Myth today is badly understood as tales for children and the simple-minded. In truth, it is one of the deepest, oldest, and most important elements of ethnicity itself.
Carolyn Emerick has a bachelor’s degree in literature, college study in historiography, and graduate training in archival studies. She edits and publishes Europa Sun and Mythic Dawn magazines, and has been a student of European cultural history for as long as she could read. See her work at CarolynEmerick.com.
It has been observed by many notable thinkers in decades past that we live in an age devoid of cultural mythos. While the ramifications of this have been described and relayed to wide audiences, there is a startling lack of understanding of this situation among Westerners today. While many are awakening to the shock of gross cultural changes that, in many ways, do not benefit us, too many lack insight into the role that the severance from our own indigenous ethnic mythos plays in the social issues that we find confronting us today.
We have been told that mythology is the body of beliefs of primitive and barbaric people. And we have been told that fairytales are merely tales for children and simpletons (i.e. of value only for immature and underdeveloped minds). Moreover, the very words ‘myth’ and ‘fairytale’ are often used as synonyms to mean ‘falsehood’ or even ‘lie.’ When a high-minded scientific rationalist uses the phrase ‘that’s just a myth’, when what he clearly means is ‘a fallacy’, what does this do to the status of mythology in the subconscious conception of the general public? We can see by this example that it is not only the Abrahamic acculturation and destruction of the indigenous worldview of Europeans (and, subsequently, other ethnic groups worldwide) that has diminished the status of mythos in the minds of the Folk; modern scientific rationalism is just as guilty. For both of these worldviews are inherently dogmatic. Both foster a lofty frame of mind which peers down from its self-appointed pedestal to deride the beliefs which came before as undeveloped, uncivilized and inferior. Because mythos has been drastically reduced in status in the minds of Westerners in recent decades and centuries, it behooves us to consider just why it is that myth was ever important in the first place.
A Holistic Folk Culture
Anyone who begins to study mythology is quickly introduced to the field of linguistics. This is because most (though not all) of the mythological pantheons in the European lexicon fall in the Indo-European mytho-linguistic family. What we find is that the mythological canons correlate with language families, thereby leading the study of myth naturally to comparative linguistic analysis. In other words, Hellenic (Greek) mythology is found among Greek language speakers, Roman myth is found among Latin speakers, Teutonic (Germanic/Norse) myth is found among Germanic language speakers, and so on. This relationship between myth and language is universal; however the examples given here are taken specifically from the Indo-European family. What this indicates is that language and mythos evolved side by side during the earliest gestations of what would become the human ethno-cultural groups we recognize today.
Scientific rationalists as well as Abrahamists are both quick to dismiss theories on the mythical worldview of Europeans from its earliest origins, as well as its survival into more recent times. People ‘of the book’ and people studied in ‘the scientific method’ are both trained to require a point of reference that cannot be disputed. Science is proven by mathematical equation or is otherwise testable, whereas Abrahamists simply point to the books that they believe are the words of their god as indisputable fact. But history, anthropology, psychology, and mythology, which bleeds into all of those fields, are interpretive in nature. We make our best assertion about what happened in the past, based on a variety of evidence at hand.
It has been asserted by many specialists who have devoted their lives to studying the mythology and/or the development of mankind that humans appear to have had some level of mythological worldview at the earliest stages of human development. Cave paintings, carved figurines, and burial arrangements have all suggested a level of shamanism with belief in the afterlife as early as the Palaeolithic, up to 30,000 years ago. What this means is that the onset of Abrahamic universalism is only a tiny, tiny fraction of the overall human experience; the vast majority of which was rooted in animistic polytheism. However, not only was animistic polytheism the de facto worldview among virtually all human beings, it was quite specifically an ethnic-centric belief system. While universalist religions attempt to homogeneous world cultures by absorbing heterogeneous people into their uni-myth, the irony is that polytheism was, indeed, universal. The big difference is that the various deities of polytheism were ethnic-specific whereas monotheistic universalism works to sever a culture from its indigenous ethnos. Polytheism and the pantheons of gods that it housed were rooted firmly in the very origins of the development of the cultures in which they lived. There were never names for these religions because they were simply the beliefs and gods of one’s own people. It was not until the advent of ‘revealed religion’ (supposedly given by the supreme god to a prophet) that ethnic faith practitioners began to be referred to by derogatory terms like ‘pagan’ and ‘infidel’. In fact, in the original Greek version of the New Testament, the letters of Paul use the word ‘ethnikos’ to refer to pagans. In other words, it was clear that these universalists intended to break people from their unique and diverse ethnic faiths, so as to homogenize them into a universalist uni-faith.
