Some of my students think of myths merely as wild, entertaining stories, like ancient horror movies. They’re shocked and titillated at incestuous unions (siblings Zeus and Hera), parents devouring their children (Cronos), children dismembering their grandparents (Marduk and Tiamat), dead wives appearing to living husbands in a horrifying state of maggoty decomposition (Izanami and Izanagi). “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” has nothing—nothing—on ancient mythology.
Horror movies, though, don’t last. What was shocking 30 years ago seems tame today. Bela Lugosi’s “Dracula” seems quaint now, inspiring chuckles more than fear. But the ancient myths stick with us, because they rely not only on spectacular story lines and gruesome violence, though they often contain both, but because they speak to something in us that is fundamentally human. They mean something.
Joseph Campbell said in The Power of Myth that “Myths help you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. It tells you what the experience is” (p. 6, “Myth and the Modern World”). I think that means that mythology helps us to understand what is happening to us as we go through our lives. Myths, like all literature, help us to stand back and see our worlds from a broader perspective. When a man who has grown up in the Judeo-Christian tradition is unfaithful to his wife, he can learn from Genesis, for example, that mankind is at bottom a sinful, selfish, and unworthy species, and that he must struggle all his life to overcome his baser, more infantile instincts, striving to re-achieve the paradisical state of innocence and purity lost when Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden. A Greek from antiquity, on the other hand, might see his philandering as normal, perhaps the source of humor, like the dalliances of Zeus. (He should not be surprised, though, when his wife turns as angry and vengeful as Hera.) In both of these very different instances, the man has seen his actions through the lens of his society’s values and placed his act in the larger context of human behavior. Both see that his infidelity is not an aberration, but a common failing in the unfortunate state of humanity, in one society a sin against God and a confirmation of man’s evil, degraded state, merely selfish and foolish in another. Myths serve the function of informing man of his place in the universe, in the larger scheme of things, beyond himself and his immediate community.
They also serve as capsules of their society’s values; the myths might inspire humility, love, courage, gratitude, respect for a greater authority. And through their rituals provide man with a way of expressing those attitudes. By sacrificing a bull, a community can put the moral universe into balance: the universe (gods) has given to us, and now we have given back to the universe, so we hope it will continue providing for us in the future. By kneeling in prayer, an ordinarily self-centered man, a president of a country, say, is invited to see that the world is bigger and more powerful than himself and that he must also serve, not only rule. You may be able to command a navy, the myth teaches him, but you cannot command the sea. The person that no longer has a belief in anything larger or more powerful than himself—whatever form that “something” might take—is in danger of hubris and terrible self-destruction. The same is true of the society in which he lives. In the Odyssey, the Phaiákians assist Odysseus, enemy of Poseidon, and are nearly destroyed as punishment from the sea god. One could argue that Adolf Hitler believed that there was nothing more powerful than the German military, conquering nearly all of Western Europe before turning on his own ally, the Soviet Union. The destruction suffered by Germany in 1945—think of Dresden incinerated, Berlin reduced to rubble, Hitler dead by his own hand—is well known. Hitler, Napoleon, the Roman Empire, all suffered from hubris and were destroyed. Belief in a higher power can serve to remind man that he is but a small thing in a big universe. Non-religious people find Zen meditation or spending time in awe-inspiring natural settings serves a similar function. The study of myths can do this as well.
In The Power of Myth, Campbell also says, “I think what we are looking for is a way of experiencing the world that will open us to the transcendent that informs it, and at the same time forms ourselves within it. That’s what people want. That is what the soul asks for” (53, “The Journey Inward”). To understand this brief but complex statement, we need to unpack two phrases. First, what does he mean by “open us to the transcendent that informs it?” The antecedent of the pronoun “it” is “the world.” Transcendence is the state or condition of being above or beyond our ordinary material world. The concept of heaven is transcendent, and so is the idea of an immortal God. But transcendence also includes the idea that divinity can be found in nature and in people; that’s what the Transcendentalists of the early 19th century meant by it. So Campbell is saying that myths open us up to the divinity that exists in the world around us. The phrase, “forms ourselves within it,” is a little trickier to decipher. The predicate to this verb phrase could be “a way of experiencing the world,” but I believe Campbell again is referring to the transcendent. If so, he is saying that the divinity in the world around us, the people we know, shapes who we become within this material world.
Mythology, then, does not merely show us who we are and what our lives mean, as if that weren’t enough, but it actually reveals to us a force of divinity that actually reshapes us and changes our lives. For example, an Indian Hindu who comes to a deep and profound understanding that every person in the world hosts a divine presence within might find himself unable to kill another person even if he were drafted into the military. Before this epiphany, the man might have been quite capable of killing people he understood to be enemies of his country. The knowledge that everyone contains a sliver of the divine, acquired by studying religious or mythological texts, has re-formed this man’s identity; he is a new person.
So mythology serves at least three functions beyond its value as mere entertainment. First, it gives us a broader perspective of our experiences as human beings. It shows us how our lives and behavior are connected to those of our ancestors and faraway co-inhabitants of this world. Secondly, they encapsulate the values of the society that created them. Since cultural values are very varied, this aspect is the least universal function of myth; the values of Norsemen, for example, are very different from the values of the Mandans of North America, so their myths naturally reflect those differences. Lastly, myths are like machines that reveal the transcendent in the worlds we live in, and in turn, change us into people who begin to embody some aspect of the divine. It is as if some character from the world of Harry Potter had found a magic mirror that allowed its owner to see the face of God, except that it revealed that the divine is everywhere, in everyone, and in all our more meaningful life experiences, birth, growth, heroic acts and cowardly ones, love and hate, maturity, aging, and death. Such a mirror is available to each of us, right now, right here.