Why myths still matter

The religious rituals that surrounded them are gone, but we're still drawn to stories that transform the world -- and ourselves.

Published November 16, 2005 1:00PM (EST)

A friend of mine, a classicist, believes that the news stories that most captivate the public always tap into some venerable Western myth or folk tale. George W. Bush (or any recovered addict) is the prodigal son; Chandra Levy is a sacrificial maiden along the lines of Andromeda or Iphigenia; Scott Peterson is Bluebeard. Sometimes the people acting out these old stories know just what they're doing -- W. expects his evangelical base to respond instinctively to his remake of the New Testament parable. Others, like Peterson, find themselves cast in their roles against their will. And chances are that the bottom-feeding tabloids that capitalized on Levy's death have never even heard of Iphigenia.

But maybe my friend's idea is tautological -- perhaps the definition of a myth is simply this: a story we feel compelled to tell over and over again. That's the notion behind a new series of books, "The Myths," launched this fall. Canongate Books will publish novella-length retellings of ancient myths, written by such luminaries as Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson and Donna Tartt.

The first two books, Atwood's "The Penelopiad" and Winterson's "Weight," choose classical Greek myths, "The Odyssey" and the story of Atlas and Heracles, respectively. (Presumably, some contributors will follow the lead of Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe and pick myths from other traditions.) Atwood and Winterson stick pretty close to the earliest versions of these stories, but their results are radically different without actually violating the premise. There could be no better illustration of the fact that after centuries of telling and talking about myths, we're still not sure what they are and why they move us.

By way of introduction, the series kicks off with a nonfiction volume, "A Short History of Myth" by Karen Armstrong. The choice of Armstrong makes sense: Her exploration, in "The Battle for God," of the differences between two modes of thought, "logos" and "mythos," is an eloquent argument for the value of certain impractical ideas. Logos, Armstrong explained, is "the rational, pragmatic and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world." It "must relate exactly to facts and correspond to external realities if it is to be effective." Mythos, in contrast, is "not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning."

According to Armstrong, premodern people considered both modes "essential; they were regarded as complementary ways of arriving at truth, and each had its special area of competence." While logos can tell us how to grow crops, build cathedrals and split atoms, mythos, often in circuitous ways, speaks of why we do these things.

A Briton, a former nun and a self-described "freelance monotheist," Armstrong lives in a mostly secular society set in a larger world roiled by religious fundamentalism. The mythos/logos formulation serves her well in the task of criticizing both. As a liberal person of faith, she can argue that a logos-ruled culture like Britain's fails to speak to the persistent desire for meaning. And then she can point out that literal-minded fundamentalists -- who insist that biblical stories describe actual historical events and divine directives -- mistakenly treat the metaphorical mythos of the Bible as if it were the logos of, say, Newton's law of gravitation.

But, at heart, Armstrong writes about religion, not literature, and her "A Short History of Myth" isn't a very satisfying lead-in to a collection of fictional works. For Armstrong, the high point in the history of religion came with what the German philosopher Karl Jasper called "the Axial Age," when "new religious and philosophical systems emerged: Confucianism and Taoism in China; Buddhism and Hinduism in India; monotheism in the Middle East and Greek rationalism in Europe." These aren't, however, traditions known for their great myths (except for the legends in the Old Testament, which seem to be a holdover from earlier times anyway).

The Axial Age heralded a new kind of spirituality that even Armstrong acknowledges "was not so heavily dependent upon external rituals and practices," rituals that many scholars regard as indivisible from the myths themselves. This "new concern about the individual conscience and morality" introduced by the Axial faiths may be worth celebrating (provided the faithful manage to act accordingly), but by concentrating on the inner life of the individual it made the communal ceremonies of mythic pantheism less important.

And none of this explains why the myths -- particularly the Greek and Norse myths -- are still with us, why painters still paint them, audiences still turn out to see them performed and writers still plunder them for material. When Armstrong insists that a myth cannot be separated from the rituals that embodied it, she is voicing a common anthropological idea about how mythic religions work. But is it really true, as Armstrong asserts, that "reading a myth without the transforming ritual that goes with it is as incomplete an experience as simply reading the lyrics of an opera without the music"?

