Myths are not simply fanciful stories that are untrue; they are simple, fanciful stories that are very true, woven into the very fabric of the universe we perceive. There is, in the human heart, some kind of poetry that sees meaning in everything and everyone, and this meaning is expressed in fantastic stories and myths and parables and poems.
The Greeks told the tragic story of Orpheus, the son of the great god Apollo. Orpheus was the master of music, the prince of poetry, the one who gave the rites to the mortals for the practice of their religion. He fell in love with the beautiful Eurydice, who died after being bitten by vipers. Orpheus went on the long journey into the underworld to rescue his beloved, and he was able to charm Hades and Persephone, the king and queen on the realm of death. They allowed him to lead his beloved back to life on the provision that he would walk before her, never looking back until they reached the upper world. When he stepped out of the darkness he looked back to see her, forgetting that he could not look back until they were both free, and so she vanished forever.
The curious and delightful thing about this story is that it is echoed in other myths in other cultures at other times around the world. The Japanese have a story of a husband named Izanagi who descends to the underworld to save his wife Izanami. The Sumerian goddess Inanna goes down to conquer the underworld, the Nez Perce tell a story of Coyote who does the same, and the theme of not looking back during an important rescue or adventure echoes in the stories of Lot’s wife fleeing Sodom, Hansel and Gretel, and Jason’s raising of Hekate.
The example can be multiplied countless times. The same stories with the same themes crop up time and again in one culture after another. Whether they are ancient myths, legends, folk tales, fantasy stories, or science fiction and fantasy films, the same essential struggles occur in every age and among every people, and we delude ourselves if we think the fantastical stories of gods and goddesses intermingling with mortal men are the stuff of ancient cultures only. The same stories live today in our comic books and movie theaters. There the superheroes do today what the gods did in ancient days. There ordinary newspaper reporters, students, and millionaires don masks and capes and spandex suits and so become great heroes. They fight villains who look and behave like demons. There in the comic books and summer blockbuster movies, the barrier between the everyday world and the supernatural breaks down. Ordinary mortals assume supernatural powers. They become gods and engage in the battle between good and evil just as certainly and powerfully for us as the myths and mystery religions did for our ancestors so long ago.
What I find curious is that there is a type of human being who does not enjoy or engage in this very human activity. The cultural elite, the tasteful, and the academic either studies this phenomenon or he ignores it, but it is more likely that he actually despises it. The literary critic looks down his fine nose at fantasy stories, science fiction tales, and comic book heroes, and yet a vast majority of the population find such things not only entertaining, but enlightening, and not only enlightening, but enriching. They participate in the drama of the modern day gods and goddesses in the comic book and on the silver screen with a gusto and enjoyment of a good religion.
The critics of superhero culture sneer that it is for boys in shorts. Those who despise fairy tales say they are interested not in fantasy, but in fact, they are interested not in science fiction, but in serious fiction. By this they mean they want to read novels about grown ups committing adultery and then feeling guilty about it. From my perspective there is nothing more childish and frivolous than grown ups playing sex games, feeling guilty, and going to an analyst, and there is nothing more serious and eternal than the interplay of the gods and men. It may be that boys like comic books and girls like fairy tales and pimply teenagers like science fiction and tales of superheroes. I am on their side, and am reminded that unless I become like these children I cannot enter the kingdom, and it is their kingdom of kings and princes and knights and dragons and supermen and green goblins that I most want to enter. In comparison, adultery and angst and sex and psychoanalysis is terribly boring.
Myths, Magic and Mystery
Myths (whether they are about ancient superheroes or comic book superheroes) are not simply fanciful stories that are untrue, they are simple fanciful stories that are very true. They are true even though they are not factual. A myth reveals truth through a fanciful tale. It does not do so like a fable, where a moral is tacked on to the end of a fanciful story, nor does it do so like an allegory where the characters represent certain truths. Instead in a myth the truth is dressed up and acted out as in a drama. In a myth the truth and love and beauty put on masks and wear costumes and engage with lies and error and death and destruction. This is why superheroes do the same, because they are acting in a mythic manner.
Critics of the Christian religion will say that the whole thing is nothing but an amalgamation of pre-Christian myths. The dying and rising god, the hero god born of a virgin, the gods become incarnate in human form—it was all there before Christian theologians thought it up. They say that Christians purloined the lot. In fact, say the rationalist critics of Christianity, their founder was just another rag tag preacher from a backwoods province of the Roman Empire. The idealistic booby got caught up in some unfortunate political intrigue and was crucified for his mistake. Then the clever fellow Paul came along and began to make a god out of him and his followers took the ball and ran with it. All sorts of myths, legends, mysterious rituals, and rites were swirling around the Roman empire and the early Christians took a bit of that myth, a smidgen of this ritual, a pinch of that legend, a dash of this mystery religion and mixed it all together with some ancient mumbo jumbo, a few miracle stories, and an atmosphere of mythic romance and hey presto! came up with Christianity.
This is then used to de-bunk Christianity. The scholars, from their vantage point in an ivory tower, were able to see through the whole thing. But there are several problems with this theory. First of all, congruence of time does not demand causation or even influence. In other words, just because two things occur at the same point in history does not necessarily mean that one caused the other or even influenced the other—even if it seems so. The two things that are similar might have other links deeper and more universal than what seem the obvious routes of influence. The fact that human beings worshipped the sun in Mexico, Egypt, and Australia doesn’t necessarily mean that the civilizations in question influenced each other. The simpler answer is always to be preferred, and the less complex and conspiratorial conclusion is that worshipping the sun is a particularly natural human activity. If many different civilizations in the ancient Middle East developed indoor plumbing it doesn’t mean there was a mysterious link between the civilizations. It just means that human beings dislike the smell of sewage and therefore devise means of sanitation. It is the same with the supposed influence of the pagan religions on Christianity. Simply because certain ideas and customs developed at the same time and in the same place does not demand the influence of one culture on another.
