The Power of Myth

The Power of Myth

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The Power of Myth

In the texts that we have recently read, we have seen the importance of myth in giving meaning and understanding to life. In the Beginnings of the Western Mind we read about the importance of myth in the consciousness of the oral societies of pre-classical Greece; in Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs we read about the myth of the "West" in the U.S. and its influence on the thought of many Americans; In Things Fall Apart we see the power if myth and the consequences of the break down of those myths and stories upon which a culture is structured on. I wish to discuss the importance of telling myths and stories in influencing the quality of our culture. Often, Americans look back on older cultures and try to understand them in terms of their myths and stories but, I fear, we do not question our own myths and stories.

Perhaps the problem is not that we don't question our myths, but that we are not aware that we have myths and stories. If we don't recognize that as part of human nature that we are going to have myths and stories to explain who we are, we can not fully understand who we are. Traditionally, myths have been our stories about "gods." Gods have been, throughout our history, the "personifications of the transformative power" (Malloy 1998, Lecture Notes). Our archetypes are part of our myths and stories--they tell us who we are and give us meaning. Myths can be thought of as messages in symbols (archetypes), they give meaning, explain "why?" and allow us to change and to understand change. Today however, we live in a demythologized world. Our myths and stories are us. Myths and stories tell us who we are, why we are and how we should be. But we must wonder, "what happens when we stop telling good myths and stories?"

Carl Jung, the famous psychologist and pioneering anthropologist, after studying the archetypes, myths, and stories of the native American peoples, went back to Europe where he began to notice that Europe no longer had archetypes, myths, or stories to give the necessary meaning to life. Thus, while early twentieth century Europe may have been technologically more advanced than the tribes of the Amazon or Kalhari, it lacked any of the stories that give us meaning and in a sense (in the context of the history of humanity), we are in a disparate way, less culturally developed.

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There are those who will question the truth of our lacking myths, but it takes only an anthropological look at American culture to realize the weakness of our myths, stories, and archetypes. "Without good myths we disintegrate. We have no fixed stars." This is what Jung noticed and, later, so would George Orwell (in Politics and the English Language and 1984 ).

Thus we must ask ourselves (if we want to save ourselves) "what are my/our myths?" Unfortunately, today advertisements are our myths, as are movies, and to some degree television. Ads tell us what is important--what we want and how to think. Movies are our most powerful myth: "movies are magic. A person who can be in two places at once is a god" (Malloy 1998, Lecture). We can not separate myths and stories from our lives. Levi-Strauss, a French anthropologist and founder of Stucturalism, found that like universal grammar (Noam Chomskey), myths are innately part of the structure of the brain. The brain has certain characteristics from which originate myths, the capacity for myths. Furthermore, we must realize that 99.99% of what we know comes from what we believe, and what we believe comes from the stories we tell.

We live in a secular culture that no longer believes it relies on myths. But we do still have myths; most are created by the media and others can be found in our culture, but these are myths and stories that we are not even aware of. After movies and ads, individualism, progressiveness and egoism are our most important myths. Other myths our found in our history and are manifested as the founding fathers and the importance we bequeath to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution . When we discuss Christianity, we see that it still has myths and stories--good stories, but myths and stories few elect to take seriously in their lives.

Again, we must ask what kind of stories and myths we want to tell? In films like "Thelma and Louise" we tell the story of antagonistic gender relationships. "The more we tell antagonistic stories about gender relationships, the more these stories will become reality. These stories are becoming dangerous" (Malloy 1998, Lecture). Many of the stories we tell (through mass media) are about violence, poor gender relationships, and poor family relationships. The power of myths created by ads has lead to an epidemic of eating disorders (one out of five women). Through ads, magazines, fashion and movies, women are being told a story about how they should be. But are these the stories we want to tell? In advertisements as well as in our everyday lives we behave and tell myths and stories in such away so as to value our economic and egoistic needs instead the needs of the human person. We no longer tell stories about helping those in need if they do not immediately concern us or appear in the news. We must decide what matters more, things or people. Do we really want stories that advocate "out of sight, out of mind" philosophy?
Without good myths we disintegrate. If we want to better the condition of the human person, the way to do it is to change reality. The way to change reality is to change the stories we tell about reality. As in Things Fall Apart , when our myths break down, when we stop telling stories or we stop listening to stories, "things fall apart." Currently "we are between stories, looking for our Father & Mothers" (Malloy 1998, Lecture).

The problem is not that we don't tell myths and stories, or that we have lost our archetypes, but that we aren't telling good myths and stories and we no longer have archetypes. But, we can't live without our myths--we need to tell stories. The result of not doing this is what Carl Jung observed as occurring in early twentieth century Europe--the degradation of society and a lack of meaning. We can still fix this. Science has been blamed for replacing God in our myths and taking meaning away from our stories. The way to correct the secularization of myth though is not to replace science with pseudoscientific myths. Rather, science has done an excellent job of exploring the "what?" and the "how?" but, ultimately, science has not yet explained the "why?" (Malloy 1998, Lecture Notes). We need to tell stories about good gender relationships and we need to tell good stories about who we are and why we matter. We do not need our myths to tell stories about gods and falsities but we need to tell myths with clear messages and these myths must tell good stories. Only when we have good myths with good stories can we bring back meaning to humanity as well as hope for the progress of the human person. As before, the way to change reality is to change our stories about reality. My anthropology professor, Father Rick Malloy, asked "what are our stories?" and "do we have any stories in common?" Only when we know our stories and can relate these stories to each other can we hope to change the condition of the human person.

Works Cited:

Malloy, Fr. Richared, Ph.d. Spring Semester 1998. Introduction to Cultural Anthropology . Philadeplphia, Pennsylvania: Saint Joseph's University
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