Daily Archives: October 7, 2011

So what do you mean when you say myth?

Last week I posted what I thought would be just a tidbit of food for thought.  Since I have been talking about myth and C. S. Lewis for the past six months at least, I really was not prepared for the response I got concerning what I mean when I talk about myth. So I thought that today I could shed a little more light on the concept of myth, which is not only a philosophical term, but a historical and literary term.  Sometimes the distinctions between the different disciplines that use myth become blurred, but there are some things about myth that are universally true…

G. S. Kirk defines myth with the understanding that religious rites and rituals are revealed, explained or understood through the myth (Myth Its Meaning and Function 23).  Even though “something really ‘higher’ is occasionally glimpsed in mythology: Divinity, the right to power (as distinct from its possession), the due worship,” myth is still something other than religion (Tolkien, “On Faerie” 51).  Indeed according to Tolkien and Andrew Lang, “religion and mythology (in the strict sense of that word) are two distinct things that have become inextricably entangled, though mythology is in itself almost devoid of religious significance” (Tolkien 51).  However, Tolkien and Lang missed the connection and power of revelation in myth and how it works with the religious convictions and practices of the culture.  Lewis also embraces Kirk’s concept of myth as Gibson in his book, C. S. Lewis Spinner of Tales: a Guide to His Fiction, insists:

Lewis did not believe that all pagan religions were completely empty of truth.  In an essay titled ‘Religion without Dogma’ he speaks of the mass of mythology which has come down to us as having many sources mixed together—from history, allegory, ritual, and so on.  But he suggests that some of the sources may also be supernatural—in fact, both diabolical and divine.  The latter, he says, may be a praeparatio evangelica, a divine hint in the ritual or poetry which shadows forth the central truth declared clearly and historically in the incarnation.  As already noted, he refers to these divine hints as the ‘good dreams’ which God had sent to man prior to the full revelation in Christ.  (232)

Lewis and Kirk understand divine revelation as the key to what makes myth, myth.  It is not magic but divine inspiration that set a myth apart from a fairytale.  Tolkien and Lang are right to assert that mythology is not religion, but that does not mean that myth cannot share aspects of the religious practices with culture and give understanding and meaning to mysteries not fully revealed.