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vineri, 27 iulie 2012

What Is Myth?

Question: What Is Myth? Although it may seem obvious, there is no single, simple answer. Here are some of the common ideas and their short-comings. Following these is a look at what folklorists and psychologists/psychoanalysts take the term to mean. Finally, there is a working definition you may find useful.

Answer: If It's a Silly Story, It Could Be a MythEveryone knows what a myth is, right? Centaurs. Flying pigs or horses. Return trips to the Underworld. Stories like: Obviously, you might argue, a myth is a (ridiculous) story no one really believes. Maybe some time, long ago, there were people naive enough to have believed in it, but now we know better.


Once you start looking carefully at that so-called definition, it falls apart. Think about your own firmly held beliefs. Perhaps you believe a deity spoke to a man through a burning bush or made a tiny amount of food feed a multitude. How would you feel if someone labeled them as myths? You'd probably argue -- and very defensively -- they aren't myths. You might admit you can't prove them, but the stories simply aren't as fantastic as myth (said with tones indicating disparagement). Vehemence of denial doesn't prove one way or another that something is or is not a myth, but you could be right.

The story of Pandora's box is said to be a myth, but what makes that any different from the Biblical story of Noah's Ark for a religious Jew or Christian or the parable of Atlantis for those who believe in Atlantis? How about the legend of Robin Hood? Even the disproved legend about the axing of a cherry tree by the perennially truth-telling George Washington may count as a myth.

The word myth is used in many contexts, but it doesn't seem to have a single meaning. When discussing myth with others, you should determine what they mean.

Myth Could Be Part of a Religion You Don't Believe in
Here is one philosopher's definition of myth that ties it in with religion:
A myth is a religion in which no one any longer believes.
Source: James Kern Feibleman, philosopher and psychiatrist (1904-1987)

As alluded to above, what is myth for one group is truth and part of the cultural identity for another. Myths are stories shared by a group, that are a part of that group's cultural identity -- just like family traditions. Most families would be offended to hear their stories described as myths (or lies and tall tales, which probably fit them better than myth because a family is generally considered smaller than a cultural group). Myth can also be used as a synonym for a despised religious dogma or, as the quotation above says, a religion in which no one any longer believes.

Experts Define Myth

Negative and positive descriptions of the content of myth are not definitions and don't even explain very much. Many have tried to define myth, with only limited success. Let's look at an array of definitions from leading philosophers, psychoanalysts, and other thinkers to see how complicated the seemingly simple term myth actually is:

Myths are Origins

Myths are often stories of origins, how the world and everything in it came to be in illo tempore. - Eliade.

Myths are Dreams

Sometimes myths are public dreams which, like private dreams, emerge from the unconscious mind. - Freud.

Myths are Archetypes

Indeed, myths often reveal the archetypes of the collective unconscious. - Jung.

Myths are Metaphysical

Myths orient people to the metaphysical dimension, explain the origins and nature of the cosmos, validate social issues, and, on the psychological plane, address themselves to the innermost depths of the psyche. - Campbell.

Myths are Proto-Scientific

Some myths are explanatory, being pre-scientific attempts to interpret the natural world. - Frazer.

Myths are Sacred histories

Religious myths are sacred histories. - Eliade.

Myths are Stories
Myths are both individual and social in scope, but they are first and foremost stories. - Kirk.

A Useful Working Definition of Myth

From the above learned definitions, we can see that myths are important stories. Maybe people believe them. Maybe they don't. Their truth value isn't at issue. Approaching, but not quite reaching an adequate, thorough definition of myth is the following:

"Myths are stories told by people about people: where they come from, how they handle major disasters, how they cope with what they must and how everything will end. If that isn't everything what else is there?"

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