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The value of myth

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The value of myth

Postby verwoerd » Wed Feb 02, 2005 11:03 am

Hi all,

I am a new forum member, and will soon be departing for university to read Classical Studies. One of the universities I am applying to has asked me to write an essay on a historical topic, I have chosen myth. The reason I have posted my thoughts on this forum is because I would like some feedback regarding them, unfortunately my friends do not enjoy discussing anything meaningful to me. Ok so here we go:

My initial response, like most people is that myths are just fiction, a bit like an ancient version of "The Lord Of The Rings," some guy like Homer came along with a vivid imagination and constructed a past. However, I sometimes find myself asking whether there is any truth or value in myth, we do we even bother remembering them or reading them? Why are fascinated by them?

Perhaps the ancients just didn't have a way of conveying what they saw, Wittgenstein comes to mind, "The limits of my language means the limits of my world." I have read how some people believe that the centaurs of the Greeks were in fact the Scythians, and their brief contact led to the Greeks thinking they were in fact half-man, half-horse. Personally I doubt the truth of this, but it is plausible that if saw a band of riders of such great skill they would seem to be one with the horse.

The reason I chose this Scythian example is because I found a similar example of this while reading a book in South Africa (my homeland), the book was by a South African author (who's name I forget) who had travelled the namib desert and met the Khoi-San or Bushmen. He asked them about their myths and one stood out amongst them all. The story goes that many years ago a bushman was tracking in the veldt when he came across curious tracks unlike any animal he had ever seen, horseshoe tracks. He track the 'creature' and found it near a stream. He was shocked to see that it was a huge antelope with two heads, one looking forward and the other seeing all around. Amazingly the top head got off and went to the stream and drank, when the 'detached head' saw him it produced a strange staff which fired thunder, so the bushman feld. Later he returned and to his amazement he found the tracks of the 'detached head' by the stream and they were human shaped, but solid, their were no toes.

So a myth was born, though of course it was dispelled later when the Khoi-San became moe exposed to Europeans. I wonder, however, that perhaps if contact with a "strange beast" is made and then lost a myth is allowed to take form, whereas constant exposure dispels the myth, so perhaps a small Scythian raiding party made a foray into inner Greece and swiftly fled again leaving their myth to thrive amongst the rural people, we'll never know.

One conclusion I do however draw from this is that myth appears to be born out of an inabilty to comprehend something, the bushman couldn't comprehend the idea of a ridden animal, because they never rode animals. Also the animal was strange as he had never seen a horse before never mind a musket armed white man. I feel the concept of incomprehension is brilliantly shown through the Greek and Roman polytheistic religions, to the mind the concept of God is unfathomable (whether you believe in Him or not) just as the Cosmos is too vast for us to comprehend. We humans lack to ability to comprehend infinite.

Perhaps the polytheistic religions were a means of dividing the unfathomable God into many smaller parts and give each part a role a unique characteristic to explain things such as why evil exists, something which monotheistic religions struggle to explain. Much like the Hindu religion, their seemed to be the concept among the Greeks that their was one God, Plato in "Republic" makes reference many times to God, does he mean one collective God or a particular God? After all how can your Creator be good and evil? Well if our Creator is beyond our comprehension how can we argue that an infinite being can or cannot be something? I think that division was a means of explaination.

Another role for myth was to explain things we saw everyday. Not something largely abstract like evil, but something concrete like the Sun's movement through the skies. The Greeks told us how Helios pulled the Sun across the sky everyday with his chariot, he wasn't the sun, but the myth explains why the sun moves across the sky, I doubt the Greeks knew that the Sun was actually a gaseous orb very, very far away from Earth. The explaination of weather was another myth to explain storms and winds, Poseidon god of the seas was responsible. Well I don't belive it but I suppose if you don't have a concept of the coriolis effect or atmospheric pressure cells you would have trouble understanding the world.

