Some science behind the scenes

Myth

A myth is a story incorporating symbols – see also The Grammar of symbol systems.

When religions were first developed, they were passed from teacher to disciple and from teacher to teacher by word of mouth.  It is exceptionally difficult to remember complex belief systems, simply as a list of information or symbols.

What evolved to help with memory is the use of stories – myths, parables, legends and so on.

Myths can incorporate far more than just ‘truths’ about spiritual objects.  They also often incorporate  the rules and the ethics or moral codes of the society that devised the story.  Thus, to understand any story, you have to untangle the moral element from the description of the spiritual elements.  Jesus provided practically all his moral and spiritual ‘truths’ in the form of parables – in effect a pictorial description of the spiritual world or an example of how a rule is to be applied.

Fairy stories, legends, and many well known tales such as those about Arthur and the Holy Grail, Beowulf,  Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty and  even Little Red Riding Hood have a spiritual origin.  There are also more modern stories such as Alice through the Looking Glass, Alice in Wonderland, and C S Lewis’s Narnia stories.

The Japanese have taken storytelling to depict spiritual truths to an art form in their use of Manga and Anime.

The Lord of the Rings as well as Star Wars also contain spiritual ‘truths’.  I found it somewhat fascinating that the best stories seem to have spiritual underpinnings.

The Poems of James Russell Lowell

There is an instinct in the human heart
Which makes that all the fables it hath coined
To justify the reign of its belief
And strengthen it by beauty’s right divine
Veil in their inner cells a mystic gift
Which like the hazel twig in faithful hands
Points surely to the hidden springs of truth
For as in nature naught is made in vain
But all things have within their hull of use
A wisdom and a meaning which may speak
Of spiritual secrets to the ear
Of spirit

The advantages of myth

Why are stories so effective in delivering spiritual truths?

  • A story using familiar objects is often better understood than a literal description – if it can be described at all
  • A myth can protect the story teller from persecution, ridicule or worse death
  • A myth/story can be made more memorable, so is more likely to have  a longer ‘life’
  • The story can be devised so that it only comprehensible to those who want to know and who have reached the right level of understanding to know
  • A story can be better remembered in societies which have no written language or where literacy is low, than conceptual ideas
  • A story is often a more acceptable form to deliver spiritual truths than some factually delivered rhetoric.

Alfred Lord Tennyson – from In Memoriam A.H.H.

For Wisdom dealt with mortal powers
Where truth in closest words shall fail,
When truth embodied in a tale
Shall enter in at lowly doors

The disadvantages of myth

But there is a downside to an observer or group of observers devising legends and stories as a mechanism of delivering belief systems:

  • Literal interpretation - Myths, stories and legends can become belief systems in their own right, eclipsing and even eliminating the original rule, belief or code they were developed to illustrate.

Many Greek myths, for example, were developed to illustrate both certain moral points, and truths about the spiritual world.  But over time came to have a life of their own until many people came to believe the story rather than the fundamental law or moral message it was illustrating. 

One of the recent developments from our present day historians is an obsession with trying to ‘find’ the places where myths took place.  Thus we have historians and theologians engaged in the unseemly search for the Garden of Eden, the site where Noah’s ark landed, Troy, the Garden of the Hesperides, Avalon, and so on.

Stephen Kershaw

Peter Jones in the Sunday Telegraph 25th February 2007 ….makes the apt analogy of someone reading a James Bond novel 3,000 years from now, finding that Dunhill, Martini, White’s and Boodles all actually existed and concluding that ‘You Only Live Twice’ was history not fiction.

  • They can be too exciting - Alternatively, if the story is particularly absorbing, the message can be lost.  Many Hindu texts contain some extremely complex arguments about moral dilemmas and some important messages about the spiritual world.  At the same time many of the stories in which these arguments are explained are extremely gripping, with love, war, lust, deception and so on.  An audience can be forgiven, when reading the text or seeing an enactment, to be thrilled by the story and to forget the underlying truths altogether.

So there is a problem with using stories, despite their obvious benefits, if people do not distinguish between the story and the belief systems and do not see the message behind the story.

