What is a myth? That’s a question that rarely stays answered for long. In my own experience, I’ve rarely been able to settle on a single definition of myth that covers all of its many uses. The situation today is more complicated because myth was redefined in some scholarly circles during the 20th century, such as in the work of the French philosopher Roland Barthes (see this post).
The traditional definition of myth: a genre of old stories about gods, and human origins etc, will always drive an aspect of the study of mythology. But the new definition, although by no means conclusive, offers room for further exploration. I’ve discussed this elsewhere in more detail, but for those of you new to these ideas, here’s a quick summary:
Myths grow out of our instinctive ability to use symbols, the bedrock of human culture: a marriage ceremony symbolises the promise of fidelity; a religious image symbolises a whole body of beliefs and morals; wearing shiny pieces of cut stone and worked metal symbolise wealth and status; certain letters before a name symbolise gender and relationship, and so on and so on.
Myths evoked in literature, in the modern definition at least, are essentially a symbolic use of narrative. For example, in stereotypical European hero tales, the hero is often a symbol for a traditional code of conduct: men should be brave, chivalrous, defend the weak and put personal honour before all else. This is never explicitly spelled out in the tale, but symbolically suggested by the actions of the hero.
Such tales suggest that the values they evoke are part of the natural order of things: there is a perfect type of man; dragons are always bad and should be killed; princesses are always weak and need rescuing; fighting is good and should be done well, etc, etc. All of these things that are suggested, but never literally explained in the tale, evoke a type of myth, in this case the late medieval myth of the European male hero.
As is obvious in the above description, myths can also become outdated. As culture evolves, older myths are inevitably challenged and discarded. Myths are considered good or bad or anything in between depending on who you’re talking to. One thing is certain, myths can unify people or serve to separate them just as effectively.
Most of us never question how such myths are created nor how they’re used, and experiencing myth is rarely considered a conscious act. We often think of myth as something that happens to us, stories that are told to us, not something we can do ourselves. That’s mainly because we’ve come to think of myth as something outside of ourselves, old stories created in ages long past. But myths aren’t separate from us, they live inside us. Myths in particular arise out of our deeply instinctive ability to use and understand symbolic meaning.
In the modern definition, myths aren’t stories. They’re certainly closely related, but only in as much as myths use stories. As with the male hero being a symbol for a code of conduct, myth is what lies below the surface of a narrative. It’s a deeper meaning that, if we accept without question the values it expresses, can influence our attitudes. That is essentially the mechanism by which both advertising and propaganda work.
But we can also try to approach myth consciously, paying attention to how it’s evoked, what kind of assumptions permeate the tale’s imagined world. So we have a choice, we can either be used by myths – become an unconscious conduit through which they are spread, or we can try and see them for what they are, and how we respond to them.
The more we seek to interpret myths, the quicker we discover that not all stories are worthy of our attention. Some stories just aren’t intentionally symbolic, while others strive to be. This focus on symbolic meaning is, after all what identifies mythic stories. Because of this, such tales draw on an archetypal depth in culture. It’s for this reason we can say that a story itself doesn’t contain myth, but that myth arises out of an audience’s engagement with a story. The storyteller’s job is to encourage that process, not hinder it.