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What is Mythology?
Before we can make any in depth study of Mythology, we have to understand what we are dealing with.
First, it must be understood that mythology is more than just the tales we have inherited from Homer, or the brilliant Sagas of the Norsemen. It is even something more than "other people's religion," as Joseph Campbell used to jokingly say.
"A whole mythology is an organization of symbolic images and narratives, metaphorical of the possibilities of human experience and the fulfillment of a given culture at a given time (Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That, pp1-2)."
Myths are found in literature as well as in religion. They speak to somewhere deep in our unconscious mind, and if we are lucky, they will instinctively guide our development. Even though many of these myths change us through a process not unlike osmosis, it is important for us to learn how to recognize a myth, so we can choose whether or not we want to assimilate it into our lives.
Now I do not have the time or space in this essay to detail everything that needs to be said on the subject. That is the purpose of the Foundation section of the website. For now, I will focus on what I see that the most important aspect of mythology: how it functions in our individual and collective lives.
Where do Myths Come From?
"First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Peter 1:20-21, NRSV)."
This is perhaps the most misunderstood passage from the western tradition. Many have used it to try to show the superiority of their particular theology over their rivals. Others have disregarded it altogether, but it does answer the question of where myths come from.
Let's take a look at Joseph Campbell's explanation of the origin of myth, and pay close attention to how these two answers overlap:
"Mythology is composed by poets out of their insights and realizations. Mythologies are not invented; they are found. You can no more tell us what your dream is going to be tonight than we can invent a myth. Myths come from the mystical region of essential experience (Joseph Campbell, Myths of Light, p xix)."
No one can invent a myth, but I would also contend that there is nothing spooky going on here either. What is the difference between a myth and a good story? The myth speaks to something deep down within our souls. They tell us that their is more to the story than we caught at first glance. Great stories don't.
This is not because some spook is whispering arcane secrets into the poet's ear, it is (more often than not) because the story took on a life of its own and carried the poet along with it. It is only when the unconscious mind is active in the creative process that a myth can be born. We all carry these forms within us. It is for the artist to step aside long enough to let them show through.
A good example of this is George Lucas. He set out to write a new myth, but found that it would not cooperate with him. He had writer's block. Eventually, he put aside everything that he wanted to write about, and just wrote. Star Wars is undoubtedly a triumph of the muse over the artist.
Once a myth is found by the poet, and they share it with society, it will take on a life of its own. All myths operate in society in four ways. In this, they help to shape culture, and are in turn shaped by it.
"The first must be to open the mind of everybody in the society to that mystery dimension that cannot be analyzed, cannot be talked about but can only be experienced as out there and in here at once (Joseph Campbell, Myths of Light, p 5)."
This is where most western religions break down, and it is the aspect of modern myth that is most often overlooked. The Mystical Function of a myth is to help the participant to realize that the outer forms that are portrayed are emblematic of the forces at work within the psyche.
Out there is really in here. This is the first secret. In the Matrix Trilogy, the mythic dimensions open to us when we see that the Matrix itself is symbolic of our mind, but the flood gates open when we can see that Zion is as well. All of these outer images speak of internal conflict. We all have our own Agents in our heads trying to fight against us.
Why do these aspects of our psyche come into view through these stories? Because they are beyond naming, beyond analysis. I will view the agent in completely different terms than you will, since he takes on aspects of our own inner struggle. If I used something other than this mythic image, I could only explain my own inner demons, and you may or may not be able to relate. Once it is concretized, it can only speak to my condition. As a symbol it can speak to our condition.
The Architect and the Oracle are the best examples of what I'm talking about. Many people I've talked to have compared them to God and the Devil, but few agreed on which was which. Even when they did, they couldn't agree to why.
We can also see these images as symbolic of the collective psyche of our culture or world. As you can see, they still reveal the hidden indefinable aspects of our culture in terms that are useful to our minds, while leaving them open to interpretation.
That is the first function of myth: It speaks to the individual and the culture simultaneously, and helps them to see what is going on within them.
