A Mythological Reconciliation


I was raised a Christian of the Roman Catholic sort, and so, despite my waverings, wanderings, and wonderings, much of my mythological foundation is embedded in its traditions. That and other things, like being a well-educated, middle class, middle age American male of the early 21st century, shape my values and attitudes, through stories and messages, even ones that have no words. These are the myths that I live by.


We need myths, I’m not going to argue for that; I think most people will agree, once they become reacquainted with what the word really means, which is not the popular synonym for a lie (‘Ear wax, fact vs. myth!’). ‘Myth’ is an important word to human beings. The stories that guide us, big and small, true or false, personal, family, national, or tribal, are myths.


One of the things about myths is that they filter things for us so that we perceive things in terms of them. So you get the proverbial ‘fish unaware of the water it lives in’ effect; it is hard to see myths while looking through them, so to speak. Thus it is a rare thing when a rift appears in the clouds and something outside appears, or peers in as the case may be. It has happened to me only a couple of times in my life, and what I have seen is what this essay is about.


Without preamble, look at these two columns:



















I have unapologetically “stacked the deck” here, but my thesis crucially depends on the patterns in these two columns. Is there a pattern? If you don’t think so, then spare yourself further reading. Then what could it be? Ask yourself this: which column contains things that are more important than the other. If you are like me, part of the vast wave of “Western”, “Euro-centric”, or “Judeo-Christian” myth-bearers that has swept over the world in the last millennium, then I suspect that the left column is your unhesitating answer.


If you also immediately went for one of the columns, it may now seem that I am about to veer into what may appear to be a wholesale attack on your value system, and in particular your religion if that is one of the vehicles for such. And to some extent I will not deny this, as that is essential for the “crack in the clouds” to happen. But to at least partially allay (or magnify) your trepidations, here is a preview of my conclusion: that the two columns are equally important and they balance each other in a beneficial way.

The all importance of truth

Think quickly: what flavor are your shoes? If you hesitated it is likely because flavor is not commonly thought of as a property of shoes. Is there a quality that is a universal property of all things? In my zeitgeist there is: truth. Aside from the curious and esoteric paradox, all perceptions are tagged by possibility. For most of my life, and even now by deep habit, I have done this automatically and not questioned it. Do cultures universally agree that truth an inherent trait of all things? I suggest that a look at mythologies and religions, especially older ones, argues that they do not. For example, the gods of the ancient Greeks inhabited the summit of Mount Olympus, a proposition easily disproved by observation. Did this deter them from building temples and paying homage to these deities? Of course not. Many myths are patently absurd, yet form the basis of firmly held belief systems. How could this be? How could people believe in gods and events that are so obviously falsified?


The answer to this was for me a thunderbolt of inspiration, like seeing blue through a red piece of glass: it isn’t important for myths to be true or false. This realization was the key that unlocked the revelation of the two columns. While for much of human history myths served to explain the mysteries of the natural world, for which a semblance of plausibility was useful if not vital, that role has been admirably assumed by science, which is ironically a rebellious outgrowth of the scholarly traditions of the “Abrahamic” religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Myths are essentially beyond the scope of veracity, since their primary role is to give meaning and value, not to explain. Myths answer ‘why’; science answers ‘how’. When truth overshadows myth, we must imbue our myths with truth to make them worthy. We then must have no gods or gods invisible and distant, beyond disproof.


An exemplar of the encroachment of truth into the domain of myth occurred recently in the news. The Roman Catholic Pope, John Paul II, is to arrive this month in Mexico to perform a ceremony elevating a 16th century peasant, Juan Diego, to the status of sainthood. There is controversy over this, centered on a lack of evidence that Juan Diego is anything other than a legend, and a scientific finding that his cloak, “miraculously” impressed with a holy image, appears to be the creation of human hands. To the Church, it is essential that its doctrines and icons carry the imprimatur of truth, or at least are free of the taint of doubt. Yet, for many cultures, a myth like that of Juan Diego, who led a simple spiritual life, would be accepted, as it should be, for the meaning it brings to people’s lives.

Heart hunger, head food

Suppose there is a group of people, technologically primitive, ruled by superstition, living generally unstressed lives in egalitarian balance with animals and plants, but also subject to nature’s cruel whims. We want to get these people moving ahead, becoming civilized, and we need an ideology to do it.


Here is a plan:



The struggle for balance

As it should be clear by now, this plan has been tried, and the resulting tsunami of economics, science, medicine, agriculture, and architecture has changed the world forever. The wave has washed around the planet and met itself, and now there is little room for expansion and dwindling resources to feed on. A sixth great period of extinction in the earth’s history is underway, and it is our doing. It is time to strike a balance between heart and mind, myth and truth, being and doing, past and future. There can never be a fixed point, as the duty of each side of a duality is to dominate the other in a dialectic struggle. And yet, as Joseph Campbell observed, there is a unity behind all dualities. Adversaries can honor each other even in battle, leaving a defeated foe to withdraw and fight another day instead of vainly attempting to crush him utterly. For the seeds of our enemies are always within us. The pendulum must swing, but we can dampen it, preventing the extremes of zealotry and fanaticism that our race is so prone to.


Tom Portegys, July 2002.