The question I then pose is, what value does mythology hold for the modern person, we who have gazed at the plants and stars who think we can rationally explain everything? Perhaps myths are just a lesson in psychology (such as the bushman tale) or perhaps just testament to humanity's boundless imagination. I would greatly appreciate any thoughts, rebuttles or corrections from fellow forum members.
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Postby chad » Wed Feb 02, 2005 10:57 pm

hi, its an interesting topic, one that many people have written books on before so you should have no probs finding sources. there are 2 questions in your post: where do particular greek myths come from, and the broader question of why they came up with myths or stories. i've read that some greek myths could have come from their discovery of large bones on greek islands; pelops' ivory shoulder was prob. a whale bone and the smashed bones of the "giants" were probably bones from extinct animals, things like that. re the olympians, i haven't read this but my friend went to mt olympos a few years ago and said that there are little fires continuously burning from gas from the mountain, you can put them out and they start again in a few seconds, maybe ancient ancient greeks thought that these were the hearths of invisible people who knows. concerning the broader questions, there are 1000s of theories but it's important to realise that greek myths aren't like christian myths, the human race wasn't created out of the love of a god, the gods are just another race superior in many ways and weren't concerned for the souls of man, there's a good explanation of this in the intro to lloyd-jones' translation of aeschylus' oresteia. :)
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Re: The value of myth

Postby Emma_85 » Fri Feb 04, 2005 1:17 pm

Hello verwoerd and welcome to textkit!


Perhaps the ancients just didn't have a way of conveying what they saw, Wittgenstein comes to mind, "The limits of my language means the limits of my world." I have read how some people believe that the centaurs of the Greeks were in fact the Scythians, and their brief contact led to the Greeks thinking they were in fact half-man, half-horse. Personally I doubt the truth of this, but it is plausible that if saw a band of riders of such great skill they would seem to be one with the horse.


Humans want to explain things, we feel very helpless when things we can't explain happen, so in order to not feel so helpless we try to explain our environment, life and death.
It may very well be that the first Greeks who saw a rider and horse were so surprised by the sight that they thought it was one creature. After hundreds of years no one knew that of course, but this half horse half human creature had become a beast of legend. But it could just as well be something totally different. The very early religions worshiped nature - understandably, because humans felt small and ruled by nature. When nature is all around you and dominates you daily life (and death) - a thunder storm must be terrifying if you don't know what is causing it. So the nature (trees, animals, mountains, the sea, the sun etc) were made gods. The next step is when humans begin to settle and have villages and towns and a greater culture - at the same time they begin to think more of humans and less of nature, because they are 'conquering' nature. Egyptian gods are half beast half human for example. Elements of the old worship of nature still there, but there is a human element there which increases during time.
Greek and Roman religion is based mostly on humans, the gods are very human indeed, but it could be that some elements of older religions are still present in the form of centaurs.

So once you know why this thunderstorm is there (a cross god for example) you wnat to know 'why did it have to happen today? That is so unfair!'
This question is resolved differently in all the different forms of religion, more or less satisfactory. Less so logically in monotheism (how can a just god create evil and injustice too?) more so in some forms of buddism (there is no god, if something bad happens, it's your own fault for doing something bad in your previous life), but people have a longing for justice for themselves.

I think myths try to
1) explain the world around us (not necessary in our modern world, where we have sciene to do that for us, but I think this was on of the myths major functions). Centaurs would come under this category, as anything to do with gods or the creation of the world/humans etc.
3) and with this system of gods of course the question of justice would be addressed too.
2) moral guideline on how people are supposed to behave

I don't think that myths were created because the 'concept of God is unfathomable' - that is at too Christian view of things. The natural words was just incomprehensible and scary to people, which is why they need to think of ways to explain it, which is the origin of myths/religions.