An example - Greek myth

Greeks and all early or ancient peoples tended to be more immersed in nature and thus more observant of the systems of nature – including human nature.  As today,  there were the highly intelligent, who observed and recorded and understood, but needed and wanted to explain what they had learnt to the less observant.

There were the unscrupulous – as today – who sought to exploit the knowledge and the power it gave them – but there were also the genuine and honest who simply sought to explain and teach for the common good.  As today.  Today we have films and TV programmes like Star Wars, then they had the story of Hercules.  Through stories they sought to explain truths and help those without the same skills for understanding the abstract, how the world worked.  The motivation was simple, the story tellers understood better than the exploiters, that by benefiting the whole, you eventually all rise higher.  No one benefits in the end from exploitation.

The Lotus Eaters, Circe, the Delphic Oracle all point to a culture steeped in the use of trance to achieve communication and knowledge of the spiritual world.  Shamans who were later to become priests/kings and ruled well before Christ, ‘travelled’ in their minds and ‘saw’ the symbols of the spiritual world.  The virtual world of software was made available to them, but not always was it understood. 

The Greeks were extremely good at human nature – the sort of observations of humans that answer questions such as ‘why are we here’. 

Imagine getting a package called ‘The Human Nature System’ in a box.  It has the CDs but it has no user manual.  The Greeks attempted to write a sort of user manual, but did it via myth and gods.  They found functions such as ‘greed’, sloth, envy, jealousy, joy, beauty, lust, love, strife, deceit, distress, desire, compassion, gentleness, unselfishness and so on.  They embodied these functions in stories, so that it was easier to remember and just like any good user manual they provided a full explanation of ‘what happens next’ – cause and effect. 

If you use the ‘greed’ function [the god of gluttony represented by a big tub of lard] often enough, you ‘get fat’.  If you tell lies all the time [the god of deceit and untruths] eventually no one believes you and no one trusts you, so that eventually, just at a time when you need someone to believe you and trust  you they won’t.  If you do this [Cause] what effects does it have.

Their user guides also explained what triggers these functions.  So what sorts of things trigger sadness, jealousy, hate, strife.  So not just stories of ‘what happens next’, but stories of ‘what happens when you do this’.  The cause of effects.

The Greek myths thus explain what the functions are, how they functions are triggered, what the consequences are and how they can be avoided if the effects are unwanted.  They are like a much more user friendly ten commandments.

But, you may say, this is not the spiritual world, this is not heaven.  But I would argue that it is indeed the spiritual world, that it is exactly what is meant by spirit.  Spirit =- the software or system that animates us.  The system behind us humans, or the animals or the weather or the seas or the plants or the rocks and minerals.

The spiritual world isn’t lots of floaty angels playing harps with an old man with a beard watching on laughing his head off at us.  Spirit is the stuff that animates.  So Greek myth has a very valuable place in this research, an almost invaluable place in it, because few have captured since in such graphic and entertaining a style the activities of nature, the inevitabilities of nature and the system which is cause and effect.

Choosing which myth

From my point of view, the problem of what to do about myths was an extremely difficult one.  In the first place, I had to decide whether the myth was just a story or was a story with a spiritual truth or truths hidden in it.

To provide a controversial but nevertheless pertinent example, there are those who think that Jesus’s crucifixion is a story, an allegory intended to demonstrate a  belief – a belief shared by many religions – that death is not the end – that there is a spiritual world beyond this material world to which we go when death occurs and that death is, as such, nothing to be feared.  It also describes reincarnation as in the New Testament, Jesus ‘rises again’ after three days is reborn or reincarnated [albeit in the same body].   If it is a story, then the symbolism of the story becomes of paramount importance, rather than the literal interpretation.  Incidentally I didn’t tackle this one, because I am in no position to know and I didn’t want to offend anyone.

Furthermore, I then had to untangle the web of symbolism in the myth itself.  A person may have invented a story using imaginary symbolic characters and imaginary symbolic settings which are woven together.

This adds another layer of complexity to an already complex picture and it may be open to misinterpretation – numerous legends and stories have totally lost their original symbolic meaning – Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round table, the Celtic legends and stories – all have considerable metaphysical content and a great deal of symbolism is employed.  But no one seems to realise this now.

But I have included myths because - like the poetic Edda, they are all that is left of the knowledge of the spiritual world.

Observations

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