“13 myths that you believed that are totally busted”. “The 10% brain theory is just a myth!”. “Was Jesus just a myth?”.
Just. A. Myth. A popular phrase bandied about by newscasters, skeptics and well, just about everyone really. Three words meant to debunk, disprove and hammer-the-final-nail-in-the-coffin-of stories or ideas that we have gullibly belived to be true.
Armed with the power of Just A Myth rational thinkers around the globe strive to shed light on the remaining darkened corners of human existence and beliefs. Like snide crusaders of the Enlightenment they hunt for the last crawling vestiges of primitive thinking, pull them out into the break of dawn, and behold! These false beliefs doth turn to stone, unable to withstand the critical and all-perceiving glare of the Sun (which really is a misnomer, as this is a reflection of the old belief that our home star was a different entity than the other stars scattered across the sky, and when I say scattered I of course do not mean that literally; to imply that someone scattered the stars in the first place is just a myth; but still the idea remains embedded in our language – now it’s more an attempt at a poetic term, and by the way – “star” is maybe a bad word to use as the first image that comes to mind when I say “star” is the internationally accepted symbol; a small shining fixture with five equidistant points best suited for a wizard’s robe; not the actual incandescent mind-blowing ginormous fusion reactors of gas which do dot the Universe. And when I say “dot”…).
All that remains is the stone itself, a monument to the pursuit of truth, with the solemn epitaph: “Just a Myth.”
In the current political climate, where the phenomenon of fake news are on everyone’s lips and the Oxford Dictionary recently coined Post-truth as the word of the year 2016, the need for quote-unquote myth-busting seems to be more pressing than ever. And to a certain extent, I agree. Yet I would also argue that in times like these, the need for myth (in a true sense of the word) and a mythical understanding and perspective of the world are necessary for our very survival.
Myth vs. Fact – a false dichotomy
In popular speech, a myth has become synonymous with falsehood, something that is demonstrably untrue in the sense that it will not bear up to scientific scrutiny. And the myths of yore, the stories of Odin and Thor, of Vishnu and Shiva, of Jehovah and Jesus, are in this context old and outdated explanation models for the cosmos, replaced by the set of yet-to-be-falsified hypotheses making up our current worldview.
But I would argue that myths and facts are not enemies, in fact they never were. Myths do not belong to the realm of lies and untruths, they are approximations of truth through the medium of fiction. Just as hypotheses (aka facts) are approximations of truth through the medium of scientific thought. And sometimes what actually happened in a historical sense and what mythically happened (how it is remembered for posterity, because this can never represent objective truth to a fault no matter how hard we try) can complement each other in the same way as the left and right hemispheres of our brains complement each other. Logic and analysis locked in an eternal tango with intuition and symbolism. It does not mean that one is false and the other true. They are both part of the same picture.
To elaborate further, I have invited the tryzub (stage left).
Factually, the tryzub is an old symbol of Ukraine. It is believed to be an old tribal sign, brought to the region by Rurik, a legendary Scandinavian chieftain who is the mythical progenitor (possibly also actual, but we just don’t factually know, yet he remains the symbolic incarnation of the Scandinavians intermingling with local Slavs at the time) of Kievan Rus, the first Slavic state in history and the fabled starting point of both Ukrainians AND Russians.
That aside, what I find important about the tryzub, is what it represents. When I travelled to Ukraine in 2008, my friend and local guide told me that it is an image of the two complementary aspects of existence – reality and imagination. In the tryzub they mirror each other, separate yet joined. They are part of the same picture. They are equals. And together they create the world.
Then again, a quick search on the Internet, reveals a host of different interpretations – it is also claimed to be:
- a symbol of the Christian trinity – The Son, The Father and The Holy Ghost
- a symbol of Ukrainian nationalism
- a symbol of Runvira – the reformed slavic pagan religion of Ukraine
- a representation of the word воляa (freedom)
- a harsh reminder of genocide (Ukrainian nationalists wearing the Tryzub killed hundreds of thousands of Poles during WWII)
- a twin to the Vedic symbol Tryzul representing Shiva
And this is the nature of symbols – they do not have to represent only one thing, that belongs to the realm of facts. Mythically speaking, the tryzub is all these things. In the same way as the swastika both represents the horrors of Nazism and the harmony of Buddhism (and incidentally Jainism, Hindusim etc. etc. etc.).
