We Need Myths

“Myths have a very long memory.”
Bryan Sykes, Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland

Olympia, Greece

Mythology! The very word has to power to evoke strong emotional responses because myths speak to the heart of human experience.  We long for certainty in a fragile and finite existence in order to build lives within reasonably secure surroundings. Instead, we are born into a complex world that hurls more questions at us than it does answers. Myths carry tradition within its narratives.  And because we are a curious species, we use them in an attempt to explain natural or social phenomenon.  Perhaps their greatest task is to provide us with the assurance of our beginnings and endings.

When we think of mythology, we think back to earliest times where supernatural beings and events seemed to have a rightful place in ancient civilizations.  Yet, there is clear evidence that mythology is well entrenched within our DNA. Karen Armstrong in A Short History of Myth wrote, “We need myths that will help us to identify with all our fellow-beings, not simply with those who belong to our ethnic, national or ideological tribe. We need myths that help us to realize the importance of compassion, which is not always regarded as sufficiently productive or efficient in our pragmatic, rational world.”  Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, comes from a different perspective: “Myths, whether in written or visual form, serve a vital role of asking unanswerable questions and providing unquestionable answers. Most of us, most of the time, have a low tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. We want to reduce the cognitive dissonance of not knowing by filling the gaps with answers. Traditionally, religious myths have served that role, but today — the age of science — science fiction is our mythology.”

We are a global community with the means to communicate and share knowledge.  What better way to celebrate our humanity than by recounting the myths, legends, folklore and tales that have come down through the generations.  Myths do indeed, have a very long memory.

33 thoughts on “We Need Myths

  1. I have always been fascinated with different mythologies and also have worked on them at a time for my research. I loved this precise piece of writing about mythologies, Rebecca. Mythologies, from different lands also share some common elements. Linguists have found similar sounding names in mythological characters and deep researches have figured out common plots and sub-stories. In my opinion, the element of supernatural/magic could have been science unexplained to the less-evolved forefathers that we all shared… or I love to look at it like that.

    • Thank you so very much for adding depth to this conversation. Ever since I read the stories of Hercules, I have been fascinated by the mythologies that have come down through the ages. Even more exciting to me is, as you noted, the shared common elements. Our generation considers that we live in a global world, as if we have been the first to experience this paradigm. The more I read, I realize that our beliefs, values and cultures are harmonious, with the beauty of diversity sprinkled in for flavour. To me, this signals a profound connectivity that we may not fully understand. I look forward to your thoughts as we continue our dialogue.

      • Yeah. History provides enough evidence to the fact that we were ‘globalized’ much before we thought we were. If Roman coins can be dug up from the southernmost tip of India and Indian local gods and their idols could be spotted in the Eastern tip of China, there has to be something up about it. Don’t you think? I have even come across similarities between Celtic myths and some ancient ballads in my language which intrigued me as a child. Hopefully, we will figure out that we were stupid to think that our generation shrunk the world. :)

  2. Very interesting comment you provided from a skeptic’s perspective. I think some sci-fi fans would be very uncomfortable with the idea that sci-fi can be seen as mythic, while others would welcome it.

    • I found the link between science fiction and mythology rather surprising, even though I do not consider myself an expert in Science Fiction. And yet, when you consider movies such as “The Fifth Element,” “Thor,” “The Matrix” and “Avatar” there are connections back to our past mythologies. We respond to the good vs bad themes, the noble heart, a world in trouble, and in the end, redemption. Thank you so much for your comments – they are so very much appreciated.

  3. “Mythology!” Yes, it deserves an exclamation point. :D

    It’s interesting that it’s entrenched in our DNA. according to my sister, who has a masters in genetics, studies are finding that lots of our behaviors are genetic rather than learned as was previously thought.

    • Oh! Yes!! I am so glad that you mentioned genetics within this dialogue. Our need for “knowing,” our search for answers, our need for inclusion was not learned.. And we are not the only creatures in this world with those attributes. Several years ago I read Bryan Sykes’s book, Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland which adds to your comments.

      “Oral myths are closer to the genetic conclusions than the often ambiguous scientific evidence of archaeology.”

      Thank you so much for being a part of this conversation. I value your insights.

  4. I can’t imagine what our lives would be like without myths. Or science fiction. I am reading Elizabeth Wein’s books now based on the legend of King Arthur.

    • I cannot imagine it either! And I cannot imagine what it would be like to live without books. The story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table continues to be told and retold, and retold again. There is so much to that narrative…

      “Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross.”
      ― Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur

  5. An interesting subject myths. The stuff of history, lore, romance, emotions, religion, lore, and pardon my realistic streak, politics. Great topic, great story presentation, as usual Rebecca! Jean-Jacques

    • As soon as I came across this quote by Joseph Campbell, I thought of you!

      “Mythology is composed by poets out of their insights and realizations. Mythologies are not invented; they are found. You can no more tell us what your dream is going to be tonight than we can invent a myth. Myths come from the mystical region of essential experience.”

      I have always believed that the language, symbolism and voice of poetry allows us to communicate on a deeper, more profound level.

      • What an extraordinary relate to be thought of, while discovering a quote by the celeb Joseph Campbell. Without question one can’t help but be fascinated by mythology. That which pulls at you to involve directly or indirectly when writing. It opens your mind to expand the borders of creative licence, that which allows poetic writing to achieve with an economy of words. Ergo a few lines, can and does bring about a complete and telling story. For a lazy person like me, myth is one of the fascinating tools that allows one to keep at it.
        On behalf of they who effort in the writing of poetry, I thank you Rebecca, for your words of appreciation for this stubbornly surviving medium!

      • Well said…”opens your mind to expand.”

        Perhaps in our search for certainties, we limit, dare I say, canonize our possibilities. When I graduated from high school, I took the words of Alfred lord Tennyson with me (and they have stayed with me all these many years): “All experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades for ever and for ever when I move.” As you say, “a few lines brings about a complete and telling story.”

      • In using that incomparable Tennyson line, one could not more appropriately have expressed the merit of this new adventure you have undertaken. Chapeau!
        What else can I offer Lady Budd?

  6. This should be an interesting and revealing subject. Somehow, it doesn’t surprise me that some would think of science fiction as part of a new mythology.

    • I am so glad that you are joining in on the conversation. I have no idea where this series will go, but I have a feeling that I will be learning a lot as I go along!!

  7. Fascinating Rebecca… I also love the books of Ursula le Guin for their mythic quality, and the marvellous quadrilogy for children – The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, which I often re-read…

    • “Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country. Why did we look up for blessing — instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.”- UKL

      I remember the first time I read "A Left-Handed Commencement Address (Mills College, 1983)! Profoundly moving. She reminded me that we are from this earth, that we belong to the stories that are inspired by our environment. :)

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