What is myth?

Vienna- hercules cerberus
Hercules and Cerberus in Vienna (image source)

It’s a not so secret, secret that I offer free advice and mentoring in regards to Hellenic Polytheism and related subjects. There are several persons I’ve been working with who have all brought up similar questions regarding mythology — all at the same time —  so from my limited demographic I’m guessing that this is a question that pops up all the time…

Is myth truth?

This is such a delicate question. I believe that truth can be found in myth, but do not believe it as the divine truth akin to that found in the Bible. You see, we have to realise that regardless of our own agenda, the definitions and language used, our culture has been influenced by monotheism. This is a serious problem for people who seek to detach themselves from the over-culture and focus on polytheism . There is an inherent ‘monothought’ that is bred into us, this manner of thought denigrates our “polythought”.

Now before people phase out, allow me to explain my definitions of these made up terms:

‘Monothought’ relates to religious information that is compacted into our brains as “TRUTH”. So we are educated to take these religious things as literal, black and white, right and wrong.

‘Polythought’ is a process of critical thinking. It is being able to hear a literal story but understanding the subtext or possible subtext of the tale and seeing it on multiple levels and even realities.

Mythology is kind of subtext. Often innumerably complex. So every person reading myth will apply their own concept to it, in other words: our interpretations are influenced by our own life experience. This is totally cool to do because it demonstrates how deep mythology is, each person can read the same story and come away with a different meaning. This is the Power of Myth.

However, if we want to explore myth more deeply and come to terms to what it meant to the original people who spoke the stories… this is where it becomes tricky as not only does myth require us to forget our knowledge, it also requires empathy. This is even more difficult because we have to fantasise what it would be like in bronze age Greece, not only at a time and culture we cannot comprehend, but often a location/country we don’t have firsthand knowledge of. In this difficult exercise we can find hints of truth within myth.

So I’ll provide some examples:

Most people, (I hope), know the basics of the Labours of Herakles. As penance of his crimes Herakles is forced to work for his relative and a favourite of Hera, King Eurystheus. Eurystheus deliberately sets Herakles on impossible tasks in order to defeat him and see Herakles’ failure. However Herakles is victorious every time, not only that – he embarrasses Eurystheus who is often so terrified of the heroes’ return he hides in a jar. Now we can take the story as just myth, it’s entertaining and illustrates Herakles ascension to godhood, but it is quite possible it has a deeper meaning. Each labour can be related to ancient star constellations, or zodiac, if we picture Herakles as the sun, he moves through each constellation to illustrate a time of the year. Meaning that the story can be seen as a calendar story. I even theorise that Eurystheus hiding in the jar is the moon, maybe symbolising special festive dates for the cultic calendar of Herakles (so far I have found no academic proof of this, but I think it’s a sound theory.)

So there is the subtext of the tale, it is more than possible that ancient people would use this story to remember the times of the year, they would measure the suns (Herakles) passing of the constellations (labours) to determine when to plant seed, when winter was coming (going to Hades to tame Cerberus) etc. Afterwards Herakles would rise again to repeat the labours.

Another example is a very deep myth – it is deep as it relates to religious rites and possibly actual historic events.
Theseus and the Minotaur. Theseus is an up in coming king of Athens, sadly Athens is subjugated to the wrath of King Minos of Crete. Athens must provide a tribute of seven maidens and seven courageous youths every seven years as tribute to the monstrous Minotaur.
To prove himself as rightful heir to Athens and also to free the city of this horrible tribute, Theseus offers himself up as pseudo-tribute and embarks with the youths to defeat the Minotaur. With the aid of the Princess Ariadne he navigates the labyrinth and defeats the beast. Thus ending the dominion over Athens and eventually proves the rights of Theseus as king.

This again can be seen as a solar story, the traditional seven arch Cretan Labyrinth has celestial significance, sometimes it’s related to the seven known classical planets with its centre being the Minotaur or sun. In other words it can be a primitive representation of a solar system. This is interesting when we think of the constellation of Taurus, a common theme found in classical iconography is the slaying of the bull by the sun (Mithraic Tauroctony) often this is symbolic of the sun conquering, i.e., passing through the bull constellation marking an end a year and beginning of another. So it can be seen that this tale is another calendar myth.

Then there is the historic side. We know through archaeological evidence, mythology and classical study that during the height of Cretan culture (Minoan) it was dominate in the Aegean pre-dark age, early bronze age (3650 to 1450 BC). There is no clear consensus of what actually happened but we know that the Minoan civilization had some effect and influence on mainland Mycenaean Greece until the Minoan’s were somehow devastated, most likely by the Thera eruption. Afterwards we find evidence through language that Minoan culture was taken over by Mycenaeans. Is it possible that the Theseus story illustrates actual historic events of a weaker culture taking over the previous dominate one?

