Do “myths” still apply to modern society?
Can people in today’s culture continue to believe in “myths?”
What is a “myth?”
The online Oxford English Dictionary defines “myth” as: “a traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.” The origins of cultures and the ways that societies would define themselves often relied on myths and the ideas they represented and explained. Each culture had its own set of mythological beliefs and redefined myth for its own use and then relied on the telling of myths to sustain its cultural beliefs.
Myths relate to cultures through the idea that they set the boundaries for what is acceptable to believe in. Myths give us the ability to find others who believe in the same myth and forge a connection over that shared belief.
Written for the Scientific Journal of Humanistic Studies, Adina Bodrogean’s article “Myths and Values in Action in the Literature of English Language,” refers to mythsas a “reflection of man’s experiences.” As human experience changes, so do the myths and the interpretation and beliefs that go along with the myth. Bodrogean poses that the ideas based in myths are deeply intertwined within cultures and only survive if they change and alter along with the beliefs supported by the culture.
The idea that myths change over time will allow for its survivalinto the future; but only in forms that the society can support.
Even though the word “myth” only came into usage in the 1800s, the idea has existed since cultures and societies began trying to define themselves and the natural world around them. Myths often began as a way for cultures to explain creation and give a purpose to our existence, but would often morph over time to fill in for what phenomenon needed to be explained. Each culture has its own distinct ways of explaining how or why it existed as well as to define natural occurrences. Myths are often used to set parameters for a culture, as a way to define which culture is which, and to give people a way of identifying each society.
Over time, the myths we see as valid as well as the types we tell have changed, aligning themselves with the change in culture as well as belief systems. Jeremiah, a 21-year-old graduate student from Pittsburgh, defines “myth” as a “collective story that set the general framework for how we structured our culture.” He also went on to explain that while some people still put stock in myths of older cultures, those are considered to be conservative and people are constantly looking for new myths, by which they can define themselves. On the other hand, Melissa, a 19-year-old from New Fairfield, defines myth as “a story of origin for a culture.” She believes that those myths still exist, but they just evolve with the times. While both interviewees define a myth as some basis for a culture, it is in the evolution of the myths that the opinions differ. While Jeremiah believes that myths are created based upon what society needs to see or needs to explain, Melissa believes that the myths we see today are just evolved versions of the myths of other, older, cultures.
A myth today stands for something different than it did when it was first told. When a myth was first told it was the definition of the occurrence, it was not the aspect that needed to be defined, as it served as a definition. Today, as the belief in myth has changed, so has the definition. Today a myth has become known as a fictional or unbelievable occurrence, like the existence of Santa, which for each individual has come to stand for or mean something slightly different. Over time the definition of a myth has become more personal.
Corina Daba-Buzoianu and Cristina Cîrtiţă-Buzoianu, in their paper “Myths Beyond and Throughout History. A Study on Traditional and Modern Myths,” which was published in the Scientific Journal Of Humanistic Studies, showcases the differences between traditional and modern myths, and defines the concept as “myths…establish new exemplary models in order to give meaning to man’s actions and in order to reply to man’s fear and dreams.” In their study, Daba-Buzoianu and Cîrtiţă-Buzoianu cite the idea that myths can be studied as something or some idea that is very old, but never as something or some idea that is eternal. One of the reasons given for myths not being eternal is that the implication would be that all of history is then just a continuous repeating of myths as they are inherited from past cultures.
Myths were often seen as the solutions to the problems that seemed as though they had no answers. When there was, and sometimes still are, problems, or phenomena, that seem to defy explanation a myth was put forth to be the answer to the problem. These do not always have to make sense to us as an outsider to the problem, but a myth can be shaped or molded to fit different types of problems, to fulfill the need for an explanation.
Not only do cultures need to support the myths for them to continue to survive, but the myths also need to support the culture for the beliefs to continue into the future. This reciprocal relationship allows for the progression of the myths and the sustainability of the value of the myths.
Even today the form of mythwe believe in has drastically changed from its original meaning. Words and their definitions have to evolve over time, or they will be fazed out of everyday language and become obsolete. In his essay, “Myth In History,” from History and Theory, Jeffery Barash writes: “conceptions of myth are closely related to their respective assumptions concerning the historical significance of myth and regarding the sense of history…” By being able to link myths back to history, we are able to see where they may go in the future, and how they may change. The mythof Santa can relate back to this idea, as how we perceive what he stands for has changed, so too has how the idea of Santa is held with each individual and their culture.
This doesn’t mean that myths will be eliminated from our cultures or from how we explain what we believe. It means that as our needs to explain what we see around us change, the way we tell and present our myths change as well. There is no doubt that myths will continue to exist in the future, but the capacity to which they influence society will change. The fact that we are gradually relying less and less on stories and mythsshows that we are moving toward a culture that looks to answer all doubts with facts rather than some type of belief.
