In my first blog post, I thought it might be a good idea to look at ancient myths to show how modern myths have been formed from them.
When I speak of modern myths, I am using the word “myth” loosely to refer to a story that isn’t likely to be true. But I mean something more specific when I am talking about ancient myths.
The technical definition of myth is a traditional story of ostensible past events that serves to unfold part of the worldview of a people or to explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon. They concentrate mostly on supernatural beings and the realms they inhabit. Because the ancients found it difficult to describe otherworldly realities, they often approximated them by using vocabulary they were familiar with. That is why you hear of, say, Apollo riding a chariot through the sky. Unknown things were described in the words of the known.
Let’s be careful to distinguish myth from legend. In contrast to myths, which depict the activities of the gods, legends feature humans as their protagonists. Yes, sometimes in legends events may occur that are miraculous. The human characters may have some special powers or even be part divine, or they may interact with supernatural beings, but legends depict heroes in a way that their audiences at the time would at least find plausible. No effort is made in a myth to do that. Characters in myth for the most part are not impressed, nor do they become distressed, when magical events take place. In legends, the characters often look in amazement at such things.
Those who interpret myths might do so literally or symbolically, though they are not mutually exclusive forms of interpretation. Literalists will try to find factual or historical bases for a given mythological narrative, whereas those choosing to interpret a myth symbolically would regard the myth as metaphors that express higher ideas. I’d like to address some of the problems inherent in a literalist interpretation.
The ancient Egyptians had several different creation myths, but they set the time of the creation of the world in a time they called zp tpj (usually pronounced Zep Tepi), meaning “first time” or “first occasion.” Today, when you do a search for Zep Tepi online, you will run across some articles or videos that attempt to show that the myths about the gods of this time are based on historical fact, that Ra, Horus, Osiris, Isis, and the rest were real, and that many of the great architectural wonders of Egypt were actually built during the Zep Tepi period, not later as archaeologists would have it.
Or you might find those who claim that the ancient Sumerian myths preserved on clay tablets and cylinders, which contain narratives about primeval times and the advent of the gods, the Annunaki, are based on actual historical events.
Or that the stories of Atlantis or the great floodings of the earth are true and are to be dated to the last ice age. We could multiply the examples.
How much stock should we place in such theories?
The practice of rationalizing the fantastic elements in myth by claiming they are distortions of historical fact began with a Greek philosopher known as Euhemeros (c. 300 BCE). He popularized the interpretation of myth as historical allegory. He assumed that his ancestors, those who had developed the myths, were primitives who lacked an understanding of science, principles of philosophy, and the cognitive sophistication to be able to fully understand what had happened in their past, so they exaggerated actual historical facts. They took accounts of real persons and events and embellished them. For him, the gods had actually been ancient human heroes, remarkable but ordinary, who were later romanticized and idealized until they gradually took on the attributes of gods.
Euhemeros even went so far as to claim he visited an island off the coast of Arabia Felix called Panchia, where he found inscriptions that indicated that Zeus and Kronos had been earthly kings, who had lived long ago. We now believe he was fabricating the evidence—no one was able to find the island later or substantiate any of his findings.
Today, euhemerists, as they are sometimes called, are alive and well. They attempt to rewrite myths in strictly rational terms. Mythologists generally consider this approach naïve, however, because it often ignores the purpose of myth, and its literary artistry, and refuses to accept the supernatural elements found in the narrative, which was a key ingredient for the mythmakers, and it replaces such elements with creative and ingenious “scientific” accounts of what the myths supposedly were really saying.
Whereas today we use the term myth to mean something false, for the ancient people the magical worlds and beings they described in their myths were considered to be real. Myths, for them, expressed the truth. But we should be careful not to conclude that this meant historical truth or scientific truth in the modern sense. Why? Because myths, even in a single ancient society, are not consistent with each other historically or scientifically. The ancients made no effort to achieve consistency. For them, their myths each provided a different perspective on some greater truth. Why, after all, would there only be one way to speak about something as complex and mysterious as the beginning of creation, or the creation of humans? They didn’t believe a single visionary or storyteller could possible convey more than a small part of a great divine truth.