What we see is that in the vast experience of humanity, human culture was a single unified whole – a whole which has been fractured ever more in recent eras of history. However, that first blow, at least in terms of European culture, was dealt squarely by Christianity. Whereas for thousands of years of prior cultural development, Slavic faith rooted in the Slavic mythological pantheon was synonymous with Slavic language and Slavic ethnos, suddenly one day Slavs were told that this Hebrew/Greek book was their holy scripture. Whereas the land that nurtured generations of ethnic Slavs had been considered sacred for thousands of years, suddenly Slavs were told to place their eyes on Israel as their holy land and to look to the mytho-history of a completely unrelated people on another continent for the stories they should tell their children, instead of the great deeds of their own tribal ancestors. Of course, I am using Slavs as but an example of a cohesive European mytho-linguistic group, but this pattern unfolded across the European continent. Prior to this ethno-cultural assault, Slavs, Celts, Germans, Balts, Hellenes, and the other ethnic groups indigenous to Europe can be considered examples of Folk groups in a true, holistic sense.
What Is Mythos?
We can see that mythos and ethnos had always gone hand in hand as part of one holistic whole state of being before universalist ideology began actively working to sever the ‘ethnikos’ from their Folk identity. But what is ethnic mythos and why does this matter?
As mentioned, all people of the world, when left in their indigenous, native state, hold an animistic polytheist worldview. That definition should be expanded, however, to include ancestor veneration. The reverence of ancestors is, arguably, the very earliest form of religion and it goes hand in hand with animism. In an animistic worldview, it is believed that spirits dwell all around us in nature. Indeed, we view ourselves as within the natural paradigm instead of above it or outside of it. Animists believe that not only do animals have a spirit, but elements, inanimate objects, and even naturally occurring phenomena have spirits attached to them. Therefore, within this worldview, when our loved ones pass from physical life, their spirits continue to dwell among us and can intercede in our lives.
This was a very tribalist worldview: despite its evident universality, this kind of worldview allows for ethnic variation. Mythos evolves alongside language, culture emerges within a specific landscape, and the tribe is very aware of the presence of their ancestors. This means that although this system was universal, it was not universalist, or uniform. Beliefs about spirits were tailored to the climate and landscape within which a tribal group lived. Therefore, mythological systems developed that were unique to diverse ethnic groups existing worldwide. These mythological systems included deities, nature spirits, stories built up around these beings, superstitions and rituals pertaining to these entities and the tribal ancestors. In addition, rituals rooted in this holistic worldview also allowed for cultural transmission of codes of acceptable behaviour as well as recognition of the passage of life stages.
As we can see, spiritual worldview was embedded in the very fibres of the concept of self. Identity was a fabric made up of many interwoven threads. The notion of one’s self in relationship to one’s family, clan, and wider tribe was also placed in context of the land itself with the omnipresence of one’s ancestors always guiding them. Of course, great chieftains and other important persons valued by the tribe may be remembered as tribal ancestors honoured by everyone. So, mythos was not only simplistic stories told to children, but it was an entire worldview interlaced with language, ancestry, tribe, and geographic location.
Storytelling as Cultural Memory
Like ethnic mythos, storytelling can be said to be a universal human pastime. It has always been a way to share cultural ideals and morals, but also to remember great deeds of important persons and place the tribe in context with those who came before. We know that oral transmission was a favoured method of cultural remembrance among Europeans and other ethnic groups. We know that storytellers and those in the priestly caste could devote decades to memorization of sacred lore. Stories such as the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf, continued to be told to new generations of the tribes who would become known as the English to remind them of their origins in Scandinavia and their cultural identity as Teutonic people. In this same way, my own family and many other American families tell their children stories of our family ancestors and how they came to this country. These stories give individuals an understanding of their origins and a sense of identity. Arguably, people who do not grow up with some of kind cultural grounding often sense a feeling of rootlessness.
