Mythtake

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.

Visit secondsightblog.net for an opportunity to discuss these issues

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Scripture. Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to Mythtake

  1. John says:

    I must say I feel a bit uncomfortable using the word ‘myth’ – as used for the Greek Gods and Heroes fables for example – in relation to the Old Testament writings, which contain many different forms of literature but remain in my conviction inspired by the Spirit. I’m no scripture scholar, but my grasp of what the theologians say is that the way to interpret the Old Testament is not as separate stories but as an unfolding ‘whole’ (the constant story of election, turning away, and being called back in a great continuous act of Love) which finds its meaning finally (and only) in the person of Christ.
    I don’t believe in a literal apple and ark. But one of the difficulties in seeing the writings as myth is knowing where to draw the line. Eminent clerics as we know have gone as far as to query the Incarnation and Resurrection. So I must say it gladdens me when archaeologists and scholars find possible historical evidence of ancient accounts. Would it destroy my faith if even much later events/ artefacts (e.g. the Shroud) were proven to be un-historical. No it wouldn’t. But I rest all my faith in a historical real Jesus, and to His ancestors we remain indebted and closely linked as One chosen People.

  2. Geordie says:

    A few years ago in “Bible Alive” there was an explanation of how we should interpret the Old Testament. I’ve looked for this explanation ever since but have been unable to find it. I think the word used was something like “midrash” but I’m not sure. Perhaps someone could help me out. It was a very good explanation and is pertinent to the topic of the latest article.

  3. Trident says:

    I share John’s reservation about the word “myth”. I suppose that, out of habit, I think of a myth as simply a made-up story — origins forgotten.
    Yet I can see that Quentin is making an important point. And surely the key is that the truth being conveyed is an inspired truth. It’s also consoling that I don’t have to find ways of excusing God in my own mind.

  4. mike Horsnall says:

    Its an interesting thing really. Catholic doctrine is overall as scripturally based as any denomination-perhaps more so. But unlike the evangelicals for example there isn’t the need to ‘earth’ scriptural thinking to fact in every instance. This pays dividends in some ways since we don’t have to ‘make excuses’ as one person puts it. Nor are we troubled by pettiness regarding then origins described in Genesis etc . Nor for that matter do we feel obliged to have endless arguments about geological time. But there are problems with the mythic view because it can be equally applied to the New Testament as well as the Old. When it is thus applied we are left a bit edgy and , like the emperor with no clothes possibly a tad embarrassed in public. If we aren’t careful we can be reduced to saying things like ” it is all a mystery and you can’t really understand it..” Personally speaking I don’t know how much of the bible points to more than an obscure cloud of storying but we do have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater or we reduce Easter to a recent non historical myth.

  5. Vincent says:

    There are certainly some historic elements in the Old Testament. I understand that 1 Maccabees is thought to be pretty accurate, 2 Maccabees rather less so. But the Babylonian captivity certainly occurred although it may have been garnished as to detail.
    But much more interesting to me, Mike, is the New Testament – to which you refer. I think the evidence of the Resurrection is solid – Paul makes much of the witnesses to a near-contemporary event. The incarnation is historical, of course – whether or not there were shepherds, snow and Magi! But I wouldn’t be surprised if, say, the Sermon on the Mount was a compilation of Jesus’ teaching, rather than a single event. I certainly accept miracles in principle, but I don’t know how we would test the accuracy of all the gospel miracles. I can’t prove the historicity of the announcement of the Eucharist (John 6). But I choose to believe it.
    I suppose I think of the gospels as historically accurate as accounts might be when the main character has left the scene for several years, and his followers have taught his story orally. But I’d be interested to know what other people think.

  6. Iona says:

    I don’t think the snow is Biblical, never mind historical!

