What Use Is Mythology?

This question could only come up in a culture that has forgotten the value of sacred stories. A culture that insists its stories must always be testable, with measurable facts rather than instructive and colorful fictions, has gone dangerously far toward losing its imagination.

In the movie Contact, scientist Elie Arroway implies that the planet Venus was misnamed because its poisonous clouds rain sulfuric acid. Some love goddess! But anyone who thinks about the dark side of love and the overheated and even toxic passions involved might suspect the good doctor’s view to be somewhat literal-minded.

A myth is neither a lie nor an archaic explanation for storms or floods. Indigenous people know very well a lightning-filled cloud doesn’t harbor a giant Thunderbird. A myth is a story that expresses deep symbolic truths about our relations with the more-than-human powers and beings around us. Myths teach us about ourselves, our place, and the cosmos in which we find ourelves.

Myths also work something like dreams in how they reveal the underside of human cultural life. My students are often surprised, for example, that the ancient Athenians spoke so much of the powerful and assertive goddess after whom they named their city at a time when women could not vote or be seen in public. The feminine strength and wisdom of Athena refused to stay indoors.

Myths, legends, and folk tales also act like barometers of a time gauging underlying psychic currents. The stories are often considerably more accurate than the news. Is it any wonder that the motif of the Zombie Apocalypse rises up just when millions of people feel depressed and devitalized?

Myths do not offer detailed solutions to contemporary problems, but they often hint at them as well as showing us where we should not go. In Chinese mythology the monster Gong Gong destroys one of the mountains that holds up the sky. When it darkens and falls, chaos spreads on earth. Today Gong Gong looks like mountaintop mining of the kind that devastates China, the United States, and other nations not yet wholly converted to clean and sustinable energy. Only Nuwa, the goddess who appears on the home page of this website, possessed the wisdom to repair the sky. Where is Nuwa today?

Like every living thing, myth has a dark and dangerous side. When used to baffle, to coerce, and to justify oppressive regimes, myth loses its vitality and hardens into ideology. A myth not open to multiple interpretations is itself a walking zombie.

By agelessly repeating motifs and images, myth allows us to ask such questions as we adapt to ever-changing times. To be equipped with a mythology education and the means to understand it psychologically is to live on the forefront of creative adaptation. Myth well tended is collective therapy for cultural renewal.

Don’t take my word for it. Round up an audience, sit in a circle, tell a few stories, and see what shifts.

Craig Chalquist, PhD

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