A tragic example is the myth of Aryan supremacy espoused by Nazism, which led to the murdering of Jews , Gypsies, and others during the Second World War. It is a common mistake to interpret a given myth in the light of one's culture and not within its own. Religious entrenchment, based on specific mythic narratives, often leads to disastrous social and political consequences. Myths can be understood as humanity's first attempt to interpret and understand natural phenomena. As such, they can legitimately be considered as science's ancestors.
In particular, there is an all-pervasive, cross-cultural need to understand the origin of human beings and of the world. These myths, called creation myths, are part of every culture, past and present. In the West, the most familiar is that narrated in the biblical book of Genesis , which attributes the origin of the world and of its beings to God. The vast majority of creation myths follow similar lines, in that they credit the existence of the world to the action of a god, goddess, or several gods.
These myths fall in a category where time had a specific start in the past, the moment of creation. Still within this category, there are myths that claim the universe originated spontaneously out of chaos, without divine intervention, while others, such as the Maoris of New Zealand , claim it appeared out of nothing. Other creation myths, such as those from the Jains of India , say the universe has always existed and will always exist, while others, like the Hindus, believe the universe is created and destroyed in an eternal succession of cycles.
The same basic concerns with nature and its impact on human existence that are addressed by mythic narratives play a crucial role in the development of science. Questions that were once the exclusive province of religion, such as the origin of the world, the origin of life, and the origin of mind, are now subjects of intensive scientific research.
It is possible to trace a gradual, albeit not continuous, transition from the mythic to the scientific discourse. The first rupture with a purely religious description of nature is attributed to the pre-Socratic philosophers, who flourished in Greece during the sixth and fifth centuries b. For the first time, it is possible to identify an effort to answer questions about nature through natural causation mechanisms, as opposed to supernatural ones. This tendency continued with Plato and Aristotle , although both included supernatural elements in their schemes of the world.
The Demiurge, for Plato, was a cosmic intelligence, responsible for the rational design of the world; the Unmoved Mover, for Aristotle, was the first cause of motion, the world's primal dynamic impulse. As we move on to the Renaissance and the development of modern science, influences from Greek thought, combined with Christian theology, are clearly present in the works of several natural philosophers, including Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton.
Their task was to translate God's natural creations to humanity, using reason as the common language. The oral and verbal narratives of myths were increasingly substituted by mathematical descriptions of natural phenomena. The very success of the physical sciences served to distance the scientist from the theologian; as humanity learned more about nature through reason, a smaller role was attributed to God and the supernatural in the workings of the world.
Today, science is widely perceived as the antithesis of religion: In a world of reason, there is no place for God and the supernatural. This polarized view of science and religion leads to much confusion. Although it is often argued that there is no place for religion in the modern scientific discourse, it is also true that science cannot completely distance itself from its mythic roots. One of the strengths of science is its universality: A theory or explanation accepted by the scientific community will be correct for every scientist, irrespective of religious creed, nationality, or political stance.
However, science comes from individuals who are often motivated by esthetic values. Concepts such as symmetry, harmony, simplicity, order, or mathematical elegance are a major driving force of the scientific creative process. Their origin can be traced back to the need to decode the workings of nature, as was first done through myths. Myths are tales of unknown origin handed down by tradition, sometimes orally and sometimes by written word. The stories are set in a primordial period during which the order of the present world is established. They tell the story of the origin of the world, of human beings and animal species, of death, and of the relationship between man and supernatural beings.
Until the fifth century BCE, the Greek word mythos was a synonym for logos word. For better or worse, Western mythology inherited this opposition between rational thought and mythical thought. When ethnologists realized that the social organizations of the peoples they studied were significantly related to their mythologies, they helped move the study of myths from the impasse that nineteenth-century authors had become stuck in. Studying native American myths in their own terms, he demonstrated that they are transformations of each other and that their different codes express an underlying logical structure.
Freud related psychoanalytic theory to mythology in the broad sense of the term myths, tales, sayings, jokes : "It is extremely probable that myths, for instance, are distorted vestiges of the wishful fantasies of whole nations, the secular dreams of youthful humanity," Freud wrote in p.