Because these stories that were embedded with imagery from our mythos, which was itself intertwined with our ethnos, developed over thousands of years and only evolved very slowly as we ourselves evolved culturally, stories that became widespread and deeply spiritual took on a mythic nature. A myth, rather than a simple story, carries with it gravitas and weight for how it has permeated the wider language family and holds deep meaning. The meaning could be a foundational spiritual understanding, such as cosmology and earth origins, or it could be the exploits of a deity who is especially powerful in the wider consciousness of the tribe. With this understood, the modern trend to use the term ‘myth’ to mean ‘fallacy’ is especially egregious. It is almost as if there is some agenda at work to twist our conception to believe that which was always deeply important to us as ethno-cultural groups should be disparaged and dismissed today.
Deeper Understandings from Great Teachers
To better understand the value that mythos holds for us, it can be helpful to look toward some of the great teachers of the last century who have already transmitted this important insight, which has, seemingly, been forgotten (at least by mainstream society). Arguably, the figure who has made the most impactful contribution to understanding the relationship between mythos and consciousness is Carl Jung. Though he looked at mythology through the lens of psychology, it is remarkable that he looked at mythology at all, when one considers the sterile outlook of his field, which then as today leaned toward scientific rationalism. Jung wrote less on mythology in its own right, and more on how mythological elements existed in and affected the human consciousness. His work was heavily rooted in psychoanalysis, with less time spent on analysis of myth, but he was the first influential figure to acknowledge the important role that myth plays in the consciousness of both the individual and the wider culture.
Jung was among the first to recognize the role that the archetype plays in the cultural psyche. In his ‘Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious’ he says, ‘Another well-known expression of the archetype is myth and fairytale. But here too we are dealing with forms that have received a specific stamp and have been handed down through long periods of time.’ He continues, ‘What the word “archetype” means in the nominal sense is clear enough, then, from its relations with myth, esoteric teaching, and fairytale’ (p. 5). He goes on to explain that how this relates to psychoanalysis is more complex, but we are primarily concerned with the main point: that mythic archetypes are a ‘stamp’ or imprint that were formed and transmitted over vast stages of human existence.
Rather than criticizing his own field (which was arguably in its earliest stages at the time he entered it, so that there was not a vast body of work to criticize), Jung casts judgement on previous mythologists who observed the relationship between myth and natural and celestial happenings but failed to recognize the interplay between myth and our own human psyche. He says, ‘so far, mythologists have always helped themselves out with solar, lunar, meteorological, vegetal, and other ideas of the kind. The fact that myths are first and foremost a psychic phenomenon that reveal the nature of the soul is something they have absolutely refused to see until now’ (p. 6). While Jung was right to judge previous mythologists so harshly, it must be remembered that most mythologists working prior to Jung were heavily biased with an Abrahamist lens which would, of course, prohibit them from seeing the important role that indigenous ethnic mythos does, indeed, play in the human psyche. Jung expounds on how mythos is impactful on both the ethnological level and upon the individual psyche.
Without Jung’s work to build upon, the most important mythologist of the 20th century very likely would not have burst onto the scene. I am, of course, speaking of Joseph Campbell. Like Jung, Campbell receives a fair amount of disdain from modern ‘scholars’ in his field. But, again like Jung, this has not diminished his public appeal and the impact that his work has had upon thousands of readers. If Jung lamented the oversight of previous mythologists of the importance of myth to the psyche, well, Campbell really went all the way for it. He studied, travelled, observed, and wrote extensively on the role of myth in worldwide cultures. In 1988, his lifetime of study was shared in the living rooms of thousands when Campbell joined Bill Moyers for a multipart series called The Power of Myth, the transcript of which was later released in book form. In it, Campbell discusses the meaning of myth to societies and the repercussions that the lack of myth, as well as mythic rites and rituals, has in modern society.
