PERSPECTIVES ON MYTHS & SACRED TEXTS
DOES MAN NEED MYTHS? ARE MYTHS TRUE
MYTHS FOR THE 21st CENTURY
In 1988 Bill Moyers' THE POWER OF MYTH debuted on PBS. This six-part series of conversations with renowned scholar Joseph Campbell explored the enduring, universal themes expressed in mankind's oldest stories and examined their relevance for the modern world. Far from being lifeless, timeworn tales, Campbell told viewers, the ancient myths remain "clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life."
IT TAKES A VILLAGE 150 FLOODS
Eighteen years later, with FAITH & REASON, Moyers and his guests continue to mine those potentialities, turning a fresh eye to the illuminative and transformative power of myths, biblical tales, and other literature of faith. Contemporary writers owe a great deal to the fecundity of such stories, not only as treasure troves of plot and character but as meditations on the great questions of existence: life and death, good and evil, freedom and fate. Authors and artists are forever foraging in the mythological garden, reharvesting these tales, contemporizing them, breaking them down and interpreting them anew in an attempt to translate the beliefs and values into intelligible modern concepts.
Whether it's Jeanette Winterson discussing the loneliness and isolation of Atlas, David Grossman positing the biblical Samson as a metaphor for modern Israel, Anne Provoost probing the darker side of the Noah's Ark story, or Will Power reconstructing Aeschylus' SEVEN AGAINST THEBES as a DJ-fueled hip-hop opera, it is clear that our traditional parables and sacred stories continue to serve as valuable tools for writers seeking to understand the human condition and explore the mysteries of life.
DOES MAN NEED MYTHS?
It depends on who you ask. There are those like philosopher Colin McGinn who see myths as relief from the drudgery of mundane daily existence. "If you've been plowing the field all day and you're eating gruel and life is not very enjoyable and somebody starts telling you a story about these magnificent creatures doing all these wonderful things in myth or in religion, it gives you an escape from the ordinary world," he says. As for McGinn, rational philosophy offers a far more rewarding means of examining existence than stories of gods and monsters.
Still, many fiction writers will tell you, man is rarely a reasonable creature. He is complicated. He is consumed by irrational passions and uncontrollable urges, as well as by reason and logic. He is weak one moment and strong the next. He can be confused, villainous, heroic and kind at once. And it is in our ancient myths that many writers find the core of the human struggle to make sense of the world and to find one's role in short, a roadmap to the human psyche.
Margaret Atwood: "Myths lay out pretty clearly what is on the human smorgasbord: what we want, what we fear, what we would like to have, what we would very much not like to have. Those human fears and human desires really have not changed, and they're reflected in the myths that have been with us for a long time."
Anne Provoost: "Through mythology we are trying to define ourselves as humans next to this big concept-call it "God"-that we don't understand. The thunder, the lightening, the floods, the fires. We are, through history, bringing ourselves more and more to the foreground. So mythology is really about finding your own spot in your perception next to the gods."
Jeanette Winterson: "I look [at myths] to arrive at truth about the human condition, about myself, about how people live and die, about how they betray, about how they have sex, children, how they love their country, love others. You know, when you read about Medea and Jason, we know that there's basis to that story. She kills her brother, she leaves her country because she's in love with Jason.
Joseph Campbell: "These bits of information from ancient times [myths], which have to do with the themes that have supported man's life, built civilizations, informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage. And if you don't know what the guide signs are along the way you have to work it out yourself. "
Hear more from Joseph Campbell on the meaning of myths (7:26) or read the transcript (PDF), (DVD/VHS)
(back to top)
ARE MYTHS TRUE?
Nearly every culture on earth possesses its own set of mythic tales concerning the creation of the world and man's place in it. But why, in this age of science and reason, when the factual basis of most myths has been debunked, do these stories persist, continue to grow and evolve?
The author Tim O'Brien once wrote: "A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth." While most would not interpret myths as literal truth, those who study them tend to see in them a weighty metaphorical, archetypal truth, a truth about the unseen, ineffable dimensions of existence that lie outside the bounds of science and reason.
Jeanette Winterson: "In many ways … rationality, this dependency on logic and reason, has freed us from many cruel superstitions, many nameless terrors … But it's not sufficient. There is a mythic truth, which is an imaginative truth, an emotional truth, a way of understanding the world which is not about the facts and the figures, but which is nevertheless valid. And we need to have kind of a balance."
"We love to have things in polar opposition, don't we?" she says. "Black, white; good, evil; male, female. And reason, myth. And somewhere there has to be a way of bringing them together again. And [the solution] is probably if you accept both as genuine ways at arriving at truth but you don't privilege one above the other."
Bill Moyers [in conversation with Margaret Atwood]: "In church on Sunday, we sang an old hymn … with some contemporary words. And the words go, 'God, you spin the whirling planets, fill the seas and spread the plain, mold the mountains, fashion blossoms, call for the sunshine, wind, and rain.' Now, the scientists wouldn't have put it that way. The scientists would have said there is an explanation for why the planets whirl, for why the rain falls, for why the seas rise, for why the mountains form. But knowledge isn't enough for us. It's not enough to know why and how these things happen. We need the poetry, don't we?"
