The Role of Myth and What it Does for Us

Myth is a commonly misunderstood term. Just like the term ‘fable,’ the term myth has become associated with the concept of untruth and lies. This colloquial understanding fails to consider the role that myths serve in the continuation of cultural context elements, the instruction in social roles, and developing the personal concept of how one’s life is supposed to unfurl. Just as culture is fluid and will change as time progresses, so too have myths. Their method of transmission has altered considerably. Also, the context where these stories are drawn from have shifted with the way the culture of the United States has developed over time.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines myth as a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon. Renowned mythologist, Joseph Campbell, explained that myths served to help people in the past to understand the major questions about life and existence. Many people who study myths consider them to serve, in some part, as a route by which the recipient can build their comprehension of how the fundamentals of life unfolds. Campbell referred to this as the Hero’s Journey.

This journey has many different manifestations depending upon the cultural context the myth is from. Within the American context, the hero’s journey consists of a disturbance of the known and familiar environs, movement into unknown territory, confrontation with oppositional forces, triumph over the opposition, return to the place of origin and celebration of victory. This mythic architecture is difficult to identify in things such as the folktales that are found in the different regions of the United States due to the very diverse subcultures within the country. However, when you consider the larger, national scope body of myths, we find this pattern emerges.

Consider for a moment the mythos surrounding World War II. The commonly assumed mythic elements about this most egregious period of world history is that the United States was most undoubtedly all ‘good’ in their conduct. The movies and propaganda from the era perpetuate the image that the hero of this period was a white male between the ages of 20 and 25 in excellent physical health of a heterosexual orientation. Additionally, the hero is understood to have come from a close knit community, where he is of a protestant Christian background and possessed of a middle class upbringing.

The initiation of the war serves as the event that disturbs the hero and prompts him to action. The hero then moves into the theater of war. There he engages in dramatic combat with the enemy. The hero then defeats the enemy and both enacts vengeance for the event that sparked the war (the Pearl Harbor bombing) and rescues the oppressed. The hero then returns home to life a life of domestic bliss as defined as the American dream. Part of the success of this myth is that a significant amount of the myth’s materials are drawn from actual events. Another part of the success of this myth is the way that it encourages the American listener to think positively about themselves, easily envisioning themselves as the hero of the myth.

When compared to the grisly and complicated facts of the war and life after World War II, the myth is clearly found to be overly simplistic. This myth, however, serves several very important functions. The myth arose during a time of crisis and there was a necessity for unity within the culture. Myths act to transmit important information about cultural identity and taboos through a society. The myth in this example, tells the listener that Americans are ‘good’ people who take up arms in defense of themselves and to right the wrongs of the world. It also tells them that people who engage in such action will be rewarded for it. Thirdly, the myth reinforces that the cultural norms of the era are upheld, including the biases against people of non-Caucasian descent.

Historical myths served a similar function. When considering the myth of Odysseus, we find that similar information can be conveyed with respect to what ancient Grecian heros (and thereby men) were expected to be like. The first thing apparent is that the hero of this myth is of an upper class background. This tells the listener that Greek men of importance must be born into the high social strata. It leads one to think that the higher their social standing, the greater their importance.  Odysseus is clever and clearly educated, which transmits that high status is placed on intelligence. His continual effort to return to his wife and son tells the listener that a Greek man is expected to honor their familial and social obligations. Many other messages, some far more subtle like the abuse of Odysseus when he is disguised as a beggar, come together to present a complex picture of what the social landscape of ancient Greece was at the time that this myth was produced.

With the advent of more complex communication methods, the adaptation of myths is much faster. Traditionally, a myth would develop different nuances over the course of generations as it was passed down orally. With the development of writing, myth became less fluid and themes persisted longer. It is from this that many elements such as religious dogma developed. At the beginning of the 21st century, we see a return of the more fluid mythic structures. Memes are transmitted faster and myth cycles move through more rapid fluctuations because of this.

Unique to modern mythology is the ‘urban legend.’ Urban legends are the immediate forerunner of internet memes. With the rise of the internet, urban legends propagate faster then ever. They serve both the role of a fable and a myth. Like fables, most urban legends serve as cautionary tales. Some of the most virulent urban legends and the most persistent urban legends share a common theme with the larger body of mythos that they exist in.  The popular anti-vaccination urban legend takes the cautionary warning that one should not vaccinate their children because it is comprised of dangerous components.

When we consider this ‘mini-myth’, we find that several things are being transmitted to the recipient. First, the listener is told that vaccination is dangerous. This is then followed by the message that past knowledge is insufficient. Additionally, the subtle message is given that the government, in most manifestations of this urban legend, is seeking to harm the populace. This urban legend fits into a larger mythic scheme that exists within the United States at the moment. The larger mythic scheme tells the audience that the government exists to oppress the citizenry. It exhorts the listeners to rely on smaller social entities and take a more isolationist, independent world view.

Urban legends, when considered within the mythic structure they contribute to, suddenly become parts of a more complex picture. They are no longer laughable random nonsense that are to be mocked as the words of the ignorant (which is another mythic structure that subtly influences social interactions). Instead, urban legends are revealed to be the working components of the linguistic machinery that shapes how culture develops. Through careful study of the prevalent urban legends and mythic structures in play, one can build an accurate anthropological portrait of the era that is being examined and project how the next era will unfold.

This is where the real value of myth shines through. Myth is more then the lens by which one might examine a culture. Studying myth and the ways that it unfolds allows for one to develop a predictive model for future social developments. Myth tells the people of a given culture what social norms they are expected to conform to. It also reinforces existing cultural structures by providing an ideological basis that is connected to past events.
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This was originally published 2007 on Helium, under the pen name Deb M.
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