Week 7:  Story and Myth

Course Guide

New:  Myths are fictions believed--transubstantiation; fictions are imagined events for which we suspend disbelief...Godzilla, the Avengers.

      Myths differ from legends in that legends have more historical background whereas traditional myths draw on the supernatural.  Myths differ from fables in that fables stress a moral teaching whereas myths draw from a racial/cultural group history and are not the work of an individual.  Every country and literature has its mythology.  Elements common to mythology are creation, the divine, the meaning of life, explanations of nature, and the tales of heroes-- people of great virtue and power. 

       Jung and Cassirer, and certainly the recent work of Joseph Campbell,  have added new understandings to creativity and the use of myth, especially in literature and by the mass media. Please note however the significant differences between myth in the traditional, the literary, and the mass media expressions.  Traditional myth is non-literary; it is not meant to be a representation of truth but "the truth."  Literary myth is the work of the poet, song writer, and story teller to intelligibly and consciously use primitive images and motifs to express deep feelings and to evoke a universal response in the audience.  Mass media myth is the work of  marketers and political writers (using the new knowledge of  psychology, sociology, and anthropology) to find and extend the basic archetypes and paradigms in the objects of mass consumption (whether Campbell soup,  Camels, or condominiums) which can further shape logos, trade names, pitches, and sound bites to score on the pre- and non-logical emotions of the potential consumer.  It is thus that we get "epidemics of crime" and "skyrocketing fuel prices" used to move audiences  to action often in antithesis to the truth or the facts. In America, the Kennedy family has taken on mythological status and the loss of a family member evokes a national mourning.   Princes and princesses as still within the collective unconscious of the republic. 

    A little more information

      Myth in its traditional sense is an anonymous, non-literary, essentially religious formulation of the cosmic view of a people who approach its formulations not as representations of truth but as truth itself; myth in the sophisticated literary sense in which it is currently used is the intelligible and often self-conscious use of such primitive methods to express something deeply felt by the individual artist which will, he hopes, prove to have universal responses.

    When we approach literature as myth, or examine literature through myth, we look for a framework that embodies the general beliefs of a culture, social class, or nation; a cosmic view (like in Blake or T. S. Eliot); or some set of unconscious values.  We look to see if and how the poet or writer touches something deeply felt with a power akin to the traditional anonymous myths. (Thrall, Hibbard, and Holman in their A Handbook to Literature)

    Let's go one step further.  Let's say that advertisers are myth makers (or myth reinforcers) when they promote one can of peas over another can of peas or promote one make of SUV over another make of SUV.   The modern myth is that there is a positive relationship between the object's  dollar cost and the object's utility, namely the more you pay the more (of something) you get.  This simply is not true for canned peas and what you get with SUV's is more maintenance costs, higher insurance costs, and higher fuel costs.  So what is the advertiser to do.  Touch them deeply.  Dig into the unconscious values and beliefs of the consumer-- strength, vigor, social status, sexual readiness (dancing babe/Pepsi/Dole/dog).         

    Have fun with the mythology section.  If you see some mythology in a fable, good but be careful.  Fables are fictional stories (they are fabricated to teach a lesson or identify a virtue or vice). We do not believe them in fact; we suspend disbelief to get into the story.  Myths are fictional explanations which rise out of a culture to understand a mystery, life and death, nature, the stock market.  Because they are explanations, we question them for their truth value, their likeliness, and their heuristic as well as predictive power. Beware of the modern myth makers.  A lie (propaganda) told often enough can take on mythical stature. What is explained? Remember that thinking--perception, definition, measurement, choice, and commitment are still on the table as you reach for understanding and satisfaction.  We are all weak, and sometimes (Simone Weil) "...a man will forbear out of pure generosity to command where he has the power to do so."  Perhaps, as we look toward values and virtues we will end with love, not egoism (self love), not friendship (self love squared), but love that gives as friendship does, but gives at a dead loss (Fenelon/Andre Comte-Sponville) to a stranger, to the unknown human, to the enemy, to a durable human future on this planet and in this life. Authors create fictions.  Cultures create myths (a least in the traditional sense).  Fictions are, but are not. Myths are not, but are. Myths are part of a belief structure and often not connected to facts. That is why it is so hard to get at the truth of them.  Fictions are fact based or reality based (verisimilitude) or you would not understand the characters or the story line. We believe myths; we suspend disbelief for fictions. Hope this helps.

A few more parting Words from Rob

You can find myths in fables.  Fables are fictions meant to tell a moral truth.  Myths are not fables unless the moral of the/a fable has become a group's cultural/ethnic explanation of creation, hope, life, death, and chance.  Myths are peoples' beliefs in explanations of events they did/do not understand or could/can not explicate/replicate.  Morals are lessons in values and virtues.  Knowledge turns myth to fiction through experience and analysis.  Heroes searching...life unfolding....  We don't believe fictions but we do believe in heroes and purpose in life. Many people believe a variety of myths.  Write about one of your favorites in the writing task, but be sure to describe one you find in the reading assignment and point to what it explains. 

Myths are not truth based as are fictions.  Myths are belief based, as fictions are not.  We do not believe the movie as fact (we suspend disbelief).  We do believe good conquers evil (honesty is the best policy), however untrue given cultural conceptions of what constitutes good and evil.

Your Assignment

Browse the the Internet this week (myths and mythology) and select a story to read and comment on like you did with an Emerson essay in Week 6.  Be sure to also do the same with a favorite modern story for the writing task.  Remember to point out a specific myth in each.  For example,  princesses are more sensitive (softer, finer, more delicately made) than you girl. This myth explains the high overhead of royalty  and the need for servants, silks, and taxes on the peasants.