  7. mike Horsnall says:

    Vincent
    Its generally accepted that the Gospels are basically teaching notes derived from each other and another source. This means that they were perhaps like a modern powerpoint slideshow-each cameo of jesus’ life and teaching taken from a general context then used to emphasise a point. This doesnt mean that they were not pieces of history but it does mean that there isn’t much linear in them in terms of sequencing that is. The gospels were written long after the letters of Paul by the way.

  8. JohnBunting says:

    Years ago I read or heard this, (can’t remember the author): “The purpose of scripture is not to teach doctrine, but to prove it”. I take this to mean that doctrine may be derived from other sources – principally the ongoing and developing tradition of the church – but that it must not be inconsistent with scripture. But this in itself may bring problems of interpretation.

  9. st.joseph says:

    I always thought that we could not be saved by Scripture alone.
    We needed a Saviour!
    Hence Scripture ,Tradition ,and Magisterium.
    So we welcome the Birth of Jesus tomorrow.
    And thank Our Blessed Mother for saying ‘Yes”
    And He came from the House of David as was prophesised ,that to me is the important issue!

  10. mike Horsnall says:

    John Bunting,

    yes you are correct in that. Belief must be rooted in scripture but the Church is the author of doctrine in the sense that we believe the shape of belief is given to men by the Holy spirit…and the communications of the Holy Spirit cannot run counter to scripture or else they are false.

  11. mike Horsnall says:

    Vincent:

    I’m not sure that there is much in the way of evidence for Jesus’ cricifixion and resurrection. The church itself is evidence in a way because it was the Emmaus road encounter that really kicked the whole thing off. But since we are- as the Church- in a sense authors of our own myth then I’m not sure that it is admissable as such. As far as I can see we take communion by faith and we walk by faith-thats a bit challenging for some I guess but it does fit rather well overall-
    If you love me you will obey my commands- rather does imply choice doesnt it? I like the archeology stuff myself and have dug up half the negev desert on archeological digs-but I don’t think we can ‘prove’ our faith even to ourselves.

    • Nektarios says:

      There are so many views, opinions, ideas on Myth and Truth, it becomes obvious
      it is our conditioning from childhood our education, and our own thoughts.
      It is clear that Myth is not Truth or vice -a-versa. Myth is a product of thought. Thought is stimulated by a response to memory.
      People may well have used such Myths be they religous, superstious, political or what ever, but these are all Thought. I don’t know if I am communicating this sufficiently?
      So if Truth is not a product of Thought, therefore not a product of our mythology, conditioned in us before we even went to school, then What is Truth?
      There is no such thing as Greek Truth, Irish or Scottish Truth, equally there is no such thing as Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Protestant truth, there is just Truth.
      Mythology is other peoples stories not yours. Again Mythology is of Time and it is a mechanism of thought to make sense of this awful world in which we live, but it has nothing to do with the Truth.
      Oh I hear one cry, Truth is in Jesus Christ…. but is that the One who came down from heaven or is it the Mythology about Christ? God is Timeless, The Son of God is Timeless
      It is not subject to the vaguries of history with all its sorrows, anxiety and fears.
      So If we are to know the the Truth as opposed to chatting about the Truth how are we going to proceed? The Truth is in the Church and the Church is in the Truth, but I cannot see apart from a view glimpses the Truth because of all the distortions of Myth-making which is distorted thought and memory.
      Seek with all your heart, with all your powers, with all your strength, with all your love, with every fibre of your being, then writers on this most interesting blog, you just may touch the Sacred, God and the Truth.

      • mike Horsnall says:

        Nektarios,
        Lex orandi Lex credendi- the order of praying is the order of believing. The liturgy, the cultic, is divinely given to men in history though , as you say, God is not in history-yet He has come into history.. Truth is a person-the person of Christ-and we meet Him in liturgy but also in Spirit, these two are entwined and one is the expression of the other. You are right in some ways to locate the search for God in the individual soul-yet we do dwell in myth also. CS Lewis gave a good definition of Christianity as ‘The myth that is true’

        PS you didn’t say ‘how’ to do all that seeking.

