Adults need mythology to survive….

contemplative thoughts

by Kenneth Justice

~ Every story you tell is cloaked in mythology

—) how did you and your significant other meet

—) what are the origins of your ancestors

—) how did the company you work for invent that gadget

No matter what the story or narrative, mythology cloaks the way we humans interact and share our lives. History is a matter of perspective. We all see and experience events from different perspectives; three people can go on a journey together and have three entirely different perspectives on what happened during the journey.

This is why children raised in the same home, with the same two parents, grow up to have quite varying opinions about their parents, their childhood, their home life, and what it was like to be raised in that household. It’s why children who grow up in the same home can end up being very different from each other and have very different opinions and values. They experienced the household differently; because they saw things from different perspectives.

What is mythology? A myth is defined as “a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon”.

Thus, generally speaking, myth’s and mythology tend to deal with “more ancient origins”, but just think for a moment; the stories you tell your children about your childhood, which they then tell their children, and on and on, till eventually hundreds of years from now your stories have become historical narratives, they have become mythologized; they contain elements of truth, hyperbole, rhetoric, and cloaked with elements of vivid imagination.

Yet even now, when you and I tell a story we can’t help but tell the story from our limited perspective; we are only finite beings, and we can only share an experience based on our finite perspective. We are limited in our storytelling by the confines of our particular language. Whether you speak English, Dutch, German or Japanese, there are many constructs and thoughts that your language prevents you from expressing; only a person who is fluent in every single language that has ever existed could possibly express every single thought, and even then, only if they have possibly experienced every single thought that one can think!

When you tell a story to a five year old, you tell it differently then if you are speaking to a fifty year old. You change your words, you change your inflections, you change details to make it more palatable for the five year old.

The way you tell a story when you are 20 years old will be remarkably different then the way you tell the story thirty years later as a 50 year old; as you grow older you will use different words to tell your story (because your language grows), you will see things from different perspectives as you get older (hopefully through wisdom) and it will slightly alter the way you tell the story.

This doesn’t mean that we are making up lies and it doesn’t mean we are intentionally trying to deceive anyone; it simply means that we are imperfect beings that tell stories to the best of our ability.

Mythology is a way we communicate. Mythology is a tool that we use to give greater meaning to our lives. Some of us teach our children that god created us, others teach that there is no creator and that through the process of evolution and “chance” humanity came into existence. Still others teach teach that god invented the process of evolution to create the universe……

There are a million different mythologies and a million different perspectives on the origin of humanity and on the origin of how you met your lover; mythologies are a good thing.

Western Culture has taught us that mythologies are evil; that mythologies are fake and make- believe. Anyone who grows up in the West and hears that the story they adhere to (creationism, evolutionism, aliens, etc) is cloaked in elements of mythology, tends to get really upset. People told that mythology is apart of their human belief system get cranky and pissed off; they feel that you are attacking their very intellect.

There is no reason to get upset, it’s time to realize that growing up in Western Culture, we were sold a false bill of goods; we were taught that everything we believe is perfect and inerrant. We were taught that we have a godlike ability to perfectly recount every experience we have ever had; we were taught that all of our memories are perfect and indestructible…but sadly all of these things and more which we were taught, are simply wrong.

—) Our memories are not perfect

—) Our experience of a situation or event is entirely limited by our perspective

—) The way we tell stories is limited to our own limitations in speech, diction, perspective, and language

Mythology is a good thing. Past cultures throughout the annals of history had a better grasp on what mythology actually is and how it helps us to communicate and pass down true stories regarding our origins. Thanks to the age of reason, the enlightenment, and the technological revolution, we have been taught that we are somehow superior to past generations of humans.

We believe that because we have learned how to fly through the air or make it to the moon that we are intellectually and culturally superior than previous generations of human beings. Yet the truth of the matter is that innovation, technology and invention does not mean that we are somehow perfect; it does not mean that we have suddenly evolved in such a manner that we perceive events perfectly and speak perfectly.

We are still fallible human beings that only see in part, but perhaps one day we will see beyond the dark glass, and we shall see things more clearly.

Just a few thoughts as I sipped my coffee,


Categories: Culture & Society

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

14 replies

  1. Great points! Mythology is even more important then that, because we become our mythology, it begins to define us and our actions. We are our stories. Our mythology determines what kind of a world we create.

  2. You are so right. We are imperfect and limited, but need to tell our stories to remain alive and engaged in the world around us. Or at least that’s how I see it. Great post. Good thought here.

  3. As I was reading my sophisticated book, it’s a longitudinal study, the author was talking about just this subject! That we are subject to our own memory, good or bad but that journaling helps us to remember our perspective. I journaled from when I was very young and it has helped me, when I talk to teens, to remember how I felt and why.

  4. Kenneth, first, there is a difference between memories and mythologies. Just ask Brian Williams about memories.

    Second, I have to disagree with your allegation that “Western Culture has taught us that mythologies are evil.” I don’t believe that is the case. Mythologies are stories, perhaps based on something that really happened a long time ago or perhaps totally fabricated. Every culture has mythologies and there is nothing inherently wrong or evil about mythologies. Mythologies are stories handed down through history that attempt to explain or give value to the unknown or unknowable. They often involved the personification of natural phenomena, hyperbolic accounts of historical events, or serve as explanations for existing rituals. The trouble, in my opinion, starts when people begin to believe that mythologies are factual and represent, as told, actual historical events. If that were the case, it wouldn’t be mythology, it would be history.

