THE CREATION OF MYTH
2. On the Authority accredited to Myth
2. On the Authority accredited to Myth
All successful cultural groups told stories about the past for untold generations, long before these stories were ever written down. Myth in preliterate societies, in its original living form, was not a mere tale simply told, but a whole reality that was daily played out and annually relived.
However, because myths narrated fantastic events without regard for logical proof, it has been often assumed by later peoples that myths were simply stories with no factual basis; and it is thus that the word myth has since become widely understood as a synonym for falsehood or misconception.
And yet, the ancients regarded it all as true. The mythic traditions in this study — cosmogonic accounts concerning the creation of the world by gods or superhuman beings, devastating catastrophes of fire and flood, and the eventual appearance of mankind in our present physical and social conditions — were never presented as fictitious or non-factual or untrue in their original native settings. In the mindset of our myth-making ancestors, myths were understood to be stories of concrete events involving concrete realities; true stories, real history about things that had really happened in the past.
Close reading of the earliest texts shows that the mythos was the provenance of the preeminent, above all poets and priests and kings, those who possessed the highest social authority, those had the political capacity to advance powerful claims to truth.
Homer and Hesiod themselves demonstrably associated the “speech of mythos” with telling the truth; the verb tenses mythesasthai and mythesaimen of the root verb mytheomai explicitly referred to “telling the truth” as opposed to narrating falsehoods.
The same is true everywhere we look. Traditionally speaking, every myth presented itself as a factual, authoritative account. There was no real questioning of the validity of the mythos, no public criticism or inquiry on the point of its concrete reality. — The myths were not intended to induce discussion or debate. They did not argue for their truth, nor did they have need to: for there could be no suppositions that these things might’ve been only mere products of their anxious ancestors’ fancy, when no concept of ‘false fiction’ yet existed with which to contrast their ancestors’ inherited narratives about the past.
— A peoples’ mythos held unassailable authority not by proving itself, but rather by the perennial preservation and re-presentation undertaken by the people themselves. — It may simply never have occurred them to consider that any story told and retold so often in the community could possibly be false or untrue or unhistorical.
Evidence of deliberation is utterly absent, until the onset of the (so-called) ‘Axial Age,’ and the early days of science philosophy. Before then, there does not seem to have been any practical need to distinguish between “true” or “false” beliefs. — For no matter how much the narrated events were at variance with what we now understand to be natural law or ordinary everyday experience, myths were nevertheless understood to be true stories from the past, about real events in the past: they were believed to be faithful retellings of factual historical events — events in which humankind had been involved to the utmost extent of their very existence: events that were widely believed to be influencing ever afterwards the world and destinies of men.
The few facts that could be found on the ground by the survivors of ancient cataclysms and upheavals must have seemed trivial, in the sense that the ruins of the old world could not give real meaning to what had come to pass. For these almost unimaginable events to become comprehensible, individually known facts had to be put together, and arranged in a way that could be meaningfully communicated and understood.
The oldest-known and most widespread practice was to distill these facts as stories — embedding earth and sky knowledge and related cosmological beliefs within memorable narratives that could be told and retold again and again and again. . . .
The inviolable authority commonly thereafter accorded to such stories distinguishes them clearly from later sorts of fabulation. This kind of myth-making was likely first used in response to psychologically daunting, or physically impossible situations: situations in which success or survival appears impossible; situations which were for those same reasons impossible to accept.
What these myths conveyed authorized the peoples’ belief in the ’wandering stars’ overhead as forces and entities unto themselves. Some were accorded the power to destroy, others the power to support humans in overcoming the physical threats at hand.
Such beliefs furthermore formed the basis for the development of the social customs that served as self-protective and self-regulating devices; — discouraging the pursuit of individual self-interest, while encouraging the commitment of each member to the spirit and energy of the entire community; — helping to maintain the memory of the mythos while simultaneously strengthening the overall stability of the group and the preservation of society over longer periods of time.
— The myths under scrutiny here were themselves narrations such as these. These were not stories kept alive by vain or idle curiosity; they were publicly-known accounts that were accepted as “the true and trustworthy histories of the customs of the most ancient peoples” (Vico, New Science 7) by common consensus. They were retellings, in easily-remembered story form, of the particular events of history to which the first founders of their community discovered themselves and their fellow men and women must ever after adapt to and reconcile themselves.
Each culture’s consensually accepted view of the past, as such, continued to have enormous implications for members of that culture living in the present. And because these stupendous events continued to have meaning in the present — and thus, the future — it was very seriously believed these events had dire need of being carefully remembered.
Although they related extraordinary events and circumstances far surpassing the ordinary world of today, the myths also consistently referenced certain basic details in the present state of things, offering etiological explanations for how such things came to be as demonstrations of their historical validity. While the narrative form of myth distinguished it from being a simple straightforward answer to an intellectual question about causes, the explanatory power of myth ... .
In myth, narrative and explanatory power went hand in hand. The explanatory function and the narrative form of myth worked exceedingly well together, since the story lent credibility to the explanation by crystallizing it into a memorable and enduring form. ... Thus all that continued to be remembered also continued to be invested with deep meaning. Indeed, in spite of what seems to be their irrational or contradictory contents — the trust invested in these accounts was seemingly impervious to any logical refutation.
All in all, Creation myths attempted to reconcile the totality of the people's existence, reality and experience. What elevated these foundational cosmovisions above being mere word-of-mouth ‘superstitions’ was precisely their ‘mythological’ form — i.e., as clearly defined narratives, they enabled peoples to perceive and believe in the essential principles and conditions of their way of life as a collective, cohesive whole. Myth-making or ’mythological thinking’ was striving for a total world view, for an interpretation or meaning of all that was significant to the people’s needs.
The stories they told were understood to be actual realities largely because they were concerned with practical verities which all members of the community had always lived among and/or believed in. The myths were thus regarded to be sources of useful, universal foreknowledge from which the people could continue to draw upon when making important decisions and taking decisive actions. As such, they were taken very seriously indeed, and often considered sacred by the shared groups of people who found their most important meanings in them.
— Peoples such as ... ... — These myths were true history to these peoples: the very same peoples who founded all the recorded history we know of; the very same peoples who built all the magnificent ruins we continue to recover. In fact, it is largely on account of our relatively recent archaeological discoveries among the ruins of their once impressive constructions, that we have been able to ascertain the dire seriousness with which the local mythos pervaded these peoples’ entire lives.