  12. Vincent says:

    Mike, I like your phrase “authors of our own myth”. It is bound to be circular if we say that Scripture provides the evidence of the Church, and the Church provides evidence of Scripture.
    Looks like it’s back to faith again. Ah well.

  13. mike Horsnall says:

    Yes its a funny old business. I was in the evangelical church for several years and did bible school there. They were very keen on tracking down, for example, the site of Noah’s Ark which, apparently, is somewhere on the border of Turkey. There is there the remains of a boat up on the mountain roughly the size of the dimensions of the Ark. Really intersting but so what? It doesnt tell you that was Noah’s ship and never will. There are many good historical/sociological theories about the Exodus too-that the story recounts what was actually a population shift -a migration of peoples such as is commonly seen in war time. Some say it took a year to complete. But I don’t think any of that ‘proves’ a thing. Christianity does have a central dilemma in that it is a historical belief who’s significance is informed by myth. By that I mean that our belief is centred round the crucifixion and ressurection actually taking place in a given period of time; forget the myth, it either happened or it didnt. But all the outworking of that in time both forward and backward has a mythic quality. In the end Christianity is an experiential relationship that is real but which cannot be proved. This is really good news once you get used to the idea of it! Happy New Year!

  14. st.joseph says:

    I was always quite ignorant of the Old Testament, I think I was in my middle twenties when a priest who came to our new parish and was St Francis de Sales Order and quite an historian.
    One day he said ‘of course you all know about Ezekiel?’.I thought ,I didn’t-who was he? And through his homilies learnt a lot about the Old Testament.He died 30yrs ago and I owe him a lot.
    It didn’t make my faith any stronger-but did give me more of an understanding of the New Testament, and knowing the New made me understand the old.
    But after all The Creed is a good starting point as Christians. ‘I believe’ …
    Interestingly, there is no mention in the Creed of the Old Testament, whether we believe in it or not!.

    • st.joseph says:

      Also I find interesting is that since the New Testament ,we have moved forward ,with further revelations ,all of course is not new,but with the appearances of Our Blessed Mother, in the Revelations that is accepted by Holy Mother Church-so who knows what else is going to be revealed to us in the future
      Holy Mother Church may be a little slow to proclaim the Truth , but She has to be certain and not be prompted by false prophets!

  15. John says:

    Several thoughts occur on picking up this thread again.
    How much our faith has been damaged over Christmas by the awful spectacle of the Christian ‘guardians’ of the claimed historical Holy places in Bethlehem fighting over ‘ownership’ of the church of the nativity – just as they fight over the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. As a recent visitor to both places I was uncomfortable with their ‘X marks the spot’ claims, particularly when several of their (clerically garbed) attendants are so rude to the visiting pilgrims. And after travelling from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, through the awful barrier wall, and seeing the settlements and (apartheid) ‘private’ roads to them which the Palestinians cannot use, and hearing about the gradual disappearance of indigenous Christians, it was poignant to read again the words ‘With my Body I have broken down the wall between them’.
    The whole ‘behaviour’ of the Holy Land is in such contrast to the message Jesus came to bring (and yet in so many ways just like the situation He came into, to die). He saw the widow putting in her minute life savings, not the grandeur of the buildings and their bickering lords. So perhaps we should be cautious about founding our faith too solidly on claims which are (or are not) historical.

    At the same time it is clear how poorly versed are so many of us catholics in Holy Scripture, to enable us to better understand His Word, and understand issues such as myth, the coming of The Word made flesh, and how the Old Testament fits. The recent synod of bishops held hope for us of a major refocussing on the Word of God; but very little seems yet to have come through to us as a result. Jesus, as much present in the Word as in the Eucharist – how far are we from grasping this in our church?

