Myth today

Written on February 13, 2008 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui


Yesterday I was honoured to give a conference at the IE about “What does Greek myth tell us today?”. I told some myths and how they have been transmitted through history till our days (at the end of this text you have the power point, as some people asked). But as it often happens, the most interesting issues were not raised by the speaker, but by those who posed questions afterwards. They made clear that myth plays an important role in the 21st century, and that, therefore, its knowledge is an instrument of great value to understand our world. Let me summarize here five main levels where myths are present today.

First and most evident, in our daily life: language is full of mythical references (Achilles’ heel, Titanic struggles, Herculean efforts, Oedipus complex, Procustean theories); when mankind discovers some new field, the stock of ancient myth is there to provide meaningful labels easy to grasp: look at computers with their Trojan virus or at the space-conquest with its Apollo 13; and many traditional practices which are alife today, like harvesting, bullfighting, wine-drinking, and religious or secular feasts, have their own mythical tales which go back directly to the old Greek myths. To appreciate and enjoy all the nuances of daily life the knowledge of myth is highly advisable.

In the second place, art of all kinds, continues to use myth as it has been doing for 3000 years: painting, sculpture, music, literature, or cinema. Examples are so well-kown that they are superfluous. Myth can be subject to all kinds of adaptations, de- and reconstructions, and combined with any new elements. It connects any work of art with a secular tradition which adds deep layers of signification to its external meaning. To understand classical and modern art the knowledge of ancient myth is fundamental.

          Thirdly, many of the new problems which modern society has to face correspond to similar problems met by the Greeks in antiquity, and the myths which thematized those questions can inspire us in looking at them: for example, the problems raised by genetics (is the child of a psychopath necessarily or probably a psychopath himself?) were thematized in the concept of inherited guilt which haunted some heroic families in Greek tragedy; the clash between traditional customs and state laws, represented by Antigone, will always be present in any human society; not to speak of the antithesis between the Dionysiac uncontrolled savage energy and Apollinean sense of limit and moderation, a most productive tension which will be alife as long as mankind exists; and just think of the enormous use Greek myth had for modern psychology. To face new problems the knowledge of its mythical representations is most helpful.

Fourth point: national identities are constructed with myths today, as in antiquity, because all nations need their own myths to awake collective emotions: understanding how myth works is indispensable to understand nations. The cases of Israel and Kosovo spring to the mind of everybody, but there are some happier instances. The USA, a new country which has succeeded in creating a strong common identity for an extremely diverse population, mythified the Mayflower, the conquest of the Far West, and then the War, as Rolf showed in his first post; for the same reason, America has invented heroes out of disastrous generals like Custer or fictitious super-men like Captain America; just like Rome invented Aeneas’ tale and mythified the early Roman Republic to legitimate its domination of the Mediterranean. If the European Union wants effectively to create a stronger European identity, it will need common myths: the whole stock of ancient mythology is at its disposition, starting with the young heroine Europe.

And fifth and last point: myth is part of the human mind, even in these times when science reigns. Beside reason (logos) man has always myth in his mind as a way of perceiving reality. Any human society, in all times and places, sees the world largely through myth, and correspondingly, a myth is often far more expressive than rational argumentation (it can also be, therefore, dangerously misleading). For example, global visions of the future of mankind (true or false) need myth to assert themselves effectively: Huntingon’s Clash of Civilizations, or Fukuyama’s End of History, not to speak of the Marxist idea of the class struggle as motor of history, use the same language than Hesiod when he spoke of the decadence of man from the Golden Age; the Social Contract, the Sovereign State, the Invisible Hand of the Market, the Evolution, the Big Bang, they are all objective and scientific concepts which become nevertheless mythified in their global understanding; and modern figures like Winston Churchill (believed by 23% of the British population not to have existed) become myths comparable to Sherlock Holmes (believed by 58% to have existed): facts are not so important as perceptions for myth. And of course, all religious discourses have enormous mythical dimensions, because, as Plato realized, religion cannot be understood only through reason. Those are just examples of the way myth works in social perceptions. Yet in our times it is not always easy to differenciate myth from rational thought or bare facts. In ancient Greece we find myth in its pure essence, ready for us to observe clearly how mythical thought originates and becomes useful for philosophy, politics and art. To understand how our world thinks and acts the knowledge of Greek myth is just unavoidable.

Sometimes we tend to worry only about the present and the near future and dismiss the past as a dusty collection of vain curiosities. Yet we should not make that hoary mistake, for we will lose an indispeansable torch to illuminate our way. As Charles Peguy said: “there is nothing older than yesterday’s newpaper and Homer is always young”.

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