A myth is not a lie
If you look up the word “myth” in a dictionary, one of the definitions is “a lie.” How did this distortion come to past? How is it that a word that means something in specific got so twisted and misused that it now legitimately has a new definition? This is the way language seems to work: If enough people use a word in a certain context and ascribe a different meaning to it, the dictionary definition changes.
In protest, I am proclaiming that a myth is not a lie. And I am not alone in this, because Joseph Campbell, who is undoubtedly considered the king of kings in the realm of mythological studies, agrees. He famously said, “A myth is not a lie” in his interview with journalist Bill Moyers a few decades back.
Campbell said, ““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, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.”
The word mythos comes from the ancient Greeks and referred to an authoritative speech or a traditional story. But most of the explanations for myths, even from academic sources, seem to miss the point about the purpose of a myth, usually saying that myths explain things that are hard to explain, including natural phenomena and challenging situations. This still does not get to the core of myth’s overriding purpose.
What, then, is a myth? It is a special kind of story with a certain number of ingredients that make it poignant. More than poignant. A myth is a story that points the reader/listener back to her self, to see who the seer is, and to reflect on this seer in its manifold roles as a living being in consciousness. Thus, a myth is meant to convey a person from everyday life into the spiritual aspect of self and then to the heart of what they are. All myths have this capacity because all that exists arises out of us as the source of consciousness: What we see is a metaphor for ourselves. Myths, then, show us ourselves.
The best question to ask of any myth, whether it’s the story of Siddhartha who became the Buddha, or Indiana Jones who set off to find the Holy Grail, is “What does this have to do with me?”
There are plenty of great articles and talks about myth and mythology, so I won’t go into the details of the hero’s journey, plot points and arcs, metaphors, or archetypes. Instead, my message is that it would help a great deal if people stopped using the word “myth” in advertisements, blogs, articles, news reports, and conversation as if it were synonymous with the word “lie.” We wouldn’t want to dilute (or lose) the amazing potential of a myth to turn one’s life around, would we?