Richard Rodriguez: "Reason has a sister. She's very beautiful, but, she has a very ugly name. Her name is Unreason. And she's a friend of writers. She's been a friend of writers since the very beginning."
Joseph Campbell: "Mythology is not a lie. Mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words, beyond images. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told."
Hear more from Joseph Campbell (5:30) or read the transcript (PDF) (DVD/VHS)
(back to top)
MYTHS FOR THE 21st CENTURY
Hip-hop artist and playwright Will Power recently staged a production of Aeschylus' SEVEN AGAINST THEBES. Like most other modern writers dealing with ancient myths, he was confronted with the task of contemporizing the play without sacrificing its core message.
"These Greek tragedies dealt with these human themes that I feel we're still struggling with," he says. "But how do I make that bridge [to] today's society so that someone like myself, or someone younger, will be able to connect with it?"
His solution? Oedipus became a down-in-the-mouth street hustler; his warrior son Eteocles, a mounted inner-city policeman; and the traditional chorus was replaced by a DJ. With his updated retelling of the Greek classic, Power was carrying on a tradition or reinvention paralleling the efforts of several other FAITH & REASON guests that has kept myths alive for thousands of years.
Margaret Atwood: "[Myths] only remain relevant because people keep retelling them. If nobody ever told them again in any other way, their meaning would become obsolete."
Jeanette Winterson: "There is the sense in which you will always steal and take for yourself the things that you need. But then you also bring them back into the light. You dust them down and then you put them out again for people to find in a different way. [Myths] need to stay fluid, they need to keep moving, they need to be dynamic. And that's why we can go on retelling them, so that what is valuable is passed on from generation to generation, across time, through cultures."
Joseph Campbell: "Myth must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are artists of one kind or another. The function of the artist is the mtyhologization of the environment and the world."
Like Power, playwright Mary Zimmerman several years ago staged a modern interpretation of Ovid's METAMORPHOSIS on Broadway, replete with an on-stage swimming pool. Says Zimmerman, "We've always liked to tell stories, and stories keep continuing, and narrative always continues. Even though we die, these stories continue and sort of tie us together."
Hear more from Mary Zimmerman (20:28) or read the transcript.
(back to top)
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Myths have always served not only to enlighten the individual but to tie entire communities together by expressing the values and beliefs at the heart of society and reaffirming individuals' links to one another. In an important sense, myths are the collective symbolic history of cultures, the repositories of their deepest ideals and aspirations.
Margaret Atwood: "Stories that we call myths aren't just any old stories. For instance, there's lots of other kinds of stories. There's jokes, and there's animal fables and things. And there's what happened to Bill when his tractor went into the pond. Those kind of anecdotal stories. Myths are usually more important to a culture. They are stories around which the culture revolves. And on which it builds all sorts of other beliefs and activities."
Will Power: "What is mythology to me? A myth is a story that holds in it the values and the culture and the rhythm and the vibrations of a people, you know?"
In another of Bill Moyers' landmark series, YOUR MYTHIC JOURNEY, philosopher Sam Keen touched on similar ideas, highlighting the importance of telling stories for the community rather than the individual: "If you write your story only for yourself, there will be important parts left out, because audience shapes our story too. If I tell my story to you, it's going to be very different than if I tell it to myself in private. Storytelling is a communal act. It requires community and it created community. It's not isolate, it is not something an individual does."
Read the transcript (PDF) (DVD/VHS)
In 1988 Nigerian author Chinua Achebe spoke with Bill Moyers of the political and social relevance of the storyteller:
"There's a limit to what storytelling can achieve. We're not saying that a poet can stop a battalion with a couple of lines of his poetry. But there are other forms of power. The storyteller appeals to the mind, and appeals ultimately to generations and generations and generations." --Chinua Achebe
Hear more from Chinua Achebe (26:01) or read the transcript (PDF) (DVD/VHS)(back to top)
As Joseph Campbell and other folklorists and anthropologists have noted, similar myths pop up again and again in disparate cultures-some societies can be on opposite ends of the globe from one another, yet their stories and legends will inevitably make use of some of the same symbols, themes, and motifs. Indeed, author Anne Provoost, who has written a retelling of the Noah's Ark story, notes that "almost every culture has a mythological story of flood." Indeed, there are more 150 ancient flood myths that have been documented around the world. (See Flood Myths for a list.)
Joseph Campbell: "One explanation [for these similarities] is that the human psyche is essentially the same all over the world … [and] out of this common ground have come what Jung has called the archetypes, which are the common ideas of myths.
Hear more from Joseph Campbell (3:52) on cross-cultural stories or read the transcript (PDF) (DVD/VHS)
Remarking on the universality of mythological symbols, Mexican-American writer Gregory Nava discussed the similarities between the myths of his childhood and others belief systems in his 2002 conversation with Bill Moyers: "The incarnation of the word in flesh exists also in pre-Columbian mythology in the form of the god Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. So the feathered serpent has often been compared to Christ, but the feathered serpent can also be compared to Buddha because, like Buddha, everybody can become a feathered serpent if they reach a certain point of enlightenment."
Hear more from Gregory Nava (19:00) or read the transcript.
(back to top)