Rev. Douglas Taylor
I used to get excited about an old book with the word “myth” or “mythology” in the title, but usually it was really a story book of old Norse or Egyptian or Hindu gods. Unless it was written by Eliade, Jung, or Campbell, I’ve learned to ignore books with such titles. So, when I talk about myth here I am not talking about old stories of the Greek gods and goddesses. I also do not mean “myth” as a falsehood or a superstitious untruth. I speak of myths as deep truths, deeper that fact, that give us information about who we are and how we fit in the world.
Religious scholar and history Karen Armstrong wrote a small book a few years ago titled A Short History of Myth which offers a cultural anthropology survey of myth. Armstrong covers the broad sweep of human history from the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras, through the birth of city-states and the rise of civilization, the Axial and Post Axial ages into the great Western transformation of the Enlightenment and Modernity. She explores the evolving nature of the myths through these different eras in the evolution of humanity.
According to Armstrong, myths were not told or written once and then left unchanged. “There was never a single, orthodox version of a myth,” (p11) Armstrong contends; and then she backs this up throughout the book. Myths served a purpose. The word ‘myth’ is commonly used today to mean ‘an untruth.’ But throughout time, the word ‘myth’ held a deeper – more nuanced – meaning. A myth is not meant to provide factual information or eye-witness history. The purpose of a myth is to guide people in understanding problematic aspects of the human condition and the world we live in.
When we hear of gods walking the earth, of dead men striding out of tombs, or of seas miraculously parting to let a favored people escape from their enemies, we dismiss these stories as incredible and demonstrably untrue. Since the eighteenth century, we have developed a scientific view of history; we are concerned above all with what actually happened. But in the pre-modern world, when people wrote about the past they were more concerned with what an event had meant. A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time. Because of our strictly chronological view of history, we have no word for such an occurrence, but mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality. (p 7)
Throughout the living history of humanity, we have needed our myths to guide us through different situations. The needs and questions of the stone-age hunter-gatherers were different from the needs and questions of enlightenment era people. As humanity grew up, so did the mythic stories. Let me walk you through some of what comes up in Armstrong’s Short History of Myth
The earliest period is ten to twenty thousand years ago, a time before written history. It was a time before cities and civilization, a time preceding the agricultural revolution. The tribes of people were dependant on hunting the major migratory mammals around them. The myths supporting the lives of these hunter-gatherers were so potent they survived beyond their era, which begins to explain how we can write about things that happened before written history. Also, there have been several living tribal cultures that have not taken the step into the agricultural revolution and their stories and myth parallel those of Paleolithic times. The myths from this time focus on the deepest questions of life and death. The people were living at a time when all activities were considered to be what we today might call ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ activities. There was no divide between sacred and secular. Everything they did had a sacred component to it. And that sounds nice, but the consequences were significant.
The first and earliest myths dealt with the hunter who went away on a journey to bring home food for the tribe. These myths were not just about going out and returning a hero – a hunt was dangerous and death was an inescapable part of what would happen – either the possible death of the hunter or the hoped for death of the prey so the tribe would have food. But the animals that were their prey were just as much a part of the sacred world as the people. “Anthropologists note that modern indigenous peoples frequently refer to animals or birds as ‘peoples’ on the same level as themselves.” (p28) Ancient myths and rituals served to help the people understand what their life meant when life was so dependant on “the destruction of other creatures to who they felt closely akin.” (p29) Myths and rituals of a First Hunter would serve to help the people come to terms with the complicated emotions. It helped them understand the meaning of death and life.
Of course an even more powerful myth arose at this time too, a myth of birth and creation. While the hunter leaves the security of the caves and the tribe to face monsters and wilderness to back what is necessary for life, every infant would likewise journey through the narrow passage of the birth canal into a new and frighteningly unfamiliar world. Each hunt the men went on was an echo of the heroic quest. And that is nothing if not an echo of birth or re-birth.
As powerful as the male hunters were, they must have known that the women were the source of new life – life that would ensure the continuation of the tribe not just through the next hunting season but into the next generations. Again, these are not quaint stories to be told around a fire for entertainment. These myths and rituals conveyed deep knowledge about the meaning of life and death.
And then things changed. With the agricultural revolution ten thousand years ago, hunting was no longer needed. Leaving the village to embark on a dangerous journey became a less compelling story. “Every time men and women took a major step forward, they reviewed their mythology and made it speak to the new conditions.” (p 11)
Now the people were farmers. “As they watched the seeds descending into the depths of the earth, and realized that they broke open in darkness to bring forth a marvelously different form of life, planters recognized a hidden force at work. … The earth seemed to sustain all creatures – plants, animals, and humans – as in a living womb.” (p42)
The Neolithic period gave rise to new stories about gods and goddesses and heroes who would travel underground and return from death with new wisdom, new life. “Where once people had imagined themselves ascending to the heights [during a hunt] in order to encounter the divine, they now made ritual contact with the sacred in the earth.” (p44) Through these new myths and rituals, people came to terms with the ebb and flow, the waxing and waning, the living and dying of the world and of people and of all life.
Stories of Demeter and Persephone, Inanna and Dumuzi, Ishtar and Asherah and Tammuz and Adonis – they all taught the people that death, while fearful and inevitable, was not the end of the story. The seed had to die in order to produce grain. A confrontation with death could lead to spiritual renewal. It was not about immortality, it was about learning “to live more fearlessly and therefore more fully here on earth.”
Do you begin to see that these stories arising from their own time and circumstances were most useful to that time and circumstance … but in a very powerful way they each continue to offer important information about life even today? The Paleolithic and Neolithic eras provided the foundational myths and myth-structures into the future which formal religions picked up and made their own. For the people in the Neolithic era, the myths taught them about life and death, seeds and harvest.