    • I suppose I could have said it better- maybe that the predominant connotation with “mythology” in Western culture is that it is untrue – a connotation that Joseph Campbell and any other scholar on the subject laments because Western culture has developed a sort of pragmatism that focuses on what are perceived to be “facts.” In truth, there are few indisputable “facts” and “myth” does not denote falsity. Campbell lamented the decline of mythology in the West because myths have helped ease us through transitions and make sense of life throughout the history of humanity. His theory was that much of the sociological and psychological ailments of our time were a consequence of the loss of mythology in our culture.

  5. I like this posting, it was worth reading. However I would say that we are saturated with mythology, particularly if you are into the art, literature, poetry, etc. Greek, Roman, Biblical, etc. It may be true that some either misuse or dismiss mythology, but Western culture does not dismiss mythology, it is based on mythology, both pagan and non-pagan.

  6. As a fan of mythology, I marvel at it’s unique ability to teach us about ourselves through experiencing the stories and assigning it our personal meanings. I find it bothersome as well as irritating that dictionaries haven’t ever really grasped what the term means.

    Consider: Plato ends The Republic with the Myth of Er as his concluding chapter. No modern definition of the term ‘myth’ offers us any understanding for this very intentional placement and so we lose the importance Plato placed on this story.

    When we confuse a fictionalized narrative with myth, we lose access to this teaching tool and treat it as we would any other augmented and altered story that has a kernel of truth. The confusion lies in determining whether that kernel of truth is historical (as so many dictionaries suggest and that has waylaid so many religious people regarding their faith’s mythology) or metaphorical (again, an understanding that continues to waylay so many religious people as applied to their faith’s mythology). When we go along with these definitions (everything from a lie to an historical but ancient account) we give up understanding the one form of story that uniquely allows us to experience it… although we have clues in how powerfully we are attracted and receptive we are to mythological plot and theme. Think Star Wars. Think Camelot. Think The Odyssey.

    I can’t recall ever coming across the idea that myths are evil in civil society; I can recall its vilification by many religious people, however, but that’s hardly ‘Western Culture’. In fact the Church tried to add its own symbols into common myths (I’m thinking specifically about The Green Knight… take that as you will).

    But it’s easy to go off the rails and start to suggest that all histories are mythologized. Yes, every human being is a meaning-making machine and so there is this element of assigning meaning to historical events differently than the next person but that’s not correctly assigned to myth-making; it’s properly assigned to human biology. We do this and, if we rely only on people to justify this meaning or that then indeed easy enough to derail and claim that all human undertakings are mythologized. By doing so, the heart and soul of the term is torn asunder and there is no difference between narratives and mythologies. The cost for this is to gut myths of their teaching ability. And that’s a substantial loss.

    I also take great issue with the notion that understanding why evolution is true versus, say, believing in divine POOF!ism is an equivalent story or narrative with many others is post-modern relativistic rubbish. Evolution is arbitrated by reality to be an explanatory model of incomparable power to which we owe our highest level of confidence… not because someone says we should but because this model has, does, and will continue to produce applications, therapies, and technologies that work for everyone everywhere all the time. These are not elements of plot or geographical and time-based setting for some so-called ‘narrative’; these products demonstrate why evolution is true. Other explanatory models offer nothing in comparison but superstitious nonsense and beliefs about reality not supported by it.

    The advancements into understanding reality and how it operates is due to recognizing the very simple idea that reality deserves to arbitrate claims made about it. This ongoing and evolving story can be shared with the same enthusiasm one might have for any blockbuster event but let’s not confuse this method of inquiry with the understanding of how to recognize myths and extract their deep insight and wisdom into the human condition and instructions on how to live wisely.

  7. Hi Kenneth, in relation to your comments about language shaping how we view and express events, memories and so on, I’m wondering if you’ve come across the Whorfian hypothesis in linguistics? This is a fairly contentious claim in linguistics (it’s also known as linguistic relativity) suggesting that how people view the world is determined by the language resources available to them to describe it. This seems very similar to what you are proposing, but I wasn’t sure if you were referring to this hypothesis specifically or if you’d come to that idea through your own pondering. If you haven’t come across it before, it may give you some interesting food for thought 🙂

    • Along these lines I read a study on colors and the names for them. In a culture with fewer names for colors those hues are seen as one thing. Say that some shades of blue and green are all considered blue. And then they move to a culture and a language with blue, blue-green, teal, sky blue, light green, sage green, etc. and the person from the culture with no words for different shades cannot tell them apart. Only later do they come to recognize different colors. It is not that they cannot SEE the colors, but that they have no way to discriminate between the based on their language of origin. So I think here is actually a study out there pointing out that language is the repository of more than culture. 🙂

  8. The only difference between mythology and current religions is belief.
    Take away the belief and you add one more mythological story to tell.

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