Why Myths are Important

 Ancient cultures sought to understand their existence and explain their connection to the world through myths and rituals. 

Myths are the body of stories and legends that a people perceive as being an integral part of their culture. Before the invention of writing, these stories and legends were handed down from generation to generation in the form of rituals and oral traditions. The reappearance of certain themes, time and again, in different mythologies, leads to the realization that these themes portray universal and eternal truths about mankind.

Myth basically serves four functions.

  1. The first is the mystical function – realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing awe before this mystery
  2. The second is a cosmological dimension, showing you what shape the universe is, but showing it in such a way that the mystery comes through.
  3. The third function is the sociological one – supporting and validating a certain social order.
  4. But there is a fourth function of myth, and that is the teaching function, illustrating how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.” [1]

MYTHS AS TEACHING STORIES

At their core, all myths exist to teach us. They teach us about ourselves and others, and they show us how to live our lives. Myths serve more than just the folkloric functions in society of “do this”, “don’t eat that”, “be careful when travelling there”, and so on; myths are the guidebooks for life itself, with all its beauty and mystery. Myths are the keys to understanding the whole of human experience.

Artemis is the goddess of the moon and brother Apollo is god of the sun in classical Greek myth.  She rides her silver chariot, pulled by silver stags, across the sky and shoots her arrows of silver moonlight to the earth below. When Zeus asked her what gift she would like, she replied “I want to run forever wild and free with my hounds in the woods and never marry”. Behind this classical myth, however, there was an older Artemis, the free spirit who likes to roam the solitary woodland grove and the bare mountainside, a huntress who carries a silver bow, the protector of wild animals.  This Artemis is the goddess of wild and remote places, unsullied land far from the reach of man. Her nymphs are the spirits of its trees, streams, rocks and flowers, the souls of nature embodied, while Artemis herself is the imminent goddess of Nature in its raw and untamed state. She is a maiden, chaste, eternally young and virginal.  Those men who defiled her mysteries she ruthlessly hunted down and killed. One such was Actaeon, a hunter who caught sight of Artemis while she was bathing. The goddess, thus profaned, punished him by turning him into a stag whereupon his own hounds, not recognising their master, tore him to pieces.

Artemis is the least civilised of the Greek goddesses, and perhaps the oldest, dating from a time before the land was cultivated. She is also the wild and untamed part of ourselves. While her brother Apollo, is logical, dignified, lord of the sun and daylight, she is animal instinct, impulse, intuition, freedom, the lady of the moon and night. They represent the two sides of human consciousness, both necessary in balance.

Artemis is the goddess that women called upon when they were in trouble or abused, protecting the abused and punishing the abuser. Needing no romantic partner to make her life complete, she goes where she wants and does what she wants without having to seek the approval of another. She doesn’t deny her own nature to satisfy someone else.  

Hercules was a demi-god, a great hero and warrior, but violent and easily angered. This made him formidable in battle, but in a state of bling rage incited by the goddess Hera, he murdered his entire family, and was punished by having to complete twelve labours. This is a lesson on not allowing others to affect you so much that you lose control of your emotions and actions, and spend the rest of your life paying for it.

Remember too the story of Icarus and his father Daedalus, who built the labyrinth for King Minos to house the Minotaur. Minos trapped them there, so its secrets might not be betrayed, but the ingenious Daedalus built his son wings to help him fly to safety. He warned him not to fly too high, or he would fall. Icarus didn’t listen,  and was so full of youthful arrogance that he ignored the considered advice of his father in his excitement in being able to fly, and flew too close to the sun. The wax that held the wings together melted, and he fell to his death. This is a story about listening to the advice of those who might be older and wiser, and also about not being so arrogant that you over-reach yourself.   

There was once as young man who was so beautiful that many sought his affections, but he was so proud that he distained them all and broke many hearts. The goddess of vengeance, Nemesis, noticed this behaviour and lured Narcissus to a pool, where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realizing it was merely an image. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection and his unrequited love, Narcissus lost his will to live. He stared at his reflection until he died. Narcissus is the origin of the term narcissism, a fixation with oneself and one’s physical appearance and/or public perception, a love that can never be requited, and which will be destroyed by time. In the story, the nymph Echo came upon Narcissus as he gazed into the pool at himself and fell in love with him, but he, in love only with himself, ignored her, until she faded away to nothing more than an echo – which is what happens if you fall in love with a narcissist.