"The second function of a mythology is to present an image of the universe that connects the transcendent to the world of everyday experience (Joseph Campbell, Myths of Light, p 5)."
I really don't want to get into the issue of whether or not there is a god, that is a topic for another set of articles. What I am talking about now is simply "The Transcendent." Whatever that might mean to you: God, energy, higher dimensions, or the driving force of history itself. There is something that transcends our ordinary experience. Maybe it is something as simple as love, or cosmic order; but the question is, how does that relate to me?
In Babylon 5, the question is approached from many angles. Basically, a scientific answer is elevated to a level of cosmological significance: we are the universe trying to understand itself. Here, the universe, the very unadorned ground of being is presented to us as the transcendent mystery, and we are fragments of that universe trying to comprehend itself in the only way it can: from the inside.
If this presentation of the mystery has any resonance within us, it provides a metaphor to understand our relationship to the transcendent. Now, we have a window into our own everyday lives that we can use to understand why we are here, and what is the purpose of everything.
"The third function is to present a social order by which people will be coordinated to the mystery (Joseph Campbell, Myths of Light, p 5)."
This is perhaps the most dangerous and controversial aspect of mythology. The social order depicted is always tied directly to the same era as that the myth was composed in. Very few myths are truly timeless. Most are filled with archaic views that must be refuted for the myth to have any relevance in the modern world. We do this all the time, often without even noticing.
Should we blindly accept these outdated concepts, we become a danger to ourselves and to civilization itself. The news is full of examples of what I'm talking about. We only have to look at the pro-lifer who shoots a doctor to "save lives," or the events of 9/11.
That is why it is important to regularly question everything, even our most basic assumptions and beliefs. It is not enough to just question, we have to be prepared to give up any belief we find to be false.
The Sociological Function of mythology does have a positive side. It builds communities and fills them with a sense of common purpose. The American Dream is one such myth.
Star Trek is a great example of this. After being on television for only three years, it spawned a large community that grew, and even thrived in absence of any real input from those who created it. Star Trek embodied the ideals of honor, courage, and IDIC. IDIC is a concept indigenous to the Star Trek Universe: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination. The diehard fans of the series have taken these ideals to heart and actually try to live by them. For all of the scorn heaped on the phenomenon, I think a lot of good has come out of it. What better ideals for people to base their lives on?
This new social order arose from the myth of its own accord, and led many people to a better understanding of their place in the universe.
"Finally the fourth function of the mythology is to carry the individual through the course of life (Joseph Campbell, Myths of Light, p 5)."
From birth to adulthood to marriage to children to death, myths provide a pattern to help people understand their lives and give meaning to them.
For me the music of the band Queensryche has served this function quite well. Not alone, I do have other influences, but they have developed with me. From their albums Rage for Order and Operation: Mindcrime that helped me in my confused teen years, to Empire that opened my eyes to the real world around me, their music has been a companion sharing insight with me when I needed it most. When I went out on my own and found out just how evil the world can be, Promise Land came out and helped me to realize that I was not alone, and their was a better future to work for. Ever since 9/11, I had found myself in a haze. Nothing seemed to make sense anymore. Then came Tribe. They gave words to my pain, a cure to my nightmares, and renewed hope for the future.
In every stage of my life so far, they have told a tale to illuminate the way. That is the Fourth Function of myth.
I have used many different mythologies to explain the four functions of myth. I could have used just one for all of them, but I wanted to illustrate a point. We don't have to choose one mythology to the exclusion of everything else. Each of these myths have something different to say, and each one speaks to the soul in a different way. Together with many others, they have helped me to be the best me I can be, and that is what all myths are meant to be.
Some people may object to me calling some of these myth: "They are just entertainment. Aren't you taking them too seriously?"
The answer is no. Myths are discovered, not made (remember?). Science Fiction, Fantasy, horror, and non-classical music are usually relegated to a second class status to more "realistic" genres. They are no less capable of delivering insight than Joyce or Hemmingway. Much ink has been spilled on them, it is time to open the closet and let the other genres out to have their moment in the sun.
The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, Copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved.