The “very essence” of Myth

So, a little background:

I’m teaching a one-term English course on the Hero’s Journey, which serves as a basic introduction to university-level literary studies, with the added “theme” of the Joseph Campbell monomyth and the hero’s journey attached to it. This is the kind of theme, I hope, that speaks to first-years, who have just left behind the little desert planets they grew up on, who have come into the vast outer-space of a new city with weird alien new people, who have found themselves suddenly in the carnivalesque cantina-bar of university, who are suddenly responsible for their own actions.

It’s exam season and I’ve been swamped for two days with emails about grades, exam expectations, appeals to my (almost) nonexistent mercy from students who haven’t shown up or worked a lick all year and want to make up the entire course in the last 48 hours of it. And then, in the midst of this relatively mundane sea of student correspondence, one of the stronger students in the class has emailed me with a question. It’s a small question with a very big answer; so big, in fact, that I considered it worth posting.

What the student (who shall not be identified) asked me was this:

I have one last question for you if thats [sic] alright. I hope its[sic] not too much of a loaded question. How would you define myth? I seem to have forgotten the very essence of the word. 

[I should point out that the student’s grammar and apostrophe use are impeccable on assignments. But e-mail, and probably e-mail sent from a cell phone, is apparently a different genre altogether.]

I thought for a moment that I was just going to direct the student to some slides from the beginning of the year. But what I ended up writing back became something entirely different–and maybe, I hope, something too useful to share with one person alone. Keep in mind that said student is also a musician, with what’s probably a substantial cultural vocabulary for his age where 20th-century music is concerned.

Here’s what I wrote:

Hi ****** [name redacted],

What myth is is a very hard question to define. I’ve always understood it practically in terms of what it does, or how people use it.

Is Beowulf  a myth? Sure it is, if you read it the right way. But if you read it a different way, maybe it isn’t, because it’s performing a different function. If you take it in an Old English class, for instance, you may get a prof who treats it as mythic literature, or you may get a philologist of the sort Tolkien hated, who simply use it as a linguistic tool to teach the syntax and grammar of early medieval English. Some theorists will tell you, for that reason, that whether a story is “mythic” or not really has to do with its relationship to its audience.

Most people, I think, who have seen Star Wars and are really into it already have a mythic relationship with it. That might not be true of everyone who reads Shadows on Our Skin. One thing I hope I’ve done with this course is allowed people to perceive a mythic relationship between themselves and a wider variety of narratives.

But what is “mythic?” Again, if I really needed an exact definition I’d only be able to describe it in terms of “function” — i.e. what it does for people. I’d look back to the slides from the January 10 class, which are conveniently posted on the course website, and think about the 4 functions of myth: “metaphysical,” “cosmological,” “sociological,” and “pedagogical.” I’d check out dictionary definitions of these words, find them not very helpful at all, and then try to sort out on my own what these might mean in relation to myth.

Off the top of my head, here’s a couple of working definitions:

1.Metaphysical (“beyond” the physical, just as Metamaus is “beyond”-Maus): Myth connects the physical world to the world beyond it in some way–not necessarily in as literal a way as Labyrinth. Myth connects its characters to something more than purely physical, whether it’s divine/supernatural (the Force), or simply transcendent (as in the case of Joe’s poetry, for instance). Myth is what takes Robert Johnson’s sudden skill as a blues prodigy and turns it into a grand story of good and evil.

2.Cosmological: Myth “makes sense” of the cosmos; that is, it allows us to see things about the world we live in, or the universe, or Creation, or whatever we want to call existence. Native American animal stories are a classic example of this: how did the rabbit get its white tail? Why do some animals eat plants, and other animals eat them? In another sense, you could argue that myth is what Dr. Manhattan is missing. He perceives every minute fact of his existence, but he’s unable to make sense of them the way we humans can. He sees a collection of factual moments and events in his life, but only we can put those disjointed moments together and make a story out of them. When he says that a live/dead human body are structurally the same, he’s right. Myth, in one sense, allows us to “make sense” of the few trillion electrochemical reactions going on in nearby cellular tissue, and recognize that the “cellular tissue” is in fact other people, and the “electrochemical reactions” are those people’s thoughts and feelings. This can get quite philosophical, and is certainly more than you’d need to know for the exam–but it may be useful in a larger life context.

3.Sociological: Myth serves a social function–that is, it provides a framework by which we govern how we behave. The way that we understand everything from personal morality to global politics has to do in some way with the myths we have absorbed or made for ourselves. One of the very popular functions of myth today is to teach children how to become good adults (not just today– Aesop’s fables did this too). This is what a lot of literature for young people does. Part of the reason so many people dislike Twilight, whether they know it or not, is because they disagree with it on this level of its sociological function. Feminists especially–but really a lot of people–take issue with Bella not just as a weak character, but especially as a “role model” because of the kind of woman she is teaching young girls to become. On the other hand, something like Shadows on Our Skin, a book for adults about a young boy, has things to teach adults how we might be better adults. It takes us back into a childhood of sorts and runs us back through the wonder of those tricky tween years (albeit in a new situation) to teach us new lessons about becoming an adult we didn’t get the first time around. This is related to and brings us to the 4th function:

4.Pedagogical: Myths are stories that teach us things–things about ourselves, about each other, about the world we live in, even about what happens outside of that world. This is connected to all the other functions in a way, and i’m not sure it’s a separate one. I could be convinced to categorize it differently using the first three.

If a narrative is doing all of these things, or any one of them to a great degree, it’s probably a myth. Thinking in these terms allows you to see myth in places you otherwise wouldn’t. Everybody knows that the Ancient Greek stories of Hercules are “mythic,” even if they don’t know why; and so when you get modern versions of those stories (the Disney movie, the Kevin Sorbo fantasy series), it’s fairly straightforward to treat them as myths too. But myths aren’t just action-packed stories about dragonslaying heroes and gods: have you heard Tom Waits’s “Big Joe and Phantom 309? There’s something mythic about that too, a narrative that does something in all of these senses.

As you can see I’m still working out this definition for myself. If this is something that interests you, it’s something you can puzzle over for a long, long time.

Good luck on the exam,

Luke Maynard


2 thoughts on “The “very essence” of Myth

  1. What about the religious function of myths- ie. as narratives that bind communal beliefs through depictions of the divine, whether episodes from the Bible in Christian communities or readings and re-enactments of British myths amongst neo-pagans.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts! The way you’ve phrased it, I’d categorize this under “sociological,” because the phrase “bind communal beliefs” suggests the objective of establishing a community, or bringing people together socially through a shared set of values imparted by narratives.

      On the other hand, this is also related to the “metaphysical” dimension of myth, in as far as it connects people to something beyond the immanent world–in your examples, the divine. There are a lot of cases, especially in what we think of as religious cases, where these functions all overlap.

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