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In defense of myth

I approach myth from the standpoint of theories of myth, or generalizations about the origin, the function, and the subject matter of myth. There are hundreds of theories. They hail from anthropology, sociology, psychology, politics, literature, philosophy, and religious studies.

Some theorists of myth, Joseph Campbell above all, consider myth a panacea for all human woes. For him, every culture must have myth, and he attributes contemporary social problems, such as crime, to the absence of myth. For him, there is no substitute.

Other theorists of myth, such as C. G. Jung and Mircea Eliade, maintain that myth is most helpful – for Jung in getting touch with one’s unconscious, for Eliade in getting in touch with God. But neither quite deems myth indispensable. For Jung, dreams are an alternative to myth. For Eliade, rituals are.

All theorists deem myth useful. For some, myth is a very good way of fulfilling whatever need it arises and lasts to serve. For others, myth is as good as any other way. For a few, myth is the best way. For Campbell, myth is the only way. There are no theorists of myth for whom myth is useless, let alone harmful. (By contrast, there are plenty of theorists of religion, which sometimes overlaps with myth, for whom religion is harmful. Freud and Marx are examples.)

I myself am no evangelist for myth, and I am open to all theorists. But I do get miffed at one view of myth: that of myth as simply a false story or conviction, one to be exposed and dismissed. Books with titles like “JFK: The Man and the Myth” exemplify this approach. This view of myth does not even qualify as a theory, for it scorns the question of what myth accomplishes. Here myth accomplishes nothing save to hide the truth. Ironically, there is a full-fledged theory that does consider myth a means to hide the truth: that of the French-born literary critic René Girard. But he ties myth as a cover-up to a whole theory of why myth covers up. He does more than expose the cover-up.

Myth as a false story or belief is not objectionable because myth is thereby false. For me, a myth can as readily be false as be true. (But then it can as readily be true as be false.) The falsity or truth of myth is secondary. What is primary is the need that the story originates and functions to serve.

Carl Jung with Sigmund Freud and others. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Why was it ever necessary to propagate an inflated, hagiographical account of the life of President Kennedy? Why was a straightforward, unvarnished account insufficient? Would Kennedy have thereby been taken as less of a hero?

Yes, of course, one might reply. How naïve can one be? But then the characterization of a biography of Kennedy as myth shows that myth is much more than a merely false depiction. It is an idealized one, and the idealization is where the appeal lies. Declaring that a depiction of Kennedy is mythic is declaring that the depiction one is alluring. The power of myth, to use a phrase of Campbell’s, is its appeal to more than the facts, and even when the facts are scrupulously accurate. The appeal is what makes a biography mythic. But then myth, whether true or false in its facts, goes beyond the facts.

Put another way, dismissing as false the claim of a myth is not like dismissing as false the claim that I have a tenner in my pocket. Presumably nothing rests on my claim. If I am wrong, so be it. But dismissing as false the claim that Kennedy was a great person is dismissing a claim to which deep feelings are attached. What makes the claim mythic goes beyond whether it is true. It can be true and still be mythic, so that, again, myth is more than a false story. A myth that is false is hard to dislodge because of the commitment to it. But again the grip of a myth rests on more than its falsity – or truth.

Featured image credit: Enchanted Forest, Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. José Manuel Losada

    Here we have a very fine introduction to myth. Most interesting, Robert Segal knows how to put aside some misconceptions about this difficult topic. His approach to myth through religion is quite new in the humanities vista. 18/10/2015

  2. […] blog, Dr. Robert A. Segal, who has written a good deal about myth, posted a short piece entitled “In Defense of Myth.” The defense Segal raises on behalf of myth isn’t about its applicability to our lives, […]

  3. Jabr Alnoaimi

    I am really glad to have read this article. It confirms my non-specialist opinion and personal discovery about the value of myths in life; please see my comment at https://blog.oup.com/2015/09/religious-belief-natural-causes/

    It is really a pity that many otherwise intelligent and well educated people tend to look upon religious stories from the stand point of whether they are true or false and thus label them as historical events or myths and dismiss them accordingly. They attacking religion, which I am not contesting, by means of dismissing its stories as myths and thus throw the baby out with the bathwater, forgetting that the ubiquity of religion and myths at all times and in all cultures is perhaps an indication that religion might have served an essential purpose in society. I propose that man must have, during his cultural evolution, hit upon an emotional and cognitive tool that works as Archimedes’ lever that would lift the whole earth if a place to stand upon and a strong and long enough pole were to be provided. A myth that is deeply believed by a critical mass of people will not do less. History is full of stories confirming this truth. From recent history, Martin Luther King’s dream was the myth that lifted black Americans from exploitation to liberty.

    I propose that the purpose of a religion and its myths (and any future faction of this religion) and especially at its beginning is the lifting of the status qua of a people to break out of their social, economic, political and cultural limitations and achieve positive results leading to power, flourishing and survival.

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