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By Bill Price
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2008 Bill Price
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The Purpose of Myth
Some of the greatest minds of the twentieth century — Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, Vladimir Propp, Claude Levi-Strauss, to name but a few — have exercised their considerable intellects on the subject of mythology. Although it is beyond the scope of this book to consider the development of mythology as an academic discipline, it is certainly worth exploring aspects of the general thought on the subject as a means both of introducing the specific field of Celtic Mythology and of placing it within an overall framework.
Perhaps the most obvious starting point is to define what is meant by the term myth and to consider what, if anything, differentiates myths from other similar forms of story such as legends or folktales. The main entry under myth in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives a clear and uncluttered definition:
A traditional story, either wholly or partially fictitious, providing an explanation for or embodying a popular idea concerning some natural or social phenomenon or some religious belief or ritual; specifically one involving supernatural persons, actions, or events; a similar newly created story.
This is the sense in which the word myth is used in this book. As the definition makes clear, myths are first and foremost traditional stories. A great deal has been written about the purpose of these stories but, for them to have survived and to have been passed down through generations of storytellers, the stories themselves must have engaged, informed and, above all else, entertained the audience. This aspect of myths has been much less remarked upon in the academic literature, perhaps because it is self-evident that a story which bores its audience will not be one that remains in any successful storyteller's repertoire for long.
Describing what a myth is, then, would appear to be quite straightforward, but a problem arises out of the modern usage of the word. A second definition in the dictionary states that a myth is a widely held story or belief which, on examination, turns out to be entirely untrue. An example could be the myth of the American dream, in which people in America, whatever their background or financial status, are supposed to have an equal chance of achieving whatever they set out to do through hard work and perseverance. As attractive as this idea may be, all of us know, if we are being honest, that it is no more true in America than it is anywhere else in the world.
When someone uses the phrase, 'It's a myth', what they are saying is that whatever they are referring to is untrue. It is easy to envisage the extension of this usage to include the stories that make up a mythology, giving rise to the idea that these stories are untrue and that the entire mythology constitutes a false way of thinking. But myths, of course, don't deal with the world they describe in terms of what is specifically true and false. In the same way, novels and films are not necessarily concerned directly with reality. Nobody, for example, would think to describe Tolstoy's Anna Karenina as untrue, although the situations and characters described were invented by the author. The purpose of the novel is not to give accurate biographies of real people but to examine the actions and motivations of the characters in order to cast some light on what we may call the human condition. Myths, like modern fiction or art in general, can be seen as a way of attempting to describe what may otherwise be inexplicable and to provide, at least to some extent, meaning and understanding amidst the complexities and vicissitudes of life.
A further problem arises through the tendency to con fuse the stories making up a mythology with the otherwise separate subject of mysticism. Presumably this confusion occurs not only because both mythology and mysticism deal with the unknown and otherworldly, although in different ways, but also because the words look and sound similar. Mysticism deals with beliefs that transcend human understanding, including those of mainstream religions, although today the word is often associated with occult and alternative belief systems. An example of the confusion arising out of the conflation of these two words is the fact that many bookshops shelve books on mythology, including highbrow academic tomes on the subject, in sections with titles like 'New Age' or 'Mind, Body and Spirit' when, in many cases, these books would be much more suited to the literature sections. It would be unthinkable to consider shelving The Iliad and The Odyssey, the bedrocks of the entire Western literary canon, anywhere other than under literature, although the only difference between these two works of epic poetry and many myths is that The Iliad and The Odyssey have a named author.
Celtic mythology has been viewed through the lens of mysticism to a greater degree than has been the case with the myths of any other culture. One of the reasons for this has been the tendency of neighbouring Anglo-Saxons to belittle the people of the Celtic fringes of the British Isles by characterising them as (amongst other things) overly superstitious, possessed of a weak-minded fascination with fairies and ghosts that compared unfavourably with their own sturdy, commonsensical belief in Anglican Christianity. The Celtic Revival, beginning in the eighteenth century, also emphasised the otherworldly, mystical aspects of Celtic culture to the point where it became almost impossible to consider anything to do with the Celts without getting misty-eyed and sentimental.