When interpreting myths, their purpose should always be taken into account. Myths emphasize the invisible, but they also are an attempt to show how mythic reality has influenced everyday human realities. They could not see their gods, but they did feel strongly the mysterious presence of those gods in their daily lives and attempted to connect with them through prayer and religious rituals.
Myths often present themselves as explanation of how nature works, or how a certain benefit or disadvantage to humans came about. These kinds of explanations are called aetiologies. But they do not present such aetiologies through scientific cause-and-effect reasoning. The logic of the myth works more by connecting an image or symbol with the explanation. This kind of image-thinking is characteristic of oral cultures. They didn’t develop philosophical modes of thought but instead stored their wisdom in easily-remembered stories, proverbs, and genealogies.
Myths (and legends for that matter) also were designed to authorize and validate religious rituals, social customs and institutions. They functioned as charters or social contracts for those ancient societies.
Mind you, scholars today do still look for traces of history in myth—this is not a completely invalid way of interpreting myth, but they do so now with greater caution. So, for example, some see the stories of Zeus’ many love affairs with human women as reflective perhaps of the larger phenomenon of Greek religion combining with the religions of other peoples. But a simplistic interpretation, such as that Zeus was real, and all the women that he had affairs with were real, is credulous.
What about legend, though? Doesn’t legend preserve actual history? Yes, legend is a bit different. Legend features human characters. And while it is possible that legendary characters are fictitious, sometimes they are indeed based on real historical persons. We know, for example, that Gilgamesh was an actual king in Sumer during the Early Dynastic Period. But we also know that the stories about him are highly fictionalized, and we do not take them as history.
Think about it: there have been many famous legendary figures in history: King Arthur, Billy the Kid, Joan of Arc, Vlad the Impaler, Jack the Ripper. Their appeal comes from the unknown parts of their lives, or the exaggerated information we get about them. We know for a fact that the details of their lives and their actions have been embellished over time. Each generation adds more to their stories. The narratives get told and retold millions of times and develop into many versions. Human nature has a tendency to remember things that are appealing and forget the things that aren’t. We also like to idealize or ignore, glorify or vilify, maximize or minimize information. We know that the more time passes, the more a story changes. So even in the case of legends, which are often based on real people, we know that we cannot take the stories as true, though there may be, somewhere deep in there, some element of truth. Sometimes there isn’t any truth left at all, except for the name of the person.
The difference between a balanced historical interpretation and euhemerism is that first, that a balanced approach takes into account more evidence, and second, that it understands there is a difference between Gilgamesh and Agamemnon, for example, who are legendary humans, and Zeus and Horus, for example, who were gods worshipped by the ancient cultures who made myths about them.
One of the problems with these alternative theories about the ancient myths is that they treat such stories as all equally trustworthy, no matter what time period they come from. Sometimes the narratives are separated from each other by centuries, and from the events they purport to recount by thousands of years. But the euhemeristic approach almost always ignores the amount of time that has passed before we get the stories as they now are. They take the myths out of their historical context and create for them a new historical context.
Euhemerism—the effort to rationalize myth by seeing it as disguised history, or disguised science—comes from a desire not only to make the seemingly irrational and immoral actions of gods and humans appear more rational and moral, but also to find evidence that our world was once a more interesting, or a more advanced, or more moral, or more honorable place, perhaps in order to get answers to life’s problems today. But it is wishful thinking. It is governed by an ideology that the world started out as a kind of utopia and has degenerated since then. They aren’t the only ones who hold this worldview, and there is the equally suspect opposing view, that the world is improving over time and therefore we are the most intelligent people that have every lived and that the further back in time we go, the more inferior to us people were. Neither of these ideologies should govern the way we approach evidence.
Instead of beginning with our conclusions and working our way back, we should allow the evidence to speak for itself. Rationalizers of myth often ignore the elements of myth that do not fit into their theories, and they make little or no effort to look at myths religiously or symbolically or psychologically. They disregard what the people who wrote them believed, assuming that we today know better about what the myths mean than the actual authors. As students of myth, we should always keep in mind what the religious, symbolic, ritualistic and magical explanations of myth are and understand these will differ from modern scientific or historical explanations. And that’s perfectly okay.