There is so much we can take from this myth, another aspect of this story is the abandoning of Ariadne on Naxos. Ariadne was most likely originally a powerful Minoan goddess, but with the decline of Minoan culture we also see a decline in her role and cult to the point she is ‘downgraded’ to a mere mortal in the story. I often see the abandoning as a cross culture cultic merge of one cult into another. This is quite common in early mythology where goddesses were downgraded or even desexed to fit into the apparent male dominated culture of the Mycenaeans.

The final example I want to talk about has been a little controversial of late: The Crippling of Hephaistos.

In the myth Hephaistos is either born from the consummation between Zeus and Hera, or just Hera alone. Whatever the case the babe is deformed at birth and thrown from Olympus as a reject and becomes forever disabled in the legs. The master smiths of Lemnos, the Cyclopes, adopt Hephaistos and teach him to become a master crafter. Hephaistos eventually gets revenge against his mother (who is often the one that rejects him) by humiliating Hera through his craft. When Hephaistos finally frees Hera from his curse he is welcomed back into Olympus as an Olympian god.

This has been controversial of late because of terms used in myth to describe the affliction suffered by Hephaistos. Certain folk are offended at terms like cripple, lame, deformed and even disabled.  This behaviour fits into my definition of “Monothought” as it’s becoming focused on an aspect of the narrative of myth, while ignoring the context behind it. In this regard I’m pretty critical of people who forcedly want to divert or reinterpret myth by their own modern standards and make it applicable to the wider community. I believe this is very dangerous territory and is ultimately hubris.

Criticism aside, there are cultural subtexts found in these stories that explain the affliction of Hephaistos and his followers. This is where “Polythought” comes in handy as it allows us to critically assess the subtext of the myth.
Health and safety laws were not in effect during the bronze age, nor did the people have an understanding of the dangers of dealing with toxins. On top of that natural elements required to produce metal alloys were not available to Greeks.

The Bronze Age is named that because it was a period where the culture learnt the mysteries of the metal alloy of bronze, a metal stronger than iron and copper, but weaker than the near impossible to produce at the time alloy of steel. It was a technological advancement discovering bronze but also very difficult and toxic to produce. Nearly all bronze today is produced as an alloy of tin and copper, but tin is extremely rare in the Mediterranean, as an alternative arsenic was a substitute of tin. I pray to the gods above and below that my readers are not dim-witted to know how toxic arsenic is… but let’s just say it’s been used to assassinate a number of famous characters throughout history.  Low level, long term exposure of arsenic causes problems to the feet and hands, also mental issues including irrational rage and general madness.
Apart from the obvious toxins in bronze making, metalworkers worked with lead too, also known for inducing madness, deformed limbs and even hereditary dwarfism. And also mercury that was used with gold, silver and copper to create a process called, Amalgam. Mercury makes certain metals cold liquids that enables the base metal to be manipulated without firing. Naturally this is also highly toxic and results in all kinds of mental and physical problems.

So we see by thinking in terms of what we know of ancient times the smiths would had suffered some form of deformity through their work. Honestly I suspect it was seen as a sign of their mastery of craft, magic. This assumption comes from other cultures that exist today in Siberia and West Africa where the role of smiths is akin to priests and shamans and marked out as their own social class. Yet today in our minority culture we are privilege with a flip of a switch or click a cigarette lighter — fire is born, but we don’t know anything about the meaning behind the magic itself. For these ancient smiths they not only mastered the flame they taught fire to turn solids to liquids, back into solids. Solids given to the flame that are reborn into the form of strong swords and weapons or icons of the gods! The price of this magic work and knowledge of the mysteries of flame is deformity. A prideful price to pay for mastery of the mysteries.

I suppose I need to round this essay up. Is myth truth? No, I don’t believe in mythology as literal truth. I don’t believe that historically Herakles performed the twelve labours, nor that historically Theseus killed the Minotaur. I do, however, believe that myth lives in a realm outside our reality and lives on in its own ‘mythscape’,  a place that is anchored in our reality, landscape and history. It is a narrative of our DNA and ancestral collective consciousness. Hidden deep within myth is truth, but how we draw upon that rational truth is no more important than the story itself. We can rewrite mythology, apply rational thought, we can use new terms and even get offended. But deep down it lives within us, therefore it should be respected and embraced as it is the memory and understanding of humanity before us.

That’s why I love mythology.