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  • John Lewis

On Myth...

Updated: Dec 19, 2020

...as opposed to 'About' it.

Myth has taken on some pejorative baggage in the modern era. I came into it myself quite naturally as I have a profound fondness for science (or at least the philosophical implication of science's methodology). Over the years, this term --'myth'-- has worn its cloth of double meaning. Falsity. Deceit. An imposter standing in front of truth.


But in a historical context, myth was the realization of truth as told through stories. It used words, images and music to bring audiences closer to truth -- closer to an understanding of human character. It brought us into relationship with our motives, our behavior, our spiritual and psychic abnormalities and irrationalities. I will grant us some leniency in the term 'myth' and include the notion of fairy tales, legends and fables. We trust (if not blindly, then confidently) these stories because they survive time and time is its own filter. A heritage of stories is something like the bristlecone pine that defies blistering mountain winds and weather for a thousand years, wearing its scars and experience inside a coiled, sinuous polish. But there is, year after year, several fresh shoots pricking the air to suck sunlight and turn it to sugar. What looks like driftwood, has inside it a rope of living tissue transferring water and nutrients from the ground up to the miraculous and almost pathetic pine needles.


What I mean to say with this metaphor is that a myth has been stripped of frivolity. What remains is a timeless lesson. The untiring giver of meaning. Myths are living driftwoods. One can spend hours unpacking a six-sentence tale such as the tower of Babel. It's impossible to imagine a world where 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf' loses pedagogical potency. Odin the 'All-Father' still looms heavy in contemporary imagination.


For the purposes of this entry, I will dismiss the issue of national myths, since they do not fulfill the same promise. Nation-States are a modern historical phenomenon, emerging in the last two, three hundred years (Most in the last one hundred). Whereas, longstanding cultural myths, legends and fairytales embody characteristics of peoples and kingdoms, national myths embody governments and bureaucracies. Time seems to be more brute a force upon the body politic's sense of narrative self, and so, at this point I'm not too confident on their longterm usefulness. We will have to simply wait and see.


Having said that, I will somewhat violate this point in spirit by bringing up an imperial epic. 'The Aenied,' for obvious reasons, has a whole host of human insights available to the reader. But I will quickly highlight one aspect, because it is beautiful, and was for its time artistically evolved. The Trojans have fled their homeland after the dastardly Greeks put waste to their magnificent Troy through deceit and trickery. Favored and harassed by the gods, Aeneas and his people wash up on the shores of Carthage. It is interesting to note here that the story, written after the Punic Wars, takes place before Rome is founded. And so, Virgil pays a sympathetic note to the Carthaginians -- people to whom ancient Romans might have had considerable enmity. They did almost destroy the fledgling Roman empire. And yet, Aeneas, the founder of Rome, and Dido, queen of Carthage, fall in love. It is not to be fated by the gods, but they have a moment -- in a cave by the sea, under the velvet protection a storm.


Like a curtain of fuzz, the rain hides Aeneas and Dido from the world, and one can imagine the children of gods succumbing to the delirium of quasi-divine love. The truth available for consumption here is not historical. The Trojans did not found Rome. There were no trireme races around the horn of Sicily. Anchises did not ride his son's back to protection. Not literally. But as Aeneas is reminded by Mercury, he is destined to found a great people at the urging of Jupiter. And so, he must quit his lover, gather his crews, and leave for Latium. Dido, unfortunately, cannot 'quit' him. As he leaves, her grief and hysteria compels her to suicide. She stabs herself with Aeneas's sword on a funeral pyre.


There are a lot of details left out of this brief account, but at a basic level, the reader is left (or, at least I am) with compassion for Dido and the Carthaginians. Virgil has granted one of Rome's lethal and historic foes with humanity and even dignity -- (they were gracious hosts and took the Trojans in, in their time of need). This adds moral complexity to Rome's future Mediterranean rival. This can be seen as a progression in the development of fiction -- that occasionally the artist can put her thumb on a nobler truth. It is useful, that even though there is no science to the complexion of Dido's character, there is a tremendous amount of emotional honesty. To go on to say, "Yes, but... once Rome is founded, they and the Carthaginians fought a war to extinction. So much for the humanity of it all." This is true. However, that is a historical account of subsequent events. It tells us nothing of the moral or ethical truth of Dido's legendary demise. It might be this: That as humans, if we are to give in to fate and the caprice of quarreling gods, then surely we will lose sight of the humanity in ourselves and others. Even more significantly, we will condemn ourselves to never see it in our enemies, for it is a thing that died long ago -- in the past -- when there was a time we might have loved each other, watched our children marry, sat down and broke bread at the same table.


This conclusion might be gloomy, but the alternative one is considerably darker. That there is no defying the gods, and free-will is an illusion, the truth of which is that we're committed to inevitable wars of extinction because seeing kindred humanity in others is too noble an ideal. I prefer to see the former as opposed to the latter.

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