To most the term “myth” has been confused for a legend or folklore. The truth of the matter is however, that to religious scholars, a myth is more than just a story; a myth is how a society’s religion came to explain what seemed the inexplicable. With modern science booming and being capable of explaining the events that our ancestors could not, there has been a mix up on the term “myth” and on the function that it plays in the religious backbone.
As a scientist, when I hear the word myth or that something is simply a myth, I understand that as being false or completely untrue; or, when people in south America are told the horrendous story of the “chupa cabra” that is simply disregarded as a “myth,” a folklore invented by someone who may have seen an animal they did not know and simply disguised it as a monster. The reality of the matter however, is that, scholarly, a myth is as true as anything else can be. This does not necessarily mean that when one hears the story of the great flood it literally means that god flooded the entire world.
A myth can be based on historical facts or none at all; the facts are not what make a myth true but it is the story that inspired it and the content of it. A myth is simply a metaphorical poem telling a story that explains the human encounter with the unknown. This is where the religious aspect ties in with the scholarly view of myths. Every religion has it’s own story or “myth” on how the universe was created, how humans came to be, where life came from, and so on. These stories show a kind of relationship with the supernatural and the mortal beings.
Myths began as stories that were told by word of mouth; eventually however, they began to be written and in a religion’s sacred writings. From these written down myths, the teachers or the wise from each religion can interpret the metaphorical story that has been passed down from older generations of that religion and enlighten those who follow it. The importance of myths is how it functions and plays a role in a particular religion and society. Joseph Campbell was a mythologist and a writer. He believed that myth was in fact non-fiction and that it played a great role in how it functioned with religion and beliefs.
He wrote The Hero’s Journey where he outlined four major components that gave a function to myths. These were that, first myths produce a mystical function, myths also have a cosmological function, myths posses a sociological function, and finally myths have a psychological function according to joseph Campbell. The mystical function of myth is meant to keep the believer in awe and be able to experience first hand the power of the divine through the story. The stories are meant to engage the listener or reader so that they can relate to an extent beyond their comprehension.
This function places the believer in a humble state when the realization of how miniscule they are compared to their “god. ” The mystical function unites the believer with the “transcendent reality” to which they originated from. This function is meant to instill a sense of faith to that which cannot be directly seen but is felt when engaged in the story. The cosmological function of myth is one that can be seen less in our advanced society due to all the scientific research that has discredited many of the sacred texts’ stories on creation and many other subjects the divine.
For example, the Christian myth about the Garden of Eden, Adam, Eve, and the forbidden tree could once have been seen as factually true. With modern science as an ally, we are no longer confined to that story as an explanation to our beginnings. The cosmological function however is meant to do just that, narrate a divine story that explains that which inexplicable at the time the story was created. The third function of myths is the sociological function; this function of myths can be trivial and sometimes twisted and turned for a select group’s own benefit.
Not only do the metaphorical stories told in myth explain how the world functions or came to be per say, but also they leave teachings of social order and divine order. An example of this can be seen in the Bible where homosexuality is said to be an “abomination. ” This type of lesson leads the believers in straying away from that sort of behavior because their god frowns upon it. The sociological function is also meant to build a better society by instilling a sense of morals, ethics, and customs upon the people.
The problem with this type of function arises when zealots begin to use the rules and orders set in their sacred texts to their selfish needs and neglect the rest. The final function of myths is that they possess a psychological function and this may perhaps be the most important one of the set. This functions links the believer with him/herself and helps them with internal struggles they may have at some point by being able to relate to a “hero” in the mythological story.
Such hero can be seen in the story of Lot found in the bible; Lot faced many hardships and struggles because god was testing his faith through them. Once his struggles were through and god saw that Lot did not lose faith in him, Lot was rewarded in multiple amounts to more than what he had before his hardships. This kind of story tells the believer that no matter what they might be going through they are being tested for a greater purpose. This is the type of self lesson that the psychological function of myths posses.
The term “myth” is a term that is thrown around very loosely in our society to describe something that may be untrue or with a fictitious background. As discussed, the term is much more than that and has some truth to it. Stories in myths were told as metaphors and had truthful insights and lessons behind them. Myths serve a mystical, cosmological, social, and psychological function that allows believers to relate to the stories in a much different level. A divine level perhaps. Myths connect the believer to their divine entity, to the society they are living in, and to themselves.