Myths as Philosophy?
The Perennial Quest Part II
A modern observer might raise an eyebrow or even laugh at this notion. How can a half-man bull, or half-bull man be philosophy? Well, bear with me and you’ll see what I am getting at. If you read the Introduction to this series or the first article on how myths reflect the human quest for understanding, you will have seen how I argue that myths are not simply just product of a human need to alleviate boredom and create entertainment.
They emanate from a desire to make sense of one’s environment and to derive understanding from that response. However, primitive or childish these may seem now, how far is an early attribution of sunlight to a deity different for a search for life beyond earth if we consider both in terms of what they reveal about human nature?
In this, you may begin to see why I am putting myth and philosophy together. Philosophy means a ‘love of wisdom’, which can be taken as a thirst for knowledge and greater understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Early philosophy, not just Greco-Roman, but Chinese, Indian, and Arabic are all the parents of the modern mathematics and science curriculum as we know it. Where does myth come in?
Myths, I would argue reflect a similar desire to understand, both emerging from and being driven by the peculiarly human quest for meaning and explanation. Even though more ‘rational’ or ‘naturalistic’ explanations were emerging in the 7th and 6th centuries BC that seemed to fly against the older, more fantastical and supernatural myths, if we place them in the context of these earlier times, myths could also be regarded as considered responses by humans to their world.
Creation myths, flood myths, and foundation myths may all be seen as born from a desire to explain a vast universe, signs of a historic natural disaster, and peculiar features of place (respectively). The owl of Athens still graces modern euros giving a charming nod to Athena, the city’s mythical patron deity who granted them their famous olive tree.
Even if they are not philosophy, myths can be deeply philosophical. They can still carry a rich message that deserves consideration and debate, however magical their content. When Achilles laments the ever-changing nature and unpredictability of human life in Iliad XXIV, it is not the detail of the jars of Zeus and his dishing out of pleasure and pain that we should fixate on, but the core un-changed message of our vulnerability as human beings, as perhaps recent years have proven.