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That’s a Myth

March 12, 2017

Have you ever heard somebody say “that’s a myth”.  Saying that conveys the message that all myths are things that are not true.  That’s not exactly correct.  It depends on what you mean by the word myth.

A myth can be a false belief, one that’s easily expressed in a one-line statement.  These are often widely believed.  For example, people sometimes complain that the murder rate is much higher than it was 30 years ago.  It is actually false.  The rate of violent crime has been falling steadily over the past 30 years.  The perception that it’s higher now is only because violent crimes are publicised more than they used to be.  Similarly, we’ve all heard that our attention span is getting shorter, and soon we’ll have the attention span of a goldfish.  This is also a false belief, as this article demonstrates.  Not just one, but several aspects of the statement are false.  People say that this sort of statement is a myth simply because it’s not true.

What about something that’s longer than a single statement, something long enough to be called a story?  If it’s a recent creation, one that can be verified, we usually call it an urban myth.  These are often cautionary tales.  Have you heard the one where somebody woke up in the bathtub, with their kidneys missing, and a note on the bathroom mirror that said “call 911”?  That’s an urban myth.  It probably never happened to anyone.  Usually these stories are told by someone who heard it from somebody else, who knows somebody it happened to.  If these stories are both recent and false, they deserve to be called urban myths.

That leaves the ancient stories.  Some of them may be true, although perhaps not literally true.  To interpret them, we need to understand the process of their development.

This begins with an event of great significance to a small group of people.  They tell the story of this event, and pass it down through successive generations.  All of this happened before printing was invented.  The story may have been recited or may have been hand-written.  At some point, the names of people and places in the past lose their meaning.  Only the moral message remains understandable.  The teller may change these names to illustrate the moral message.  Historical accuracy disappears because it’s not important.  They may even change the moral message to make it more appropriate for their society or culture.  Eventually, the myth becomes frozen by being recorded and printed.  That’s what we see today, something that’s been through all of these changes.

How do you read such a myth?  If you read it literally, you will find that the history is incorrect, and the names of people and places are also incorrect.  Of course they are: they are unimportant, only serving to illustrate the moral message.  If you read it in a symbolic manner, the moral message stands out.  Such a message gives you advice on how to live your life.  The moral message was true for the people who created it, and at the time they created it.  It may still be true today.  The myth may convey valuable information from your ancestors.

The creation myth in the first chapter of Genesis is a nice example.  You know this one.  It’s the one where God created the world in seven days.  When this took place doesn’t matter.  The moral message is that God is all-powerful, and that He’s responsible for creating everything that you see in the world today.  It provides an explanation for the origin of the world and everything in it, and also the role of God.  Is this still true today?  Some would say “of course it is”.  Others would say that we have better and more recent creation stories.  We can’t be certain, but then this is a moral message from people living thousands of years ago.  My inclination is to believe that things have changed since then.

 

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