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The Human Heart of Myth V:The Search for (Creation of) Meaning

“42.” Yes, but what is the question? Fans of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (of which I am one) will smile at this reference to this marvellous book. However, the conundrum ‘what is the question’ is, I would argue, perhaps even more pertinent in some ways than the answer it yelds. Why are we here? What is life for? How do we get to the answer? Is there an answer or just an ongoing process? And, moreover, why does it matter to us so much? This human search is evident wherever you look on human history.

Such questions still bother thinkers today, and in the fifth entry in this series, I should like to suggest that myths are part of the search for this deeper meaning. The article also argues that the search for meaning is a natural urge of human nature. Is meaning inherent in nature or creation, or is it something created by human beings? For the purposes of this article, it does not actually matter. Human beings need meaning, they need purpose. We will also consider how myths reflect this human urge and need.

The need to find meaning is closely connected to the need to understand. Explanations that confer understanding make events and disasters easier to bear. However, the need for meaning goes beyond mere explanation. The issue over what is right and what is wrong, the quest for justice, and the importance of these matters for human life and conduct are recurrent themes in myth, whether the story explores human vices, explains the punishment of a powerful figure or meaning, or celebrates the elevation of a praiseworthy figure, either by divine beings or his fellow mortals, myths show that the human quest for meaning is not simply about understanding the physical world around them.

Myths both expressed human views about justice and provided a vehicle for exploring the concept. It is no accident that mythical tales presented Greek tragedians with the perfect setting to ask complicated ethical questions in the public arena of the theatre. It avoided the awkward catharsis of using real events within living and experienced memory, which may prove too much for the audience, as poet Phrynichus found with his play on the Sack of Miletus in 490 BC. The event was too fresh and charged. But myth gave the opportunity to bring moral critique to life.

Flood myths, some of which I have compared in another article (, frequently reflect this human obsession with justice, what it is, and its implications for mortals. Deucalion and Pyrrha (Ovid, Metamorphoses, I:313-347), Philemon and Baucis (Ovid, Metamorphoses, VIII.616-724), Noah and the Ark (Old Testament: The Book of Genesis, 5:32-10:1) are all tales that show havoc being wreaked on mortals for their misconduct, with only the just and pious being rescued. In part this may be explaining the physical event of a cataclysmic flood that befell mankind. They also reveal a human tendency to turn to explanations in terms of right and wrong. These are just the tip of a very large iceberg of moralising myths. It is to these the ‘Human Heart of Myth’ will now turn. This is just the introduction.

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