Is Mythology True?

It depends on what your definition of “true” is, to misquote a slippery politician in a tight place.

I’ve decided to pose this as a true/false question on Wis.dom. Click here to answer:

wis.dmIs mythology true?answer

Now, let me tell you a story about Joseph Campbell, which will explain why I asked the question. Warning: Deep Thoughts Ahead!

In the opening pages (3ff) of Campbellā€™s book Thou Art That, he tells an amusing yet profoundly important anecdote about a run-in with a hardnosed radio host who started off by saying that a myth is a lie.

Campbell writes:

So I replied with my definition of myth. “No, a myth is not a lie. A whole mythology is an organization of symbolic images and narratives, metaphorical of the possibilities of human experience and the fulfillment of a given culture at a given time.”
“It’s a lie,” he countered.
“It’s a metaphor.”
This went on for about twenty minutes. Around four or five minutes before the end of the program, I realized that this interviewer did not really know what a metaphor was. I decided to treat him as he was treating me.
“No,” I said. “I tell you it’s metaphorical. You give me an example of a metaphor.”
He replied, “You give me an example.”
I resisted, “No, I’m asking the question this time.” I had not taught school for thirty years for nothing. “And I want you togive me an example of a metaphor.”
The interviewer was utterly baffled and even went so far as to say, “Let’s get in touch with some school teacher.” Finally, with something like a minute and a half to go, he rose to the occasion and said, “I’ll try. My friend John runs very fast. People say he runs like a deer. There’s a metaphor.”
As the last seconds of the interview ticked off, I replied, “That is not the metaphor. The metaphor is: John is a deer.”
He shot back. “That’s a lie.”
“No,” I said, “That is a metaphor.”
And the show ended.

Campbell’s view of myth as metaphor is incredibly liberating, for some people. A metaphor is like “let’s pretend,” only more complicated. It’s not saying something is like something. Myth is saying it is something — depending on what your definition of “is” is.

I studied Sufism last year. I understood very little, but came away with one grain of revelation. The Sufis argue that God, in God’s native state, is a state we can never fully reach, comprehend, or grasp. We’re down here in the physical world, the world called maya in Buddhism. Our souls, however, don’t exist merely as physical substance. They’re not divine either. They partake of something between matter and divnity. Furthermore, the Sufis argue that certain things encountered in dreams, visions, and meditation — angels, for example — truly exist in that middle state. They are metaphors. But that doesn’t mean they’re false, any more than your soul is false.

There’s a catch to all this, of course.

Some parts of a myth or story simply “come to” a bard, who may say it’s a gift of a muse, but still, there’s a certain amount of skill and deliberate choices involved in performing or retelling a myth. If an author or storyteller is deliberately manipulating elements or events in the narrative for conscious reasons, it’s not on the same order as God or angels that come from the outside.

Or… since story is a product of the soul’s creative process, does myth exist at least partly in that middle place between solid reality and transcendent divinity?

I’m also reminded of Orphism in classical Greece. The cult of Orpheus was an alternative to mainstream Greek religious practices, or rather, a supplement. It had its own set of myths and promises of a rich afterlife, supposedly the teachings of Orpheus who had gone to the land of the dead and returned. One of the central tenets of the Orphic cult was a strange myth about the god Dionysos, that the Titans had dismembered and eaten him when he was an infant. Furious, Zeus burned the Titans to cinders with his fiery thunderbolt. Athena rescued Dionysos’ heart and reconstituted him — so Dionysos is another dying and resurrected god. Humans were first created from the clay, the dust, the embers of the Titans. That is, we are part Titanic in nature (barbaric oafs, coarse matter, brutes) and part divine. The Orphic Cult taught practices of self-purification designed to remove the “mud” of our Titanic nature so that it would be burned away, so that the divine element of soul would fly free of the body when we died.

But again, the Orphics are talking about a reality that exists externally to ourselves, as opposed to stories told and shaped by the soul within us. Can one compare or reconcile the two?

Perhaps, if one accepts the validity of what J.R.R. Tolkien describes as subcreation, the special ability of the human soul to imagine, to create realities of the mind. For Tolkien, subcreation is what the Bible meant by Man made in the image of God. It’s not that we literally look like God. It’s that God creates, and we — through soul, through our consciousness and minds and dreams — are capable of subcreation, creating realities that aren’t composed of matter and substance (only God can do that, Tolkien would say, as a good Catholic), but of thought. While talking about those subcreated world, we must treat them as if they are real: John is a deer, not merely like a deer.

For example, we experience movies as our reality while we watch them, if they’re well-made. The best movies ring true. Not literally, but there is a truth in them. That is subcreation.

Mythology, when manipulated and embellished by bards, is another form of subcreation. It exists on its own plane, an inner plane, just as physical reality exists on a plane that is inside, less “real” than the divine plane of God.

Still with me? If so, you probably have a nagging sense that I’m begging a question, one you can’t put your finger on. You’re right!

I’m using the same dodge that Campbell and many comparative mythologists use to help them hold what they’re studying in their minds — as metaphor. They (and I) skip skittishly around the question of whether God, or the gods, are real. C.G. Jung pulls the same trick by talking about objective psychic reality, the real, honest-to-gosh existence of things that we experience. In a way, it doesn’t matter whether God is really what Christians think He is; what matters is how people live their lives, shape their lives, speak to and hear from God. That is their objective reality, Jung says.

The “middle way” I’m talking about, Campbell’s “metaphor,” Jung’s “objective psyche,” coyly chooses to define a third category between true and false, matter and divinity, which is metaphorically but not literally true and real.

I’m not sure if that’s a cop-out — a lie — or a metaphor.

So it’s really not fair of me to ask a yes/no question, when my own money is squarely on the slash. But as a student of depth psychology as well as mythology, I’m curious to see which side of the slash most people will choose, when there is no middle way. I’m assuming the majority will be on the side of Campbell’s interviewer, who believed that myth is a lie. The question in my mind is: what proportion of people, roughly, will grasp at “yes” as the closer approximation of truth?

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