What’s In a Myth?
For the past five-plus months we have discussed the mythologies of mankind. For many people, these myths are simply stories, fantastical stories that today have provided plot lines for many comic books, young adult and graphic novels, television programs, and movies. For many of these legends, their importance died as did the ancient cultures that believed in them.
For African tales, however, these stories live today. Since some might say most religions have their beginnings in myths, one could argue that many of the myths of early mankind are still alive in one form or another today. Some things in use today have a beginning in myths and yet, we would never suspect that. Labyrinths are found at many religious institutions and castles, considered to be both part of beautiful garden landscapes but also wonderful meditative devices. Have you heard the Greek myth about the king of Crete who called for the construction of a labyrinth? The king wanted to hide a monster and it was believed that that very nature of a labyrinth would prove ideal for this. Of course, in true mythological form, the monster to be hidden had been born of the Queen, and was just one of several layers to the story.
We recently learned about the three Mayan calendars and how, with the Long Count calendar which had predicted the end of the world in 2012, the world would reset and begin a new cycle. A similar cycle was written about by Socrates, although he called it the “Cyclic Uproar.” Some have defined mythology as prehistoric mankind’s way of explaining creation. Others claim it to be allegorical stories used to educate and maintain one’s culture. A large group of psychologists and sociologists have posited that mythology is more like a group dream with archetypal symbols which are used to interpret and explain the inner-most urges of mankind. There are those that believe mythology is a vehicle of the mind and subconscious and still others believe it to be the primary communication between mankind and the world of spirits and gods.
In his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, Joseph Campbell offers a different perspective about the purpose of mythology. The book is well worth the read and I would do it a disservice to try and summarize it in a simple paragraph so I will not even try. The book was first published in 1949 and is said to have greatly impacted certain psychological fields. Basically, Campbell believes that we need a hero and myths provide us with one.
The world definitely needs heroes and heroines. The 1984 song originally heard in the movie “Footloose” but more recently in the “Shrek” cartoon films, asks some pretty interesting questions. “Where have all the good men gone and where are all the gods? Where’s the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds? … Late at night I toss and I turn and I dream of what I need.” The song, written by Jim Steinman and Dean Pitchford might just have the answer to why, what, and who the world’s myths are.
Joseph Campbell defined a hero as “someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” Tennis star Arthur Ashe, in whose memory an award is given for exceptional bravery once said that “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”
Firemen and law enforcement officials are often seen as heroes because they are daily called upon to put their lives on the line for others. Yet, history bears witness to the fact that often it is the ordinary man who is the lasting hero. Mythologies are full of the supernatural hero or the tyrant monster who requires violence in a semi-heroic sense. The world’s history tells a different story. In 1954 an ordinary woman became tired of the injustice of society requiring her to sit at the back of the bus. She sat down, peacefully and quietly, closer to the driver than anyone of her ethnicity usually did. In doing so, Rosa Parks was arrested and began a civil rights movement that continues today.
American Nathaniel Hawthorne stated: “The greatest obstacle to being heroic is the doubt whether one may not be going to prove one’s self a fool; the truest heroism is to resist the doubt; and the profoundest wisdom, to know when it ought to be resisted, and when it be obeyed.” Most of us know what is right and what is wrong. When we see someone being bullied, we know it is wrong. Speaking up to stop the bullying, however, is not such a clear path.
So, what is in a myth? Any good story has five basic elements – characters, setting, plots, conflict and resolution. Today you wrote a myth, your myth. You are the main character in your life, your myth. The setting varies from work, to home to various other settings. The plot will vary from day to day but each chapter or plot will have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Sometimes the exposition or discussion of the plot is a bit muddied and many find clarity of it in their dreams, others in simple retrospective meditation. What is not hard to identify is the conflict and yet, often the visible conflict is really just a symbol of a deeper struggle.
In storytelling and writing, the conflict is the point of the plot and who the characters are often determines how they resolve the problem. Everything builds to the climax, that one cliff-hanger of the story just before everything is resolved that holds our attention and gives the most drama. For many people, life is all about the climax. They would rather live their life in the throes of drama than in everyday living. Resolution is great but life after resolution can seem dull, mundane, ordinary. Many people today believe “ordinary” is a curse and they do everything they can to avoid the adjective being attached to them.
I love a good climatic scene as well as the next person but it doesn’t end the book. It doesn’t resolve the problem. It doesn’t guarantee the “happily ever after” that we all seek in life. We need, as we write our own mythologies, to remember that all those people who lived in the climax usually ended up dying before resolution could be achieved. It may seem anti-climactic but the answer to the title question is a very simple… good, evil, and a hero who knows the difference between the two. What happens when you don’t do the right thing makes for a great story but do we really want to live a life like that?
Recently someone teased me about my reading romance novels. They said in a surprised voice “You read romance novels?” I replied I did. “But you seem so smart!” I thanked them for the compliment and then asked if they were always depressed or just having a bad day. “Whatever do you mean?” Then I told them I read the romance genre because I liked the HEA as it’s called, the Happily Ever After. “Isn’t that the point of life?” I asked.
Yesterday someone served food to a homeless person and someone else gave refugees clothing and blankets. Because of the aid received and charitable works of many, Sierra Leone today declared itself free of the deadly Ebola virus. If you need a hero or a good myth, just look around. Better yet, life so that you see one every time you look in the mirror.