I've been thinking about the word myth a lot lately. Maybe it's because some of the books I've been reading have talked about the ancient stories of our culture and others have had reference to stories from outside my range of experience.
Some people use the word myth now as the equivalent of the word lie. They protest their innocence by claiming the accusations against them are a complete fabrication, a myth. Who told them that a myth was a lie, or make-believe? Somewhere, somehow that impression has been developed and generally accepted by people if its use in soundbites by politicians on a regular basis is anything to go by.
This is a word that used to have rich and varied connotations: the Gods and Goddesses of Olympus; King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; Beowulf; The Norse Gods of Asgard; Rama, Sita, and Ravana; the heroes of Ireland; Coyote and who knows how many other heroes and heroines. Myths were the stories that glorified us, helped us rise above our day-to-day mundane existence. They also offered us explanations of who we are and where we came from.
Plenty of people who have made a career out of explaining and analyzing the place of myth in our lives, mixing it in with stuff about archetypes to form an intellectual stew. For some reason I've never really been able to make myself interested in the academic/intellectual aspect of myth; my reactions have always been on a more visceral level.
I read a story and it either means something to me or it doesn't; analysis doesn't enter into it that much. Perhaps that's more indicative of laziness on my part more then anything else, I don't know, but I do know that no matter how much I may find the accademic approach a little to over the top for me, at least they recognise that myth is more than just another word for lie.
According to my handy Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary, the word is derived from the Greek word mythos, which literally means word, speech, and story. The primary definition they give is " A traditional story usually focusing on the deeds of Gods or heroes, or in explanation of some natural phenomenon." The secondary meaning supplied is the one about "An imaginary or fictitious, person, thing, or story."
What bothers me is that the second meaning has been able to take root so easily. Why did users have to steal such a wonderful word that has the potential for such poetry and turn it into something ugly? I hate it when I hear someone being accused of myth-making as if it were a bad thing.
How can the act of creating a story be bad? The contents themselves may be evil or a lie, but that would be like saying cake-making is bad because one person bakes poison into a cake. But the way they go on about myths being misrepresentations of facts, or outright lies it leaves a strong negative impression.
Where does that leave today's storytellers? Where does it leave yesterday's stories?
To me it feels like they are in a kind of limbo, with the great stories of the world's cultures being confined to the narrow pages of the fantasy novel – or even worse, showing up as recycled and watered-down pabulum for the New Age cultural appropriators. Without a care as to the nature of the real story, they take bits and pieces from everything and add them to a patchwork quilt of beliefs that they can cover themselves with and call enlightenment.
Is that to be the fate of our original heroes, that they end up as Tarot decks and wall ornaments for those looking for easy solutions to the problems of life? Or to lie between the covers of a book that diminish them as fantasy equivalent to the latest instalment of Star Wars?
What about today's story teller; what stories are there for him or her to tell? Is there even a need for stories that offer up explanations or pose questions about whom we are and our place in the world? Maybe I shouldn't say need, but what is missing is a willingness to listen to those types of stories.
After all, aren't we at the pinnacle of our development as civilizations? What could simple stories have that would improve our lot? Especially ones that aren't even real. What can you write for a world that would rather be reading about the true-life recovery of a drug addict than a story about their ancestors?
Maybe something will happen to change that attitude. It can't be all pervasive anyway, not yet at least, because books are still being sold, and some of those are fiction. Perhaps there have been other times in our history that have seen a falling out between myth and society; I'm sure the Spanish Inquisition was as equally unimpressed in their time as so many of us are today with the beauty of myths and their place in our lives.
With all that's going on in the world I can't think of a time when listening to the old stories is as needed. For all our sakes let's hope things change soon.