected to the original meaning, the original beauty of the story (of life) that binds traditions. While differences in any singe myth might serve as puzzle pieces of a larger cultural setting, I believe that myths are timeless in themselves, since they echo human nature at its purest, beyond political games or gains.
It is for this reason why scholars like Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell have seen myths more as sacred stories than mere fictitious narratives. The sacrality of myth may be quite an elusive subject to try to discuss in any type of analysis, especially since it is directly linked to the spiritual nature and power of mythology. This, in turn, is the bridging element between mythology and religion.
In the realm of religion we have to be wary of formalism and labels. Religious terminology can be delicate to say the least. Not as much from a dogmatic perspective but a more practical one, since labels such as religion and Hinduism have long been a western invention. Hinduism is a contemporary tem that has only recently been accepted by the “Hindus”, similarly the way Christianity was labeled by this term and described by others, until the name consequently stuck. This not only implies the arbitrariness of the (western) terminology, but, what is more, perhaps reflects the inability to cover the wide range of meanings denoted by the term. Similar observations can be made with the westernization of names and notions – what has been for example accepted as Confucius (i.e. Master Kong) and the Way (Dao), respectively.
So, what is a sacred story? This phrase can functionally only be understood from inside a culture, from inside a religion or as Campbell has eloquently stated that mythology can be defined as other people’s religion. This statement embodies the connection between religion and mythology; namely, referring to stories (that are at the heart of both) as either sacred or profound, respectively. Such a perspective in fact denies the sacrality of myth in the strictest sense of the word and proposes that a myth/story only becomes “sacred” when it develops into the doctrine of a religious tradition (perceived from within) as opposed to just a mere fictitious story (when viewed from outside the sacred society). Campbell’s perspective encapsulates the connection between two traditions that may at first glance seem unconnected. However, in light of current scientific obsession with facts, this statement should be (in a Marxian-like reversal) turned upside-down. As the information craze and global communication of our generation has taken hold of our lives and has desecralized the mainstream, religion has in fact become other people’s mythology.
If the perception of myth can be seen in reference to the religious environment, there is a second possibility of myth being the child of time and tradition; meaning a past story that embodies aspects relevant to the present events and mapping out the future. However, if the passage of time plays a vital part in establishing a myth, a potentially big issue of what a contemporary myth actually is emerges. In other words: is a living myth only a myth? Myth seems to become a mythic after self-cultivation and cultural acceptance that echoes many generations and is not merely a popular trend. Perhaps the current cultural trends of passivity, immediacy and hedonism (in light of seemingly divine scientific know-it-all) are the reason why less importance is being placed on myth as a teaching tool and more on its falsehood, not the original, true meaning of myth as a meaningful, if not eternal story.
Bearing this in mind and returning to the myth/religion dichotomy, the second most fundamental difference between myth and religion is directly linked to the acceptance and spread of religious belief throughout history. Religion as such is for the most part seen as “living” religion, religion that is not only still in practice, but takes center stage in human lives globally – the great monotheistic religions, such as predominantly Christianity and Islam (and the many forms). Myth, on the other hand, is relegated to a “dead” religion, practices that have been preserved through artistry and culture, but have fallen out of favor of modern believers. The most obvious example is again the Greco-Roman tradition. It is, however, impossible to truly claim that a particular religion is “dead”, simply because it would fail to gather believers. Someone may still worship Zeus and I don’t mean in a misguided or quasi-rebellious Pagan manner for the sake of being “new-age”, but for the most part Greeks have long since accepted Orthodox Christianity. Zeus, however, will forever live in infamy through the splendid art he is featured in and has consequently inspired. Thus, every minority religion like Bahaism for example is globally less “alive” than the great Olympian gods of old. There’s an underlying hypocrisy of modern monotheism (or rather henotheism) in light of more polytheistic beliefs, but that’s a topic for future discussions …
If we take the premise of Auguste Comte that the development of religion followed a model that began at a fetishistic stage, continued through polytheism and evolved into monotheism, this position essentially leads from diversity into absolutism. Further, such positivism essentially foregoes myth for a more factual positive science in the long run. The Victorian anthropological school also advocated religious (cultural) evolution, such as Edward Burnett Tylor finding the ideological starting point in animism – attributing spiritual intelligence in natural phenomena. This model, which culminates in the predominantly monotheistic practice of the majority of the religious people today, implies that monotheism has survived because it offers a more “evolutionary” complete religious experience. This view, however, is centrally western as the stress is placed on the individual and absolutism as opposed to the communal practices and the stress on nature as present in eastern views (at least traditionally speaking).
(From such a perspective, Akhenaton’s attempt at a monotheistic revolution in ancient Egypt should have been more successful, while Hinduism as one of the oldest and richest polytheistic or rather pluralistic traditions would have long ago been left without such a devoted following. Nevertheless, all of these basic religious positions must take into account the influence of syncretism and the religious cooperation of cultures today; for example the amalgamation of Indian Buddhism and Daoism in China, its influence on Japan, spread to America and consequently the rest of the Western world, despite the fact that the original Buddhist tradition has been uprooted from India. Equally, the presence of myth as still living, active storytelling or mere remnants of the long-gone traditions still shapes our present worldview.)
We can only view the world in this very moment. Just as we can only really conceptualize what we do right now, we place more emphasis on temporal concepts of our existence – religion being the prime example. Religion is alive now because its rituals and rites of passage are still practiced at this time (baptism is a current reality, while the Delphic oracle is a mere remnant of a now tourist tradition). Accordingly, myths are present in this time because they are essential ingredients of any (sacred) tradition that has been brewing our imagination and potential for ages, exemplifying human life stages, change and the universal struggle between order and chaos. I would go so far as to say that there is no religion without myth, because every sacred tradition has a story of its foundation(s) and its development … whether they are to be understood as fables, satire, metaphors or literal is another matter.
I understand myths as stories that are inherently part of a larger tradition, either cultural or religious. Consequently, a specific mythology represents the quintessential body of work of a society, stories that transcend any given culture, since they reflect basic human nature. Because of this inherent connection between myth and religion, I tend to treat the two traditions equally important and may blur the lines where one stops and the other one begins. I don’t claim that myth equals religion or religion is merely myth, but the subject-matter of these respective disciplines cannot be analyzed separately. Whereas religion carries a greater socio-political value, mythology is part of its modus operandi. Pragmatically, religion can be seen as a system that provides doctrine to myth.
Plus, it’s always fine and dandy when thing go hand in hand and can be appreciated as such … like the cooperation of pictures and words in comics. There’s thick underlying sarcasm brewing between these lines, so I’ll stop here before it gets out of hand.
To be continued …
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …