Myths, Stories & Reality
Joel Dubois
(c) 2008--for free, fully cited distribution only

On one level, myths are simply stories. This introductory essay explains the features common to all stories, stressing that while the storyteller's words and the images they conjure up may be fleeting, their stories are often long-lived, deeply influencing the flesh-and-blood individuals who hear them, and thus by extension also the social groups to which individuals belong. However, understanding what is distinctive about mythic storytelling (often collectively referred to as "mythology") also requires grasping what distinguishes myths from other types of stories. This essay thus begins by clarifying this distinction, as well as the relationship between different types of stories.

Overall, I invite readers to go beyond thinking of myths in terms of static beliefs about the unseen. Many people associate the term "belief" with static declarations to which particular groups uniformly adhere, and about which authoritative sources can easily inform us. In reality, however, many beliefs are held unconsciously, and most develop and transform over time. Considering the storytelling context of myth draws attention to the dynamic process of telling, listening, and reflection that continually shapes and reshapes people's beliefs about the unseen powers and forces at work in their daily lives.

Mythic Stories, Past & Present

In the modern period, with the growing influence of rational scientific views of the world, the term "myth" has more and more come to denote stories that are false, and this is the most common use of the word today. Yet this definition of the term assumes that contemporary methods of scientific analysis have the final word on what is and is not real. Mythic storytellers both past and present, on the other hand, have typically assumed that reality is too complex to grasp by means of any one method of analysis, and so have relied heavily on stories to provide a glimpse of that complexity. For them, stories about mythic worlds were in an important sense more real than accounts of observable facts. Such storytellers admitted that the beings inhabiting mythic worlds, and the events taking place in them, were directly visible only to a few, uniquely endowed visionaries. Yet they also pointed out hidden connections between invisible mythic realities and the ordinary people, places, things and events that they and their audiences daily experienced.

Mythic storytellers of ancient Greece, for example, told about ancient events like the Trojan war, and about supernatural beings like Zeus and other deities believed to dwell on remote Mount Olympus. Such storytellers and their Greek audiences certainly realized that they could not see Trojan heroes and Olympian deities. Yet they seem to have felt that stories like those of Troy and the Olympians were secretly connected to the familiar realities of warfare, and to the unseen influence of supernatural powers on their daily lives. The ancient peoples of the Middle East, likewise, told stories now recorded in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Qur'an. Most surely admitted to themselves that they could not directly see God, angels or the demons depicted in those stories; yet they felt strongly the mysterious presence of divine and demonic beings during both inward prayer and outward acts of service. This course includes many examples of similar stories from other cultures.

Mythic traditions are not simply a thing of the past, however. Many Jews, Christians and Muslims still report experiencing divine mystery in their lives. (Due to the primarily negative use of the term "myth," followers of these traditions typically reject this term as a label for their stories; yet if we consider the richer meaning of the word, the Bible and Qur'an are indeed mythical in establishing connections between the human world and a mysterious otherworldly beings.) The primary sources assigned for this course, moreover, offer a glimpse of other culture's ancient stories as they not only survive, but also transform and grow in the modern period. Such contemporary mythic thinking also manifests to some degree in contemporary American culture, whether through immigration of assimilation of mythic stories from these other cultures.

Even in modern secular culture, furthermore, storytellers continue to establish connections between what most of us experience daily and the deeper mystery of the reality that encompasses everything. Realist types of science fiction connect the world we see today to the as yet invisible yet possible world of the future. (Consider "Star Wars vs. Star Trek," Gene Rodenberry's dramatization of the difference between realist and fantasy genres of science fiction.) Mythic storytelling also continues to evolve in efforts to explore the spiritual realities often hidden by ordinary perception, drawing on the science of quantum physics and neurology, as illustrated vividly in the film "What the Bleep Do We Know?" Finally, storytelling is also a powerful force used to draw attention to the web of interconnections that make up our global community, and to the momentous challenges that our species will face in coming generations (see for example the film "Baraka: a World Beyond Words"). Stories told about contemporary issues such as climate change and peak oil do fit the deeper meaning of the word "myth," since they connect visible daily experience to invisible social, geological and economic forces that influence our lives.

Mythic vs. Other Types of Stories

The distinctiveness of mythic stories is apparent if one compares them to two other types of stories with very different settings.

In addition to distinguishing mythic stories from stories that deal with daily life and fantasy worlds, I find it important to make a distinction between myths and legends. For the purposes of this course, I include both of these in the category of "mythic stories," but it is helpful to be clear on what differentiates them. The two types of stories approach distant and/or invisible mystery in distinct yet integrally connected ways.

The distinction between myth and legend highlights that both types of mythic stories establish more or less subtle connections between familiar, daily life experiences and worlds that are directly visible only to a few, uniquely endowed visionaries. Myths emphasize the invisible, yet they also hint that mythic reality strongly influences everyday human realities, even if most of us cannot directly perceive that influence. Legends are more realistic in describing people who possibly inhabited the same world as the storytellers who tell of them; yet they also highlight the unseen forces that impact human lives. For the purposes of dealing with the contemporary stories in this course, I often further refine the category of legend by separating out stories of less dramatic miracles occuring in contemporary contexts, referring to these simply as "miracles tales." For examples of these, consider the sample stories written by past students in this course.

The Story Triangle & the Map Analogy

The above comparison of daily life, fantasy and mythic stories suggests that, rather than thinking of "myth" and "fact" as a linear spectrum bounded by radically contrasting, black-and-white opposites, one might more helpfully think of mythic stories as one of the three points of a triangle, as illustrated on the right. This triangular spectrum, like a linear spectrum, suggests that there are many "gray areas," as it were, between the three categories.

The "gray area" of special interest in this course is that represented by the vertical line extending from "stories about mystery" (myths, legends and miracles tales) and stories about fantasy and magic (such as fairy tales, superhero stories, and fantasy science fiction). As noted in the previous section, mythic stories sometimes do border on fantasy, especially in pre-modern cultures that have not prioritized scientific analysis over spiritual forms of investigation. But as explained above, mythic stories can most often be interpreted as visions and symbolic approximations of a largely invisible reality that audiences of those stories consider real. There is also a "gray area" between myths and legends: many cultures speak of a distant period of history when humans interacted freely with the divine, supernatural beings, who were thus not invisible to most people.

At the beginning and end of the course, we will also consider "gray areas" implied by other two sides of the triangle. Daily life stories may incorporate mythic concerns when dealing with invisible forces such as love, destiny, justice, and wisdom. Daily life stories may also tend towards fantasy when details are exaggerated or sensationalized, often to make money or gain fame.

diagram of the "triangular spectrum" described in the text

Finally, despite the differences between daily life, fantasy and mythic stories (including legends and miracle tales), they have several things in common. These common features of all stories sometimes make it difficult to tell when a story deals more with fantasy or mystery then daily life. Acknowledging the characteristics that all stories share is thus an important first step to moving beyond similarities to the uniqueness of the three types of stories. Most obviously, it is human beings who develop and transmit all three types of stories in their families and communities. All three types also clearly draw on similar narrative techniques to describe characters, situations and events. More subtly, all three types of stories implicity and/or explicitly encourage certain types of human actions.

As illustrated throughout the course, one especially powerful analogy for understanding the power of stories to guide actions is the idea that every story is like a map of some territory. This territory may be in the visible human world; a magical transformation of it; a real world invisible to human senses; or some combination of these. The story maps of such territories orient the people who tell and hear them, helping to guide their actions. While helpful for understanding all types of stories, this analogy is especially helpful for understanding that mythic story "maps" must have a clear connection to reality in order to survive and spread. Two features of maps make this point especially clear.

  1. Like a map, a mythic story must connect to something one has already experienced in order to be useful. A map of the Sac State campus, for example, is most useful to someone who has aready been to one or two points on the campus, or at least knows where the entrance is. A map of some foreign territory makes little sense unless there is some point on that map that one at least has some instructions on how to get to, or a larger map, such as a globe representing the earth as a whole, which includes both the foreign territory and what one already knows. A map of Oregon becomes more useful when one notices that it includes the California border, and a map of Europe becomes intelligible if one has heard that one can catch a plane to one of the cities listed on it.

    Similarly, a mythic story must connect its listeners to something that they have directly experienced, and then use that experience as the foundation for pointing to something that is far less apparent. Fantasy stories tend to connect to their listener's experiences primarily via emotions and imagery similar to that experienced in dreams. Santa Claus intuits the quality of children's actions; Cinderella's virtue is vindicated by a fairy spirit who turns ordinary household objects into the accoutrements of a noblewoman going to a ball; and neither finds a place in realistic accounts of world history. Mythic stories, on the other hand, typically depict more realistic experiences of hardship and struggle that are part of widely accepted historical narratives. Greek warriors experience the wrath and favor the Olympians while at sea and on actual battlefields of the ancient meditarranean; Moses, Jesus, Mohammad and their followers likewise reveal their virtues in the face of ordinary critics and doubters living during documented periods of history.