THE TRUTH OF MYTH

Myths are not literal truths. Myths are not lies. Mythology is poetry: it is metaphorical. It is said that mythology is the penultimate truth – penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words; it is beyond words, beyond images, beyond music.  Mythology stretches the mind beyond that point, to what can be known but not told.

All cultures create ‘masks’, which are the names and images for the divine, and they serve as metaphors for an inexpressible transcendence, being beyond all being and the idea beyond all thought.

The idea of the divine as being something over and above the natural is a destructive idea. In the Middle Ages this was the idea that finally turned that world into something like a wasteland, a land where people were living inauthentic lives, never doing what they truly wanted to because supernatural laws required them to live as directed by the church. In a wasteland, people are fulfilling purposes that are not properly theirs but have been imposed upon them as inescapable laws.

This is destructive to the soul. The spirit is really the bouquet of life. It is not something breathed into life, it comes out of life. This is one of the glorious things about the mother-goddess religions, where the world is the body of the Goddess, divine in itself, and divinity isn’t something ruling over and above a fallen nature. The story of the fall in the Garden of Eden sees nature as corrupt, and that myth corrupts the whole world for us. Because nature is thought of as corrupt, every spontaneous act is sinful and must not be yielded to. You get a totally different civilization and a totally different way of living according to whether your myth presents nature as fallen or whether nature is in itself a manifestation of divinity, and the spirit is the revelation of the divinity that is inherent in nature.” [2]

Joseph Campbell, the great writer on mythology, said many times that a new global mythology was arising based on the concept of Gaia, the Earth Mother.

WHO OR WHAT ARE THE GODS?

Which brings us to the big question – who or what are the Gods? Are they just stories, the dreams of men, metaphors? Or do they exist?

There are hundreds of thousands of god and goddess names, some of whom were worshipped in Britain, many more that were not. We find that within a single pantheon that the names of the gods are not always consistent; some gods absorb the names, titles and attributes of another with the passing of the centuries. Mythologies evolve and change, are absorbed and assimilated into other cultures.

The question that every individual Pagan must resolve for themselves is does this mean we are to believe literally in all these differing deities? If we do, where do we choose a particular time in history to fix the names and attributes of the gods we chose to worship? To choose to be a Celt of 300 BC as opposed to a Celt of 100 AD, or a Viking of 50 BC as opposed to a Viking of 300 AD involves serious logical and spiritual dichotomies. Even if it is possible to make these decision, can we really enter into the ‘world view’ of an older culture without imposing our modern preconceptions on it?

In the Craft we are taught that “…beyond the two is the One, which we cannot name or limit, for the One is without limit, therefore we do give our worship unto the Lady and her Lord.” 

This is far from being a belief in a supreme monotheistic god who is separate from his creation; it means that everything, even the gods and goddesses, are part of a single great whole, a manifestation of pure consciousness, Divine energy.

The Craft view is that in the process of manifesting, consciousness divides itself into two parts, God and Goddess, yang and yin, define it how you will, which, though seeming to be separate, cannot exist without one another, any more than a coin can have one side.  Only when they combine can action, movement and creation arise.

Through the splitting of the primordial principle at the beginning of creation, the duality within our lives came into being, together with a strong force that is constantly striving to re-unite with the other part.

In the Craft it is believed that the Divine Spirit is not separate from creation, it is creation. It is us, and everything else. There is no real difference between spirit and matter – gods, humans, and everything else are part of each other, part of the One.

The oldest Pagan gods were always embodiments of natural forces – vegetation, storm, sun, moon, sea, wind, sky, storm, thunder, fire, earth, water, rain, fertility, creation and destruction.  For me, these are facets of the Divine we can approach and work with. When you invoke the name of a deity, you are invoking a particular facet of the Cosmos. If you invoke the Norse god Thor, you are invoking an aspect of thunder, but this is not the same as invoking Taranis, the Celtic god of thunder, which has a somewhat different energy, while still embodying thunder. That doesn’t mean that the energies – or gods – are metaphorical, or products of the human mind, it just means their nature is beyond human understanding, and we work with what we can comprehend.