In Karl Abraham developed this idea in Dreams and myths by showing that myths use the same mechanisms as dreams figuration, condensation, displacement, and secondary revision , and that they are the realization of desires. They can therefore be interpreted in the same way as dreams see Otto Rank , , For them, mythical time, the time of the primordial ancestors, is "dream time. Jean-Paul Valabrega , , devotes considerable attention to the epistemological question of the relation between myths and the unconscious, between myths and fantasy. For Valabrega, myths, which are neither individual nor collective, tend to metamorphose as shown by the many different versions available yet remain eternal and perpetually regenerate, in both respects like the unconscious.
Myth and Philosophy in Platonic Dialogues
Moreover, myths are related to fantasies in that they both represent. Myths are made from the stuff of fantasies, and fantasies are made from the stuff of myths: there is a circular relationship between them in which neither is primary. There is also his use of mythical figures like Narcissus, Eros, and Thanatos. The loose use of the term myth , encouraged if not created by Roland Barthes 's work , is more a matter of ideology. This usage, Valabrega claims, preserves the "function of myths" and the "structure of symptoms. Abraham, Karl. Dreams and myths: A study in race psychology William A.
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Original work published Paris: Gallimard. Introduction to a science of mythology vols. The myth of the birth of the hero: A psychological interpretation of mythology F. Robbins and Smith Ely Jelliffe, Trans. New York: R. The Don Juan legend. The gates of the dream. New York: International Universities Press. Valabrega, Jean-Paul. In Aulagnier, Piera, et al. Paris: Seuil. Paris: Payot. Topique, 50 , La formation du psychanalyste. Mythes, conteurs de l'inconscient: Questions d'origine et de fin. Paris: Payot et Rivages. Hartocollis, Peter, and Graham, I.
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The personal myth. Journal of the American Psychoanalysis Association , 4 , Millar, David. A psychoanalytic view of biblical myth. International Journal of Psychoanalysis , 82 , Myth Gk.
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Narrations through which amongst much else religious affirmations and beliefs are expressed. In popular usage, especially in the media, myth has become synonymous with falsehood. Yet in religions, myths are simply the means whereby individual biographies are located in stories of a more extensive kind—e. Because many myths appear to be about putative matters of fact e. The truth is far more complex. Myths are frequently distinguished from legends and folk-tales by the way in which they offer explanations. No matter how remote from history myths may be though some are clearly rooted in historical events; and historical events can take on the heightened characteristics of mythology—e.
In particular, myth places individual biographies and local events in a larger context which supplies them with meaning and significance. Myth endures because it engages human attention at the extremes of terror and delight; and also because it illuminates, and is illuminated by, ritual. Myth is so pervasive and recurrent that it is clearly a human universal.
In what way it is a universal and is thus able to bear, as it does, the weight of human biography, is open to widely different interpretations—of which only some examples can be given here. Perhaps most obviously, Jung was fascinated by the recurrence of stories, symbols, etc. He concluded that myths arise from the universal and underlying collective unconscious, biologically inherited and born anew in each individual.
These profound, brain-stored archetypes are dynamic, not passive, manifesting timeless patterns and dramas of human existence in individual experience. Freud equally set myth in the formation of the psyche, but related it to the recapitulation of those primordial situations of conflict which made sexuality so dominant in his theory.
Beyond that, he regarded myth as related to dream: in dreams, we can escape the constraints of hard reality, and become as poets or artists, for whom all things are possible. Art is a public dream, and myth is verbalized art. They become meaningful only in relation to other elements.
Highway to Modernity
Others, however, have felt that it is the content of myth, not some underlying structure, which reveals universal human preoccupations. Myths make connection with this real and sacred time: myths are themselves sacred for that reason; they are exemplary, offering models of approved and disapproved behaviour; and they are significant, pointing out similarities in existential situations and exhibiting the meaning of otherwise random events. Joseph Campbell also emphasized the importance of content in understanding myth. He argued that myth serves four functions: mystical evoking awe and gratitude , cosmological providing models of the cosmos which are coherent with the sense of the numinous , sociological supporting the existing social order , and psychological initiating individuals into their own potentialities, especially in the domain of the spirit.
Myth, far from returning to the past, transforms the present. In the 19th cent. Myth was thus a positive term for Strauss ; and, as the culmination of this process, Wagner sought to create especially in Parsifal a myth which would bear the weight of human questions beyond those which physics can answer, and beyond though incorporating the impoverished or inadequate myths of existing religions.