by Mariana Moniukh
“Myth” refers to colorful stories that tell about the origins of humans and the cosmos. Attitudes towards myth vary greatly. Some regard it as a source of spiritual growth, while others see only falsehood. Some see in myth the distinct character of particular cultures, while others see universal patterns. Some regard myth as “contemporary” and “alive”, while others think of it as “ancient” and/or “dead.”
Gregory Schrempp, Indiana University
Each of us for sure has heard the word “myth” and has referred it to the specific sphere of his/her life. What does this word mean and why is it of great importance to us? Which purposes does the myth serve? In order to answer these questions it is necessary to characterize this “keyword” and explore its “true nature”.
According to Merriam-Webster dictionary it is “a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially: one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society”. Every society has its own form of myths, and interestingly, often these different myths are retellings of central archetypal stories that are changed slightly to fit different cultures and experiences.
It is hard to imagine the 21th century without the word “myth”; its various elements can now be found in television, cinema and video games (“Age of Mythology”, (2002), “Titan Quest (2006), “Rise of the Argonauts” (2008)). Many contemporary and technologically advanced movies (“Avatar” (2009), “Clash of the Titans”(2010), “Thor” (2011), “Immortals”(2011)) rely on ancient myths to construct narratives and continue the trend of mining traditional mythology in order to create a plot for modern consumption.
With the help of the given keyword the term “urban legend” and its synonyms (“urban myth” or “contemporary legend”) has appeared in the media during the past few years. “Urban legends”, happened to a “friend of a friend” (FOAF) and usually connected with rumors, hoaxes and viral images (http://urbanlegends.about.com/cs/urbanlegends/f/urbanlegends1.htm) are an important part of popular culture and good indicators of what’s going on in current society (http://www.livescience.com/7107-urban-legends-start-persist.html). The Slender Man myth, “alligators in the sewers of New York City” story and story of “a woman killed by spiders nesting in her elaborate hairdo” are one of the most enduring urban legends of our time (http://forum.xcitefun.net/believe-it-or-not-most-popular-and-interesting-myths-t11941.html).
The Internet makes it easier to spread “urban legends”, and to debunk them. Discussing, tracking, and analyzing them is the topic of the Usenet newsgroup, alt.folklore.urban, and several web sites, most notably snopes.com.
With the invention of modern myths such as “urban legends” the mythological traditional will carry on to the increasing variety of mediums available in the 21st century and beyond. The crucial idea is that myth is not simply a collection of stories permanently fixed to a particular time and place in history, but an ongoing social practice within every society.
As it can be seen from above myth is used in our everyday lives for a lot of purposes and performs a lot of functions. It also grants continuity and stability to a culture and fosters a shared set of perspectives, values, history – and literature, in the stories themselves. Myths present guidelines for living. When myths tell about the activities and attitudes of deities, the moral tone implies society’s expectations for our own behaviors and standards.
Myths give meaning to life. We transcend our common life into a world in which deities interact with humans, and we can believe that our daily actions are part of the deities’ grand schemes. Myths offer role models. In particular, children pattern themselves after heroes; comic books and Saturday-morning cartoons (which are often considered as a part of modern mythology) depict many archetypal characters, such as Batman, Spider-Man, Superman and Wonder Woman. Adults, too, can find role models, in the stories of deities’ strength, persistence, and courage.
Ancient myths live in our culture. We find references to those myths in many contemporary words and expressions, such as Pandora’s box, Oedipus complex, nymph, and olympian. Other words derived from mythology include the names of the planets, and some of the months (including Janus for January), etc. Mars (the Roman war god) is remembered in words such as Mars (the planet), March (the month), and martial (as in martial arts).
How mythology influences our modern companies and groups, planets and constelations, literary and pop culture can be found under the following link:
Our modern society has its own myths. Some authors say that our society lacks a vigorous mythology; they believe that this lack can cause a sense of meaninglessness, estrangement, rootlessness, and the cold brittleness of a life devoid of reverence and awe. Other authors assert that we do have a mythology – and in certain concepts (such as “progress”) and in our larger-than-life celebrities (e.g., Mother Teresa as the goddess of compassion, Albert Einstein as the god of the intellect and the imagination, and Bill Gates as the god of commerce).
Myths represent forces in the psyche and the world. As Joseph Campbell said, in An Open Life, “The imagery of mythology is symbolic of spiritual powers within us.”
In this symbolism, we see mythological characters who represent love, youth, death, wealth, virility, fear, evil, and other archetypal facets of life — and we also see natural events such as rain and wind. The deities are personifications of those facets, those “energies.” As we read about the interplay of deities, we are viewing a dream-like fantasy which portrays the interaction of the elements of our own lives.
Although myths convey strong messages and teach lessons by using symbolism and creative license, for some people they represent something that is generally accepted but untrue. That’s why I highly recommend to read the following article, where the irony of this keyword is cleared up.
Lévi-Strauss, Radin, Boas, Weigle put the emphasis on mythic thought, as highly symbolic, that offers rich resources for making sense of the world, affirming worldview, and confirming human nature. That’s why the following bibliography is highly recommended to those who have strong interests in Myth and want to broaden their horizons on this special keyword.
1. Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Myth and Meaning. New York: Schocken Books, 1995.
2. Radin, Paul. AThe Basic Myth of the North American Indians,@ in Eranos-Jahrbuch: Der Mensch und die Mythische Welt, Band XVII (1949).Winterthur, Switzerland: Rhein-Verlag Zurich, 1950: 359-419.
3. Boas, Franz. Culture As Reflected in Mythology (American Folklore Society Memoirs). Washington, American Folklore Society, 1936.
4. Weigle, Marta. Spiders & Spinsters: Women and Mythology. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.