  16. mike Horsnall says:

    John,
    In the end I don’t think it is possible to ‘damage’ our faith. Perceptions may come and go but faith emanates from God in the end. I think you are right to say we cannot tie too closely to ‘claims’ about anything whether historical or ahistorical. I also agree with you about scripture. Anyone can get a bible and a book about it- but we should in our parishes study more the Word. It strikes me how little emphasis is placed on personal transformation in our church- which seems to allow people to kind of miss the point a bit-yet read through Pauls letters and it is perfectly obvious that to follow Christ is to become radically changed-and also to accept the responsibility for some of that radical change. I wonder if you are ordained?

  17. Vincent says:

    Mike, when you suggest that our faith cannot be damaged you put that down to the fact that it emanates from God. But surely we have to respond freely. I know that we need grace to respond but surely it cannot be free if it is not possible for us to refuse. Imagine a Catholic who is in a non sacramental civil marriage. He can remain faithful, and practise his religion as far as is lawful. His friend, in a similar situation, deliberately distracts his mind from God, and takes up Richard Dawkins for his bedtime reading. Might he not culpably lose his faith?

  18. mike Horsnall says:

    Vincent,

    Yes of course he can lose sight of who he is and what his stay on earth is for; to that extent we are all prodigals -sometimes heading home and sometimes headed forthe pig pen or the shops! But God is greater than our behaviour, greater than our weaknesses, kinder , more compassionate, much slower to anger than we think. Otherwise who could stand?

    We can refuse the hand that feeds us until we are nigh to starve but all day long that hand is outstretched-outstretched freely not nailed.Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and that assurance is rock solid because it cannot be moved. This is what I was implying rather than our own culpability which of course does exist but, by the time we have come and gone then passed our time in purgatory I doubt there will be many succesfully still resisting. …even Richard Dawkins must get weary from that struggle in the end??

  19. st.joseph says:

    I heard a saying the other day on EWTN it was ‘when we feel we are the furthest from The Lord ,that is when He is the closest’.
    I am still trying to figure it out!

    • Vincent says:

      Try 2 Cor 12:9.
      But he said: My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

  20. st.joseph says:

    Vincent , Thank you.

  21. mike Horsnall says:

    St Joseph,
    The saying is based on Jesus’ care for the lost sheep. When you wander away for one reason or another the absence is noticed and someone sets off in hot pursuit after you. In my own experience this is true and that the closeness of God -experienced as grace- is felt most keenly during or after acts of repentance and reconciliation. Happy New Year all.

  22. st.joseph says:

    Thank you Mike for that thought.
    I suppose as God is everywhere, no where that he isnt,and maybe even if we think we are the furthest from the Lord-by thinking of Him, we are the closest.
    I am ‘blowing my mind’ away now!! Happiness and good health in the New Year to everyone please God.

  23. Nektarios says:

    Mike Horsnall

    How, is a very mischevious word.
    The how you have outlined in the sense of a liturgical understanding of seeking.
    I question that. It is not seeking, it is conditioning by which one cannot seek, only acquire other peoples thoughts and ideas.
    If acquiring The Faith were sufficient, then why the divisions, the hatred, the sorrows anxieties, fears, fighting and wars among believers in Christ?
    If we have been given a belief from childhood, then one clings to that, but the trouble is it does not of itself change one much at all. As we observe all he infighting, and so on, one becomes aware that what we are looking at is the, `old nature modified religiously’, which of course never saved anybody.
    If I am told the how to seek God, it will not be my seeking, my discoveries but someone elses.
    When I was little, around three years old, I was taught how to tie my pyjama trousers, I learned and soon was able to do it. However, I could not tie my own shoe laces, until one sunny day,
    I saw to tie my shoe laces was the same knot. It was a marvellous discovery for me, aged three.
    My little mind did not know but wanted to find out. Perhaps I was too young to phrase the question,
    how do I tie my shoe laces?
    Perhaps the truth is we have bits of information, but not all. Like learning to tie my pyjama trousers
    did not initially lead me to knowing how to tie my shoe laces, but then there was the freedom to look and to discover for myself, and it was a marvellous day and never to be forgotten.

