What is Myth?
The word “myth” is one of the most-often used, least-often understood words in the English language. To some, the word implies a concept or idea that is utterly false, usually one which it is in some way dangerous to believe. For others, “myth” conjures up images of ancient fables, of “primitive” peoples’ attempts to explain the world around them — amusing, perhaps, but irrelevant to us as sophisticated inhabitants of the 21st century. Such definitions of “myth” tend to be reductionistic at best, and hostile at worst.
Scholars have fared no better in the quest to define this slippery word — from Max Müller’s “disease of language” to Mircea Eliade’s “nostalgia for paradise,” there may be as many definitions of “myth” as there are scholars who have studied it. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to throw in my two cents, and offer up, for good or ill, my concept of “myth.”
As I see it, there are four primary characteristics shared by most myths:
• First, myth consists of narrative: a myth is a story. This story may be told through a variety of means: orally, textually, visually, or any combination of these, as in a ritual context. The text of one of the Christian gospels, the same gospel summarized in a sermon, a crucifix, and the ritual of communion are all, in a sense, telling the same story through different media.
• Second, a myth must be a shared narrative, meaning that it exists within a community. The community might be a family, a religious group, or even a nation. Often this means that it contains traditional elements that have been passed down from generation to generation, through some or all of the means mentioned above.
• Third, myths are plastic — that is, the narrative has the ability to be reshaped according to the conscious and unconscious motives and desires of the teller and the audience. Each member of the aforementioned community has some sort of access to the to the story’s plot, its characters, or its motifs, and can use them to create new versions of the story. No narrative — not even the Bible or the Koran — is ever entirely fixed. Translation, technology, the passage of time, imaginative storytellers — all of these change the ways that the stories are told and heard.
• Finally, mythic narratives are humanity’s way of structuring the world around us. Regardless off their “truth value,” they provide us with descriptions of right and wrong, of male and female, of destiny and divinity and death. In this sense, the narrative of evolution is as much a myth as the myth of Genesis: for each narrative’s believers, their chosen story provides a coherent way of interpreting a chaotic and confusing world. Just as we require the metaphor of the desktop, file folders, and trash cans to make sense of strings of otherwise incomprejensible binary data on our computers, so do we require our myths to synthesize and make coherent the continuous stream of information with which our senses are bombarded.
What I am proposing, then, is a very broad definition of myth: any shared narrative which provides both the storytellers and their audience with a means of conceptualizing an aspect of the world is a myth. The focus of a myth may change with every telling — the Hindu Ramayana, depending on its teller and audience, may focus on the duties of a son, the differences between men and women, the glory of a king’s perfect rule, or all of the above, while a narrative of the Columbus’ journey to the New World might be the story of a man’s visionary quest, or of the great suffering inflicted upon indigenous peoples as a result of that journey — but it always tells us something about ourselves and the community in which we live: where we are, how we got there, and where we are going.