Eerily, many of the societal problems that Campbell recognizes as a direct result of our lack of cultural mythos in the 1980s are even more present in our world today, thirty years later. Campbell notes that our lack of myth-based rites of passage have left young people without guideposts for living, so that they often do not know how to behave properly – that is, with respect toward the cultural norms of the society in which they are living. In the discussion, Bill Moyers asks if this is not related to the American Evangelical calls to return to ‘old time religion’, meaning Christianism. Campbell retorts that these calls are a ‘terrible mistake’ because that form of religion is only ‘vestigial’ and it ‘doesn’t serve life’ (p. 15). This stood out prominently to me because now, thirty years on, we still have certain alternative right-wing figures declaring that the downfall of Western society is due to our walking away from Judeo-Christian religion. Like Campbell, I call this a terrible mistake. I would assert that the downfall of Western society has more to do with the Abrahamic assault upon European ethnic mythos than any other factor. Campbell goes on to explain that the Biblical worldview was designed for a time and place so far removed from Westerners today that it cannot work for our needs because it simply does not fit us, (pp. 39–40). Of course, the lengthy discussion has much to say on the importance of myth and how to find personal myth in the modern world.
There is much more that could be said, but it would be remiss not to make room to mention the much beloved scholar and author, J.R.R. Tolkien. Of course, anyone who has read his fantasy novels or seen the films they inspired understands the important role that mythology played in his inspiration. But there is also a lengthy essay based on a lecture that he once gave that delves into the realm of fairytale, called ‘On Fairy Stories’. In it, Tolkien actually disagrees with something that Campbell says in ‘The Power Myth’. Campbell insisted that fairytales were sort of like mini-myths for children, specifically designed to aid in crossing the threshold to adulthood. As someone who has spent some time studying them, I am more inclined to agree with Tolkien when he gave his lecture nearly fifty years prior to Campbell’s talk, and insisted that fairy stories were, essentially, a human interest, and therefore only of interest to children because children are small humans.
Circling back to the beginning, Tolkien also points out that our definitions are sorely lacking when we look to the dictionary to define ‘fairy story’ – or, since that term is missing all together, ‘fairytale’. Tolkien also laments the negative definitions that he found in the dictionary to describe a fairytale as something that is not true. So he goes on to define it, although a definition is difficult to pin down. Tolkien explains that the realm of ‘Faerie’ is actually a state of being. It encompasses all manner of the supernatural, as well as the natural world, in addition to mortal humans – when we are enchanted. He describes the fairy story as a ‘soup’ originating in history that has been simmered with imagination.
This, I think, is where myth and fairytale meet with Jung’s theories about their role in our psyches. These tales cannot be separated from history because they originate there and live through time within history – yet also outside of it. They are outside history inasmuch as they live in the imagination. Yet, these stories are not separate from history, though we do not categorize them as history.
There are, of course, many more points and tidbits which could be elaborated in this discussion. However, the main point that bears emphasis is that mythos is part of the human experience. It is not only what makes us human, but it is part of what makes us unique, and gives us diverse ethnic groups throughout the world. The agenda working to press us all through a meat grinder and obscure our unique characteristics as it churns us out as homogenized human sausages has been in effect since Saul of Tarsus adopted the name of Paul and set out with a mission to evangelize the ‘ethnikos’ within the Roman Empire. But with corporate elites putting political pressure to increase globalization for materialist reasons today, the threat to unique diversity in the world is more real than ever.
And, yet, it is in this environment that more and more ‘ethnikos’ are eschewing the Abrahamic and overly rationalist dogmas and looking for our deeper cultural connections. Although this discussion paints quite a bleak picture in outlining the attacks our ethnic mythos has faced over the centuries, the good news is that threads of it have survived over the ages. Revival and interest in cultural mythology is booming throughout the West as we speak. Digging in deep and doubling down on our ‘ethnikos’ identity may be the very best way we can preserve our ethnic diversity and fight back against those who seek to destroy it.
—Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor Books, 1988.
—Jung, Carl. Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. New York: Princeton University Press, 1969.
—Tolkien, J.R.R. On Fairy Stories. 1939.
—Leeming, David. From Olympus to Camelot: The World of European Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.