    Seeking God assumes one knows what one is seeking? Obviously, we think we do, but our view is limited to the liturgical, rites, weekly services and so on, and, necessary though all that may be,
    it is repetitive and one is is limited to seek God, that is, to discover God for oneself.

    What does seeking God with all one’s heart mean?
    One may not know what God is, only that He is. But to discover God in actually here is the how for you in the form of negative aphorisms: Without love, there is no attention; Without attention, there is no interest; Without interest there is no looking. Without looking there is no seeing. Without
    seeing there is no change or tranformation.
    Psalm 46:10 Be still, and know that I am God

  24. mike Horsnall says:

    Lots of words, not much use.

  25. mike Horsnall says:

    Sorry Nektarios perhaps I should clarify the above,
    It is not that God has left us without maps and those who have gone before us have trodden and documented the path. I have sought after God for many years in many ways and would agree that you simply have to hack your own way up the mountain-no one else can do it for you and we all must sacrifice whatever we can. But the path is marked-in the Western Spiritual tradition there is written plenty about the God we look for but cannot see, the God we fervently desire but cannot know. Individuality is and is not important. It is important since it is only the personal heart which beats with love and the personall will which sets its standard and its path. But beyond that human beings are quite similar-being made in the image of God that is. This means that we can be taught, can take heed, can follow, can find, can sit in silent awe, can worship from a heart of flame, can sit in quiet yet rapt attention to the one who calls. Spirituality is only marginally an individual endeavour -we go up to the cross together.

  26. Nektarios says:

    Mike Horsnall

    I can agree with some of what you say, Mike.
    We were talking about Myth & Truth. As I pointed out there is no such thing as your or my Truth, so the issue of individuality is not an issue. Western thought, religious and secular is built upon individuality. We are educated to be independent, self-assertive and highly compeitive and this conditioning from childhood has entered the religious life and caused and ontinues to cause many problems, illusions and delusions among most, as such people battle it out. This has been going on for thousands of years, there is nothing new in it.
    What I was pointing out, Mike, was the limitations of such a process.
    Nor was I speaking about individiualty I was addressing your PS comment of 30th Dec. 2011
    when you said, `you didn’t say `how’ to do all that seeking.’ The last paragraph from me was and is my response to your `how?’
    Do you wish me to elaborate on it further?
    I am a retired Pastor of over 40years in ministry and presently worship in the Orthodox Church.
    Happy New Year!

  27. mike Horsnall says:

    Yes I thought it likely that you were a minister of some form-good to speak to you. I think the real loveliness of being the people of God dawns very slowly over time. It comes as such a relief to lay down the burden of ‘individuality’ and take up instead what seems to be the much lighter burden of communality. Yet we have to learn this latter as children do- tottering to make their first steps. If you have pastored a church you will know this. I would say it wasn’t a Catholic church? I had many years in the Charismatic Evangelical church before taking a different path which has led me here.

    You don’t need to elaborate any further but I am always interested to speak of these issues because they are important and, spoken well, can be as a stream in a desert, your presence here is welcome.

    Happy New Year.

    PS You were right, the question ‘how?’ is always mildly mischevious! On the other hand it is very
    useful.

  28. st.joseph says:

    The Word was made Flesh and dwelt amongst us.
    God took on our human nature so that we could become like Him in His divine nature.
    The plan was made through our Blessed Virgin Mary the Mother of God and Mother of the Church.
    The new Covenant -the first Tabernacle most High.
    The Sacrifice on the Cross-The Blessed Sacrament-the Host and Chalice.
    The plan for Our Lords Presence in every Tabernacle , with us for all time in the Catholic Church.

    I learnt this at 5 years old before making my first Holy Communion.
    What is the problem? The problem is believing it!
    It isnt that difficult-when we do the rest just falls into place.
    Faith is a supernatural gift from God. In order to believe, man needs the interior help of the Holy Spirit CCC 179.

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