Certainly Mythically True

I was looking over my last post, about the squirrel, and the word “mythical” leapt out at me. I’d used the term to describe the characters and beasties who appear in mythology. The gods and heroes whose doings make up the maybe-history-maybe-tutelary-story around which many religious and cultural traditions are wrapped.

And it occurred to me I might not have been careful enough about using the word — or at least defining it in the context.

First of all, I said mythical, where it might have been better to have said mythic. Despite a firm relationship the words don’t mean quite the same thing. Both might well apply in the context of my post, but there’s a definite difference in connotation.

Mythical means, in effect, appearing in myth or the subject of myth. So we can rightly say that the Kraken, for example, or Medusa the Gorgon or Pegasus, is a mythical being, appearing as they do in Greek mythology.

But mythical carries the connotation of “fictitional”. They’re generally not considered to have been real entities, although that would be cool. Ludicrously dangerous, but still undeniably cool. So when we say, “Don’t bother polishing that shield any more: Medusa is mythical”, we’re basically saying she’s not real.

Mythic, on the other hand, means that something is fit to be or become the subject of myth. And mythic doesn’t directly imply that the person, object, creature or event we’re talking about is made up — although the use of mythic rather than historic does suggest more than just a straightforward record of what happened. Mythic things go beyond and above historic things.

(On that point just quickly: roughly the same difference in meaning applies to historical versus historic. A historical day is one that features in history. The day of my birth was a historical day. Nothing very special about it, but it’s logged in certain records and is therefore a very tiny part of history. A historic day is one on which history, or part of it, hinges: the day the Armistice was signed, or Apollo 11 landed on the Moon yes they did — these are historic days because they made history.)

Myth is a tricky thing to deal with, especially in our modern culture here in the ‘developed’ ‘West’. We’re used to looking for the distinction between truth and falsehood. A story is considered to be either one thing or another (post-truth politics aside). And where mythology is concerned we seek to make the same judgement: is a story true, or is it false? This dichotomy causes us problems when we’re faced with religious mythology in particular. For example, many Christians take it that everything they read in the Bible is literal truth — a historical record of events that actually happened — because to acknowledge a story’s status as myth would mean it was false. A lie.

Similarly, some atheists take it that the whole of Christianity’s belief structure is based on lies because it’s impossible for a man to walk on water or rise from the dead — and if the story isn’t historical truth, it must be lies.

But mythology, by its nature, is blurrier than that. The stories in mythology might not be true — but that’s not necessarily their purpose. Their purpose is to convey truth. Truth about what people are, and should be; about what a society expects, and how humans can achieve their potential. Greeks didn’t read the stories of Perseus and think all his adventures were fact. They read his stories to find out what a good Greek should be and strive to be.

The same applies to Roman mythology. Romulus and Remus weren’t raised by wolves. There’s a school of thought that links the term lupa, a female wolf, to prostitutes in Roman society, so there’s that possibility. But it fits the Roman self-image to imagine the city’s founder as this embodiment of natural vigour, this combination of lupine ferocity and the social order of the pack. So a Roman might well have ‘believed’ the story of Romulus’ upbringing — even though it almost certainly wasn’t actual historical truth.

This is mythology. It’s a story that might not be historically true — though it could still be! — but it is certainly mythically true. Perhaps it’s morally true. Perhaps it’s idealistically true. But it doesn’t sit well in our modern age to shade the concept of Truth with idealism and morality; and that’s probably no bad thing. Truth deserves some reverence. It deserves to be held sacred, in a sense — especially in times like these, where it’s constantly exploited and manipulated and subverted by all sorts of interests and agendas.

But the concept of myth also gives us a good way to talk about those things that we believe are true or should be true: the oughts that might fly in the face of the ises (no relation) and the ares (no relation).

So I can refer to Yggdrasil, the Norse world tree, or to Ratatoskr the squirrel, as mythical without implying they weren’t literally true or committing to believing that they were — but I’m likely to be read by others bas suggesting they’re fictional. Not so much if I say they’re mythic because, whether literally real or not, they are undeniably the subject of myth.

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