Since there was a discussion about myth yesterday

Since there was a discussion about myth yesterday January 3, 2013

…and at least some of my readers are under the impression that “myth” means fiction, I thought I would give all y’all a refresher in Mike Flynn’s terrific discussion of how something can be mythic but not fictional and even have roots in history.

The story of the Fall is told in “figurative” language, according to the Catechism. That is, it is not newspaper language, but it is telling us about something that really happened in history and on earth, not in cloud cuckoo land. If you think that a myth is a falsehood or even necessarily unrelated to real events, you simply don’t understand what myth is.

“Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?” said Eothain.

“A man may do both,” said Aragorn, “For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”

Christ himself is fully human and character from history, yet also the very embodiment of everything the best myths were always about.

by J.R.R. Tolkien

To one [C.S. Lewis] who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver’.

Philomythus to Misomythus

You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.

At bidding of a Will, to which we bend
(and must), but only dimly apprehend,
great processes march on, as Time unrolls
from dark beginnings to uncertain goals;
and as on page o’er-written without clue,
with script and limning packed of various hue,
an endless multitude of forms appear,
some grim, some frail, some beautiful, some queer,
each alien, except as kin from one
remote Origo, gnat, man, stone, and sun.
God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,
tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these
homuncular men, who walk upon the ground
with nerves that tingle touched by light and sound.
The movements of the sea, the wind in boughs,
green grass, the large slow oddity of cows,
thunder and lightning, birds that wheel and cry,
slime crawling up from mud to live and die,
these each are duly registered and print
the brain’s contortions with a separate dint.
Yet trees are not ‘trees’, until so named and seen
and never were so named, tifi those had been
who speech’s involuted breath unfurled,
faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.
Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves
and looking backward they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.

He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers bencath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-pattemed; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.
The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

Yes! ‘wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem?
All wishes are not idle, nor in vain
fulfilment we devise — for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is deadly certain: Evil is.

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bate, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.

Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.

I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.

Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

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  • Kenneth Covington

    By the way, today is Tolkien’s birthday! I’ll be starting my Tolkien class this semester with this very poem 😉

  • moreana

    Read the Flynn article. So we evolved from Red Clay Man. Ok I got it.

    • Andy, Bad Person

      Read the Flynn article.

      No, you didn’t.

      • Hezekiah Garrett

        Now, now. Reading merely means one has identified the sounds signified by the phonetic symbols recorded. Like little Jewish boys at their Bar Mitzvah, reading Hebrew and just wanting to get to the buffet and the loot.

        • Andy, Bad Person

          Fair enough. A charitable interpretation would have left open the possibility that moreana read, but didn’t understand, the article.

    • Mark Shea

      Hez is right. You didn’t read it. You scanned it looking for ammo for your pea shooter. You’re not serious.

  • Therese Z

    Fr Benedict Groeschel said on EWTN that “a myth was something that might not have happened, but it was true anyway.”

    • One of the problems with the word “myth” is that different people use it in different ways, because the word has a number of legitimate meanings. This means that any time someone uses the word “myth,” we have to suss out what the intended sense of it is.

      That said, I’m not sure Fr. Groeschel’s use is any different from Shea’s and Tolkien’s use of “myth.” Notice he says, “might not have happened,” which could imply, “but also might have happened.” What is certain is that the myth communicates a truth.

      • Andy, Bad Person

        Exactly. Some books of the Bible are history, and those parts meant to be understood figuratively may have happened, may not have happened, but quite frankly don’t matter if they really happened. They are true, and that’s what matters.

  • Subsistent

    Now we can, can we not?, admit frankly that one Biblical literary genre, without being mythical, was, and was originally understood by the Hebrews to be, “edifying fiction”? Daniel 13 is given as an example here in the entry “Literary Forms” in an encyclopedic dictionary published back in 1962 with the imprimatur of Albert Cardinal Meyer, archbishop of Chicago.

    • Subsistent

      For since fiction is not error, that in a special case a Biblic book be fictional, does not take away from Biblic inerrancy.

  • Melissa

    I had a friend who always told me that a myth was a truth that was bigger on the inside than on the outside.

    • D: “Go ahead, say it. Most people do.”
      C: “It’s smaller on the outside!”
      D: “All right, that’s a first.”

    • kenneth

      Myth is a much more powerful tool for conveying deep internal truths than literal accounts in many cases. “Myth” has a negative pejorative connotation because of cultural chauvanism and the hubris of scientific materialism. According to Western anthropologists going back centuries, a “myth” was something funny brown people made up because they had no better explanation for sunrises, thunderstorms and tectonic plates.

      In fact, myths are much more useful and powerful vehicles of truth, and we’re the poorer for ignoring that. Myths allowed ancient peoples to transmit wisdom and educate each other about the business of being human, even in the absence of the written word. Literal truth has its place for sure as we have to live most of our lives in the here and now, but literal truth focuses us down to one leaf or one vein of a leaf. Myth lets us see the forest. Myths have staying power. Most of us won’t remember the minutiae of yesterday’s newspaper accounts or C-SPAN coverage of an event. Myths? Well, consider that Hollywood is still re-telling the same exact myths as Shakespeare and the playwrights of ancient Greece.

  • Leon

    I’d read the Flynn article before, and got even more from it this second time around. One thing he posits troubles me, however: that “death” being brought into the world might merely mean a sapient man’s realization of his impending natural death, rather than a physical end that would not have happened before his first sin. Does anyone know if that’s “kosher” according to official Church doctrine?