A student's reading task example

Words are very powerful.  We may use a word to conjure up many images, themes, feelings, or ideas.  However, we are often unaware of the true meaning of the words we use, or what they may imply.  Because of certain words, phrases, and ideas that have been repeated to us through our lives we may not think twice when someone says “Don’t go outside with wet hair or you’ll catch a cold.”  We believe these myths and take them as common knowledge.  It is not so hard to detect the myths when someone from another culture is around.  Then it may be difficult to explain just why wet hair and outside lead to a cold.  Of course, it gets even more complicated when it comes to explaining our cultural myths regarding religion, choice, independence, or morals.

Advertising and mass media seem to recognize our cultural myths and use them manipulatively.    Since we may not recognize the myths or the meanings they imply, they can unconsciously influence us.  I am the first to admit that I do not stop to think about the strange images in commercials or slogans in magazine ads.  I have the tendency to take things at face value until something is pointed out to me.  I am guessing that is how most people are, and that is why mass media can strongly influence us on an unconscious level.

Myths can be perpetuated in ways that affect our culture negatively.  Certain racial and cultural stereotypes fill our televisions, newspapers, and magazines.  For instance, a Nike commercial in 1996 in New York stated, "The revolution is about basketball, and basketball is truth."  It showed young African American men playing basketball, as if to say because some African American men can play basketball well, a revolution to end oppression has begun.  Displaying basketball--and of course basketball shoes--as a "truth" or "God."  Obviously, this is blurring and oversimplifying the big picture issues of racial discrimination and oppression.  However, it may speak to the unconscious of the viewer, appearing as though if only they would buy some Nike basketball shoes and play basketball they would be making a difference, joining the revolution.

Speaking of Nike, it was interesting for me to find out the meaning of the word Nike.  Nike is the Greek personification of victory; another image and word that has infiltrated our society without many realizing its mythological significance.

 I also read about the Greek characters Narcissus and Aphrodite.  Narcissus was an attractive man and many nymphs and girls fell in love with him.  After he rejected so many, there was a curse put on him that he would fall in love with his own reflection.  He stayed staring at his own reflection until he died.  The word narcissist or narcissistic is used commonly today to imply someone who is entirely focused on him/herself.  The myth of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty, and sexual rapture, also still exists in our culture today.  She had a festival called the Aphrodisiac.  We commonly use the word aphrodisiac today as a type of food or anything that may get us in the mood for sex.  Her symbols were the dolphin, the dove and the swan.  This is interesting because we see doves and swans at weddings (expensive weddings), symbolizing beauty, purity and love.  In Roman mythology Venus is the goddess of love and Cupid is the messenger of love.  Of course, we still see the funny looking Cupid every Valentine's Day, and we hear it in songs, "Cupid, draw back your bow, and let your arrow go…."  Again, many people do not know the origination of so many of these mythological figures and words.  

A Student's Writing Task Example

   I recently watched "What Dreams May Come."  I thought it was a phenomenal film that brought up many important questions, and alternative answers.  It went against the common myth that Heaven and Hell are definite, solid places like Earth.  Also, it went against the idea that Heaven and Hell are the same for everyone.  It did, however, contain mythological ideas about family, work, and love.  Along with that, it presented mythological themes about courage, endurance, regret, personal strength, and dreams.

  As a collective American society we tend to believe that the perfect, "normal" family is a mother, a bread-winning father, a little girl, a little boy, and a dog.  That is the family presented in "What Dreams May Come."   The father is demanding and rather distant, spending most of his time with work.  The mother is giving, loving, and nurturing.  The movie explores the pain and heartache of death as first the children die, then the father dies, and finally the mother kills herself.  It implies that the main thing that matters in life (and death) is family.  It also brings up the concept of soul mates, a widespread belief our society seems to hold.  It attempts to explain the existence of soul mates and the extreme power soul mates have on each other's lives.  He has the courage to go to Hell to see his wife and try to be with her again.  He was willing to give up his Heaven because Hell with her would be better than Heaven without her.

  In life and death, a major theme the father constantly reiterates is "Never ever give up."  I think this is another mythological theme we see as an important truth.  At least in my family, it was engrained in me to never give up.  Throughout life I have heard that if you give up you won’t be able to reach your dreams, success takes determination and persistence.

  The father also experiences regret, for all the pressure he put on his son.  He wishes they could have been closer.  I think one common regret in our society is the way people have raised their children.  I’ve heard parents say they were too strict, too selfish, they didn’t spend enough time with their children, they were too demanding, they used their kids.  Parents often deeply regret the way they have or have not influenced their children.

  And finally, the father demonstrated ultimate trust in love.  He trusted that his love for his wife would bring her out of Hell so they could be back together again.  The saying “Love conquers all” has been repeated to me throughout life.  Now of course it seems hard to believe that love conquers all when you look at the divorce rates, the abuse, and the infidelity in our culture. Still, I believe in it because it is a myth I have been taught and it helps me sleep at night.  This ideological belief was played out in the movie, conveying the idea that in life and death love does conquer all.

Week 7 Relevant Quote Example with the instructor's response

 A lie told often enough becomes the truth.

-----Vladimir Lenin

It seems that myths are generated so freely, and repeated in so many ways that they become a truth, a reality.  That can be quite devastating if it is a hurtful myth.  It is also destructive when a lie becomes the truth because it becomes so hard to reverse the damage. (Provide a specific relevant example.)