Demeter, the Greek harvest goddess, forsook the world when Hades, the god of the underworld, kidnapped her daughter, Persephone. To save the planet from ruin, the gods reunited the mother and daughter, but because Persephone had eaten a few pomegranate seeds while she was with Hades, she is forced to rejoin him for a few months of the year; hence, winter. No doubt this story had its maximum resonance in the secret seasonal rituals -- the Eleusian Mysteries -- performed by the people who believed it to be "true." But the story still retains great beauty for those of us who don't subscribe to that religion or observe those rituals. (We don't even know what those rituals were, as no record of them survives.) And in a way, millions of us relive Demeter's story every time we see a lurid movie in which a distraught parent searches for a daughter lost in an urban underworld of drugs or porn or prostitution.

Even stripped of their original religious significance, even when we don't know their source, myths still strike us as being filled with meaning. Why this should be so is one of the mysteries of human culture. In the Middle Ages, scholars believed that ancient myths that seemed to pre-figure Christianity were allegorical premonitions of the revealed truth of the New Testament -- sort of like echoes that worked backward in time. Mr. Casaubon, the desiccated scholar in George Eliot's "Middlemarch," labored on a Victorian version of the same idea, his famously pointless and unfinished "key to all mythologies."

In the 20th century, the psychiatrist Carl Jung formed his theory of archetypes, motifs recurring throughout most cultures. The archetypes, he believed, arise from the collective unconscious, an inherited body of symbols shared by all humanity. Jung's concepts have stuck with us, and were eventually popularized by Joseph Campbell, who described various heroic myths as metaphors for the journey of an individual psyche from childhood to maturity. The fact that George Lucas was able to fashion a blockbuster pop epic -- "Star Wars" -- using Campbell's work as a blueprint demonstrates just how much power those stories retain.

Winterson approaches the myth of Atlas in this way, as a vehicle for reflection on the self. Atlas was a giant, a Titan condemned to support the world on his shoulders as punishment for rebelling against the gods. (Winterson, a lesbian raised in an evangelical Christian home, identifies with that rebellion.) He gets a brief respite when Heracles offers to take over the task in exchange for the golden apples that grow on a tree in Atlas' garden. (Only Atlas can pick them, and obtaining the apples is one of 12 labors Heracles is compelled to perform as punishment for flying into a rage and killing his own family.) Once the giant returns with the apples, Heracles asks Atlas to spell him for a moment so he can pad his shoulders, then runs off with the apples.

For Winterson, this is a story of unnecessary burdens -- not just Atlas', but Heracles' labors as well. Her Heracles is a boorish brute, a man of pure action, made uneasy by the immobility imposed by Atlas' task. Compelled to stand still for once, "his only company was the hornet buzzing outside his head, the thought-wasp buzzing Why? Why? Why?" Atlas, on the other hand, holds up the world with "such grace and ease, with such gentleness, love almost." In the story's most charming development, Atlas winds up freeing and adopting Laika, a dog shot into space by the Soviets in 1957. Having learned to love Laika as much as he loves the world, he finally considers the possibility of laying his burden down. "I chose this story above all others," Winterson writes, "because it's a story I'm struggling to end."

For Jung, myths and other archetypes stood for internal psychological states; Campbell's theories, as presented in his televised interviews with PBS journalist Bill Moyers, had a more social aspect. The purpose of myths, Campbell claimed, was to instruct us on "how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances." Moyers' questions -- not surprisingly, given his political background -- prompted Campbell to expound on how myths show us how to have a better marriage, reject empty consumerism and respect the environment.

Structuralism, beginning with the great French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss in the 1950s, often took a less sanguine view of what myths teach us. These stories, they argued, are founded in cultural concepts that shape the way the people in that culture understand their world. Our inclination to grasp our experience in terms of duality -- light/dark, male/female, good/evil or, for that matter, mythos/logos -- is one example of such an underlying concept. Myths, a structuralist might say, supply us with dramatic confirmation of our own way of interpreting things. The peculiar, heady response they elicit from us -- that feeling of recognition -- comes from the fact that, on a subterranean level, they tell us that the values of our culture, the values we already hold, are right and true.