Lane Wallace, who writes for The Atlantic, wrote an article, “Changing Our Cultural Myths.” Wallace describes a myth as the “kind of glue that simultaneously helps to bond disparate people together into a unified whole and also helps explain and give order to a sometimes chaotic and confusing world.” Wallace cites the writer Alan Brinkley, who wrote an autobiography on the founder of Life, Time, and Fortune magazines, Henry Luce, and discovered that Luce helped to shape the myths that represented the era in which they were founded. The myths that were portrayed during this era showed an almost idyllic want for the time. This was a time that was “blighted by Depression, prejudice, social turmoil and the shadow of war," and these myths that were created by what society wanted to see allowed for a simplification of life. Wallace writes that “life is almost invariably messier and more complex than the myths or ideals portray it.” But isn’t that the point of myths, to simplify explanations? No matter what the myth represents it has always been used to simplify a reasoning of a belief or give a complex idea a simple explanation. Over time this should not change, but the way myths are explained and the types of ideas myths that are believed in will change as we go into the future, as that is the aspect of myth that has always changed.
Defining a myth is not just about what the tale or story says but also what it represents. A myth is some type of story that gives an explanation but serves to give a society and culture some idea or way of thinking, about the concepts they could not yet explain, to believe in. Today many do not believe in myths as the word was originally defined. However, today people still refer to myths and the qualities that were associated with myths in every day life, giving credibility to those myths that were used to explain the unexplainable.
A myth can represent different ideas to different people, not every person is going to interpret the myth in the same way. Myths don’t just explain why the natural phenomenon occurs to those who didn’t understand, but they serve to give a reason for why people or animals act or seem to act the way they do. Myths explain and give people an idea to believe in when there is something or some aspect of nature or their culture they want to explain. Each ancient culture has some type of myth or mythological belief system, and each is different, but still served to explain the same phenomena.
One person’s myth or legend is another’s cultural belief. The value that people place on myths depends on the perspective they have of the belief themyth represents. The value of a myth can and does change drastically over time. The importance of myths fluctuates over time as those who believe in the myths either have some other influence that changes their belief or another myth comes along that better satisfies the culture. We, as a culture, can give amyth validity as well as strip away believability and credibility from stories we decide are outdated or no longer serve to explain the phenomena they once did.
In the article “What is Myth?” by Professor Mary Magoulick, in her textbook, the value of myth is described as changing throughout time. As people and the cultural beliefs they follow change, so do the mythsthey believe in. Value changes because the culture forces it to change. As people and their theories outgrow “old” myths, new or altered versions of the myth, form to take its place. Magoulick refers to older, as well as ancient myths, like the myths of creation, to show that they are still in existence today, just in a different capacity than they were originally.
What once stood for a story that defined a system of beliefs or ideals now stands for something that cannot be believed, or must be questioned in some fashion. The believability of stories has come into question and as we venture further into the future we are relying more on what we can tangibly believe in, what we can actually prove and see. This reflects how our society is changing, and how our beliefs must change with the ideals put forth by people, or they will be left behind and forgotten about.
The value we place on myths declines as we get older, and we often seem to almost grow out of the myth. As people grow up the idea of a loss of innocence is referenced, and that often goes along with the maturing of beliefs. Whether or not we need to still believe in someone like Santa Claus is debatable, but we need to somehow support the idea that there is someone out there who is full of good. But as we grow up Santa Claus becomes a less valuable way of explaining or believing in someone with those characteristics. As we get older, our need to explain happenings gets more sophisticated and the reasoning we once believed in is no longer valid. What we can no longer believe in is decided by society, and that forces us, as we grow up, to look at what we believe in and question the value of that belief. For example, we can continue to believe in the idea of Santa, as we grow up, and what he represents, but not the reality of a Santa.
For me, a myth represents a story that served to provide an explanation for whatever event or characteristic could not be explained, or a way to describe how a culture came to exist. The way a culture defines itself can be told from how the myths of the culture define what happens, and how the culture exists within those myths. Even though over time the definition of a myth has not really changed, the way a myth is represented has, allowing for the progression of the word through time and cultures.
Myths by definition seem to challenge today’s common thinking. Myths, which were once conventional thinking in society, have been phased out to defying common sense and conventional thinking. Myths over time have gone through a shift in perspective. What were once considered to be common explanations and reasonable explanations have become a challenge to the new versions of common thought and conventional thinking.
As each culture is different, we cannot assume that myths are just simply handed down, but they do in fact change with the times to fit each specific culture. For me, myths are something we need in order to survive. If we have no fairytale to believe in, where do we get our sense of wonder and amazement? To believe in something that has no real explanation is hard, but that is where we learn who we are and what we want to believe. Our beliefs are our own, and we don’t have to take others’ ideas and force them to fit into our lives, but rather shape them into what we need and create a myth that fits our own lives.
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