The Myth of the Definition of Myth

On December 23, the New York Times published a provocative essay headlined “Has Fiction Lost Its F…

  1. genferei

    (The last sentence of the first paragraph seems to need a tweak.)

  2. Edward Smith

    The word they should be using is Fallacy.

    As in, “All The News That’s Fit To Print”

  3. Mollie Hemingway
    genferei: (The last sentence of the first paragraph seems to need a tweak.) · 11 minutes ago

    Thank you!

  4. Severely Ltd.
    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.:

     It is metaphysic in its  primary and purest form,the closest verbal  approach to an immediate intuition of reality.  It is antecedent to theology, as the terms and statements of a myth are prior to their exegesis.  As a product of the poetic faculty, myth is a thing in itself, single, whole, complete, and  without ulterior purpose.

    C.S.Lewis was particularly eloquent on this very thing, but I don’t have my Lewis library with me so I’m not going to attempt a quote. His favorite (or at least the one he considered his best) book Till We Have Faces was his reworking of the myth Cupid and Psyche.

  5. EJHill

    Is this usage proper then?

    usage.jpg

  6. JSAN

    Thank you for bringing this to the attention of Ricochet readers.  I heartily agree that the failure to understand the term myth correctly limits the hearer’s (or reader’s) depth of perception on any issue where myth is clearly the best word to use.  The fallacy of tying myth to fact and failing to understand its role in communicating truth I think is a symptom of scientific methodology controlling ones understanding of knowledge.  I somtimes think that living only an ’evidence based life’ might be a life of deep intellectual poverty.   Perhaps we could have an executive order creating a program to help!

  7. Mark Lewis

    Mollie – as a quibble.

    Myth certainly means a verbal attempt to describe something intuitive (vs. a literal fact from history).

    However, it ALSO means a verbal attempt to describe something intuitive - that is taken as fact by the majority of its believers. 

    The myths of most religions fit this bill. Some practitioners of the religion  understand the myths symbolically, and use the stories as intuitive representations of deeper principles. However, in the bulk of any population of religious believers, 80-90% take the myths literally.

    Lao-Tzu was literally born 600 years old. Athena was literally born from the forehead of Zeus. The world was literally created in 6 days. Martyrs will get 72 virgins. Jesus was literally born of a virgin.

    As you become more settled and subtle in your understanding of your religious beliefs, you see their intuitive truths. You go beyond the literal interpretation to its symbolic interpretation – the intuitive principles/insights underneath it.

    AND, for the bulk of believers, questioning the literal truth of the myth is grounds for blasphemy. Let’s not pretend that most religious believers understand the allegorical/metaphoric/symbolic understanding of myth as its central value – The myth, for them, is fact.

  8. Mark Lewis

    And for fun - 

    ‎”What a man believes upon grossly insufficient evidence is an index into his desires — desires of which he himself is often unconscious. If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.”

    – Bertrand Russell 

  9. Valiuth

    I too have often chafed at the current use of the word myth. Our myths give to us the metaphysical truths of events, personages, and places. The Myth of George Washington is as true as the historical accounts of him and often a fine blending of history and myth make for the most informative and memorable of readings. 

    As to correcting the use of myth by journalists, I think simply substituting the words illusion, mirage  or misconception would get their point across. 

  10. tabula rasa
    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.: 

    It’s one thing to slightly change the definition of something but some modern usage is inverting it and that’s just confusing, at best.

    Other inversions:

    “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act”

    “If only the Israelis would negotiate” and its companion “Israeli apartheid”

  11. KiminWI

    Tolkien, allegedly, said:

    “Myth is the  truth, that remains.”

  12. Tom Lindholtz

    In one of CS Lewis’ works he illustrates by pointing to a common theme across a wide variety of world religions; what he calls “The Corn King” myth. It is the intuitive recognition that somehow, deeply, man is broken and needs fixing. In The Corn King myths someone, often a king, gives his life, as a seed of corn falls into the earth and dies to itself, so that others may live. The seed is gone but the new plants provides life sustaining food. That is the myth.

    Lewis then goes on to state, It appears that one time this actually happened.