We, the Gods, and all beings, are of the same stuff and the same Universe. But our limit of interaction is the limit of our human perception. We don’t have the capacity to fully comprehend our Gods, so we have to just see and work with the facets of them that we can grasp.

Then we become aware even more of how they influence, interact with and are a part of our world. We, the Gods, our ancestors and our children’s children are part of the same web, so it should be possible to connect with the past, the future, our Gods and ourselves. And for me this is done in ritual circle.

MYTHS AS SPIRITUAL GUIDES

Myths are stories that give us clues to the nature of life, temporal and spiritual, manuals to the whole experience of ourselves and others. Used wisely, myths initiate the individual into the realities of his or her own psyche and become guides to spiritual enlightenment.

No matter the culture or tradition, the hero of every myth takes the same journey. Each hero departs, interacts with other archetypal beings and encounters difficulties and trials, completes his quest or fulfils his purpose (which is sometimes not to complete his quest) and returns, changed in some way. As King Arthur and his knights sat feasting, there appeared the mysterious Holy Grail in their midst. All the knights set out on the quest to find it. They had many adventures and many of them perished in the quest, until at last it was found by Galahad, the perfect knight.

The adventure can be one of inner exploration and spiritual seeking as well as some kind of high adventure. This mythic journey is present—and nearly identical—in many major religions. Buddha, Moses and Jesus, for instance, all embarked on spiritual quests, met with allies or enemies, were tested and each returned transformed. Prince Siddhartha Gautama at the age of twenty nine left his palace to meet his subjects. Despite his father’s efforts to hide from him the sick, aged and suffering, he saw a bent old man. When his charioteer explained to him that all people grew old, the prince went on further trips beyond the palace. On these he encountered a diseased man, a decaying corpse and an ascetic. These depressed him, and he initially strove to overcome aging, sickness, and death by living the life of an ascetic, then left the palace to live the life of a mendicant.  During this time, he was offered a throne, asked to be the spiritual heir of two yoga teachers but refused them all, still searching for enlightenment. He tried self-mortification and fasting, nearly starving himself to death until a village girl saved his life by feeding him.  After this he began to reconsider his path, and decided that this was not the way.  He realised that extreme asceticism did not work, and began to focus on meditation, discovering what Buddhists call the Middle Way, a path of moderation. Eventually, sitting under the Bodhi tree and after forty nine days of meditation, he achieved enlightenment.

Each of us has embarked on a journey, whether we like it or not – the journey of life. Powerful forces have made a gateway for each of us to be incarnated in this place and time. Myths are guides to how we live life, and whether we live life heroically is up to us.

If Frodo and Aragorn had decided just to stay in the pub, instead of returning the ring, it would have been a very short book in which evil prevailed. If Stephen Hawkins had just curled up in a corner when he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease instead of immersing himself in his work and living life as fully as he could, he probably would have died really quickly and we wouldn’t have A Brief History of Time and all his scientific discoveries.

Our names might not go down in history, but each of us is the hero of our own story. The life quest is different for each person. It might be a spiritual quest, as when Siddhartha Gautama left behind the life of a rich man and sought enlightenment.  For you, the quest might be to be a good healer, a wonderful parent, a skilled carpenter or blacksmith, an inspired musician, a poet, artist or spiritual initiate. Maybe the quest involves a few or even all of these.

So, are you the hero in your own life-quest, or are you playing the sidekick in everybody else’s story?  Do you act or just react to the people and situations around?

Usually, we don’t have a handle on is what our story is or we let other people tell us what our story should be. Basically, our story is whatever we believe about ourselves to be true. The way you tell yourself your own story can make you the eternal victim of childhood abuse, or can make you the hero who overcame it.

Myths can teach us how to live.

© Anna Franklin


[1] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

[2] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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