by Steve Steinbock
The Truth about Myths
(And the Myth about Truth)
As a recovering theologian and an armchair philologist, I have a gripe about the way the word MYTH has been maligned in popular speech and writing.
Words change. Meanings evolve. I’m the first to admit it. When Queen Anne allegedly told Sir Christopher Wren that his design for the rebuilt St. Pauls Cathedral was “artificial, amusing, and awful,” Wren took her comments for what they were: high praise. (Back then, artificial meant “artistically created,” amusing was “muse inspired,” and awful implied “full of awe.”)
The above anecdote may or may not have ever happened. But like Washington and the cherry tree or Lincoln and the forgotten penny, whether it actually happened is not as important as the truth (with a big T) behind it.
Whenever I see, read, or hear the word “myth” used as an antonym for FACT, when people say “myth” when they mean “falsehood,” I cringe. When I just want to tell them they can put their facts right where the cherry tree don’t shine. A myth is not a mistaken belief.
So what’s a myth?
The Greek mythos meant “thought,” “story,” or “speech.” Sure, the term has long been associated with ancient stories of gods and heroes. Classical myths are stories that were (and to an extent still are) used to convey a Truth.
I’m not suggesting that Zeus was a real guy who collected clouds and carried a thunderbolt or that Rome was actually founded by the whelp of a she-wolf. But I doubt there’s a fiction writer (or any artist for that matter) who hasn’t sought a muse. No one can develop a plotline without hanging on to Ariadne’s thread. Cupid and Psyche may not exist outside of human imagination, but every human born knows them intimately.
The problem with us dang moderns is that we have somehow gotten it into our heads that Fact and Truth are the same thing. They’re not. We read facts in textbooks and newspapers. And facts change, just like the meanings of certain words. Back in the mid-1970s, it was a “Fact,” agreed on by a “consensus” of scientists, and published in Time and Newsweek (so it must be true) that man-made gasses were leading to a new Ice Age. Today the “consensus” of scientists is that Global Warming is in our near future.
Polluting the earth is a bad thing. That’s a Truth. But facts (like Global Warming or Ice Age or whether or not Vitamin C actually helps us get rid of the sniffles) don’t exist in the same realm as Truth.
Now here’s a philological irony: going way back into proto-Indo-European, the words “fact” and “fiction” evolved out of the same root.
MythBusters is a cool TV show. I love Jamie’s mustache and Kari’s … well, that’s a bit too revealing. But why can’t they call the show “B.S. Busters” or “Crap Catchers” or something without slandering myths?
By now I’ve entirely lost track of what this column is about. I suppose it all comes down to why we love fiction. Those “made-up” stories can really pack a lot more truth your typical plain-wrapped datum. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a story is worth ten thousand facts. Now I need to find Ariadne’s thread, or Hansel and Gretl’s breadcrumbs to find my way out of this maze.