According to American mythologist Joseph Campbell, it can be summed up as “other people’s religion.”
His near pop-star status often discredits him in erudite circles, leaving many scholars to disagree with Campbell’s theories. Still, no other scholar has given “mythology” a more clear, concise and less-refutable definition than this one.
Classical scholar and professor Elizabeth Vandiver, who admits her personal dislike of Joseph Campbell, explains more laboriously that “Mythology is a canon of stories created by a culture and passed down through the generations of that culture.”
She goes on to say that it is mythology, or myth, when it is supernatural or fantastic in subject and style, and that it must talk of a culture “other than one’s own” (here we are back to Campbell’s “other people’s religion”).
Vandiver makes a distinction between myth and religion. She says that religion is the practices and rituals of a society’s belief system, whereas myths are the stories about that belief system. Therefore, praying on one’s knees and drinking sacramental red wine is “religion” according to Vandiver, whereas The Book of Genesis is “myth.”
So myths are stories.
Vandiver claims that a painting representing the beautiful Europa being abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull is not mythology, but is rather just… a painting. It is the story of Europa and the Bull that is the myth—not representations of that story.
Vandiver goes on to say that myths talk about the past and not the present (forgetting to mention that myths can talk about the future, as well as about far-away, unreachable places). Both Joseph Campbell and Elizabeth Vandiver agree that Star Wars is myth in our Western culture, despite its being created within our culture.
Other films and literature portraying aliens and advanced human beings living in the future can also be considered myths.
Aliens from outer-space and futuristic heroes is mythology? Is this not “science fiction?” Vandiver claims not, making for an interesting piece of the puzzle.
She claims that Star Wars, Star Trek and other similar stories are myths as authentic as those found in Hesiod, Homer, and Ovid. Why? She asks us to look at an ancient Greek or Roman mariner’s map of the world centered around the Mediterranean sea—or Mare Nostrum—for a clue.
Mediterraneus, Latin for the sea found “in the middle of the earth,” was relatively accurately-drawn on ancient maps, showing places like modern-day Syria and Sicily (sort-of) as they appear today. But look beyond the Mare Nostrum, beyond Gibraltar, at the edge of the map where Heracles went sailing in his Golden Goblet, shooting his arrows at the sun.
Where we now show the shores of the Atlantic, would have been a band of water encircling the entire earth, known to the ancients as the “River Ocean,” “Oceanus,” or “Okeanos” (“…As for Okeanos, the Greeks say that it flows around the whole world from where the sun rises, but they cannot prove that this is so.” [Herodotus; Histories 4.8.].)
This unexplored Mare Incognita at the earth’s edge was a place of monsters, of winged beasts with snakes for hair and the entrance to “Tartaros” (the Ancient Greek equivalent of Hell).
Other terrible inhabitants who lived where ancient cartographers never ventured were the Cyclops and the “Amazons,” a nation of all-female warriors, fearsome and blood-thirsty women who were anything but role-models to young Athenian girls.
So much for things spatially unexplored. We now have satellite maps to show us the earth from outer space–the ancients did not. So what they could not see contained monsters. What we cannot see (planets in distant galaxies, for example) now contain aliens.
Besides spatial mysteries, there were temporal mysteries to the ancients.
They didn’t have dinosaurs in museums to tell them who roamed the earth in the past, so they invented a “Golden Age”—a time when there were giants on the earth, when men and women were stronger, larger, more beautiful, braver.
Now in the 21st century, we think we know about everything that roamed the earth since the day the earth was born. We know that Helen of Troy must have resembled less a Brigitte Bardot or Angelina Jolie, and more a dwarfish, hairy female with a pronounced brow and philtrum and a lifespan of a mere 20 years.
So what do we do with the disappointment of not having any mysterious time to place our heroic figures? We place our “Golden Age” in the future—a time beyond ours, when there will be men and women more intelligent, more strong, more beautiful and braver than us.
This leaves the question of, why? …Why do we have this need to have monsters to fear and heroes to admire in our stories?
This psychological need is a fashionable debate in our 20th and 21st centuries–psychology is the fashionable tool for explaining things. Scholars call this the “Why is myth” debate, and say that myth exists because of a human need to give stories to explain certain phenomena.
Back in the 19th century, an age absolutely enchanted with science, the argument among scholars about the “What is myth” debate—a debate that grew out of the theory that myth is “misunderstood science.” 19th century thinkers believed that it was because the ancients didn’t know why there was a hot yellow sun revolving around the Earth, so they invented sun gods who drove horse-drawn chariots across the firmament of the sky.
“Before our time, no one knew anything,” said the late 19th century scholar, “and so there was myth. Now, however, we have science! Since with science we know everything, myth is no longer needed!”
Now in the 20th and early 21st century, people have more answers, but they still take part in the mythological song and dance and storytelling.
Why? According to Jung, Freud, Campbell and others with award-winning brains, myths fill a gap in the human psyche that needs to be filled. Myths have always served to instruct–to turn girls into women and boys into men.
Myth is holy—holier even than religion, perhaps, as religion requires “belief,” whereas mythology can move even the heart of the faithless man or woman. So is myth other people’s religion to us? Or is it our religion to other people?
What strikes the scholar or student studying myth as interesting is that these are not stories that are heard today and forgotten tomorrow, like the latest TV comedy watched for a half-hour after dinner. When a myth is told well, when it is whispered or sung or performed by actors on stage, or recited by a sublime orator who knows the art of storytelling and the power that myths as stories can carry and communicate to human beings of our culture or of culture similar to ours—and when we as an audience are tuned-in and receptive to these orator—there is a state of sublime awe that can be reached sending shivers down the spine.
For the person listening to a myth is experiencing what it means to be human, what it means to be alive and among others who are alive.
In myth we see life as a battle and life as a dance, where all who are performing are more beautiful and more powerful and more frightening than mere human beings; where we are players on a stage that is perfect even with its tragedies, beautiful even in death.
And at no time are you more alive than when life is displayed before your eyes, when you witness its frailty and its divinity. It could be argued that myth is more holy than religion… for myth is everybody’s religion. And not to believe in it is not to be alive.
This post originally appeared at CityRoom.