… some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for two and a half thousand years, the ring passed out of all knowledge…
— Galadriel, from the Walsh, Boyens, and Jackson screenplay of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Last week, I discussed the rift that exists in Western society between our culture and our dominant religions. The rift matters, because it means the those religions can’t perform the functions in our society that a religion historically performed. This has given rise to a misunderstanding of the purpose of religion, and a misuse of religion within our national conversation.
It is vital to understand this. For reasons I alluded to last week, and will expand on here, it may be impossible to banish religion from the public sphere. If this is true, then understanding what religion is supposed to do can help us prevent it from being used inappropriately.
Religion is communicated through its sacred stories. The word “myth” has come to have a negative connotation, roughly synonymous with “lies”. But it its original form, the Greek word μυθος (muthos) connoted something divine and transcendent. The word actually refers to the things said, the lines spoken, as part of a religious ritual (the actions performed at such a ritual are drama, from a Greek word meaning “to act”). Thus, a religious ritual is the enactment of a myth, the retelling of a sacred tale.
This relationship between myth and ritual is explicit in many rites that survive today. The Christian rite of Communion, for example, is intended as a reenactment of the Last Supper, one of the most important stories of the Christian mythic corpus. Similarly, the Jewish Hanukkah celebration is a retelling of the miracle when the Maccabees reoccupied the Temple in Jerusalem and oil which was seen as sufficient for only one night lit the lamps for eight.
There is controversy on this point. Some scholars claim that myths developed as a way of justifying preëxisting magical ritual acts; others, that religious rituals are developed as ways of reenacting the myths; still others that, though myth and ritual are tied together, neither necessarily developed out of the other. It seems likely the relationships between myth and ritual are complex, not always simple cause-and-effect. Regardless, the two are certainly tied together.
Myths embody the theological and philosophical foundations of a religion. Rituals are the outward performance of those foundations. The two are interwoven, and it is difficult to imagine a religion that does not have both. Indeed, it can be said that a religion consists of these two intertwined elements: its myths and its rituals.
This describes, in almost clinical terms, what a religion is, but not what it does, nor what it’s for.
There are a number of theories that attempt to explain the purpose of religion. Most of them center around the purpose of myth. Why do people remember, recite, and reenact sacred tales?
Historian Robert Graves saw at least one purpose of myth very much as in the quote at the head of this article. Important historical events were commemorated in legend, then elevated to divine status. Heroes became gods. In this view, myths begin as a way of remembering vital historical events, and gradually become foundational tales. This idea is echoed in Genesis 6:4 in a passage that is often taken as the Hebrew explanation for the origins of pagan religions:
There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, they were heroes of old, men of renown.
In this view, myth is primarily a misunderstanding and inflated false recollection of history. Cynically, it can be taken as a way to justify existing social structures; the descendants of those divine ancient heroes have a claim on sacred power, and should therefore be given honors as kings. This is the reason why, for example, the archbishop of the Church of England, to this day, crowns the kings and queens of England, as a recognition of the divine right of succession.
This points to another important purpose of myth and religion, not only as a way of recalling sacred history, but as a way of structuring and ordering society. I stressed this last week. The tales and rites of a culture’s religion serve as the glue and mortar that holds the civilization together, for better or worse. Even in a largely secular society such as ours, myths seem to develop of their own accord, and they contain and preserve elements of value to the culture or the nation.
The story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree is one such tale, stressing the ideal of honesty and straightforward truth which stands at the center of our national identity. Washington throwing the coin over the Potomac is another such tale; while it doesn’t convey much in the way of national values, it does stress the almost godlike elevation of the First President to the status of Mythic Figure with superhuman powers (“the heroes of old, the men of renown…”).
Insofar as some myths are based on historical events or historical personages, the imaginative aspects of the tales are not mere errors or mistakes. They are there for a reason — to convey an idea or a value, to stress the importance of a thing or a place or a person or event. It is exaggeration with a purpose.
This is what scholar Joseph Campbell called the Sociological Function of myth. Through the tool of myth, religions teach information vital to a culture. When a society and its religion(s) are in harmony, myths teach information that individuals need in order to function and thrive within that society. When they are not, the religion and its myths are seen as archaic irrelevancies at best, and destructive disruptions at worst, because the information contained in the myths is not useful to the people.
A related idea is the Pedagogical Function. This less to do with society, and more with personal fulfillment, the idea of finding one’s sense of self-worth and providing ways to navigate the passages of life — teaching children, coming of age, being a mature and self-motivated adult, facing the challenges and pains of life and death, and so on. In the absence of a religion that seems meaningful, people are driven to solve these challenges in other ways — self-help classes, motivational seminars, even street gangs, all these are attempts to find meaning and purpose. If religion doesn’t satisfy these needs, the needs remain and must be filled through other avenues.
Campbell described two other basic functions of myth — Cosmological and Mystical. The first is perhaps what people usually imagine today when they think of the purpose of myth or of religion. The Cosmological Function furnishes an explanation of the world, of how it came to be, and why it is as it is.
Within biblical traditions, the creation story in Genesis (stories, actually — Genesis 1 tells a very different creation myth from what is in Genesis 2) don’t really describe the world as we know it to be. The biblical tales don’t describe a universe of hundreds of billions of galaxies, nearly fourteen billion years old, held together by subatomic particles. As with the Sociological and Pedagogical aspects of this religious tradition, the Cosmological imagery and metaphors are out of step with the world as we now know and experience it.
Yet humans need cosmology. In a political sphere, the George Washington myths that I mentioned before — the Cherry Tree and the Potomac incident — help to serve Cosmological functions, as they are credible (or nearly so) for being in this world, and they provide mythic imagery that helps to explain (and in fact, to shape) the nation as we understand it.
Campbell’s final mythological function is perhaps the most difficult for modern Americans to relate to — the Mystical. As I described last week, myths in their proper context often take the form (for example) of telling how a particular god or goddess taught our ancestors how to make this or that bit of technology — a spear or a loom perhaps. This means the objects we use in our everyday lives were, literally, gifts of the Gods. This imbues them with inherent meaning and sacredness. It means we live always within our myths. We touch objects that have been touched by the Gods. It is as if we live always within a cathedral, and every aspect of our lives takes on meaning and purpose.
This, too, is something we seek to recapture if our religion doesn’t give it to us. How many Americans are consumed, at one time or another in their lives, with the need to find a purpose, a goal, a deeper sense of the Meaning of Life? If our religious myths don’t supply it, we’ll create secular myths that do — Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism, some image of being part of an America that is special and singular — because God is on Our Side.
The roles that myth and religion have always played still impact our lives and our politics. They can’t not affect us. These needs seem to be hardwired in the circuitry of our brains. With a religious tradition divorced from our culture, we have to look elsewhere. Denying the need will accomplish nothing.
Nature abhors a vacuüm. Myths will be generated; history does become legend, and legend becomes myth. The functions that myth serves will be filled, whether by accident or intent, and sometimes by conscious manipulation. We need storytellers we trust to help shape the secular myths of our culture, lest they be consciously shaped for purposes and goals that are less than noble.
- “A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in…” (vimoh.co)
- Mythology and the New Feudalism (jonathanturley.org)
- Myth, Ritual, and Social Consensus (geopolicraticus.wordpress.com)
- The Security Blanket Concept of Religion (psychologytoday.com)
About dcpetterson (186 posts)
D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He is the author of A Melancholy Humour, Rune Song and Still Life. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and a lizard, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar and piano, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts—for fun. Follow on Twitter @dcpetterson