    Thus, in Lewis’ usage, much like Mollie’s friend, the myth is conceptual at root. Lewis goes on to build his case that this actually gives further credence to the Judeo-Christian understanding of God. God has not only given “special revelation”, the Bible, to show His plan. He has also sown the seeds of the plan throughout “general revelation”, the world around us, in sufficient and effective means to allow people to peer in via mythic images in order that when the reality appeared it would be recognized.

    Perhaps the loss of “myth” isn’t accidental.

  13. Crow

    Let us ask this question of your Lutheran friend, (or maybe just to you and you can speculate on the answer).

    What would his view of the phrase “the Christian myth of Christ’s life and death” be?

  14. Tom Lindholtz

    Mark Lewis, Re #8: Then you’re saying that Russell wanted to believe that and so he did regardless of whether or not it made sense? That is the implication, is it not?

  15. Sabrdance

    Someone clarify the distinction being made in this post for me.

    While I am familiar with this distinction, I was under the impression it was mainly a technical one – that myths were generally considered to be “explanatory stories that weren’t true.”  “Just-so stories” would be an approximate substitute.  Within certain academic disciplines, the word had an additional meaning as “socially agreed upon metaphysical explanation of an event.”  “Conventional Wisdom” might be a substitute there.  I am not seeing the misuse of the word here in either meaning.  Secular triumphalism in the arts is both an explanatory story which is not true, and a form of conventional wisdom based on a metaphysical (in this historical) folk explanation.  This would make it a myth.

  16. Trace

    Language evolves. It has always been so. This word has adopted a second meaning. No crime has been committed by journalism and no correction is required. The new meaning does not diminish or render incorrect the first, original meaning. 

    The newly evolved meaning has interesting implications for the first to be sure.  There is probably an Ivy League linguistics/religious studies (double major?) thesis paper in there, if not a small volume for the Yale Press.

    Your friend has made an astute but certainly not surprising observation about the secularization of modern culture… but I’ll go out on a limb and guess that if he finds this usage galling, he must make these types of observations on a frequent basis.

  17. Aaron Miller

    Myth is to history what intuition is to logic.

    It’s unremarkable that the same fools who trust only empirical knowledge have little appreciation for the power of storytelling to communicate truth.

    Tolkien: Man and Myth by Joseph Pearce is an interesting book on this subject. Tolkien believed pagan myths were often a form of progressive revelation before the final revelation of Christ.

  18. Adam Koslin

    One can argue that the twisting of the meaning of “myth” is itself a reflection of the secularization of culture.  As it stands now, “myth” is used to mean “something that is believed to be true, but is in fact false, or at least unsupported by convincing evidence.”  Given the originally religious connotations of the word, the change from denoting truth to denoting fictitious falsehood mirrors the decline of religion as a social and philosophical force in the West.

  19. Daniel Halbach

    Ironically, those who misused “myth” in their characterization of religion are frequently outspoken about how the word “theory” (as in “the theory of evolution”) does not imply “unproven”.  Neither “myth” nor “theory” is supposed to presuppose a lack  of validity, but they are both used pejoratively (and improperly) to imply that.

  20. Severely Ltd.
    Tom Lindholtz:Thus, in Lewis’ usage, much like Mollie’s friend, the myth is conceptual at root. Lewis goes on to build his case that this actually gives further credence to the Judeo-Christian understanding of God. God has not only given “special revelation”, the Bible, to show His plan. He has also sown the seeds of the plan throughout “general revelation”, the world around us, in sufficient and effective means to allow people to peer in via mythic images in order that when the reality appeared it would be recognized.

    Perhaps the loss of “myth” isn’t accidental.

    Aaron Miller: Myth is to history what intuition is to logic.

    Tolkien: Man and Myth by Joseph Pearce is an interesting book on this subject. Tolkien believed pagan myths were often a form of progressive revelation before the final revelation of Christ.

    The Golden Bough, which most people took as an explanation and refutation of Christianity, prefigured Christ in Lewis’s opinion and though I don’t recall reading it, I don’t doubt to Tolkien too.

    “Myth is to history what intuition is to logic.” Wow, well said.

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