Myth does not deal in reductionism and absolutes. It is by its very nature always open to interpretation. Myth has no borders, but plenty of doorways. But it’s sometimes hard to fully grasp and see the value of this perspective, because our culture (at least the culture of what we popularly, and might I say, mythically, term The West) has had a left brain bent ever since the Greeks.
Myths of our time
And here I would interject: This inability to grasp and embody mythical thinking on the same level as scientific thinking, to value them as equals, make us blind to the actual myths that inform and shape our lives. What myths are those? In this instance, I am not thinking of the mythologies of the past, nor of false and disprovable beliefs about the nature of reality. But aspects of our life and culture that we take for granted, which are true, but not necessarily factually (as in, unchangeably) true.
Take for instance, the myth of scarcity. The idea that the world can not sustain us. This is a belief which is reinforced in the way we relate to the world. The idea that we can not be sustained by the world leads us to live unsustainable lives. Leads to fear, anxiety and an acceptance of inequalities. That some can have and some can not. Part of this mythical idea is also that we are not enough in ourselves, that we can never have enough. This is not demonstrably false, it is a perspective. And by choosing to believe it, we live our lives as if it is true, thus making it, for all intents and purposes, true.
If enough people change their beliefs, we change our myth. We see the world differently, we believe in different things, we change our behaviour to relate to what we believe is possible.
Another related example is the myth of money. We are living under the mythic impression that money represents value. There is no objectively true base for this, it is a system based entirely on widespread subjective belief. Originally bank notes and coins were connected to a gold and/or silver standard, but even the transactional value of precious metals has no real base in objective, observable reality. Generations upon generations of imagination and shared belief have crystallized into the seemingly hard fact of the monetary system.
Does this mean that the monetary system is a lie? That it is “Just a Myth”? No. Though I would argue that it is a myth, in the sense that it is a current collective truth based on shared beliefs that informs and shapes our lives. So much so, that we are unable to imagine a world without it.
That is, until we do.
The evolution of humanity is not only an evolution in our appreciation and understanding of facts, it is also an evolution in the mythical constructs that frame our ideas of the world and our place in it. Our current predicament with regards to rising conflict levels, climate change and our metaphoric incessant rape of the very world which sustains us can be understood through a host of mythical lenses. One of them is the Old Testament idea of Man as a steward of the Earth, set apart from all the other creatures and plants as something superior, an image of God. This idea is still alive today, even if it has been divorced from its original source.
Another ancient myth that still colours our modern-day perceptions is the age-old “God’s Chosen People(TM)”-story – the idea that one ethnicity, or religion, or any kind of group, has more inherent worth than anyone else. This is a myth which has survived from the time of the earliest clan societies, when life really was about “Us” and “Them”. In the Western hemisphere, there was an attempt to shift this story on a mythical level some 2000 years ago. Which brings me to…
To quote the ingress; “Was Jesus just a myth?”. I think the question makes no sense. It is self-evident that the story of Jesus is a myth. The story of Jesus is a myth no matter if Jesus was an actual historical figure or not. The story as handed down to us, in a plethora of different amended forms, all claiming to be closer to an unattainable truth of what actually happened, are all mythically true.
No matter how different, there is one core idea that’s preserved in almost all the different stories of Jesus – he claims to be the Son of God and takes the sins of humanity upon him during the crucifixion. And as a final exercise in this article, I would like to present a (by no means non-exhaustive) list of different ways to interpret this idea in a mythical light.
1.) The Classical Interpretation
According to an earlier myth, Man is inherently sinful, because we could not resist the knowledge of good and evil, or to put it differently, opposites. In so doing, we polarized our world and descended to a lower layer of existence. In His Infinite Concern for our well-being, our Divine Father took on human form (or appeared on Earth as an aspect of the Trinity that is Him) and ushered in a new age and a new testament by being the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, hoovering up man’s collective sin and promising that all who believe in Him, will be saved from sin. A focus on loving thy neighbour and finding salvation which after some turns of the wheel mostly ended up as “Let the small children come unto me or else…”.
