When most of us in the western world think of mythology, images of Greek and Roman gods probably first spring to mind: old stories of Zeus hurling his thunderbolts, of Hera his jealous wife and sister, of Zeus’ Roman counterpart, Almighty Jupiter, or Mercury of the wingéd sandals, who reminded Aeneas that it was his duty to found the city of Rome etc. And doubtless these are good examples, although only a very few among an endless number of such stories that have come down to us over the millennia from every part of the globe.
But what really do we mean when we talk about mythology? What is its essence? Why has it been so powerful a force throughout human history? And another equally important question suggests itself, as well – is mythology still with us today? Is it a force in our lives currently, or was it a thing only of the past? I believe the answer to all these questions is actually not quite as complicated as it may at first appear.
First of all, let us consider what mythology is. It can be relatively easily defined as having two parts. The first is as a force, a desire really, a need on the part of human beings to explain what otherwise appears to us as unexplainable. By this I mean what are sometimes referred to as the big questions in life. Why are we here? Does life have a meaning? Who (if anyone) made us? Why is there suffering in life; why do we die; and after we die do we live on in some form, or do we simply cease to exist altogether? These and other similar questions have both intrigued and plagued humanity since the very beginning, when ape-like creatures first evolved and begin to engage in reflective thinking. The second part of the definition is as important as the first, and it has to do with the fact that humans, for the most part, seem to be either unwilling or unable to live without some kind of hope. Who among us, for example, does not wish for his or her life to be on some kind of trajectory whereby things are somehow “getting better”? This is true whether we are rich or poor, atheists or believers, members of an organized religion or among those who eschews such groups. And if, somehow, we have lost hope for ourselves, as some do, still we may hold on to it for our children or for our loved ones. Those without any hope for the future are the saddest of the sad among us, and some, most regretfully, decide that life is no longer worth living.
So, myth making has been the way which humans have used over the millennia to explain the world to themselves, and through which they envision a better, more hopeful future. If anyone doubts this, just familiarize yourself with the almost countless number of “creation myths” that people the world over have concocted in order to explain how the world was made. Virtually every culture has had it own story at one time or another. And many Christians still hold as literally true the story of God creating the world in seven days. In every case we see a Creator Being of some sort giving form to things, taking what had been unformed chaos and making it into the familiar forms we have come to know and feel comfortable with.
If it is true, then, that the making of these kinds of stories about ourselves and our world is so essential to human beings, it seems equally reasonable to posit that modern peoples too must continue to do so. It is my contention, in fact, that all religions are a form of mythology. This includes the major religions practiced today, Christianity (in all of its subsets), Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism etc. Each one makes a valiant stab at explaining to its followers the world and its great mysteries of life and death and suffering and good and evil.
Take Christianity, with which most of us are very familiar, as an example. As Joseph Campbell points out in his master work “The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology,” a great shift began to take place in the Europe of the 12th and the 13th centuries. Prior to that, the Church ruled with an iron fist, and its priests were the sole explainers and arbiters of all mystery in the world. However, beginning with the wonders of the Grail stories, and moving on from there to the Reformation and the European Enlightenment, individuals gradually began to realize that they themselves are quite capable of making their own way. Indeed, people began to see that it is an absolute requirement for them to do so. Campbell calls this “the rise of the principle of individual conscience over ecclesiastical authority.” But just how far have we progressed?
Many of the major world religions of today have come down to us from the almost incredible fertility of what Campbell calls “the nuclear Near East.” Certainly, this is true for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In each case, the stories, the myths if you will, that they are composed of are now many centuries old. But they all have a sacred book or books considered to have been dictated by a Deity. As such, the book and what it teaches are thought to be “outside of time,” that is, applicable to every era of human history. Some followers even take these stories in their most literal form – which was never the real intent of myth making – and contrive to apply their rules and their strictures to life in the 21st century, with sometimes disastrous results.
This is in fact the great danger of myth making, that many take the stories quite literally, instead of symbolically. Take for example the story of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption into Heaven. There are those who believe that her literal body was taken into a place called heaven, accompanied by a host of rejoicing angels, instead of understanding the story the way it was meant to be, that is, as a symbol of what it means to raise our consciousness above the everyday cares and worries of the world.
My own view is that these stories are beginning to wear thin. Yes, many still hold to them, but that is because some great New Myth has yet to emerge out of human consciousness to form itself in the world. Mormonism, some New Age religions, and such oddities as Scientology have made an attempt, but most seem to come down to either a rehashing of the same old stories with a few tweaks here and there, or something so outlandish that they appeal only to the fringes of society. Communism, too, is a kind of mythology, and it was tried and found horribly wanting. It has been suggested by some, as well, that science itself may be the new mythology of the modern world. It does, after all, attempt to explain many of the world’s mysteries, including creation and life itself. However, such explanations are at best both provisional and tentative, nor do they provide any understanding of such questions as why there is evil or suffering in the world, or give us hope in the face of a perilous and uncertain future. Such answers, if you will, come only with true myth making.
So, we seem to be left either with what I will call the old forms, that is, the millennia-old religions and their waning stories, or – with what? I would tentatively suggest that perhaps what is left is the very flowering of the greatest form of individualism that began to slowly and laboriously emerge from the High Middle Ages. I would put forward that what may be needed today is a greater willingness and effort on the part of each individual to create his or her own mythic story, which ultimately attempts to grapple with all of life’s mysteries. This means that it is ultimately incumbent on each person to go within and to search out what cannot be explained or even fully understood by our everyday consciousness. I am not talking about a new religion, but a new way of being in the world, one whereby every human takes full responsibility for his or her own story, as well as for its ramifications on the world around us and on other people.
We are individuals, but we do not live alone in the world; nor do we own the world. Whatever story we come to understand and to live by must therefore take into consideration the needs and the rights of all other life forms, indeed, of the planet itself. No longer is it necessary to read and abide by what was dictated by a Deity to prophets who lived thousands of years ago. Neither priests nor popes nor preachers need tell us what it means to lead a good life. But this can only be true if we go deeply within, anchor ourselves in the Great Mystery that is beyond all explaining and understanding, and humbly seek what is best for ourselves as individuals and as members of the collective.
In this way, a New Mythology may slowly begin to emerge, one that is fashioned for the challenges of the rapidly changing 21st century in which we live, but which still addresses the great mysteries that defy explanation, and gives us courage to continue on, as well as hope that a better day is yet to come.