In the introduction to A Celtic Miscellany, Kenneth Jackson makes this point, saying, 'It has been the fashion to think of the Celtic mind as something mysterious, magical, filled with dark broodings over a mighty past.' He goes on to dismiss these ideas as preposterous and considers how they have informed our appreciation of the mythology, saying:
In fact, the Celtic literatures are about as little given to mysticism or sentimentality as it is possible to be; their most outstanding characteristic is rather their astonishing power of imagination.
While Kenneth Jackson's unequivocal language may be something of an overstatement, he is nevertheless making a valid point. The stories making up the mythology can be seen as one way of attempting to deal with a world full of uncertainty and imponderable questions. It does not necessarily follow that the people who listened to the stories gained any greater spiritual knowledge or were more in touch with higher spheres of consciousness than anyone else.
Myths may involve dealing with the esoteric up to a point but, taken overall, they are often much more down to earth. There is a huge literature on the purpose of myths within the cultures which generated them, much of which goes on to compare the similarities that have been uncovered between the myths of different cultures, giving rise to theories suggesting that there are universal aspects to these purposes, applicable to humanity in general. A detailed discussion of this subject would easily fill the rest of this book and many more volumes besides. What follows is a very brief summary.
As well as entertaining the audience, myths can be a way of passing on information from one generation to the next, in effect by acting as a store of knowledge. Stories are relatively easy to remember and can be retained through frequent retelling. In cultures where nothing is written down, which are where myths are generated, the art of remembering important information involves constantly repeating it, otherwise it will be forgotten. Once this has happened, there is no way of retrieving the lost information. It is not easy to envisage from the point of view of the 'Information Age' we now live in but, before the advent of writing, storytellers and the store of knowledge they carried with them acted as the collective memories of the societies in which they lived. They would have been as important in an oral culture as libraries, the media and the internet are now.
Some of the common features shared between different mythologies include those stories which tell of how the world was formed in the first place — the creation myths — and those telling how a group of people came together to form a society — the foundation myths — together with stories of how that society was maintained and enhanced through the deeds of heroic ancestors (a particular feature of Celtic mythology). These stories impart a sense of togetherness and belonging to the listeners, both through the shared experience of being part of a communal audience and by reinforcing the cultural identity of the group. By telling people where they came from and how they came to be together, the myths provide answers to some of the fundamental questions common to humanity, allowing individuals to find their place in the world and live within the framework of beliefs of their society.
This is very much like the purpose of religion. Some commentators have suggested that religions are made up of an amalgamation of mythology and ritual, although this association is not usually much appreciated by the followers of different religions, probably because of the modern usage of the word myth to describe an idea that is not true. A further feature of mythology also shares common ground with religion. Myths provide examples of how to live correctly within a society and how to behave when confronted by difficult situations. In other words, the myths demonstrate a system of ethics and morals in much the same way as religions do. Many biblical stories, for example, could just as well be called myths if it were not for the modern usage of the word.
In summary then, myths present the people who listen to them with a way of looking at the world which is consistent across the society to which they belong. In an uncertain world, which does not often submit to rational explanations and where the threat of misfortune is ever present, the stories making up a mythology often offer answers to questions which would otherwise remain beyond the reach of human consciousness.
Mythos and Logos
One way of getting closer to an understanding of what is involved in mythology is to consider the duality between the ideas represented by the Ancient Greek words mythos, meaning 'story', and logos, which means 'reason' and is the root of the word logic.
The duality exists between two different, not necessarily opposing, ways of thinking about and explaining the world which are analogous to the difference between art and science. Art, it could be argued, makes use of the imagination in an attempt to describe what it is like to be a human being, while science seeks to explain the physical world through direct observation and the use of deductive reasoning. Since the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries — the Age of Reason as it is sometimes called — we have come to expect the phenomena of the world to be explained along rational scientific lines, in other words, to make use of logos. Previously, before scientific method was available, explanations had to be based more on the imagination, on mythos.
Mythology explains how the world works by telling stories of how it was created and how human beings came into existence, leading some commentators to describe it as the science of the ancient world. If mythology is considered in terms of providing scientific explanations, then it fails completely in its purpose and can be easily dismissed. But this is to think of myths in terms of logos, a concept to which they do not, in any sense, conform. Myths employ such literary techniques as symbolism, allegory and metaphor in an attempt to describe what it is like to live in the world and what it is like to be a human being rather than to describe directly how we experience the world.
