The Mysterious Origins of Myth and Religion and the Primordial Patterns of Human Consciousness
Part 2: The Mystery Of The Myth
The dictionary tells us that our modern word “myth” comes from the Greek mythos, meaning “word, speech, story. “ (32) (33)
These three words — word, speech, story — tell us a great deal about what myth actually is.
Though myths may be accompanied by pictures, they are formulated in words. A picture can be silent. Myths are not silent.
Myths are an expression of speech. They are a form of oral storytelling.
Myths existed long before the invention of writing. That someone must speak the words of the myth is significant, for it means that there must also be listeners, other members of the community, present.
In order for us moderns to appreciate what myth is and where it came from, we need to actually listen to a myth. Then we will discover how the story unfolds in our imagination as the speaker reveals it, and not before.
Experienced in this way, listening to the oral transmission of a mythological story is much like listening to live music. We do not know what will happen next. The sounds, the words produced by the speaker seem to come out of nowhere, out of nothing. This is the experience of active listening: it is noticed that sounds come from silence and then return to silence.
When the speaker, the teller of the myth, stops talking, then there is only silence. There is only nothing. The magical story has stopped.
The story told was a sacred story, so there will be a respectful silence. But this silence will not last very long. Soon, the community of listeners begins to interact with each other, and a babble of voices is heard. After a brief, rejuvenating sojourn into the sacred, they have returned to the mundane, to the place where they live, where meat and money and mating matter.
While human beings have a problem with silence, they simply cannot stand nothingness.
Fill the void up with something, anything — just don’t leave it empty!
If this seems like a broad assertion, look around. We have the most advanced technological capability that has ever existed. What are we doing with it?
With radio, television, the Internet, cell phones, Facebook and Twitter, to name just a few modern media, we are doing exactly what our ancestors did with the technology that was available to them — talking, chatting, filling up the void.
In spite of our technological advances, we dread silence and nothingness as much as our ancestors did. Even though words, speech, and stories obviously must come from somewhere, we do not dally there. We sprint with relief into the comforting arms of the known, into words.
The greatest taboo of all is the silence of nothingness, the nothingness of silence.
Myth, Religion, and the Meaning of Life
In life, the fact of existence, my “I am,” comes first, before meaning.
As a baby, we are not concerned with meaning, where we came from, or where we are going. These questions arise later after we start thinking.
Strange as it may sound, this means we are beyond meaning. We transcend it. We are prior to it.
We create meaning, not the other way around. The meaning of our lives is up to us. We are the meaning creators. The myth is one of the main ways that we create this meaning.
If the meaning of our lives is not obvious to us, then we will create it. This meaning that we have created is a myth; it is made up. It is a story.
We are happy to embrace it as a “truth,” for we need meaning in order to function. Just as we need food, water, and air to function, we need meaning.
Some people talk about “the meaning of existence” or “the meaning of life,” but they make it sound like an abstract idea. This makes it boring and makes it seem irrelevant.
In fact, the most interesting, most relevant, most urgent datum in each of our lives is this self-evident reality where we each separately and individually exist as a unique “I am.”
The meaning of existence is, in actuality, the meaning of my existence.
We are born with a forward-moving momentum. We are birthed right into movement, and this movement does not stop until we die. Because our life is moving forward, whether or not we are concerned about “meaning,” we are very concerned about “direction.”
What direction do we want our lives to go? Because we are moving, because we are not standing still, we must make a decision. We must act.
The question of direction is the origin of the story. Every life story is moving forward. Every life story begins in a time and a place and expands from there as the arrow of time relentlessly flies forward.
Even mythological stories that start “long, long ago in the mists of time” have a beginning. They are born in the womb of time and space. Perhaps they are supposed to originate at the very beginning when space and time first appeared, but they are always placed in space and time.
If they are not located in space and time, then they are not myths. Instead, they are that which is prior to space and time, and that is the dreaded silence-nothingness-void-death. That cannot be described, for words themselves are born from space and time.
Since we cannot use words to describe that which existed before creation, then we are left with using silence to describe silence. It appears that this is the best that we can do. Perhaps in silence, there is rebirth and new life, but few are the heroes willing to sail into that vast sea of the eternally unknown.
