Religious Myths: why?
Myth is considered one of the main sources of religious belief and practices. It has not been easy to define myth even as a concept or a word. In the nineteenth century myth meant “anything that was opposed to reality”. In the context of religion myth is an integral part of the foundation of the practices, being the myth of cosmogony or the myth of a great flood. What is fact and what is fiction? Those myths that people look at for guidance what do they represent? Myth seems to be an integral part of religion, in fact it is a necessary part. There are some reasons why it could be so: psychological, sociological, economic, and even historical.
In the religious myths, some of the stories could be historically and factually correct whereas others are very obviously parabolas. And as time passes, fact becomes memory, memory becomes history, history becomes legend and legend becomes myth. And it becomes hard to distinguish fact from fiction. Myth can be defined as it can be the stories and tales of old, like the Greek mythology of heroes and gods. It could be myth explaining the creation of the universe and answering our existential questions. (Segal, 2004) Myth is considered to be primitive science, according to Tylor and as moderns discover science they no longer can accept myth. “When the attention of a man in the myth-making stage of intellect is drawn to any phenomenon or custom which has to him no obvious reason, he invents and tells a story to account for it…” (Tylor, 1871) Eliade (1957a) states:
“The myth defines itself by its own mode of being. It can only be grasped as a myth insofar as it reveals something as having been truly manifested, and this manifestation is at the same time creative and exemplary (…) A myth always narrates something as having really happened, as an event that took place.”
How about exploring in the opposition of myth and history (Levi-Strauss, 1978). Myth is static and it provides a stability to men in a world of infinite possibilities, combinations, and changes. History has been shaped and twisted to fit the standards of ruling parties and regimes, even of religious leaders. Eliade (1957b) further states:
“the myth relates a sacred history (..) a primordial event that took place in the beginning of time. (…) The myth then is the history that took place in illo tempore (…) to tell a myth is to proclaim what happened ab origine.”
It is presented in a point of view that renders one a hero when another is a villain and as we evolve we realize that this is not always true. Yet myth is a constant companion of comfort to the weary mind that faces reality. Maybe an escape into the world of dreams where myth sometimes comes from. (Campbell, 1970).
Myth certainly seems to not always be a fact, yet creationists treat it as the absolute truth. How can then men justify their concept and view of the world bound to the myth of long ago, a myth that has been passed from generation to generation through sometimes an oral tradition only? I wonder what justifies this blind belief and understanding in these stories as if they were the Bible, pun intended. I believe, similar to the Hegel school of thought that the nature of man is rather limited compared to the divine and in these stories man tries to portray the divine with anthropomorphic criteria and reasoning at best.
Eliade (1957a) states that a myth is anything opposed to “reality”. In archaic societies a myth is elevated from to expressing an absolute truth, because it narrates a sacred history. And yet also in the Christian societies, myths are taught in schools even relating them as absolute truths. Christ was a historical personage that absolutely and irrevocably said and did every single thing written about him in a canon that was assembled 300 years after his passing from unknown authors. (Sadleir, 2010).
I have always been fascinated by Marx’s statement that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.” (1844) Can myth be an integral part of the equation of drugging the people that have been harmed by the oppression of society by literally putting them to sleep by telling them stories? Is this simply a part of human nature that stories soothe us and that we experience the harsh nature of reality, surrounded by sociopaths, by greed, by crime and in general by the lower expressions of human nature? (Olson, 1980) Rejecting myth has been an old endeavor of philosophers and intellectuals alike, accounts of it can be found as long ago as Plato rejecting Homer in Ancient Greece. Science has been always trying to explain why and how rationally it does not make sense to accept myth as reality. People spend their lives trying to prove that myth is fiction, when the point may simply be that it does not matter is myth is truth or fiction given that it does not change its popularity.
The glimpses of the divine are shadows of an infinite truth. Our mind cannot contain that truth, and the only way to convey a message is to tell a story about it. Yet it is questionable whether we do understand that we have given up parts of the truth in order to be able to speak and communicate. Because otherwise no words are necessary, the truth just is. How come though that we take stories and make them rules of life? What is this attraction? An answer could be found in the nature of myth, in the way societies pass on and teach religious myths. It seems that every religion has some sort of myth associated with its teachings that may or may not be a part of their scriptures. Some myths are said to be historical facts, whereas others are more honestly fiction. (Hinnells, 2005)
In conclusion, mythology seems to be an integral part of religion in the way it has been observed through the ages and the cultures. Myth persists and for many people myth is an irrefutable truth. There are many ideas that can and do explain the persistence of myth, despite all claims otherwise to reason. The answer could be education, societal control for pacifying the masses, it could be found in the human nature of desiring security through constancy. Or it could simply be that it makes people happy. And as we look into the synthesis of these arguments, the explanation of myth being driven by societal needs or simple economics, the conclusion seems too complex to define into one single argument. What we can go away with is that mythology is a necessary part of religion as much as scripture and ritual is.
Campbell, J. (1970) “Myths, Dreams and Religions” Spring Publications, Dallas TX
Eliade, M. (1957a) “Myths, Dreams and Mysteries” Harper and Row Publishers, New York.
Eliade, M. (1957b) “The Sacred and the Profane” Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag
Hinnells, J. (2005) “The Routledge companion of the study of religion” Chapter 20, pp 356-366 Routledge, Oxon
Levy- Strauss, C. “Myth and Meaning” Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
Livingston, J. (2005) “Anatomy of the Sacred” Pearson Education, NJ
Marx, K. (1844) “A contribution to the critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right”
Olson, A. (1980) “Myth, symbol and Reality” University of Notre Dame Press, IN
Sadleir, S. (2010) “Christ Englightened: the Lost teachings of Jesus Unveiled” S.AI., Laguna Beach, CA
Segal, R. (2004) “Myth: a very short introduction” Oxford University Press, Oxford
Tylor, E. B. (1871) “Primitive Cultures” Murray, London