Atwood's ironic "Penelopiad" would probably please the structuralists. She has Penelope tell the story of Odysseus' long absence, but complicates it with the choral commentary of the 12 maids her husband executed upon his return. Was Penelope, as she and the "official" version of the story insist, faithful to her husband for the 20 years he was away? Were the maids, hanged for consorting with the suitors, merely the unfortunate victims of bad luck? "The Penelopiad" exhibits some long-standing Atwoodian interests: the difficulty of discovering the truth about people's private lives and the casual brutality of class hierarchies. She takes the Greeks' notion of heroism and turns it inside out, like a shirt, so that we can see the seams.

Theories about what myths are meant to teach us vary, but the idea that their job is to teach is tenacious. It's tempting to raise the Armstrongian point that this is a utilitarian, logos-shaped view of the ultimate in mythos material. C.S. Lewis, in his capacity as a literary critic, once wrote that myth gives us the sensation that "something of great moment has been communicated to us," and that "the recurrent efforts of the mind to grasp -- we mean, chiefly, to conceptualize -- this something, are seen in the persistent tendency of humanity to provide myths with allegorical explanations. And after all allegories have been tried, the myth itself continues to feel more important than they."

Lewis wrote persuasively about myth because (despite his Christianity) he was at heart a platonist and perfectly comfortable with the notion that what makes myths powerful is the fact that we can never adequately explain how they work and what they do. He also believed that people have never stopped making myths, even if nowadays they don't usually consider themselves to be doing something religious. Lewis' own good friend J.R.R. Tolkien created an imaginative work in "The Lord of the Rings" that millions of readers respond to with an immediacy that has little to do with modern notions of a "great" novel. Lewis thought Kafka had a similar myth-making genius.

In contemplating the stylistic inadequacy of one of his favorite writers, George MacDonald, Lewis asked himself if myth weren't, after all, something "extra-literary." A myth, he concluded, was "a particular kind of story which has a value in itself -- a value independent of its embodiment in any literary work. The story of Orpheus strikes and strikes deep, of itself; the fact that Virgil and others have told it in good poetry is irrelevant." Language itself isn't even required. The story could be told in mime or silent film or in a wordless comic book and it would still be itself. Furthermore, it can be told in widely different ways -- set in the favelas of Brazil, for example, like Marcel Camus' 1959 film "Black Orpheus," or in a kind of modern, surrealist neverland like Cocteau's "Orpheus" -- and still be the same myth.

Today, our standards of literary excellence are intimately entwined with the idea of originality and individual expression. Myths, on the other hand, are communal. They are also stories first and foremost, and contemporary literary critics do not hold story in particularly high regard, when they regard it at all. Like depictions of sex, story is seen as appealing to people on the crudest level, to the lowest common denominator. A book that has nothing else to offer can still thrill hordes of unsophisticated readers with pure, page-turning plot.

The seminal modernist works that still define our idea of literary genius often referred to myth without actually partaking of it. Mythic fragments float through T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," but there are no stories in the poem. James Joyce's "Ulysses" is not the epic tale of a man's 10-year journey home from a foreign war; instead, the novel aims to elevate a day in the life of an ordinary fellow to the grandeur of a hero's adventures. When such works succeed, they succeed in a modern fashion, as unique, form-breaking innovations, but not as myth.

As exhilarating as the modernist experiment has been, it eventually collided with what appears to be a fact of human nature, the reality that our minds are built of stories. To stick with the metaphor above, a steady diet of books without stories turns out to be as appealing as a life without sex; some people take to it, but not many. At the same time, an explosion of media has immersed the average citizen in a cloud of competing voices, and those voices have learned that stories capture people's attention. In a culture where nearly everyone -- politicians, TV producers, journalists, advertisers -- talks obsessively about the power of stories, the very artists most associated with the telling of tales, novelists, seem the least comfortable doing it.

So the "Myths" series is very welcome. It reminds us that not every talented writer can or should aspire to the model of the novelist as iconoclastic Great Man. (It's no coincidence that some of highest-profile contributors to the series are women.) Both Atwood and Winterson weave less prestigious modes of storytelling -- gossip and memoir -- into their new versions of Greek myths. The best novels have always had at least a dash of both. And perhaps the best myths have, too. But underneath it all there is still the "something of great moment" that Lewis wrote about, a something that eludes definition. Perhaps Winterson puts it best when she writes, "These are the stories we tell ourselves to make ourselves come true."

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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