Christian myth is written down and although you can dispute the interpretation of the texts you are not really allowed to doubt the texts or change them, whereas a ancient poet could just take one of their holy texts (the myth, which are like holy religious stories) and change the story totally to suit his purpose. Because their were many Gods there could also be many views, unlike with monotheistic religions. (Although Homer was like the Greek's Bible :wink: ).
I don't think there was a concept of 'one God' in most of the ancient world, Plato certainly was a monotheist (in my opinion), but most people in ancient Athens would not have believed that, but that many gods existed or none at all. The people there had many different opinions (as I said that was allowed in the ancient religion) on what things were really like, e.g. some may have believed in a life after death of sorts, but didn't and others again thought death was like everlasting torture).

I think people like myths because they are fun to read. The people back then asked the same questions back then as we did when we were kids. 'why are there stars in the sky?' - we know it's nothing to do with someone's breast milk, but it's a good story. Most were good stories and enjoyed as good stories back then for their entertainment value. Must have been quite boring without tv, so myths were also a form of entertainment - that should not be forgotten either.

To read them also lets us understand ourselves better, what is it we really want to know? As myths try to answer humanitities questions, we can work out what questions have always plagued humanity and if we compare them to our own today find out how our view of the world has changed.
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Postby benissimus » Fri Feb 04, 2005 1:38 pm

I've enjoyed reading all the posts in this thread so far. However, verwoerd, as my mythology teacher says (and I agree), you cannot really understand the nature of myth if you approach it from the viewpoint that mythology has been replaced by modern religion. Mythology is very much alive today, modern religion is just a form or development of it. And your question:

The question I then pose is, what value does mythology hold for the modern person, we who have gazed at the plants and stars who think we can rationally explain everything?

Replace "mythology" with "religion" and you will have your answer. Most people will choose either the religious explanation over the scientific one or integrate them both.
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Postby Emma_85 » Fri Feb 04, 2005 1:43 pm

Your mythology teacher? You have classes in mythology? :shock:
What do you do in those?
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Postby benissimus » Fri Feb 04, 2005 2:05 pm

Emma_85 wrote:Your mythology teacher? You have classes in mythology? :shock:

"Comparative Mythology" :)

What do you do in those?

Argue! :lol:
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Postby Turpissimus » Fri Feb 04, 2005 2:42 pm

I don't wish to derail your thread, but I wonder if you are familiar with Cargo Cults?

During the Second World War vast amounts of manufactured goods were airdropped onto remote Pacific islands. US soldiers landed, built airports and employed natives as guides to the area. When the soldiers left, the natives attempted to bring down manufactured goods from the sky just as the Americans had by sitting in the control tower, speaking gibberish into the microphone, just as the Americans apparently had, and putting a pair of coconuts over their ears to mimic headphones.

I wonder if a great deal of religion can be reduced to a faulty understanding of what makes crops, rivers and hunts work effectively. Early man might develop better spears or ploughs, but, with his inaccurate understanding of cause and effect, he might think that, because a particular hunter was in the habit of visiting a portion of a field before going of on the chase, that a mysterious force lived there who would aid other hunters. Over time, rather like those people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, the habits/rituals would become more elaborate, finally developing into a religion for which some back story was required to provide some explanation for those who questioned its effectiveness.

I sometimes think OCD and some forms of religion have a parallel origin.
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Postby Emma_85 » Fri Feb 04, 2005 4:55 pm

benissimus wrote:
Emma_85 wrote:Your mythology teacher? You have classes in mythology? :shock:

"Comparative Mythology" :)

What do you do in those?

Argue! :lol:


comparative mythology? like "do you think Athena is hotter than Mary?" or "Was Jusus more sexy than Hercules?" :wink:
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Postby Emma_85 » Fri Feb 04, 2005 4:57 pm

Turpissimus wrote:I wonder if a great deal of religion can be reduced to a faulty understanding of what makes crops, rivers and hunts work effectively. Early man might develop better spears or ploughs, but, with his inaccurate understanding of cause and effect, he might think that, because a particular hunter was in the habit of visiting a portion of a field before going of on the chase, that a mysterious force lived there who would aid other hunters. Over time, rather like those people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, the habits/rituals would become more elaborate, finally developing into a religion for which some back story was required to provide some explanation for those who questioned its effectiveness.

