The Semantics of Myth

For over a decade now, I’ve been fighting a one-woman campaign against the colloquial use of the term myth to mean “a commonly believed but false notion.” The crusade has not gone especially well. Even other folklorists use myth in this way, as in the derisive, “That’s just a myth,” to refer to, for instance, the belief that uncooked eggs can stand on end at the equinox (see also: The West Wing). And one needs hardly try at all to find examples in the media.

My objection, despite what my exasperated friends might think, does not actually stem from mere anal-retentive pretention regarding maligned academic fields, such as the study of mythology (and I don’t mean Campbell). It’s because this particular definition—which is in fact, according to the OED and Merriam-Webster, the second definition—directly denigrates “actual” myths, the people who use, tell, and live them, and—yes—the people who study them. There’s a long history of academics discussing the precise meaning of the word myth, but in the interests of brevity I cite the OED:

1. a. A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.  (OED 3rd edition, 2003)

Myths—which are, crucially, narratives rather than beliefs or customs—underpin most of the behaviors, ideas, and (for lack of a better word) flavor of the culture in which they operate. I also argue that all cultures, not just “traditional”, “savage”, or “primitive” cultures, operate under the aegis of their own myths, some more visibly than others. In other words, to dismiss myths as the silly products of deluded or gullible people is to offend, in my opinion, every human culture on earth. Not incidentally, it also leads to absurdly ill-informed campaigns like this one:

To be fair: I get why people still use the second definition of myth. We have no other word that means precisely the same thing; there’s no obvious substitute. And even I will concede that saying “a commonly believed misconception” instead of “myth” is an unwieldy solution. Still, I soldier on. Because, as someone close to me likes to say, words matter.

And so do myths.

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Narratives as Food

Recently I listened to a podcast of the Diane Rehm show, “A Special Readers’ Review: Why Fiction Matters,” which opened with a Ph.D. candidate at the New School discussing a study which suggested readers of literary fiction performed better on tests of recognizing the emotions of others. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this study was picked up in the media as one that demonstrated that reading fiction would help you in situations requiring social skills (dating, career events). Diane’s guests rejected the “fiction-as-eating-your-vegetables” approach, but the metaphor of reading as diet resonated with me.

Narratives are, I believe, one of the few truly universal human experiences/desires/creations—beyond, of course, sleeping, (real) eating, and sex. Do we need narratives? One of Diane’s guests, a professor of English and a novelist, suggested that writing fiction enabled him to communicate more deeply about experiences—a trip to Guatemala, an experience with mental disorders—than writing non-fiction could. He and the others argued that writing and reading fiction was essentially a means of digestion. In other words, it wasn’t food but how we process—if you’ll forgive this—the meat of life. Writing helps the author process his own experiences; reading gives the reader cognitive gastroliths.

Since I am, sort of, a mythologist, thinking about narratives as food and as digestive method of course brought me around to myths. If writing a novel processes the experiences of writer and reader, is it reasonable to suppose that myths process the experiences of an entire culture? Myth-tellers, -redactors, -interpreters, are of course largely identical with myth-hearers, -readers, -users, etc; and like all oral narratives, myths are both conservative and highly adaptive. And perhaps cultures need myths to process their collective experiences just as individuals need narratives to process their own.

Narratives are like vegetables in the sense that yes, we have to eat vegetables for a healthy diet; but we don’t eat just because we have to in order to survive. I think Diane Rehm’s guests overlooked an opportunity with the metaphor: we create meals to be pleasurable and innovative, to generate experiences and (literally) process old ones. In the same way, a narrative is sorry fodder without interest, imagination, and resonance with past and present experiences.