Monday, August 5, 2013

Myths, Morals, and Facts

Once when I was having dinner at a friend's house, he showed me an antique steamer trunk he had just bought. "You know," he said, "The word 'posh' originated as a label on trunks like this. It was an acronym for 'Port Out, Starboard Home'. Wealthy people had P.O.S.H. printed on their trunks to tell the luggage carriers where to put them on the ship, so it turned into a word about wealth and luxury."

I thought that was a great bit of trivia, and I told people about it every time I heard the word "posh." Not long ago, I heard someone talking about a "posh" home. Hearing my cue, I started telling my story about the word's origin. "Wait a minute." he interrupted, "Are you going to tell me about labels on trunks? You know that's just a myth, right?" Sure enough, I consulted a dictionary and it said "Posh" originated as a slang term for a dandy or fastidious dresser, and that the story about steamer trunks is not true. It is indeed a myth, and I had been passing it along.

That kind of myth is all too common in the modern world. A lot of historical "facts" are really just stories or images that get passed on because they're interesting, even though they aren't true. Marie Antoinette, for instance, never said "Let them eat cake." Her opponents made up the story to stir opposition against her. Vikings never wore horned helmets--some artist drew a picture of burly guy with a horned helmet, and the image stuck. Educated people in Columbus' time didn't think the world was flat. Humphry Bogart never said "Play it again, Sam". And of course, we've all heard the urban myths about dogs choking on severed fingers or people getting cooked in tanning beds. What these images and stories have in common is that they strike chords in our imaginations. We find them fascinating for some reason, whether it's shear morbidness in the case of urban myths, or vividness, like the image of blond warriors with horned helmets. Their appeal outweighs the fact that they aren't actually true, so they get passed on.

Looking up the history of the word "posh", with its real and its mythical origin, I started thinking about the word "myth" itself. People often refer to common misconceptions, like the ones above, as myths. This sense of the word--an appealing and common, but false, story or idea--is different than the other sense of the word; of myth as in mythology. Mythology is myth in the sense of powerful stories of heroes, deities, and the creation and destruction of worlds. There are similarities between the two kinds of myth. Both are perpetuated because of their human appeal, and neither are literally true, at least not entirely. But when we talk about myths in the sense of "mythology", we're not focusing on their falsehood.

We don't study mythology to make fun of the misguided notions of ancient or pre-scientific peoples. We study it because of the power of the myths, and the insights they give us into the common themes of the human imagination; themes of heroes, quests, gods and goddesses, monsters, doomed lovers, and natural disasters, all of which show up around the world. Myths reflect the deepest fascinations and concerns of a culture. They aren't often thought about this way, but I think they evolved, in a way that's analogous, though not identical, to biological evolution. Like species, myths evolved through a process of variation and selective retention. Variation occurred when storytellers would forget parts of a story, or add new twists. Selection was based on how well these variations resonated with the people that heard them. If they were found meaningful and appealing they stuck; they were passed on. This is surely one reason mythology can be so powerful. Myths have evolved to reflect people's deepest curiosities, fascinations, and fears.

Mythology is a fascinating part of the history of human ideas, because it represents the most ancient way cultures interpret the world. Originally, people didn't distinguish literal, emotional, ethical, and aesthetic truth. Pre-scientific mythology was an all-purpose worldview. Myths combined explanations of natural phenomena with religious or ethical lessons, in the form of vivid, memorable stories. In the absence of modern scientific instruments, literal truth was often unattainable anyway. So, the more meaningful or vivid the story, the better. For example, theres an ancient Hindu myth about the primal divinity Purusha. Purusha is the first being, and has no gender at the time. Feeling all alone in the universe, Purusha swells up and splits in two, becoming a man and a woman. They desire each other because they had originally been two halves of one being, but the woman fears it would be incestuous for them to mate (incest is a common mythological theme, since mythic first people are usually related). She tries to hide from him by turning herself into a series of animals, but he follows her. When she turns into a cow, he becomes a bull, and they mate and have offspring. He continues to pursue her, and they reproduce as every animal in turn, thus creating all of the animals on earth.

This story clearly serves many purposes. First, it's beautiful and memorable. It also offers explanations for facts about the world, including the existence of men and women, their mutual attraction, and the origin of the animals. It has an ethical component--the taboo against incest. Myths, then, formed the ideological, explanatory, and poetic background by which primal cultures defined themselves. This kind of worldview had its advantages. Because myths combined artistic, explanatory, and ethical ideas, there was little fragmentation of belief. The entire culture shared the same myths, which gave everyone a common understanding of where they came from, who their gods or spirits were, and how they should act. The only problem was that most myths were not literally true.

In the modern world, we find ourselves in the opposite situation. We have access to all kinds of factual truth (if we can track it down amidst all the nonsense). We now know the sun is a giant nuclear fusion reaction, not Apollo racing his chariot across the sky. Today we have theories about the natural world that are demonstrably more coherent and accurate than the old mythological explanations, so myth has come to be equated with falsehood. The problem is that people no longer share a coherent, poetic view of the world. Our beliefs have become fragmented into compartmentalized disciplines and rival camps. We've attained a great deal of literal truth, but we've lost a worldview.

That's a problem, but I think it's is a necessary step toward a better situation. We can no longer, in good conscience, believe things simply because they're poetic or traditional. We know too much. to the extent that ethical, artistic, and scientific ideas don't overlap in the real world, we need to disentangle them. Mythology is good literature, but it isn't good science. Science is good for describing nature, but it leaves many ethical questions unanswered. We need to differentiate these realms of human inquiry because they have different aims and serve different purposes.

But we can't simply pull them apart and leave it at that. These distinct realms of meaning aren't completely separate. Sometimes they do overlap. For example, our idea of factual truth has ethical implications, because believing something that isn't true can cause ethical mistakes. In many myths, including the one about Adam and Eve in the Bible, there's a theme where men were created first, and women were later, almost as an afterthought. Science offers no evidence for this. If we make the factual mistake that men are primary, we're more likely to make the ethical mistake of treating women as secondary. So, we have to perform a balancing act. We have to differentiate the areas of knowledge--mythology should not be mistaken for science--but then we need to integrate them, to see where they do connect, and how they fit together. Ethics, for example, can be informed by science (and vice versa). To move beyond fragmentation, we have to fit the various realms together, without letting them collapse back upon each other.

I wrote the first version of this about ten years ago. Here's that version in its original context.

The Purusha story in the Upanishads