I sometimes think OCD and some forms of religion have a parallel origin.


Hmm... well it makes sense that rituals might be able to do with not understanding why some crops grow better in some field or so, but there is that aspect of 'why are we here and where does the rain come from?' too, which I don't think has that much to do with crop failures.
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Postby Turpissimus » Fri Feb 04, 2005 5:31 pm

'why are we here and where does the rain come from?'


True. Of course, it might be a partial explanation of such things as taking auspices before battles and other major events. One has to account for why religious figures are involved in business like praying for good harvests and good results in battle. I've a feeling that for the average Roman prayers for plentiful harvests must have a more immediate relevance than speculation over the origin of mankind or the beginning of the milky way.
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Thanks for your replies

Postby verwoerd » Fri Feb 04, 2005 6:25 pm

Hi everyone,

Thanks for your replies, they have certainly shed light on the issue for me. I apprecaite all your replies. By the way I wasn't awar of the Cargo Cults, weird, but I suppose it does help explain the psychology of Myth and Ritual. (Perhaps ritual is born out of the lack of true understanding?)

Thanks again
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Postby Turpissimus » Sun Feb 06, 2005 2:44 am

I'm not sure what you can get out of this webpage, but it should present at least some food for thought.

I'm not quite certain what to make of Flavius Sallustius' comments. But here you have a Roman thinker explaining where he thinks myths came from. I hope you find it useful.

The background to that webpage makes me seasick.
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Postby psilord » Sun Feb 06, 2005 8:46 pm

My thoughts on the topic are that the human brain is a highly effecient pattern matcher which also tries to match correlated chained temporal events with as much gusto as the temporally static "what is this thing" question people usually think of when one says 'pattern matcher'. We try to determine a cause for every effect. When we only see effects, the pattern matcher must, and inevitably, construct causes for those events. For example, you come home and find your plant knocked over and you start looking for your cat, even though you didn't see it happen. Most times, the causes are obvious: we perceive the causes that caused the effects or see that the effect is extremely similar to another effect of which we knew the cause (temporal pattern matching). But when we only see the effects and cannot perceive the causal forces, something magical happens. We *construct* a causal theory bounded by all of our currently known experiences that leads to the effects. This could be as simple as designing a math equation to match some data points of electron paths in a magnetic field, or as complex as constructing a religion which explains larger real world effects.

When analyzing religion in this manner, look at the manipulations of the religion concerning actual things in the world, you find things like "you can't eat meat of certain animals, you can't waste your 'seed', etc" and you'll find that more often that not, there was an unperceivable cause (fresh shell fish will make you sick due to bacteria, wasting your 'seed' stops population growth, etc). From this base of real effect, the causal theory (religion and/or mythology) is created. Any holes in the logical continuity of the causal "movers" is often filled with apparently real, but unverifiable, effects (heaven, hell, angels, gods, hades, immortality) which stabalize the logic of the constructed causal theory.

In my mind, ALL religions are really the same. They are simply a _mostly_ logical (but often unverifiable) set of invented causal forces for effects without obviously perceived causes. The argument comes in whether or not one religion's "causal mover" is more correct than another religion's "causal mover". In the end, it doesn't appear to matter since it is all unverifiable.

In the case of the cargo cults, the action of the people "talking gibberish into a mike and wearing things that looked like headphones" was a direct derivative of watching the army perform that action and then food falling from the sky. It was the best perceived cause they had. But, in the case of a Native American Rain Dance, the "causal mover" becomes a little bit more abstract, here is a children's game which illustrates the abstraction of the environment: http://www.teachingideas.co.uk/music/raindanc.htm .

