One of my students put a great quote in one of his papers for our Cultural Anthropology class.
“Myth is a perceived truth which is immeasurably greater than concept. It is high time that we stop identifying myth with invention or simply human imagination, with the illusions of primitive mentality. The creation of mythis among peoples denotes a real spiritual life, more real than any concepts and of rational thought. Myth is always concrete and expresses life better than abstract thought can do; its nature is bound up with that of symbol. Myth is the concrete recital of events and original phenomena of the spiritual life symbolized in the natural world, which has engraved itself on the language, memory, and creative energy of the people… it brings tow worlds together symbolically.”
<Stated by Nicolas Berdaev in “Freedom and the Spirit.” Quoted by Samantha Lichtenberg in “Experiencing Samoa Through Stories: Myths and Legends of a People and Place.”>
I found that this particular quote has been used in a number of books and articles– and deservedly so. I appreciate the value of myth. Of course, when I say that, I invariably have to add the note, that the term myth makes no assumptions as to historicity or “truth,” An accurately described historical event can be a myth as much a work of imaginative fiction. To see this, though, one has to understand that the term “myth’ has many meanings. In common parlance, it often means “old stories about things that we know ain’t so.” Berdyaev here is using the term more as a literary or theological term.
However, I have come across many a theologican who will say that the term “myth” does not imply ahistoricity… and yet they act in their writings as if it does. Because of this, I prefer to use the term “mythic” rather than “myth.” A story, regardless of it being true or false, accurate or inaccurate, historical or ahistorical, can serve a mythic function— resonantly explaining and justifying core cultural values.
There is a clear link here, I believe, between Berdyaev’s view of myth and Ricoer’s view of metaphor.
Ricoer sees metaphor not as figurative or imaginitive language, but as a link between two terms— one abstract and one concrete. Meaning is found in the tension between the concrete and the abstract.
Berdyaeve sees myth not as imaginative fictuion, but as a link between abstract thought and concrete narrative. Meaning is, again, found in this tension.
I have heard it said that allegory is an extended metaphor. From a syntactical standpoint, that makes sense. However, from a functional standpoint, I think the argument could be made that myth is an extended metaphor. That also clarifies things in another way. The concrete object in a metaphor can be real or non-real, much as the concrete narrative of a myth can be historical or ahistorical.
Berdaev also connects myth with spirituality. If one identifies spirituality as the overlap of power and meaning (in line with Paul Tillich) this is certainly true. Myth empowers and is empowered by the culture within which it resides, and likewise is embued with meaning from, and provides meaning to that same culture.
In Christian ministry we need to create myths, and parables. We need stories that resonate with the respondent culture– affirming and challenging the values of that culture.
More stuff on Myth and Parables in my book “Theo-Storying“