In Greek mythology we encounter stories about the doings of gods and men in the distant past, as far back as the first gods: Ouranos, Chronos and Zeus. While the stories are various they have some important characteristics in common. One characteristic is that they are continuously retold, and modified in the process.
A myth may have several current versions, perhaps stemming from different geographical areas, perhaps being re-presented at a later point in history.
Another characteristic is that they are long-lived. They do not fall out of memory but they remain, pinned into the unconscious. So even today we carry the story of Pandora and her jar – from which the bad and uncontrollable things escape, leaving only hope behind. The story matters because it pictures for us a truth about the sorry world in which we live. And as another example, Sigmund Freud takes the Oedipus story of patricide, incest and inevitable punishment, and uses it as a paradigm for the examination of the traumatised unconscious.
We may get closer to myth by seeing it as a story which is truer than true, yet paradoxically untrue at the same time. As Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge, tells us, they are not so much a single entity as a set of ways to help us to think about what human existence is like, and why it is so hard, and why we believe and behave as we do. Myths push us and point us in different directions. They provide a framework for thinking about the human condition. They open questions, and still demand an answer to the perennial question: “What’s it all about, Alfie?”
Even the variations which appear, under whatever circumstances they were developed, serve to bring out different points and emphases and questions.
And so the myth becomes a sort of carrier: a framework which contains unfathomable truths, which are mysteries in so far as we can never plumb the depths, and never exhaust the richness. This carrier is needed so that it can be passed from one generation to another, to one village from its neighbour. The medium contains the message. But what message each will find may depend on whether they have eyes to see. The question of whether they are literally true is of no consequence; it is only asked by shallow minds which are dead to the truer truths.
Let’s consider some stories which we find in the Judeo-Christian tradition: the tower of Babel, Noah’s flood and Jonah and the big fish. Are these myths? For much of our history they have been regarded as historical, and it is probable that they would be received as such by children today. That is not surprising in a world which is only explicable in terms of a supernatural power. We are inclined to put emphasis on their moral meaning rather than literal truth. Babel, for instance, teaches us that pride leads to incomprehension which leads to dispute which leads to collapse. Historical? I would say, hardly likely. But I really don’t care; what matters is the message.
But there are differences from Greek myth because there is a pattern here: the stories all relate to salvation history. Even Noah’s flood – which is a story found outside the Judaic tradition – is tuned to show punishment for sin, willingness to save the just, and the foreshadow of the Church. This pattern is the handprint of inspiration at work.
But where the oral tradition of the Greeks is never pinned down by a sacred text – and so can redevelop the message in the retelling, the written biblical messages are developed through different stories. Thus, for example, Jonah spends three days in the belly of a fish, and the temple can be rebuilt in three days: preparing us for three days in the tomb. And so the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his own son is played out in an infinitely stronger key when the time is ready. There are exceptions, of course. In Greek myth Odysseus’s son kills his father and marries not his mother but his father’s mistress, and Genesis starts with two tellings of creation, from two different sources.
At this point we experience an awkwardness. While Babel and Noah’s flood may or may not have been a distant memory of a historical incident, we can remain agnostic. But Abraham and Isaac is presented as an actual occurrence with some conviction. Should we doubt that it happened? We would not expect to find secular evidence of the Paschal Supper but even the captivity of some two million people does not seem to have been noticed by the Egyptians, let alone the slaughter of all their first born. Of the invasion of Canaan, or the Israelite destruction of Jericho, there appears to be no trace. I leave this to the experts, but they bear all the marks of folk memories unconsciously reconstructed to support an inspired idea. The medium is the memory, the message is the power of God and his covenant with his people.
With Christmas in our sights, we may ask whether it was in a stable, whether it was in Bethlehem. If we concern ourselves about this we have not grasped the nature of myth. The essential truth is that the Son of God, come to save us, was born to a virgin at a point in history; that is the message. And that truth is directly present in our minds because we once heard a beautiful story, and so we remember – and tell it again; that is the medium.
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