Our everyday life is moving, moving, moving forward. We wake up, we dress, we eat, we go to work, we come home, we eat, we recreate, we sleep, we dream. The next day, we wake up and repeat the cycle. The day after that, we repeat this cycle. Thus, everyday life is already a ritual, already a “deep structure” for the myths of our lives. Life itself is built upon familiar loops of repetition and sameness.
So the event of our birth is a mystery, and our departure from this world is a mystery, but the content of our daily lives is typically anything but that. It is familiar, perhaps oppressively so.
The feeling of existing, this feeling of “I am,” stretches like a tightrope between the bright mystery of birth and the dark mystery of death. Spontaneously, it creates with its arising the ultimate question: “Who am I?”
The quest to make sense of “I am” is the ultimate, universal human story. Every person has it, every person lives it. It is our story; it is our universal myth. It is our quest, our life question. As long as we exist, as long as we live, as long as we can say or think or feel “I am,” we carry the questions “Who am I?” “Where did I come from?” “Where am I going?”
Most are not of a philosophical bent, so they do not spend much time with these questions. For the vast majority who do not want to do the investigation themselves, standard answers are available.
These standard answers are called myths. When they get big enough, gain enough believers, and become organized, then these myths acquire great power in a certain cultural setting. This organized mass of people consisting of many believers in the same myths is called a religion. If this group is well organized but small in number, then it is called a cult.
The Seven Kinds of Myth
Myths are like exotic animals. It is easy to be distracted by all the shapes, sizes, and colors, by all the spots, stripes, and plumage. But when this surface display is stripped away, then we are able to see the skeleton, the “deep structure” of myth. Local or global, ancient or recent, every myth has this deep structure.
As it turns out, all of the myths from all of the places over time can be divided into just four categories according to their deep structures. I’ll allow a contemporary expert in myth, David Leeming, to elaborate.
Four types of myths serve as the organizing principle: cosmic myths, theistic myths, hero myths, and place and object myths. Cosmic myths are concerned with the great facts of existence (e.g. the Creation, the Flood, the apocalypse). The theistic myths involve cultural hierarchies (e.g., the Twelve Olympians, the Egyptian gods). Hero myths, perhaps the best known, are stories dealing with individuals (e.g., Achilles, Odysseus, Theseus, Jesus, Moses). Place and object myths concern either mythical places (e.g., Atlantis, the Labyrinth) or objects (e.g. King Arthur’s sword, the Golden Fleece). (34)
This is an astute overview of global myth. Leeming has reduced the types of myth as far as they can be reduced.
Here is another expert grouping of planetary myths: (1) In the Beginning, (2) the Cosmos, (3) the First Beings, (4) Heroes and Tricksters, (5) the Great Flood, (6) Death and Beyond, and (7) the End of the World. (35)
This latter grouping by mythology experts Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip is fascinating. In fact, just by stringing them together in the order given, a meaningful narrative of a human life is produced.
“In the beginning, there was nothing. Then I was born and the world appeared. I noticed that I was not the only being, but that there are many beings. Challenged to be a hero, tempted by tricksters, I worked hard to survive. At some point in my life, I encountered an experience so overwhelming that it seemed I might lose everything. But I survived that challenge. Now that I am old, I am looking into the face of death. I wonder what is beyond it. And all my life, living in a time where the technology exists to destroy most or even all of human life on the planet, I have wondered if the world would end.”
This is your life story, this is my life story, this is our life story. This is the mono-story of all of us human beings here together on this unique place in space called Earth: Birth, Life, Death, and Nothingness (the silent unknown).
Confronted by this universal story, each human being finds a way to experience meaning or suffers the consequences. For many, myth, or its modern organized cousin, religion, provides handy answers.
Many Myths, One Story
Mythology is a rich and fascinating study. While it is reductive to say that there is literally just “one story,” for most readers, the essence of myth is found in how it relates at the level of daily life.