Of course, the abstraction continues to become more and more abstract given the kind of temporally correlated effect perceived until there simply appears to be human-like(since we cannot comprehend what it is like to think in non-human terms, by definition), but unverifiable, intelligence which simply cause the real world effects. Gods, one might say....

Eh, whatever. I've babbled enough.
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Postby annis » Sun Feb 06, 2005 9:10 pm

In addition to the pattern matching Pete mentions, humans wander around with a "theory of mind," which is to say, that we have an idea that other people we interact with have intentions and goals.

It seems easy for us to apply our ToM to non-living things. I work in computer support, and I've seen plenty of people develop a theory of mind for computers and beat the tar out of them. If you think that weather, or crops, have a do-er somewhere, then it is prudent to keep that do-er happy.

(A literature search on "theory of mind" will get you a zillion hits.)
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Postby psilord » Sun Feb 06, 2005 9:25 pm

The fun part of mythology and religion is how close the invented causal theory achieves self consistancy. Very self consistant (one might say "believable") causal theories tend to attract lots of people since it seems so "intuitive". Unfortunately, the problem comes in that we want to use the causal theory for *prediction* of real effects farther and farther into the future. Unless the invented movers are *actually modeling* the unperceived path of causality (this is extremely rare--though it happens far more in a "nature gods" scenario), this usually ends up failing pretty badly, and you end up with UFO cults that kill themselves when the mothership never comes or a civillization that sacrifices itself out of existance.
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Postby Klassikrasser » Tue Feb 08, 2005 6:54 pm

Hi verwoerd, i'm also a brand new member of this site, and when someone say myth, i will always relate it to the book "the golden bough" written by JG Frazer. I do not know if you know it, and i also not know if someone mentioned it, but if your interested you will be very pleased to read it i think. It is a bit difficult for me to describe what the book is about because i am not a native english speaker (as you can see), so you will have to read it or ask someone else to know what's inside.
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Postby Turpissimus » Tue Feb 08, 2005 8:12 pm

I do not know if you know it, and i also not know if someone mentioned it, but if your interested you will be very pleased to read it i think.


I've read the abridged version. Two main points Frazer makes:

(a) Sympathetic Magic. Best summed up in his own words, he believe there were two principles of magic which worked in primitive cultures:

James George Frazer wrote:first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion.


Over time anthropologists have found that this is indeed a good rule of thumb for how less scientifically minded cultures believe their hocus pocus works.

(b) The Resurrected God. JGF believed that ancient religions were generally fertility cults, and that a sacred king who would be treated well for a year or so and then sacrificed so as to ensure the continuance of the cycle of life, death and rebirth that is reflected in the seasons of the year. He seems particularly struck by one ancient Roman custon the Rex something-or-other. The chief priest of one particular Sabine(?) God was an escaped slave who lived on a sacred patch of land around a tree. He could not be dragged away from the enclosure but lost his freedom if he left it, and whoever killed him became the next chief priest. It appears only very desperate men resorted to killing priest.

Anyway, JGF got in trouble with the Christians for suggesting that Jesus actually fit this pattern quite well. He's a king who returned to life, and through him, Christians believe, others will be granted life as well. As influential as this idea was in the literature of the time (I believe D.H. Lawrence read the full 13 volume set of the Golden Bough), it has not been well received by anthropologists.

Remember that the Golden Bough is a classical allusion. I'm sure you know what epic poem it comes from. :)

Damn. The name of that escaped slave custom is going to drive me insane over the next few days.
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Postby Turpissimus » Tue Feb 08, 2005 8:20 pm

Damn. The name of that escaped slave custom is going to drive me insane over the next few days.


The name Aricia rings a bell.
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Postby Turpissimus » Tue Feb 08, 2005 8:41 pm

Sacred King

Rex Nemorensis

There. I knew I'd find it eventually.
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Postby Pontarches » Mon Feb 14, 2005 10:07 pm

Have you ever read the works of Mircea Eliade? Or he isn't in fashion now?
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