The classical interpretation of Christian doctrine and as such the core mythology of historical Christianity is still, like all the Abrahamic religions, a version of the mythical framework “God’s Chosen People(TM)”. We are representatives of pure good, while the infidel, the Other, is either evil or ignorant. It’s our way or the highway. The loving message of Christ tends to become occluded by this prevalent idea.
Comedian Bill Hicks (RIP) makes a fair point – why do Christians wear crosses around their necks instead of fish?
But does the cross represent something more than just an instrument of torture? What does the Scripture tell us? An individual, an avatar of God, The Divine made Flesh decided to sacrifice himself to himself, by allowing himself to be nailed to a cross. Another divinity close to my home, Odin, decided to do the same. He hung himself upside down on Yggdrasil, the World Tree, for nine days as a sacrifice of himself to himself. Traditionally a cross is seen as a meeting point between the horizontal axis of the divine and the vertical axis of the mundane. An axis mundi, just like the World Tree. In a way, Jesus hanging on the cross could be seen as symbolic of human existence. A creative principle of love and light stuck in suffering to the axis of the world. Any idol or symbol you pray to is a reflection of something in you. What does Christ represent in you? How are you nailed to your cross?
3.) The Age of Pisces
Psychoanalyst and avuncular maverick C.G. Jung postulated an astrological theory based on the precession of the equinoxes through the signs of the Zodiac. Roughly 2000 years ago, around the birth of Christ, the Sun moved in front of the constellation of Pisces at the vernal equinox.
According to his theory, this marked the beginning of the Age of Pisces and a shift in human consciousness, symbolified by the myth of the birth of Christ. The secret symbol of a follower of Christ in the early years was the fish. As Ichthus, the greek word for fish, was a hidden acronym for Iesous CHristos THeos Uiou Soter – Jesus Christ God Son Saviour.
On another level, the fish is often seen as a messenger from the deep blue sea of our unconscious. Something that was hidden comes to the fore in the Age of Pisces. The preceding Age of Aries had a focus on development of reason, Logos, patriarchal structures, and the male heroic ego. In the Age of Pisces, whose constellation is imagined as two fish circling eachother, the importance of balance between mind and heart is stressed. And of letting go of the attachment to the Ego. Jesus and Buddha were but two of the harbingers of this new age. This mythical idea gives us a sense and a roadmap of the development of human consciousness and civilization and a hope of progression.
4.) West and East
Christianity is, to all intents and purposes, a predominantly Western religion in expression and scope. Generally speaking, if you look at the development of Western vs. Eastern structures, western literature, society and art are often based on individual expression, dialogue and finding answers together. Whereas in the East there seems to be a greater value placed in collectives and obedience to a higher authority, both in structures and in literature. One of the core myths of the Western hemisphere is the story of Christ. God, the Highest Authority, became human. One of us. The Word became Flesh. The Sacred is not something unattainable and far away, but something ordinary, in the here-and-now. From this perspective, the story of Jesus is a mythical umbrella for the developments of the West.
5.) Christ Consciousness
According to Jung, we are on our way into a new Age, the Age of Aquarius. Many in the “New Age” movement speak of and hope for an awakening of Christ Consciousness. In other words, a realisation that every single one of us is Christ, an aspect of the Divine nailed to the cross of the world to learn, to develop and to love. The prophecied Saviour, the Messiah, is not a single individual, but rather an understanding that we are all one. That we are all, mythically speaking, children of God.
Now, if you have a rational mind-set and a tendency to cringe when you hear terms like “New Age” flaunted around, you might want to shout out a “Just a Myth!” or two when hearing stuff like this. I hear you. And I will agree with you halfway. The idea of Christ Consciousness is a myth. Some can feel antagonized by the very name of this myth. But a myth can have many guises. If you prefer, we might just as well call it “The Empathetic Civilization” – a term coined by Jeremy Rifkin who has theorized about the development of human empathy and where we are headed.
To me, “Christ Consciousness” and “The Empathetic Civilization” touch upon the same ideas. They are narrative frameworks to explain but also to inspire our development.
They are both myths to live by.