  2. Like most maps, mythic stories require ongoing revision, often growing outdated soon after being made. With any map, the territory depicted change through destruction of existing landmarks and new growth. More importantly, though, the labels for those landmarks and the territories themselves change over time; and different map makers discover and highlight features of the land that had previously not been thought to be important. So too mythic stories require continual adjustment, not only because some aspects of mythic realities evolve over time, but also in order to highlight details most relevant to listeners in particular situations, time periods and cultural contexts. Greek and Roman myths and legends were told and retold in poetry, literature and drama. Jews, Christians and Muslims stories tell the same classic stories of year after year with important variations, the most famous example of which is perhaps the four contrasting accounts of Jesus's life told in the New Testament.

To help illustrate the features of maps and to highlight the analogy explained above, I will be asking you to represent stories as maps at various points throughout this course. You will begin, in preparing for the trial team assignment, by making your own story map of Sac State, which tells the daily life story of the way you experience this campus. Everyone's map will be different, just as actual maps of the campus each present a different perspective (see examples 1/2/3/4/5/6). Yet each map will illustrate that the way a person tells their story can help them deal with the daily life situations they face.

The ABCs of Mythic Thinking

As the story<-->map analogy presented in the previous section suggests, the story types described earlier represent different types of thinking, amongst which mythic thinking is unique. The reflection evident in daily life stories is concerned primarily with logic that connects clearly perceptible entities--for example, why the coffee at the union is free--and is thus most obviously different from the thinking that informs fantasy and mythic stories. Most people therefore tend to assume that fantasy and mythic thinking amount to the same thing, and a number of limiting stereotypes about mythic thinking result from this.

I intend the final points made below to invite you to go beyond such stereotypes. The first emphasizes the uniqueness of myth thinking in contrast to the reflection that informs the telling and hearing of other types of stories. The other three points stress features of mythic thinking that apply also to the reflection inherent in daily life and fantasy stories; but people often forget such features when speaking of mythic stories. I refer to these points alphabetically as the "ABCs of myth" to help you remember them throughout the course, as a supplement to the three points of the triangular spectrum introduced above.

A for "Accuracy:" mythic storytellers and their audiences typically trust that there have existed uniquely endowed visionaries who can verify the truth of mythic stories.

Outsiders generally assume that mythic storytellers invent stories to draw in their listeners, meeting some psychological need in much that same way that fantasy stories do. The most critical of such outsiders tend to view this as a sign that such mythic stories are false, even misleading. One of the most popular articulations of this view is that "myths offer explanations for things that the people who created them could not (or simply did not take the time to) understand." Sympathetic outsiders, on the other hand, including many modern scholars of myth, tend to argue that the accuracy of the details told in mythic stories has never really mattered much to those who tell and listen to mythic stories. What matters more, such sympathizers claim, are the powerful symbols and messages conveyed by those stories.

While not denying the power of the mythic symbols and the messages they convey, I would argue that both these positions, the critical and the sympathetic, misleadingly conflate mythic stories with fantasy. As suggested by the map analogy outlined in the previous section, those who participate in mythic thinking do generally consider that the stories they hear and tell are accurate in an important sense, in contrast to fantasy stories whose factual inaccuracy is taken for granted by mentally balanced adults. Whether such implicit claims about the truth of mythic stories actually hold up under scrutiny is a question that this course must necessarily set aside in order to foster productive academic analysis. Nevertheless, it is important as part of this analysis to acknowledge that myths, legends and miracle tales claim truth in a way that fantasy stories never do.

How might mythic storytellers and their audiences justify the truth of realities that are always to some extent fantastic, even magical? As already hinted, they would typically assume that a uniquely endowed few, usually both gifted and trained in discerning hidden truths, are able to directly perceive the truth of mythic realities, and then to map them out for those who can't directly see them, much like frontier explorers. Such claims about the truth of mythic thinking are evident in the contemporary spiritual movements inspired by quantum physics, neurobiology, and environmental sciences (see "What the Bleep Do We Know?" and "Baraka: a World Beyond Words"), which trust in the accuracy of a small number of visionary scientists. Yet many of the pre-modern traditions of mythic thinking surveyed in this course allude to being similarly inspired by spiritual visionaries, whether they are specially designated shamans and priests or ordinary people with spiritual gifts.

Certainly, many storytellers would admit that they do not personally know any such visionaries. Yet they would also likely insist that such visionaries have existed, seeing deeply into the hidden dimensions of even the most seemingly ordinary details of daily life--the forces at work behind seemingly chance meetings and coincidences, for example. There is little, they might point out, that most of us can fully explain in verbal, logical terms. Most people who offer explanations, whether in the form of stories or scientific theories, are simply gropping in the vast, dark complexity of life's mystery.

B for "Breadth:" different versions of stories that depict the same mythic realities--even seemingly contradictory stories--may all contribute to a broader understanding of the mythic realities described.

