Edith Hamilton was featured on an episode of “The Writer’s Almanac” some time ago. A classicist and educator, she did not begin her writing career until after her retirement from the position of Headmistress of Bryn Mawr School for Girls in 1922. Her compendium of Greek and Roman Mythology, first published in 1942, is still in print and used widely in introductory high school and college classes.
Hearing the brief bio of
narrated by Garrison Keillor evoked fond memories. My own copy of Hamilton ’s “Mythology,” a paperback edition from the early 1950’s, is brittle and crumbling. I won’t replace it, though, because it was a gift from my father, purchased in the Hamilton campus bookstore one summer while he was working on his Master’s degree. It was one of the first “grown-up” books that I ever owned, and I treasure it both for the gift that it was and the knowledge that it conveys. Penn State
led me to reflect on the concept of myth in general. Today the word is often used to mean a common belief or story that is not true. We can see this in such article titles as “Ten Myths about Breast Cancer” and “The Vitamin C Myth.” A myth in this sense is something to be avoided or corrected. Hamilton
But there is also another meaning of myth. That is a story which teaches a deep truth and guides the life of a community, regardless of whether or not the details of the story are factual. One might think of the story of the young George Washington and the cherry tree as an example of this type of myth. Historians have proven that it is pure invention with no basis in an actual incident. But it is worth repeating because it attests to the character of our first president, and teaches the importance and value of honesty, no matter what the consequences. Those are truths that transcend and are not dependent upon the facts of the story itself.
The stories that we know as Greek and Roman mythology taught those cultures a way of making sense of the world as they experienced it. Their gods were caught up primarily in cosmic intrigues and conflicts among themselves. In their dealings with humanity, they were frequently capricious and arbitrary. Humanity, in turn, had the tasks of figuring out what the gods wanted and avoiding making them angry. In a frequently brutal world, in which humans had little control over their lives, their myths provided an explanation for the seeming randomness of events.
Underlying these stories of conflict and chaos are teachings of virtues with which we could agree. Many warn of the destructiveness of excessive pride. The arrogant hero usually gets his come-uppance in the end. Others affirm the great value of hospitality. This is a theme that runs through the sacred texts of many ancient peoples and is a value which we would do well to cultivate more deeply in our own lives.
The birth stories of Jesus as told in the gospels of Matthew and Luke can be understood as this kind of myth. What they teach is true, regardless of whether or not they are precisely factual. Understanding this difference between fact and truth can be very reassuring to those who feel that modern Biblical scholarship and archeological findings somehow undermine the veracity of the scriptures.
For instance, many scholars believe that there is great likelihood that Jesus was born in or near
Nazareth, in Galilee, rather than in Bethlehem of Judea. There are a number of historical and archeological arguments, including that there is no record of a general census within ten years of the time of Jesus’ birth, that the method of ancient census, as today, was to enroll persons where they were located, not compel them to return to an ancestral home, and that excavations at Bethlehem of Judea strongly indicate that it was an abandoned site during the period in question.
All this is fascinating, even persuasive as fact. But it is irrelevant to the truths of the stories, which are many. They teach that Jesus is he of whom the prophets spoke, the Messiah, the promised one. He is Emanuel, God with us, the inbreaking of the divine into human life, not as hero or royalty, but as the poorest of the poor, a helpless infant in a borrowed shelter.
They teach us that the message of good news of the incarnation was given first, not to palace or temple insiders, but to the marginalized (lowly shepherds out in the fields) and the stranger (foreign wise men who were not even people of the Covenant). They show how entrenched authority, here in the person of Herod, reacts to the gospel with duplicity and violence, slaughtering the innocent in a vain attempt to thwart God’s will for peace on earth.
Facts are important, even critically important, in most aspects of our lives. In matters of science and medicine, law and governance, knowing and acting upon facts makes possible the structures on which our communities depend. Those who obscure or deny the facts of everyday life are recognized as a threat to civil society.
But facts are simply statements of the best human knowledge available at the time. As such they are subject to amendment, revision, and even contradiction as knowledge increases and circumstances change. The power of myth is to speak to truths beyond the realm of facts. Facts and myth are different orders of knowing. Those who are secure in their understanding of mythic truths have nothing to fear from the experiment, observation and experience which are constantly revising the facts we know about our world. Instead we can delight in each new bit of knowledge as it is brought forth, welcoming it as one more insight into the wonder of creation.