Of the seven categories of myth, the so-called “mono-myth” or “hero myth,” articulated and promoted by the late Joseph Campbell, is the one that fills the bill. (37)
Campbell is a mythographer — he writes about myths. What he discovered in his study of world myths is that THEY ARE ALL BASICALLY THE SAME STORY — retold endlessly in infinite variation. He discovered that all story-telling, consciously or not, follows the ancient patterns of myth, and that all stories, from the crudest jokes to the highest flights of literature, can be understood in terms of the “HERO MYTH”; the “MONOMYTH” whose principles he lays out in the book…
The repeating characters of the hero myth, such as the young hero, the wise old man, the shape-shifting woman, and the shadowy nemesis, are identical with the archetypes of the human mind, as shown in dreams. That’s why myths, and stories constructed on the mythological model, are always psychologically true. Such stories are true models of the workings of the human mind, true maps of the psyche. They are psychologically valid and realistic even when they portray fantastic, impossible, unreal events. (38)
In our struggle to survive and succeed, we moderns most identify with this hero myth. In fact, the “American dream,” which today might be encapsulated in the aspiration to become a multimillionaire, is a transparent translation of the hero’s journey. Here is a summary of the hero’s journey.
The hero is introduced in his ordinary world, where he receives the call to adventure. He is reluctant at first, but is encouraged by the wise old man or woman to cross the first threshold, where he encounters tests and helpers. He reaches the innermost cave, where he endures the supreme ordeal. He seizes the sword or the treasure and is pursued on the road back to his world. He is resurrected and transformed by his experience. He returns to his ordinary world with a treasure, boon, or elixir to benefit his world. (39)
Rewritten in the spirit of the modern business entrepreneur, this heroic “rags-to-riches” myth might go like this. Mr. H and XYZ Corp. are completely fictional, but the familiar mythical hero theme is not.
“Raised by a poor, disadvantaged family, Mr. H felt a burning desire to attain wealth and success. At first overcome by inner doubt, discouraged by narrow-minded friends and family, he finally met an older businessman who became his first mentor. After numerous failed businesses, Mr. H founded the multi-billion dollar XYZ Corp. Ironically, the stellar success of XYZ Corp. seemed to attract new problems. Overcoming obstacles that ranged from corruption in accounting to corporate spies to hostile takeover attempts, Mr. H has risen to the occasion at every turn.
Though the battles of today are no longer fought with swords and arrows, there is no doubt that Mr. H represents the supreme business warrior for our times. Though the shining sword we place in his hand will be imaginary, his very real accomplishments, indeed, his triumphs, are massively impressive and verge on the superhuman. Who among us has not thought, at least once, “I wish I were as rich and successful as Bill Gates or Warren Buffet or Mr. H.” Though we cannot all be heroes, we can be inspired by them. We can strive to emulate their greatness.”
As we saw in Part 1, the endlessly creative tall tales of world mythology can be handily classified into four or seven groups. Since there are many excellent, beautifully illustrated guides that recount the stories themselves, such as the Wilkinson and Philip work cited, I provide a short reading list in the Notes. (40)
The age-old primary function of mythology, the making of meaning, has been absorbed by Christianity with considerable effectiveness. Drawing upon the seven myth categories, let us look at how Christianity successfully provides its own myths, obviating the need for input from other religions or mythologies.
(1) In the Beginning: God created the world in seven days.
(2) The Cosmos: Run by God. Details available upon request.
(3) The First Beings: They were Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
(4) Heroes and Tricksters: Jesus is the Hero. Satan is the Trickster.
(5) The Great Flood: Who hasn’t heard of Noah and the Ark?
(6) Death and Beyond: There is a Heaven and a Hell. If you are “saved,” you go to Heaven.
(7) The End of the World: We are in the apocalyptic end times of the Second Coming of Jesus.
It seems that the success of Christianity owes much to its tacit recognition of the power of myth and its skillful acquisition and integration of pagan myths into its own doctrines. It saw that people needed myth, and it gave it to them — on its own terms.
This method of gaining religious market share was a masterstroke. No need to reinvent the mythological wheel; just absorb the dominant myths, rename them, and make them your own.
This strategy included taking pagan sites over and building Christian churches on top of them. One scholar, writing for the Journal of Semitic Studies, published under the auspices of the prestigious Oxford University Press, confirms in roundabout fashion that these acts of appropriation did occur.