Even if it can be shown that there was a cultural influence between Christianity and paganism, why should it be necessary that the Christians stole the ideas from the pagans? There is good evidence to show that the reverse is the case. The Roman feast of Sol Invictus at the winter solstice was often thought to be the feast Christians copied to create Christmas. It now turns out that the celebration of Sol Invictus was developed after Christianity so that the pagans (whose influence was waning) could compete with the phenomenally successful new religion which worshipped the rising Son of God—Christ Jesus. It is often thought that Christianity copied the Roman cult of Mithras. Both had a dying and rising god. Both had a form of ritual meal. Both had a form of baptism. They developed at the same time, but we needn’t necessarily say that Christianity copied Mithraism. It is more likely that Mithraism copied Christianity.
Even if one could prove influence of paganism on Christianity, why would that necessarily be a bad thing? In fact, I would suspect a religion that did not connect in its symbolism, ritual, and myth with the rest of the world religions. Instead of invalidating the authenticity of Christianity, the connections validate it. The connections between paganism and Christianity show Christianity to be part of a much larger, universal human religious context.
Myths and a Matrix of Meaning
If this is the case, then something else is going on in the rites, rituals, mysteries, and myths of humanity both in the ancient and modern worlds. If the same themes, symbols, and stories arise time and again throughout human culture, then we ought to conclude that these stories and symbols lie deep within the universal consciousness of humanity. If this is so, then we are on to something truly remarkable. There seems to be a kind of symbolic religious literary code written into human experience. The matrix of meaning runs deep within the human heart, no matter where or when the person lives.
The themes of the over world and under world, the need for redemption and sacrifice, the story of the lost child, the hero’s quest, the virgin mother, the dying redeemer, the rising god—all these are woven not just into the imagination of human beings, but into their perception of everything in the world around them. The myths were linked not only with their own sufferings and fears and joys and sorrows, but also into the very fabric of the universe they perceived. The cycles of planting and harvest, the cycles of the sun, moon, and stars, the cycles of human conception and birth and living and dying were all woven together in the ancient stories. There was, in the human heart, some kind of poetry that saw meaning in everything and everyone, and this meaning was expressed in fantastic stories and myths and parables and poems.
If you like, the meaning was incarnated in the art. The poems and parables and myths and stories all gave flesh to the deeper and more mysterious meanings that were otherwise difficult to unlock, and as the meaning was incarnated in the art, it hinted at a far deeper and more disturbing possibility that the Meaning could one day be incarnated for real. If the stories enfleshed the meaning, then what if Meaning itself could be enfleshed? What if the story, which showed the truth, could really come true? What if the truth would be incarnated not just in a story, but in history?
This is the reality to which all the stories point: that the stories are accounts of truth being lived out in real life, just as piano music being played is the incarnation of the music in the score, and when you think about it, isn’t this the dynamic and the glory of all art? That in some way the truths which were discussed discursively are shown to have life and breath and body and flesh. So a play comes to life with actors breathing the lines and emoting the passion. So a fictional story comes to life in a film or a play. So a painting re-incarnates in oil or water and pigment and canvas and paper another reality and that reality lives within that new incarnation of beauty, truth, and love.
A Myth Come True
If this is true, then all art, and all stories, and all cultures down through the ages at all times and at all places were striving and longing for a possibility that everyone knew would one day occur, but no one knew quite how. The possibility that all art and all stories and all architecture and myth and dance and drama points to is that Truth may one day be incarnate in one person who summarizes and epitomizes all truth.
This is why all the pagan stories repeated the same themes, used the same symbols, breathed the same air, felt the same emotions, and pointed to the same thing—because all the stories were springing from the depths not just of one storyteller, or the depths of one culture or the history of one people, but the history of humanity. The stories were all the same because they came from the same source: a source deeper and older than any one person or any one culture or any one history.
That source was, if you like, the “deep magic from before the dawn of time.” The stories all echoed the same themes of lost children longing for home, of a hero who embarks on a quest to save his soul and save his people, of the sufferings of love and the pain of loss, of redemption through sacrifice, of the journey into the underworld to emerge victorious and save the beloved. Those themes and symbols and mythic emotions were universal because they were far more ancient and venerable than any one society or storyteller.
They were locked into the depths of the human heart because every human heart was longing for redemption, for sacrifice, and for love. Every human being was on a quest to conquer the underworld and save the beloved. Every human being was searching for redemption and release. This eternal human longing, unknown to the majority of human beings was being expressed in a multitude of legends, myths, stories, poems, and parables as people poured out their longings to one another.
And what they did not know was that, within one people the truths they all held dear were being incarnated while they dreamed. Within one tribe in the ancient middle east the stories of sacrifice and redemption from slavery and freedom, of oppression and release, of death and life and love and redemption and sacrifice—all these themes were not being incarnated in beautiful stories about gods and goddesses. They were being enacted and fulfilled within the ordinary dust-filled lives of just another nomadic tribe in the Arabian peninsula.
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Editor’s Note: This essay is an abridged version of chapter 12 of the author’s book, The Romance of Religion. The featured image is “The Reunion of Cupid and Psyche” by Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours (1752-1809), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.