What do we mean when we say something is a myth? Until recently scholars have been very skeptical and usually understood it as a fable, invention, or just plain fiction. But over the last half century Western scholars have begun to approach the study of myths differently, looking at their meaning in the way they were traditionally regarded: as a true story. Only gradually have they understood that myth carries within it a sense of sacred tradition and primordial relations, while also serving as an exemplary model.
W. S. W. Anson in his introduction to Asgard and the Gods (pp. 3, 21) points out a
connection between the stories of the gods, and the deep thought contained in them, and their importance, in order that the reader may see that it is not a magic world of erratic fancy which is opened out before him, but that . . . Life and Nature formed the basis of the existence and action of these divinities. . . .
These fairy tales are not senseless stories written for the amusement of the idle; they embody the profound religion of our forefathers.
H. P. Blavatsky adds:
Not only their religion, but likewise their History. For a myth, in Greek muthos [mythos], means oral tradition, passed from mouth to mouth [sic] from one generation to the other; and even in the modern etymology the term stands for a fabulous statement conveying some important truth; a tale of some extraordinary personage whose biography has become overgrown, owing to the veneration of successive generations, with rich popular fancy, but which is no wholesale fable. — The Secret Doctrine 1:425
Myth is an extremely complex cultural reality which can be approached and interpreted from various viewpoints. It often relates to the whole of reality, as in the creation of the cosmos; at other times it may be a fragment of reality. Myth in a certain fashion answers the questions: Who am I? How do I fit into the human and natural world? How should I live? Different cultures in their creation myths find the most basic answers, for they view the first causes as the essence of what their culture perceives as true, the first understanding of humanity and the world, of time and space.
However fantastic a myth may seem, it simply tells what really happened. The actors often appear as superhuman beings known primarily by their deeds in the transcendental time of beginnings. It is part of our incompletely developed human nature to interpret what we cannot understand as the action of supernatural beings. It is not a long step from there to making gods of these beings.
One of the earliest creation myths we know of comes from Egypt. It envisions Atum, the complete one, rising out of the primeval watery chaos and producing the world. Another ancient creation myth is found in the Rig Veda of India. In its early stanzas it bears a great similarity to the Hebrew Genesis, but the last verse sharply differentiates it:
Whence has this emanation arisen? Whether God created it, or whether he did not, only he whose eye controls this world in highest heaven — he only knows, or perhaps, even he does not know.
This last stanza sets the tone for the continuing search for truth which enriches the religious philosophies of Asia. In India we find the myth of endless time and the idea of the endless repetition of birth and death which brought forth the desire to escape from it and transcend it. Those early thinkers visualized the idea of enlightenment as deliverance from cosmic time. We find the same idea in Judaism and Christianity, which declare that there will be an end of time with the coming of the Messiah.
Chinese creation myth relates that only chaos or no-thing existed in the beginning. Inhering in it were the principles of yang and yin. Yang represents the principle of rightness, activity, and strength; its most obvious symbols are the sky, the masculine, hard, dry, forceful elements. Yin represents the principle of darkness, receptivity, and weakness, and is most often associated with the Earth, the feminine, and all that is soft and tranquil. Philosophers held that during winter yang is overcome by yin and undergoes below the frozen soil an annual trial from which it emerges invigorated. When the yang escapes from its prison at the beginning of spring, the ice melts and nature reawakens. Thus the universe shows itself to be constituted of a series of opposites which form it in an inner cyclic manner.
Of course not all myths are centered on creation: great heroes with the passage of time acquire superhuman stature and become a measuring stick for behavior, morals, and all other activities that their society has produced, and by that very fact give meaning to life. We are all familiar with a number of these figures from various cultures: King Arthur of the Round Table and his knights; Lohengrin of the Nibelungen saga; Odysseus, Achilles, and Hector of the Homeric epics; Arjuna and Krishna of the Bhagavad-Gita; and the Sumerian Gilgamesh, to name a few. One reason for the importance of myth is precisely that it describes the acts of superhuman beings and the manifestation of their sacred powers, thereby becoming the exemplary model for all significant human activities. Myths help us understand people different from us in cultural, traditional, and social outlook.
To religious minds all of nature is sacred: including animals, people, localized spaces within buildings, and even time itself. A good example is the Australian aborigines who in their dreamtime vision declare certain geographical areas sacred. This sacredness, present in the history of religion from the most primitive to the most highly developed, contains within it a great number of initiations and manifestations of sacred realities. Whether we consider a very elementary initiation, such as the manifestation of the sacred in some ordinary object, a stone or tree — or the supreme initiation, which for Christians is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ — we are confronted by the same mysterious act: the manifestation of something of a different order, a reality of a higher order than our known world.
The modern Occidental mind experiences a certain uneasiness before many manifestations of the sacred. Westerners find it difficult to accept that with many human beings the sacred can be contained in a stone or tree. What they fail to understand is that veneration of the object itself is not involved. The sacred tree or stone is adored not as a tree or stone; it is worshiped precisely because it is thought to become imbued with something sacred which makes it no longer just a tree or stone.
Myth is intimately involved with symbols which preserve contact with the deep sources of life. They express the spiritual as a life experience, and translate the human situation into cosmological terms, and vice versa. In this way symbol reveals the unity between human existence and the structure of the cosmos. Mankind does not feel itself isolated in the cosmos; it is open to the world which, thanks to the symbols, becomes familiar.
Attempts were made from the time of Socrates and Plato, by historians as well as philosophers, to de-mystify myth by employing a strict and systematic philosophy which aimed at doing away altogether with mythical thoughts and ideas. However, no amount of logic and reasoning was able to erase myth from the long remembering folk-memory, nor from the legends which are part of every society.
If we think about myths, legends, and symbols, we come to the conclusion that every symbol has a story and a reason behind it, and every legend and myth contains some truth, often veiled by words except to eyes that want to see, ears that want to hear, and hearts that want to understand.
(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Theosophical University Press)
Display not your cleverness; have a care; the wise man is silent
On another's ground, and arouses no anger. Better friend has no man than good sense. — Havamal (The High One's Words), Norse Edda