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Metaphor is a key term in many naturalistic spiritual traditions. Since myth in most cases is not taken literally by naturalists, it must then be figurative or metaphorical in some sense. There are many ways to understand this relationship.
- One sense is as a straightforward literary device, as in poetry: “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them” (Merriam-Webster)
- Another sense is as a means of imperfectly grasping what is otherwise incapable of being grasped by human minds. In this sense, an ineffable reality is depicted by means of a symbol, such as a specific cultural deity, but without implying that this deity describes said reality perfectly or in its fullness. Thus, many different deities may represent different aspects of one (or more) ineffable divine realities. This sense plays a role in Jungian psychology, which distinguishes between allegories, the former consciously created and the latter emerging from the unconscious (see “Allegory” and “Symbol”).
- A further sense is as a key concept underlying and giving form to a grand narrative or worldview. For this meaning, see “Root metaphor.”
A dead metaphor is “one in which the sense of the transferred image is absent” (Wikipedia). For example, mythology is present in our days of the week (Wednesday = “Woden’s Day”, Thursday = “Thor’s Day”, etc.), but for most people these are no longer experienced as mythological or sacred references. Even our word Earth may have had a sacred dimension at one point, deriving from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eorthe, related to the Norse Jord (see Online Etymology Dictionary; A Heathen Thing).
Such dead mythological metaphors, as commonly experienced, are not what is meant in HP by “a relationship with mythology” (see Fourfold Path). Yet, it is possible that even dead metaphors may yet be brought back to life, as it were, through intentionally developing a relationship with mythology. That is to say, personally attuning to mythology such that it becomes meaningful in one’s life may recover the enchantment and sacredness that may once have haunted such words.
Further nuance on metaphor is provided by Lakoff and Johnson, quoted in Wikipedia:
Some theorists have suggested that metaphors are not merely stylistic, but that they are cognitively important as well. In Metaphors We Live By George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that metaphors are pervasive in everyday life, not just in language, but also in thought and action. A common definition of a metaphor can be described as a comparison that shows how two things that are not alike in most ways are similar in another important way. They explain how a metaphor is simply understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. The authors call this concept a ‘conduit metaphor.’ By this they meant that a speaker can put ideas or objects into words or containers, and then send them along a channel, or conduit, to a listener who takes that idea or object out of the container and makes meaning of it. In other words, communication is something that ideas go into. The container is separate from the ideas themselves. Lakoff and Johnson give several examples of daily metaphors we use, such as “argument is war” and “time is money.” Metaphors are widely used in context to describe personal meaning. The authors also suggest that communication can be viewed as a machine: “Communication is not what one does with the machine, but is the machine itself.” (Johnson, Lakoff, 1980)
See also “Root Metaphor”, “Symbol”, and “Allegory.”
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