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The Human Heart of Myth, II

The Perennial Quest

Myth and Meaning

Should similarities in far-flung myths from across the world be attributed to a common ‘archetype’ set of institutions/traditions or be regarded as evidence for something common to all humanity (for example, reaction to or an attempt to explain an event) that has yielded similar, yet different manifest responses across a wide geographical area? Both are surely involved. However, in this article will focus on the latter, what myths reveal about us as human beings, both in their content and in the very act of their creation.

Could we even argue that myths reflect a basic human urge or need? Do all derive from a desire to explain and contextualise, with variations in the tale being due to differences in circumstance, both environmental and institutional?

I would like to suggest that this is a valid line of thought worth exploring in the study of myth. So, let us dig a little deeper into that age-old human desire to explain driven by a need for understanding.

Humans search for explanation. They search for ways to make a task easier. They search for meaning. From the myth of Persephone and the seasons to the Hubble telescope, from flint tools to iPhones, from the search for the good to inner calm and life/work balance, human beings are always looking for something. Myths reflect this core aspect of our being.

i. Explanation

I am sure some myths were in part designed to entertain, but even these reflect a response to the world as does any fiction. The charming story about sweet-voiced Arion rescued by a dolphin raises a smile, but we will return to this when considering myths as a reflection of man’s response to the natural world.

Many myths show that from very early times human have been alive to unseen causes. Gods and monsters might seem like a primitive explanation, but they still demonstrate man’s capacity to postulate causes beyond the immediately empirical world.

Humans respond to their environment and its mysteries. Many of these might be dispelled nowadays, but we must place ourselves in the shoes of the lone observer minus telescope and weather-vane puzzling over the falling leaves or retreating at the onset of a storm. That similar fascination, fear, and inwardly driven thirst for understanding has not gone. It is simply that the focus has changed. Myths were one method of finding an answer to the question ‘why’. A saddened goddess missing her daughter became one explanation for the seasons. Demeter’s care for the harvest waned as her beloved Persephone disappeared to her forced dwelling in the Underworld. Nature reflected her sadness. The angry king of the gods wielding his shining thunderbolt could wreak considerable havoc for humans. Rough seas bespoke an angry Poseidon.

One could see flood myths in a similar way. They exist in many different mythic traditions. Are they a response to a genuine world disaster many millennia ago to which ancient cultures responded with their own explanation of the catastrophic deluge? The attributions to deities are a common thread.

Fire was equated a feeling of anger in supernatural beings. Giant Typhon was punished with imprisonment under Mt. Etna for his resistance to Zeus and the Olympians. Greek poet Pindar gives a vivid description of the fires that erupt from the volcano as Typhon vents his anger.

A powerful myth that encapsulates the vulnerability, even powerlessness, of men in the natural order comes in the Viking myth of Thor’s visit to the giants. Even the god is overpowered by the spirit of Old Age, defeated when attempting to drink the ocean, into which the giants’ drinking horn has been secretly dipped.

Humans have always sought explanation and to make sense of their place in the world, battling elements and march of time which they fought, but failed to control. Our understanding of these phenomena might be more advanced, but are we not fighting similar battles?

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