On Myths

I was reading an article online, where I came across the following discussion –

Many people view superheroes as the main characters in an ongoing modern mythology. But what does that mean? Myths are stories told by cultures—in poems, songs, oral narratives, and so forth—that often feature larger-than-life individuals who teach us something about ourselves and our place in the world. There is a fundamental paradox here, though. Why do we need tales of fantastical beings and creatures in order to make sense of our all-too-ordinary lives?

Many of (…these tales…) discuss the origins of the universe and the natural phenomena we see around us. Others offer keen insights into human nature and lend themselves as lessons in morality. Still others seek to establish what binds a people together. Scholars debate what myths are really trying to do. Some view them as failed attempts at doing science: astronomy, sociology, and so forth. Other scholars think that this totally misses the point. Myths were never intended to be taken as literally true, but as metaphorically true. These debates will unlikely ever be resolved.


So what about that paradox? To bring it back to superheroes, why do we need a story where a teenager has the power to crawl on walls like a spider to reflect upon issues of power and responsibility? Why do we need a story about a guy who dresses up as a bat to fight crime in order to reflect upon what justice demands and what responsibility the government versus individual citizens have in ensuring that justice is done?

…..As adults, we’re disposed not to tackle deep, emotionally challenging issues directly—we’re often at our best when we can approach a problem at a distance. It’s no accident that Godzilla came out of Japan post-WWII. Was it because the Japanese were just itching for a fantastical story about the destruction of their cities? Certainly not. They were traumatized by what the United States had done to them with the dropping of the atom bomb and what they had done to bring on such attacks. That trauma, and the reflection that comes along with it, is easier to think about metaphorically at first, and so a giant city-destroying, radiation-breathing monster is created, something fantastical to fight.

Superman is a myth about the immigrant experience. Batman emerged as a way to address dissatisfaction with crime and government complicity. ….


What do you think? Are myths our way of making the mundane stories of our lives more memorable and engaging? Are they a necessary but temporary escape from reality? Or are they, as in the case of Godzilla, our way of processing collective trauma?”

— And here was my response.

– I think myths are to reality what poetry is to prose. Prose gives us a bland representation of what is and what is not. But there are times when we fail to represent things that way, especially when we talk about things we do not fully understand and are probably too integral a part of to evaluate objectively. We cannot, for example, describe to a beloved in bland prose how much we love them. We cannot make someone understand why one thing is beautiful and another is not. We cannot make distinctions between good and evil. This kind of thinking requires subjectivity. Often, a small poem can express an emotion better than a long essay, because, in a poem, heart speaks out to heart. This is subjectivity at work. In order to live a full life, we need subjective vision. A myth is nothing but reality expressed poetically – in a way that connects more immediately and more intimately with people. In myths, the essences of reality are preserved. Perhaps for this reason, myths persist while real life situations change constantly.

Also, what is subjective cannot be the same as objective reality. As humans, the reality we live in is our personal reality, a myth we create on a bedrock of objective facts. Myths provide us with a framework which is larger than life, where diverse people from various walks of life can find a reflection of themselves. Thus, they allow us to know ourselves better and connect better with people apparently different from us.

——- What do you think?

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