by Victoria Austen
The English word ‘myth’ is a slippery term. Derived from the Greek muthos (often transliterated as mythos), ‘myth’ is most commonly used in the Western world informally to denote some kind of false narrative. The common expression of ‘it’s just a myth’ insinuates that the narrative being told is inherently untrue or not grounded in reality – indeed, as Morales (63) has noted, one common narrative that scholarship used to tell was that the ancient Greeks followed a progressive trajectory from muthos to logos, from myth to logic. But this implied distinction between myth as ‘fiction’ and logic as ‘truth’ ignores the original meaning of the term muthos – simply, something that was told, a recitation of events, a definition which presupposes that the events told are remembered and recited because they are worth remembering and reciting (Greer, 28).
Furthermore, this overly simplistic binary between fiction and reality fails to account for the nuance of how myth works as a process, rather than simply a thing. Myth exists in the gap between narrative (as fiction) and reality: Plato, for example, in the fifth century BCE defines a myth as a false story, but one that, nonetheless, contains some truth (Johnston, 5). As such, myths are often emotionally powerful and widely accepted cultural narratives, even if they fail to conform to the actual realities of the world. In this sense, then, it does not really matter to a community if the myth being told is not true – for ‘truth’ is not the purpose of myth. Rather, it is the telling to a community of its own story and thus a vital tool in the education of that community, designed to sustain a way of viewing and being in the world. In the ancient world, for example, myths were often aetiological, used as a way of explaining causes: the Greeks and Romans, explaining the world to themselves in anthropomorphic terms, viewed the sun literally as a god (Helios) pulling a blazing hot and bright chariot across the sky. More broadly myths are often used by communities to explore ontological questions about their own existence – ‘why are we here’, ‘who are we’, etc. – and they can also function as a bridge to or replacement for ‘real history’, with gaps in knowledge filled by stories to keep memories of past times alive.
There is, however, potential danger in the emotional power and inherent subjectivity of such community-driven narratives. By relating the diverse and often confusing events of reality together in narrative structures that reduce unfiltered chaos into an ordered and understandable cosmos (Greer, 28), myths can become powerful tools used to detract attention away from the more complex and intrusive realities of the modern world. In their simplistic but emotionally-compelling
vision of the world, myths can be weaponized by interest groups to either re-write elements of the past, justify present (harmful) conditions, or even as incentives towards a particular set of actions that support certain interest groups over others. As such, myths can be addictions for individuals or even entire communities and cultures, and it is their intoxicating nature that allows them to become anchors in discourses of identity – past, present, and future.
Greer, J.M. (2018) Not the Future We Ordered: Peak Oil, Psychology, and the Myth of Progress. Johnston, S.I. (2018) The Story of Myth. Harvard University Press.
Morales, H. (2007) Classical Mythology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.
Dr. Victoria Austen holds an MA and PhD from King’s College London. She has lectured in the Classics at the University of Winnipeg and is currently the Robert A. Oden, Jr. Postdoctoral Fellow for Innovation in the Humanities and Classics at Carleton College, Minnesota. Her research interests span the Latin literature of the Late Republic and Early Empire; ancient Roman gardens and landscapes; race and ethnicity in the ancient world; the reception of classical myth; and the integration of digital humanities into the classroom. Austen’s monograph Analysing the Boundaries of the Roman Garden: (Re)Framing the Hortus is forthcoming in 2023 as part of the Bloomsbury Ancient Environments Series.