Myth: why is this such a big bad dirty word for people today? I grant you, the common vernacular usage is pejorative: we read it as indicating something that is “just made up”, and so not factual, not true at all. But this is a recent response, a product of the Enlightenment that has seeped down into the bottom layers of our popular consciousness. The equation of ‘fact = true’ in our 21st century thought is, to me, an unfortunate intellectual habit, and a radically misguided one.
If we look at even a basic dictionary definition, this popular understanding is not the first that is presented. The one I have to hand leads with “a traditional story, esp. one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.” If we are limiting ourselves to the less technical, newer vernacular usage, we are limiting ourselves as readers, too, depriving ourselves of the efficacy of the term as it is properly applied to biblical or other historic (in the sense of originating in the past) texts.
A myth, as my Old Testament professor here has repeatedly told my classmates and me, is a story which attempts to explain why things are the way they are. So, for example, the the crafting of the first human being from the dust of the earth in Genesis 2:7 can be seen as a mythic explanation of why human bodies decompose back into dust after the breath of life ceases to fill them. To put it another way, to tell a story in a mythic genre is just that: another way of telling a narrative, just as our quite recent idea of scientific history is a way of telling a narrative. To interrogate a mythic narrative with a heuristic of ‘fact’ proves nothing. And to privilege one over the other is to ignore that the two genres are not competing in an equal contest; they are about very different tasks, with very different ends.
When I ponder the meaning and impact of myth, I always recall the famous story of the conversion of British writer Clive Staples Lewis. Having long repudiated the Ulster Protestantism of his youth, Lewis was drawn back hesitantly into a renewed engagement with Christian faith later in life, and reached the tipping point over the course of a conversation with two of his Oxford colleagues, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, who convinced him that yes, as he was arguing, the Christian story was a myth — but it happened to be a myth that was true. In our common understanding of the word, this seems a ridiculous and nonsensical thing to say. But it is not, and that needn’t be our reaction.
The power which myth, as a genre, has to capture and inspire the imagination is a key aspect of all our traditions — both as a religion and as a civilization — and I for one am glad to embrace it. As a scholar and believer, immersed as my life has always been in the philological and mythopoeic genius of Tolkien, it will be the narrative force of myth which will always most strongly convey truth and meaning for me.