Myth – A myth is simply a story told over and over and over again by a group of people. Generally, we use “myth” to connote an ancient, sacred narrative (the rape of Prosperine to generate seasonality, the striking of the heavenly spear into the Pacific to create Japan), not just any story. This is actually misleading, however. Many modern stories qualify as myths according to whatever definitions we choose to use.

Discussions of mythology often revolve around the various functions of myth as delineated by comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell. According to Campbell’s Masks of God series (paraphrased in part from Wikipedia):

  1. Myths address the very unaddressable Mysterium itself. This is the Mystical (Religious–Metaphysical) Function: Awakening a sense of awe before the mystery of being – The absolute mysteries of life cannot be captured directly in words or images. The first function of mythology is to reconcile waking consciousness to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (the mystery that causes that trembling—why are we here?) of this universe as it is.In this mystical sense, myths try not to answer for us but to prepare us to answer for ourselves such questions as: “Why [everything]? Why are we here at all? How do we know that life isn’t some kindly dream, cruel joke, veiled test, or silent echo of a single great voice’s AUM?”
  2. Myths explain the nature, origin, and purpose of the world and what happens after. This is the Cosmological (Eschatological–Explanatory) Function: Explaining the shape of the universe – Myth also brings the observable, physical world into accord with the metaphysical and psychological meanings rendered by the other functions of mythology. Science today serves that function, and we can debate the ways in which science is or is not otherwise mythic.
  3. Myths aid our individual human transitions within society. This is the Sociological–Political Function: Validate and support the existing social order – Ancient societies had to conform to an some social order if they were to survive. Mythology confirmed that order and enforced it by reflecting it into shared stories, often describing how that order arrived via divine intervention.Closely related to function 4, function 3 specifically aids the creation of the order of (“healthy,” “normal”) sexuality within a social framework, setting up ideas about marriage and roles of the sexes within the home. The basic sequence in many societies went: Transformation from protected/non-gendered child into useful adult man or woman, then into aged-sexless hermit.
  4. Myths float our fragile egos atop our unconsciousnesses, maintaining equilibrium as we mourn, age, learn, and move on. This is the Psychological–Pedagogical Function: Guide the individual through the stages of life – As a person goes through life, many psychological challenges will be encountered. Myth may serve as a guide for successful passage through the stages of one’s life. Most cultures use rites of passage as a youth passes to adulthood.

The first, mystical component (which Campbell treats first in the conclusion to Creative Mythology, the final volume of his Masks of God) is the most important, ultimately, and it inscribes the other functions. But the functions seem to me to build up in immediate importance, and to zoom in on a single soul, from cosmos to state to person to unnameable gooey center. And all four connect, interpenetrate. I am inclined to view Campbell’s quad-definition of myth as extremely useful.

Roland Barthes, however, adds an important new dimension to our understanding of myths in his book Mythologies, a look at modern shared stories:

  1. Myths transform signs (language) into culturally normative “truths.” This is the Semiotic–Textual Function: Elevate ordinary language into a metalanguage (Barthes’s term) - Barthes’s argument is specific but sound: As we become used to them, ordinary signs become “flattened” so that we conflate their signifiers (things that make meanings) and signifieds (meanings that are meant). Given a sign, we no longer think much about the signifying act it performs; we jump to its meaning (signified).This leads to the creation of a second-order metalanguage—myth—in which one speaks about the first-order language. In the metalanguage of myth, the signified (the meaning) of the original sign is not the ending, but the beginning of reading: It servers as the signifier (the thing that makes meaning) for a mythic reading.

Barthes examines this process of the elevation of ordinary signs into mythic ones in order to look at our assumptions about what is “natural” in society. In some ways, Barthes’s mythic function is the base-level process whereby Campbell’s become possible: Just as we must know an alphabet or other syllabary in order to write, society must have a metalanguage in order to give that metalanguage mystical, cosmological, sociological, and psychological functions.

Myth today – Is chosen with dramatic irony, not from a geo-societally narrow range of stories but from all the traditions of the world: Myths do not appear as a mosaic of narratives created by or within a culture, but as an encompassing fog of stories, a rich black loam of invention, the river of time and ancestry and purpose, and (especially now, given the nuclear bomb, Vatican II, globalism, the computer, and the internet) the very fire of change itself.

Myths are elemental to our world-as-humans; we do not create them for our own amusement or to satisfy our inscrutable artistic urges (as with, say first-person-shooter video games, romantic comedies, gospel songs, or twelve-tone experimental piano compositions). Myths, rather, create us. Myths tell us who we are.

Regardless of how you explain or explain away the grand high old myths (those of Zeus, Aeneas, Christ, Sulayman, the Monkey King, the gods and anti-gods of the Upanishads, Parsifal, Campbell’s beloved Stephen Daedalus, Superman, etc.), you the everyday story-consumer are always left with a subset of leftovers—the dangling, less lofty, not-quite-epic, and in virtually all ways murky demi-myths or traditional stories that are known variously, to non-experts like me, as folktales, legends, and so on.

Collectively, along with jokes, proverbs, songs, superstitions, local variants of the great myths themselves, and other “folk” facets, these stories constitute folklore, and each culture has its own rich treasury of such.

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