Our lives are shaped and guided by myth. This is true both of those myths that we personally “own”, and those that shape our culture and society. To fully understand the world we live in and the world we are in the process of creating, we need to at least try to understand our mythologies and how they have shaped the course of our history.
What is a myth? The way I hear the word used most often, it means a made-up story, something that’s not true. Merriam-Webster gives a pretty good primary definition: “a usually traditional story… that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon… especially : one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society.”
In short, a myth is a story that carries meaning for the culture in which it arises. Myths tell us deep truths about ourselves, either as we are or as we would like to be. The best myths, as we will see, usually can support multiple, sometimes contradictory, interpretations, and continue to be meaningful even after the culture from which they come has died.
Carrying this definition on just a little further, we can also see what a myth is not – it’s not just a folktale, like John Henry or Paul Bunyan; it’s not just a piece of fiction or a made-up story; it’s not even “just” religion, although most religions are concerned with myths. Myths don’t have to be religious in nature, either, of course – we have an American mythology that is largely secular, although religion certainly plays a part in it.
Mention the word “mythology” to most people who went through American schools, and the first thing that pops into their head is probably a bunch of gods in bedsheets sitting around on Mount Olympus. Thanks mostly to the vast conquests of the Roman Empire, the stories of the Greek gods (particularly as interpreted by the Romans and, perhaps even more, as re-interpreted in the Renaissance) became part of the general cultural heritage of Europe, and thus of America as well. Their direct influence is not as strong today as it was even a few hundred years ago, when people faced with a tough decision were known to practice “bibliomancy” with the Aeneid – but the tradition is still very present in the fabric of Western culture.
Let’s look at a story from the Classical tradition to illustrate one of the most important elements that makes a story a myth: multiplicity of meaning. Most of us know the story of Demeter and Persephone, as told by high school textbooks – how Persephone, wandering alone in the fields, was abducted by Hades and tricked into eating so that she couldn’t leave; and how her mother Demeter, goddess of the harvest, turned the world to winter until she got her daughter back, and turns back every year to winter for the months that Hades insists Persephone return to him.
The functional method of interpretation that has been the academic standard for so long says that this is a “just-so” story the Greeks developed to explain winter. Other interpreters see it as an exploration of the power of parental love, so strong that it can even (at least partially) bend the will of the gods and break the bonds of death. A reversal of that version sees a cautionary tale about parental control and obsession; a Freudian might see it as a subconscious expression of separation anxiety and the mother-daughter power struggle; and at least one poet has seen a Persephone forever torn between filial and wifely duty, never able to completely satisfy either mother or husband, much less herself. (And a number of recent writers have taken up the love story aspect, sometimes quite explicitly!)
Many visions, many meanings, one story – and to the extent that each helps someone to make sense of the world and understand her place in it, each version is “true”.
As an example of American mythology, let’s take a quick look at two of our best-known “hero tales” – George Washington and the cherry tree, and Abraham Lincoln walking eleven miles in a snowstorm to return a borrowed book. These stories have several features that lead me to call them mythological – they concern culture heroes, they carry meaning beyond the simple narrative, and each generation teaches them to their children. These two stories, especially taken together, reveal one of the deep-seated truths of the American psyche – we believe that it’s important to be honest and accept responsibility, even at the cost of inconvenience to oneself, and we value those traits in our leaders… at least as an ideal.
There is another element of our American mythological worldview that is having dramatic consequences for the whole world today – that we are, in Jonathan Edwards’ memorable (and in retrospect perhaps unfortunate) phrase, a “shining city on a hill”. Edwards and the other early settlers came here to found a new civilization, one based explicitly on religious principles, that they believed would be destined to be a “light to the nations” and lead the whole world to the path of righteousness. We’ve never lost the core of that vision, although all too often now it degenerates into the automatic assumption that we are righteous simply because we’re America, forgetting that righteousness is a precondition to being the city on the hill. This twisted vision can lead to blind patriotism that demands America be revered whatever we do – sometimes with devastating consequences – rather than a deeper patriotism that seeks to guide America towards doing that which makes her worthy of reverence.
In addition to the American and Classical mythos, we have the Jewish (mostly as interpreted by Christianity, and frequently intertwined with or embedded within the American) – not to mention the stories that each of us tells about ourselves, that help define us as individuals, families, and communities. That’s a lot of stories – and of course everyone internalizes them differently, and assigns more importance to some than to others. A devout Christian, for instance, probably gives more authority to that mythology than to the American and certainly more than the Classical; while a humanist Classics professor might give more weight to the stories of the old gods than to those of the Church; and so on.
We need to pay more and better attention to our myths – first to indentify what they are, and then to clearly understand how our own and our neighbors’ understanding of them contributes to the shaping of our present and our future. What do we want our nation to be, what ideals do we want to embody – and what stories we should be telling ourselves, and our children, to make that vision a reality?