The British mythic storyteller Martin Shaw says the stories we most need now are here; they arrived right on schedule, three thousand years ago. These mythic stories remind us of our reciprocity with the whole of life and help us to imagine a more accurate role for ourselves. Stories of human frailty and creativity, of our humility and daring, wickedness and perseverance show us in robust context, rather than, as our current story holds, as the exceptional species in charge of everything.
The word “myth” is not used here in the devalued sense of fantasy or make-believe, but rather of archetypal wisdom and guidance. Of patterns gleaned from engaging directly with the strangeness and wonder of the other-than-human world. Martin Shaw says, “Myth is the power of a place, speaking.” Mythic stories are not exclusively human focused; we are but one character among many.
I’m fascinated by this link between myth and story. Stories without mythic undertones are flimsy and inconsequential, strip malls as compared with a redwood forest, or even a place like Thomas Jefferson’s campus at the University of Virginia. They are the romance novels of literature, the junk food. Stories that have come down through time are beacons to an underground river of myth that ties us to each other, to the land, and to our own histories and purpose.
Why is myth so important? In her wonderful book, “A Short History of Myth,” Karen Armstrong lays out the purpose and function of myth. She says that humans fall easily into despair. From the very beginning, we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting that revealed an underlying pattern and gave us a sense that against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.
Armstrong observes that myth is not a story told for its own sake. It shows us how we should behave by putting us in the correct spiritual or psychological posture for right action in this world or the next. Early on, the Greeks embraced two fundamentally different and necessary ways of being in the world: logos and mythos. Logos is factual, practical, the mode of thought we use to get something done and achieve greater control over our environment. In the Enlightenment, intellectuals and scientists denigrated myth in favor of pragmatics, efficiency and rational proof.
The problem is, mythos is not an early attempt at history, nor an inferior mode of thought. Its tales never claim to be objective fact. As Armstrong says, myth is “a game that transfigures our fragmented, tragic world and helps us to gauge new possibilities by asking ‘what if?’ a question which has also provoked some of our most important discoveries in philosophy, science and technology.” A myth is true because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information. It is rather a guide, inviting us to change our minds and hearts.
Our myth-making is not to be denied; indeed, it’s at work even within the dominant stories of today. You might recognize a darker version of the story of human superiority which casts us as a rogue species wreaking havoc and killing the planet, with the earth, every species and organism included, as our helpless and undeserving victims who will weep in relief when we’re gone. There’s nowhere to go with that myth; it’s clearly a dead end that much of human history does not align with.
One of the most dangerous aspects of our time is that we’ve forgotten our current cultural stories are stories; we see them as Incontrovertible Truth or Reality. In our myopia we dismiss ancient traditional stories as locked in the mists of history and therefore irrelevant to our current situation, or hopelessly naïve beliefs that our superior ideologies have superseded.
We need ways to cultivate our innate myth-making faculties that have been suppressed by the dominant culture of rationality. This kind of storytelling is not just a source of amusement, or even of meaning, but an active way to imagine a different role for us in the future and therefore more lively and fruitful ways of engaging the present.