The most extreme critics of mythic storytelling traditions would likely stress that there is only one truth, which can most often be described in words and ideas. Only one version of such descriptions is the right one, while all others are by definition wrong. Myths, being fantasy, are by definition wrong; in order to offset their influence, the correct view of truth (which is inevitably that one that such critics themselves trust, and which usually is itself mythic in scope!) should be disseminated as widely as possible.

The multiplicity and ongoing revision of maps, noted in the previous section suggests the limitations of this extreme view. But one need only consider the way daily life stories evolve and the reflection they inspire to see that truth is by nature reflected in a diversity of perspectives. Even daily life events directly witnessed by many people give rise to multiple stories no two of which are identical, and which sometimes conflict on important points of detail. The most vivid illustration of this examination of eye-witness stories regarding an accident or crime. In most cases, a seasoned juror or detective seeking to understand what really happened will consider each story as a distinct but at least partly valid perspective on the truth of the event, like pieces in a puzzle that only makes sense when the whole is assembled. Off course, some perspectives will be taken more seriously than others: the reliable witness is like a more intact puzzle piece, while another witness's testimony may be likened to a mangled or very worn piece. In practice, furthermore, many pieces are often missing and presumed lost; yet as the detective or juror gathers and assembles the pieces that are available, she comes closer to a view of the whole, even if she never achieves complete certainty. The alternative approach is to look for the one true story, and throw out all the others. But complete verification is often difficult to obtain, and in throwing out alternative perspectives one may often miss an important clue.

In a similar way, those who respect and engage in mythic thinking often trust that different mythic stories, even ones that seem to conflict, all provide a different perspective on some greater truth. Why, after all, would there be only one telling of an event so complex and mysterious as the beginning of creation, or its end, or the creation of the first people? Even the visionaries to whom mythic visions are often ascribed would only be able to convey part of what they experienced in words. Interestingly, the same can be said of fantasy stories: each transformation of the story of Cinderalla, Santa Claus, Superman, etc., clarifies the underlying psychological issues and moral dillemas that these fairy tales explore. And as the trial team assignment for this course illustrates, daily life, fantasy, and mythic stories related to life on this campus can all lead to a fuller understanding of the greater whole of this university.

C for "Context:" mythic thinking thrives in ordinary settings, influencing real, flesh-and-blood people, and fade when they are no longer widely relevant to those people.

Critical outsiders typically regard mythic thinking as fantasy, completely disconnected from what real human beings face in their actual, day to day lives. Like the reflection evident in daily life and fantasy stories, however, mythic thinking dies out when it is no longer relevant to the people in whom it takes place, just as old scientific theories are superceded by new ones. We forget many stories of our own past that no longer seem directly relevant to our current situation; we rethinking the ones that we do remember in light of who we are today. People no longer tell old fairy tales that don't speak to their present situations, or else they rewrite them to integrate contemporary issues. Likewise mythic thinking changes with the times, because the mysterious, largely invisible dimensions of reality which it contemplates must relate to all times and all places to be relevant.

D/F for "Dysfunctional:" like other kinds of thinking, mythic thinking becomes dysfunctional when not balanced with accurate perception.

This class emphasizes the need to study and understand mythic thinking through an empathic consideration of those who tell, listen to, and rely on such stories to guide their thoughts and actions. But this does not mean that every mythic story you hear about in the class is used in a healthy way; on the contrary, I have intentionally included a number of examples of mythic thinking that appear to be at least partly dysfunctional. In analyzing the sources assigned for this class, I am not asking you to accept any and all mythic stories as valid and accurate. Rather I am proposing that mythic thinking at its best, when combined with accurate perception and thoughtful reflection, does seem to serve a highly valuable function in guiding those who rely on it to act in an inspiring way.

Conclusion: Starting Your Own Investigation

This overview of how I define the category of "mythic story," and its relationship to other types of stories, is intended as a starting point for your exploration of the primary sources encountered throughout the course, rather than as a definitive statement of truth to be accepted, memorized and repeated. I do urge you to study, remember, and seriously reflect on the points I have made regarding

But I also hope that you will test these ideas rather than simply accept them, ideally discussing them with peers and weighing the alternatives. I hope you will consider to what extent the examples of mythic storytelling you study throughout the semester are adequately explained by my claims, ideally once again in conversation with others, who may hold different views. And I hope that you will come up with your own ideas and perspectives about mythic stories and the cultures in which they thrive, and in the process develop and sharpen investigative skills that will serve you in your life in some important way.

Introductory Essay (TOP) & Sample Stories

Frequently Asked Questions

Storytelling & Guided Reflections