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The HPedia: Myth

March 21, 2013

This entry is from the HPedia: An encyclopedia of key concepts in Naturalistic Paganism.

In HP, myth generally refers to historical traditions of stories that have come down to us from specific cultures, and which involve pantheons of gods and sometimes other fabulous creatures and beings. For example: Greek myths of Dionysos and Persephone, Norse myths of Freya and Odin, Irish myths of the Dagda and Cerridwen, etc.

Myth is often inseparable from ritual; the two tend to go hand in hand whenever talking about a living mythical tradition that plays a large part in one’s life, rather than a handful of quaint stories handed down to us.  When HP refers to “developing a relationship with myth”, it is in the former sense rather than the latter.

To develop a relationship with myth is to live with myth.  It begins with reading or hearing the stories, but moves beyond that.  Incorporating it into ritual or meditative practices, associating it with seasonal changes or other natural phenomena, and relating its themes to one’s own life, the individual attunes to the myth on a deep level.  Through such attunement, a myth becomes cognitively, emotionally, and morally significant to the individual.  Cognitively, the myth may inspire one to see new patterns in nature, society, or oneself, especially patterns that make meaningful sense of one’s place in the world.  Emotionally, the myth may inspire feelings of connection and integration with, as well as aesthetic appreciation for, the world as seen through the lens of the myth.  Morally, it may inspire a sense of responsibility within the world in which one is now thought and felt to be integrated.

It must be noted that the role of myth in this process is to inspire, not to dictate.  Patterns perceived may be stimulated by the myth, but are rarely inherent to it.  A key characteristic of myths, in fact, may be their eternal openness to interpretation.  This openness allows them to inspire a range of different meanings in different peoples, at different times and in different places.  Down through the ages, myths remain precisely because new meanings are able to be read into them, according to the needs of the era.

It is sometimes thought that modern people may be better off creating their own myths rather than renewing ancient ones, or that science fiction and other genres are our modern myths.  This view seems to underestimate the evolutionary process ancient myths have undergone.  Centuries and centuries of selection pressures have evolved myths to play on the deepest levels of the human psyche, to appeal to a broad variety of different people, and to embody new meanings according to the needs of the current age.  Newly invented “myths” may be valuable, but they have not proven themselves, as it were, by this long-term process.  There is no reason not to experiment with creating new myths, but trashing the ancient for the new seems a hasty measure.

Myth is sometimes used by philosophers and theologians to mean a grand narrative or metanarrative, without necessarily involving stories of a pantheon of deities or other supernormal beings.  For example, Loyal Rue uses myth as synonymous with narrative core (see “Narrative Core”), and the Epic of Evolution is sometimes called a myth (see “Epic of Evolution” above).  While the validity of this usage is acknowledged, HP generally sticks to the meaning outlined in the first paragraph above in order to avoid confusion.

See also “Fourfold Path”, “Epic of Evolution”, “Narrative Core”, and “Fourfold Path.”

Check out other entries in our HPedia.

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