And then things changed. Some six thousand years ago, human beings began to build cities. With the building of somewhat permanent and magnificent cities, a new type of myth began to emerge among the people. “Every time men and women took a major step forward, they reviewed their mythology and made it speak to the new conditions.” (p 11)
The cities they built were actually fare more fragile and subject to decay ad decline than one might at first imagine. These new city-dwellers were constantly concerned that life might revert to the old agrarian ways – as step backward into barbarism by their lights. The new urban myths mediated on the endless the struggle between order and chaos.” (p60)
If you read the biblical books of Genesis and the Gospels, you can pick out the Paleolithic stories of the Hero’s Quest and the Creation Goddess, the Neolithic stories of rebirth and of the God who dies to the earth and is reborn, and the Early Civilization stories of the God who mediates order and chaos. And in some ways, each new era’s myths stand in critique against the previous era as well as absorbing and carrying forward the old myths. Rituals grew in which the city-dwellers play-acted times of chaos – times when there were no cities – and then order is restored or order rises up to save them. The myths and rituals helped them learn the value of fitting into the system of order and civilization that now existed.
And then things changed. During a brief period of a few hundred years between 800 and 200 BCE, in a variety of locations, a remarkable array of prophets and sages rose up – all with a similar compelling message: “It would not be sufficient to perform the conventional rites meticulously; worshipers must also treat their fellow-creatures with respect.” (p81). Thus a new type of myth began to emerge among the people. “Every time men and women took a major step forward, they reviewed their mythology and made it speak to the new conditions.” (p 11)
It is German philosopher Karl Jaspers who called this time period the “axial age” because it was a pivotal time in the spiritual development of humanity. It is seen “with the Hebrew prophets of the eights, seventh, and sixth centuries; with the sages of the Upanishads, the Buddha in India, with Confucius and the author of the Dao De Jing in China; and with the fifth-century [Greek philosophers,] Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.” (pp 79-80) It used to be enough to go through the correct rituals, to enact the mythic story or take on the role of the First Hunter or the Great Mother. It used to be enough to offer up the sacrifice as prescribed in the story. But as humanity matured, more was needed.
I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:21-24)
We had to treat each other with respect, with justice. To survive and still be useful, all the myths needed to be recast with a more personal and interpersonal interpretation. Ethics became important. It was Confucius who first promulgated what has become known as the Golden Rule: “Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you.” (Analects 12:2) The Axial age demanded inner reflection so people could know their own motives and needs. What would you have done unto you, or not done unto you? This is the first step in understanding the motives and needs of another, in knowing what others would have or not have done unto them.
Post Axial Age
The period that follows is largely a time of response to the Axial Age. The Post-Axial Age is the creation of Christianity and Islam and living into the powerful stories of the three great monotheistic traditions. For the sake of time I am glossing over a lot, but between the advances and regressions in culture over the nearly two millennia that are known as the Post-Axial Age, “there would be no comparable period of change. … The status of myth remained basically the same until the sixteenth century CE.” (p104)
Great Western Transformation
And then things changed. Over the past five hundred years we have been in the modern era.
The long process of modernization … involved a series of profound changes: industrialization, the transformation of agriculture, political and social revolutions to reorganize society … and an intellectual ‘enlightenment’ that denigrated myth as useless, false, and outmoded. (p 120-121)
The modern heroes of Western modernity were the technological and scientific geniuses, not the spiritual geniuses as in previous eras. Enlightenment and modernity were the embodied destruction of mythology. Mythological thinking was diametrically opposed to rational, logical thinking. An anti-myth became the new myth. The tool humanity used to understand who we are and how we fit in the world was a tool that dismantled mythical thinking altogether.
But has this lead us to a new maturity as a species? Has this taught us, guided us to a new way to manage the complex emotions underlying the anxiety of existence we now live in? If we answer yes, it is only a tentative yes, a yes that affirms our intellectual and scientific advances and maturity. Spiritually, Karen Armstrong contends, we are still working through the myths of the Axial Age. (p 136) We are myth-making creatures, but the myths we have been creating continue to fail to meet the Axial Age criteria found in the spirit of compassion and justice.
The next era is overdue. We need to unfold our next myth. Dare I suggest that the mythic story coming will indeed carry a message of compassion and justice but will be a reinfusion of the ancient understanding of the sacredness of all things, the interconnectedness of all things, and an appreciation for the whole over the parts and pieces of life. As Joseph Campbell said (from the reading this morning in Hero with a Thousand Faces) – we can’t revert or ignore the current enlightenment science. We need to move forward by addressing our current condition.
The new condition we need our myths to speak to is a condition of fragmentation. We need a myth of connection, a ritual of connection. We need to learn how to integrate the great scientific realities we live in with a renewed depth of spiritual connection. The stories of God & science in harmony are out there. The stories of God as love and justice are present. The stories of God in the connections among us are here – but to rise to the level of myth these stories must also be enacted in the life of a community. A myth is not just a good story; it tells us how to behave in a complex and evolving world.
When we see a thread of spirit in everything we do, when we feel we are interconnected with all that is, when we stand up and speak out and gather in witness to the call of justice and equality, when we step back and take in the beauty, when we do these things we are enacting a new story that sets us on the path of life with both integrity and imagination. The current anti-myth continues to fail to serve. It fails to help us resolve our anxiety and fragmentation. But we can enact a new story of connection that sets us on the path of life with both integrity and imagination.
In a world without end
May it be so.