If myths are thought of as science, they become entirely redundant, products of an age when the state of knowledge was insufficient for the purpose. But, if they are thought of as art, then they retain their relevance. In other words, myths are not the product of logos but, when taken for what they really are, they can be understood and appreciated, even in the modern age of supposed rationality.
One of the defining characteristics of myths is that the stories do not take place at any particular point in historical time, but at an unspecified point in the distant past, beyond the living memory of the people who are listening to the stories and at sufficient distance so they cannot recognise the protagonists of the stories as real historical figures. The placing of the story in what might be described as any time and no time, the mythtime, has been used to distinguish myths from legends. Legends, in contrast to myths, can be defined as stories occurring in specific historical periods and to characters who are thought of as having a historical reality.
Such clear distinctions are useful in a discussion of myths but, in reality, the lines between different categories are often much more blurred. The stories concerning King Arthur are, for example, generally described as legends, or sometimes as romances, although it is not known when the events related in the stories are supposed to have taken place or even if Arthur actually existed as a historical figure at all. In the past, it seems, storytellers didn't feel the need to classify their stories in the same way as we do now. This is particularly clear with the stories that constitute the subject of this book, many of which could equally well be called legends, sagas, epics or folktales. In academic circles they are often grouped together under titles which sound somewhat more highbrow, such as Early Irish Literature or the Literature of Medieval Wales but, in this book, for the sake of convenience and because the stories all take place at an unspecified time in the past, they are all lumped together under the one heading of Celtic Myths.
Stories occurring in mythtime, as opposed to a specified historical period, can often have a much broader appeal, as they are not limited to a particular audience. The story teller is also allowed much greater flexibility to adapt the stories to the audience and to the circumstances contemporary to each performance. The stories were never set in stone, as stories are today, fixed in definitive printed versions. This can be illustrated by The Odyssey. Although the stories are set in the aftermath of the Trojan War, a conflict occurring in mythtime, the objects mentioned, such as the ships, weapons and clothing, can be dated to the seventh century BC, consistent with when, it is generally agreed, they were first written down. Rather than risk alienating the audience or go through the tedious process of explaining how people lived in the time in which the stories are set, the storyteller has simply updated and adapted them.
These characteristics — that the stories are not set in a particular period and that they are adaptable — are the result of their generation in oral cultures, before recorded history began. (This is a subject which will be expanded on in Chapter 3.) This has led to a theory that mythology was thought of in these oral cultures in the same way as history is today, as a record of what happened in the past. The problem with this theory is that it is really only a projection of how people from a written culture think of the past, as a progression of events leading up to the present, and does not reflect how people from an oral culture thought. When there are no written records to consult to check the facts, the idea of the past and events which took place before living memory are very different.
In this sense then, mythology cannot be related to history. As Karen Armstrong says in her book A Short History of Myth, 'Mythology is an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time'
This idea, of myths representing stories of idealised events, corresponds with Jung's description of the characters in myths as being archetypes, the epitome of that character type, such as the best warrior and ultimate hero. These archetypal characters are, according to Jung, unconsciously recognised by large numbers of people who then have an expectation of how the characters will behave, an expectation fulfilled by the events of the story.
For a myth to persist in an oral culture, it has to continue to be told, otherwise it will be forgotten. It is those stories which strike a chord with their audience that will be the ones most likely to be retold, so those with the widest appeal, both because of the nature of the events related and because of audience identification with the characters, will be the ones to survive for the longest time and will be the ones most likely to get written down. A story occurring in mythtime has, for these reasons and because of its wider appeal, a better chance of surviving than a story set in historical time.
Armstrong goes on to say:
Mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events and glimpse the core of reality.
It is, perhaps, this timeless quality which gives myths a dream-like quality and may also explain why Freud became so interested in them (particularly the Oedipus myth). The storylines of myths can also take on the appearance of coming straight out of dreams, with people and places apparently seamlessly merging into others and both people and animals shape-shifting, morphing from one physical form to another. This could be one of the reasons why myths share so much common ground across cultures, because they are, to some extent, the product of the unconscious mind, a part of the shared psychology of humanity or, as cognitive scientists might put it, a result of the hard-wiring of the brain.
Excerpted from Celtic Myths by Bill Price. Copyright © 2008 Bill Price. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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