Anyone who has visited Rome and seen the Pantheon and the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina might be pardoned if he concluded without further investigation that as soon as Christianity was given Imperial approval and support, it began the task of taking over the temples of the various cults of dying paganism and transforming them quickly into Christian churches… It will be the aim of this paper to show, among other things, that no transformation of a pagan temple into a Christian church can be safely dated as early as the fourth century and that the earliest date which we can assign to this process is about the middle of the fifth century. (41)
As the number one religion on the planet, Christianity demonstrates like no other modern mass psychology experiment the overarching power of myth. Whether we label the seven types of myth content managed by Christianity as myth or embrace them as religious doctrine, functionally, they are the latest permutations of dream-like global stories that originated in the primordial mists of time.
Universal Actors, Private Dreamers
Not only are the stories and themes universal, so are the actors. They are archetypes, impersonal characters that arise both in our external myths and in our internal dreams.
When they appear and play in the dramas we call our dreams, we personalize these archetypes. Embedded seamlessly in our spontaneous dream continuum, we feel that these are our personal characters and our private stories. In this way, the universal becomes the personal. Yet, ultimately, the first myths may have originated from the dreams of our ancestors.
The subject of archetypes is vast, but the main ones are virtual household words. Who has not heard of the Hero, the Witch, the Wise Man or Woman, the Monk, the Monster, the Vampire, and the Lovers? How about the Magician, the Pirate, the Prostitute, the Warrior, the Virgin, the Gambler, and the Clown (Trickster)? (42)
Thanks to the Hollywood film industry, we are being exposed to the compelling power of archetypes like never before. What becomes clear by watching movies may seem obvious, but its implications for religion are deep: the names, faces, and places change, but the archetypes remain the same.
For example, the Christian faith makes a big deal about Jesus being resurrected from the dead. However, long before Jesus, there existed myths of a crucified savior who was reborn via resurrection or ascension. While this doesn’t invalidate the significance of the resurrection of Jesus for Christians, it does challenge their claim of exclusivity, e.g., Jesus is the only way, as he is the only person who came back from the dead. (43)
According to some myth studies, there were at least 16 crucified saviors. Of these, Quexalcote of Mexico, Chris of Chaldea, Quirinus of Rome, Prometheus of Caucasus, Osiris of Egypt, Atys of Phrygia, and Mithra of Persia are all said to have risen from the dead after three days. (44)
Therefore, the man-God or savior who dies and is reborn is an archetype, a variation of the Hero. Further, even if a man comes back from the dead, he may only be a magician or a being who possesses the superior technology. God does not have to enter into the equation. (45) (46)
Traditional religions do not like having their doctrines and tenets of faith analyzed in this way. As I mentioned earlier, the Great Flood is also a global myth. With or without Noah and the Ark, we would still have the myth of the Great Flood.
In short, this analysis steals the thunder from the claim of exclusivity that all the organized religions make. If religion comes from mythology, and the themes and archetypal characters of mythology come ultimately from our nighttime dreams, how important, then, is organized religion?
For the person who is thinking for himself, what matters is to be true to himself. Wherever that project takes him, it will be right. The subject of religion is no different. After all, what could possibly make more sense than becoming who or what you are?
The Two Worlds, the Threshold, and the In-Between Man
It is easy for us moderns to dismiss myth as being “just stories.” If we do this, we not only miss out on the benefits of myth, we fail to fully appreciate the richness of our religion or whatever it is that commands our devotion, even if that is atheism or a spiritual practice outside of organized religion.
We are mythogenic creatures ensnared in a cosmic web of eternal storytelling. Our individual birth, one of the billions on this planet right now, is as glorious and mysterious as every other. We are born from myth, we live in myth, and we die back into myth.
Those that assert that their religion is supreme over all others, that it is “right” and the other religions are “wrong,” have not read their history. This is the identical claim of every dominant religion and every dominant God. For a time, they reign, apparently supreme. But the cosmic storytelling must go on, and the statues of the latest Supreme Being fall into disrepair, broken, forgotten, gathering dust.
Our religions of today are our living myths. In order to function as a religion for us, it must offer the following four elements: (1) the other world, (2) a way to communicate with this other world, (3) a person or persons who can perform this special act, and (4) the idea that our actions in this world have consequences in this other world. The notion of the afterlife is the idea of living after death in this other world that, in theory; we can somehow communicate with while in this world. (47)
What happens if we remove the approved intermediary personality, the priest, minister, rabbi, or imam who performs the crucial function of going between the two worlds for us?
What happens to organized religion when we remove the “in-between man”?
