The Importance of Myths

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of myths according to Rollo May as they serve multiple functions:

The many contributions of myths to our lives can be listed under four headings. First, myths give us our sense of personal identity, answering the question, Who am I? When Oedipus cried, “I must find out who I am and where I came from!” and when Alex Haley searches for his Roots, they are both illustrating this function of myth.

Second, myths make possible our sense of community. The fact that we think mythically is shown in our loyalty to our town and nation and even our loyalty to our college and its various teams which produce such mythic phenomena as Trojans and 49ers. These would be absurd except that they illustrate the important bonding of social interest and patriotism and other such deeply rooted attitudes toward one’s society and nation.

Third, myths undergird our moral values. This is crucially important to members of our age, when morality has deteriorated and seems to have vanished altogether in some distraught places.

Fourth, mythology is our way of dealing with the inscrutable mystery of creation. This refers not only to the creation of our universe but creation in science, the mysterious “dawning” in art and poetry and other new ideas in our minds. “Myth is the garment of mystery,” writes Thomas Mann insightfully in the preface to his great book on ancient myths, Joseph and His Brothers.

I suppose if I’d thought hard enough about myths, particularly the way May describes them, I might have come up with most of these functions, but I’ll admit I was surprised when I first saw them listed this way.

If I have this little awareness of the importance of myths while having earned a Master of Arts in Liberal Arts, plus two more years of graduate work, I can only wonder how much knowledge of myths the average adult might have.

May argues that people who have never heard of a myth are still influenced by it:

The reader may well ask, “Suppose the patients are unsophisticated and have never read the Greeks or any other classics?” While it is true that this woman was eminently interesting and a pleasure to work with, it is not true that she consciously knew about this myth. So far as I can surmise, she had not read it and did not consciously know it. This illustrates that myths do not require that one have read them specifically. Myths are archetypal patterns in human consciousness, as Joseph Campbell and others have pointed out. We are all born of a mother and we die: we all confront sex or its absence; we work or we avoid it; and so on. The great dramas like Hamlet are mythic in the sense that they present the existential crises in everyone’s life. We cannot escape believing in the assumption that myth and self-consciousness are to some degree synonymous. Where there is consciousness, there will be myth. One will have dreams of the myth of Oedipus out of the vicissitudes of living in a triangular family (father, mother, child) whether he or she has actually read this classic drama or not.

What child hasn’t felt so awkward and wished so earnestly for personal satisfaction that he can immediately identify with The Ugly Duckling when introduced to it ? We identify with myths because they help us to articulate, or to see more clearly, what we’ve already sensed.

Jung, and May, believe poets and artists are most in touch with these myths, these archetypes:

Jung believes that poets are in touch with a reality beyond that which the rational mind can perceive; they know that they have discovered the “spirits, demons and gods.” The deepest level of the unconscious, writes Jung, can be discovered only through myth and ritual. He sees myths as necessary interlinks between the human spirit and the natural man. Out of this theory come the archetypes, the expression of the collective unconscious.

Each of us, by virtue of our pattern of myths, participates in these archetypes; they are the structure of human existence. It is not necessary to be a scholar in order to be influenced by them; it is only necessary that one existentially participate in human life. “I have written that myths get thought in man unbeknownst to him,” Levi-Strauss states. “For me it [the myth] describes a lived experience.” Dreams are a private application to one’s life of public myths in which we are all participants.

The poet Stanley Kunitz agrees with this interpretation as I noted here in the introduction to Passing Through, “Poetry, I have insisted, is ultimately mythology, the telling of the stories of the soul.”

May argues that those who no longer believe in myths are outcasts:

Surely Nietzsche is right: our powerful hunger for myth is a hunger for community. The person without a myth is a person without a home, and one would indeed clutch for other cultures to find some place at some time a “mythic womb. “To be a member of one’s community is to share in its myths, to feel the same pride that glows within us when we recall the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, or Washington crossing the Delaware, or Daniel Boone and Kit Carson riding into the West. The outsider, the foreigner, the stranger is the one who does not share our myths, the one who steers by different stars, worships different gods.

I wonder if many of us who fought in Vietnam didn’t feel like outcasts because we could no longer believe in many of the myths those at home still held dear.

5 thoughts on “The Importance of Myths”

  1. Something about that rationale for myth troubles me. Maybe it’s on target. But it omits or sidesteps a raw question: How do myths originate? I have no authority here. But I have ignorance on my side. Imagine no science, no body of knowledge to explain natural phenomena (weather, earthquakes, seasons, sky, etc) While the idea of explaining my own purpose in life finally came along, it makes no sense that it would be first in line. The first had to be “HUH?” as in “What’s going on here?” And that was in some pre-cognitive state, when forming a question in words was implausible. So imagine a sense of wonder. Everything began there…and still does, so we are all mythologists if we look around and feel baffled by what we see. What followed (all the explanations from a 1000 cultures), could be called “speculation,” even the vaunted sciences we now consider adequate to explain various phenomena. We’ve seen enough theories debunked by now to admit that they were mere mythology the next morning. So all mythologies are equal in that sense…equally valid, equally frail, and equally useful in framing a culture around a set of asumptions. Ignoring May’s conclusions (another mythology) I think we’d find that all myths have in common:
    a) an attempt to explain how things originated;
    b) an attempt to codify patterns of human behavior (anger, love, envy, alienation)
    c) an attempt to explain death;
    d) an attempt to explain random events and natural phenomena.

    SO the TRICKSTER of Amerindian lore covers a lot of that ground; and Greek mythology tackles those big themes. I can only guess that Mayan and African tribal mythology pursue the same points.

    Still ignoring May’s conclusions, I am more fascinated by the questions than the answers. In the questions themselves lies the impetus of mythology.

  2. Rollo May’s third point I think is just wrong; the other three seem more like arguments for doing away with myths than for perpetrating them.

    He seems to be saying that a comfortable fiction trumps an uncomfortable truth.

    I don’t want that.

  3. I think May is arguing that myths represent the truths of the heart, intuitive truths, rather than factual truths, Thomas.

    Facts, per se, generally don’t teach us what is “right” or “wrong,” they tell us what has happened or, sometimes, what will happen.

    Religious values, as imparted by “myths,” provide us with the values that promote moral actions.

    A society’s mythic hero provides a moral guide to the members of that society. Greeks wanted to act like Achilles or Odysseus. Christians try to act like Christ. Buddhists try to emulate Buddha. Or like other societal heroes like Davy Crockett, or, God Forbid, John Wayne.

  4. I think we mythologize our own lives all the time. We add, subtract, make symbols and connections, construct meanings (often from flimsy materials), embellish etc in our own personal narratives to give some sense and purpose to existence. Without these mythic, artistic, creative, personal (which can also be universal) interpretations it would be easy to see life simply as random, disjointed chaos.

  5. I’d agree with you, sw, and I’m pretty sure May does, too.

    He makes a distinction between personal myths and societal myths, and they are often related but they are seldom synonymous.

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