Mythology is often misunderstood in today’s society, particularly because in the west, many try to interpret mythological belief systems literally and empirically which leaves no room for faith or mystery. Taking a clinical and methodical approach to the metaphor-rich stories of the past calcifies the myths: They become dry, brittle tombs that house the cracked hopes and inspiration that used to vivify and enliven those who participated in them. This calcification renders the mythology with little relevance to our world today. Trying to create a sense of “certainty” within mythology has also created cynicism, confusion, and mistrust and essentially taken the faith out of faith. There is more than one way to define truth—both from an empirical standpoint, as well as from a psychic (of the psyche) standpoint. Something can be untrue empirically, and still, hold a sense of truth for our psyche. The myths become true when we understand their metaphorical nature, and how they can be meaningfully true for us.
Because of this short-sighted approach, the word “myth” has become synonymous with “false.” But it didn’t originally mean that. The term “mythology” is derived from two Greek words: mythos, meaning “speech, thought, story, or anything delivered by word of mouth” and logos, meaning “word, discourse or reason.” In the Greek world, mythology was originally an oral tradition that explained the stories and legends of the culture. The term “myth” now has a common meaning, namely something false or fictional. That meaning is, in fact, a historical consequence of philosophy’s response to myth and is not indicative of its original meaning.
For us, this skewed meaning of “myth” has emerged as our myths have calcified over the years. We no longer believe in our myths, because we can’t find empirical data within the mythology. This is problematic, as these stories were never meant to be taken as fact, but rather to be understood as an inspirational metaphor. As a result of this desire for certainty, we’ve lost our connection to the mythological and archetypal underpinnings that sustain us. We’ve sought empirical truth in mythology and in doing so, sacrificed the human truth that they point to.
Myths don’t need to be true in an empirical sense. In fact, there are multiple kinds of truth. Something can be true empirically when it is proven with hard science and data. But, something can also be psychologically true, experientially true, or emotionally true. This is the realm in which mythology reveals truth. Mythology gives us an internal understanding of our beingness, it provides grounding to our emotional world and cloaks the framework of our psyche with stories that give us context for the unexplainable mysteries within our lives—whether those mysteries are “Why did he or she leave me?” or “Where do I come from?” How could this type of truth be any less valuable than hard facts or data? When we consider this type of truth to be synonymous with meaning, we see the importance of the metaphors of mythology.
These personal, meaningful truths are revealed to us within the metaphors of mythology. Myth is a metaphor. Just to clarify, a metaphor is where one thing is equated with something else, such as “she is a sprite” or “he is an angel.” We don’t actually expect that “he” has white wings attached to his back or that “she” is a woodland creature only six inches high. These metaphors give us clues to know and better understand the world around us and the people in it. Metaphors bring to life the mystery of our being in the best way possible: through providing a container or context within which to place them. With a growing lack of appreciation for the metaphors embedded in the mythologies of our ancestors, our hearts have hardened to the lessons that live therein. We no longer see ourselves in the myths—we see nonsense, outdated beliefs, and characters from a different era. When we take myths literally by trying to read them as factualized history, they lose their inspiration. In mythological terms, we’ve cut ourselves off from the wisdom that’s inspired generation after generation to make the world better than the last.
As well-rounded yoga teachers and spiritual torchbearers, we do need to know about #allthethings. We need to deepen our understanding of yoga and philosophy, but also learn more about mythology.
This week, on my Facebook Live, I took you inside my course (and my book!), Myths of the Asanas. I told you stories and gave you tips on how to bring those stories to life in your classes.
Resources and Links
You can read about all of the myths I spoke about in the Facebook Live in my book Myths of the Asanas.
In the course, Becoming the Hero: The Myths of Yoga I walk you through the myths associated with Yoga. I reveal the power of myth by revealing the journey of the hero and how it informs our lives…from the inside out.