Remove the special “in-between man” (or woman) who somehow can walk between the worlds, speak to, and listen to the other world, see or feel this other world, negotiate and influence this other world. Remove him or her completely from the scene. The house of cards we call organized religion falls down and collapses into a most disorganized mess.
But this has not happened, and it is not likely to happen. If religion is so important to human beings, then why are they content to let others be the intermediary and walk between the worlds of life and death for them?
I do not know the answer to this important question. But I do know that we have seen this before, long before. Incredibly, we saw this exact same pattern 30,000 years ago. Back then too, the people turned to someone else, to their shaman, to be the “in-between man.”
— — Cont. — -
(32) Webster’s New World Dictionary, Simon and Schuster, Second College Edition, New York, 1982.
(33) Leeming, David. The World of Myth, Oxford University Press, New York, 1990, page 3.
(34) Leeming, David. The World of Myth, Oxford University Press, New York, 1990, page 8.
(35) Wilkinson, Philip and Neil Philip. Mythology, Dorling Kindersley Limited, New York, 2007, pages 18–31.
(36) Joseph Campbell — The Hero’s Journey (1997), https://amzn.to/2Ooljsh
A reverent biography with interviews of Campbell. He is also shown working with students. Not critical of Campbell, but devotees of his work won’t mind.
(37) Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, New World Library, Third Edition, Novato, California, 2008.
(38) A Practical Guide to THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES by Joseph Campbell, para 8–9, 13–14, http://www.skepticfiles.org/atheist2/hero.htm, accessed June 16, 2009.
(39) A Practical Guide to THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES by Joseph Campbell, para 43, http://www.skepticfiles.org/atheist2/hero.htm, accessed June 16, 2009.
(40) The number of books on mythology is a bit overwhelming. This eclectic short list focuses on books that are beautiful, insightful, and easy to read.
Caldwell, Richard. The Origin of the Gods: A Psychoanalytic Study of Greek Theogonic Myth, Oxford University Press, USA, New York, 1993.
Campbell, Joseph and Johnson E. Fairchild. Myths to Live By, Penguin, New York, 1993.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, New World Library, Third Edition, Novato, California, 2008.
Campbell, Joseph and Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth, Anchor Books, New York, 1991.
Campbell, Joseph. Transformations of Myth Through Time, Harper Perennial, 1990.
Davis, Kenneth. Don’t Know Much about Mythology: Everything You Need to Know about the Greatest Stories in Human History But Never Learned, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2006.
Graves, Robert and John Buchanan-Brown. The Greek Myths: Illustrated Edition, Penguin Books, New York, 1993.
Graves, Robert. The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, Smithmark Publishers, Illustrated Edition, 1997.
Leeming, David. The World of Myth, Oxford University Press, New York, 1990,
Mack, Burton. Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth, HarperOne, 1996.
Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian Myth: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, USA, New York, 2004.
Sproul, Barbara. Primal Myths: Creation Myths Around the World, HarperOne, 1979.
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, California, Third Edition, 2007.
Wilkinson, Philip and Neil Philip. Mythology, Dorling Kindersley Limited, New York, 2007.
(41) Hanson, R. P. C., The Transformation of Pagan Temples into Churches in the Early Christian Centuries, Journal of Semitic Studies 1978 23(2):257–267, http://jss.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/pdf_extract/23/2/257, accessed June 16, 2009.
(42) Myss, Caroline, A Gallery of Archetypes, http://www.myss.com/library/contracts/three_archs.asp, accessed June 16, 2009.
(43) Acharya S., Krishna Crucified?, para 4–11, http://www.truthbeknown.com/kcrucified.htm, accessed June 16, 2009.
(44) Graves, Kersey, Chapter 19: Resurrection of the Saviors, para 4, http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/kersey_graves/16/chap19.html, accessed June 16, 2009.
(45) Resurrection, http://www.bibleufo.com/gentech6.htm, accessed June 16, 2009.
See also Hallquist, Chris. UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God: Debunking the Resurrection of Jesus, Reasonable Press, 2009.
(46) Mueller, Tom, Cloned Species: Recipe for a Resurrection, http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/05/cloned-species/mueller-text, accessed June 16, 2009.
(47) Schjødt, Jens Peter, “Basic Traits in Religious World Views,” 2007 (pdf).