    • Mark Shea

      I don’t think Flynn says anything beyond the proposition that, with the fall, we become conscious that we are going to die. I don’t think he says anything one way or the other about the Church’s teaching that unfallen man would have been immune from death.

      • Leon

        Appreciate it, Mark. I knew I might be reading him wrong.

  • Moreana

    It’s not. The whole article is troubling in many respects. Death was never meant to be suffered by man, and it’s a main reason God incarnated himself to free us from it. Had there not been a real Fall, God would not have incarnated himself. That’s why theologians call it the Felix Culpa.

    • Mark Shea

      Could you show me where Flynn denied that? He affirms (with Thomas) that animal death existed before the fall. He says nothing, so far as I can see, about whether humans would have died had they not fallen. He does say they became conscious of death with the fall (which they did). If you stopped reading defensively, looking solely for ammo, you might actually learn something. The guy is thinking with the Tradition.

      • Moreana

        Oh I’d say it’s safe to say that the Church teaches that death is a punishment for original sin. Probably 2,000 years or so. If it were going to happen even in man’s prelapsarian state (which did not include the vice of ignorance and cluelessness, but rather a perfect, enlightented mind), it wouldn’t have been much of a punishment. You really need to stop the hardcore evolutionists from influencing your thinking so much.

        • Mark Shea

          Again, can you say where Flynn denies that human death is a punishment for sin? You seem to simply be itching for a quarrel, not listening at all.

          • Moreana

            I was responding to your post. “He does say they became conscious of death with the fall (which they did).”

            This is not Catholic theology, Mark, not at all. You need to be much more careful. You may be causing serious confusion and I feel obligated to contest that where I can.
            I don’t know your background but do you have any advanced degrees in dogmatic or sacred theology? If not I think you should tread much more lightly, as Pius XII recommended.

            • Mark Shea

              Sure it is Catholic theology. Beings endowed with the gift of immortality as our First Parent were (as well as with other preternatural gifts) can’t become conscious of their approaching death until God says, “You are dust, and to dust you will return.” You are so bent on finding fault that you are refusing to listen. All you seem to want is a quarrel. You might ask yourself why that is. Bottom line: Flynn is not saying anything in denial of Catholic teaching. Yet you are bent on finding a guilty verdict for heresy. Who appointed you Inquisitrix of All Damnations?

            • Moreana

              It is doctrine that death was not part of the prelapsarian order for Adam and Eve. Father Hardon, S.J. on death:

              “It is part of revelation that, in the present order of divine providence, death is a punishment for sin. According to the teaching of the Church, death is a consequence of Adam’s sin, as declared by St. Paul: “Sin entered the world through one man, and through sin death” (Romans 5:12).”

              • Mark Shea

                And again, you demonstrate that you do not listen, but merely look for ammo. Tell me where Flynn denies the immortality of prelapsarian man. You simply assume that. Because you don’t listen. You just look for ammo. You should stop taking the role of Accuser. The job is taken.

                • Moreana

                  I said you did that, not him.

                  • Mark Shea

                    Except that I do nothing of the kind. I accept the Church’s teaching that, had he not fallen, man would have been immune from death. So, Inquisitor, do you you drop the charges? Or just continue looking for firewood for the auto de fe on some other grounds?

              • Subsistent

                Is human death really always a PUNISHMENT for sin? I admit it’s certainly a CONSEQUENCE of sin: If neither any of our forebears nor we had sinned, we wouldn’t be mortal — if we’d have even existed; for maybe if no human had sinned, the human race would have reached its completion, and the world have ended, long before any of us moderns could have been born here?

    • If I recall correctly (sources not at hand, so I’m open to correction), the Church has never proclaimed definitively on whether the Incarnation of the Son would have happened in the absence of the Fall. Duns Scotus and the Franciscan scholastic tradition, I believe, held that God’s intention from the beginning was to enter into his creation, and so the Incarnation was part of the “original” plan. The Fall gave it a salvific as well as a communative purpose.

      Thomas and the Dominican scholastic tradition, of course, held that St Paul’s statements, and such statements as the “felix culpa”, implied that the sole reason for the Incarnation was salvation from the Fall. This has (at least until recently) become the majority opinion.

      As far as I know, both are acceptable opinions in line with Catholic doctrine. Since the whole thing is a “what if?” matter of speculation, I don’t expect the Church will ever pronounce authoritatively on the matter. The Church pronounces on matters of truth, not on matters of speculation or alternative history.

      • Mark Shea

        Yep. Franciscans argue that since God’s love, not sin, is the determining factor in the Incarnation, he would have become incarnate whether or not the fall happened. Since the fall occurred, the Incarnation took on the added dimension of saving us from sin. But had it not he would have come to bring us to union with him in any case. What that would look like, we can’t say, but it would have not needed to involve the sort of sacrifice it took in history since we would not have murdered him as we did in our fallen state.

        • Moreana

          That may be Mark. They may “argue” that. But you can’t conflate one order’s speculations with magisterial teaching, which is emphatically that God came to save us from the consequences of original sin, the worst of which is death and exclusion from Heaven.

          • Mark Shea

            I don’t conflate it with magisterial teaching. It is (obviously) theological speculation on what would have happened had we not fallen. What is your problem?

        • Bob_the_other

          And it is not merely Franciscans either. Thomas is ambiguous on the point. One would suggest that to elevate “felix culpa” to dogma (and I am quite sympathetic to it) is elevating theological speculation to dogma. Allowing for the alternate possibility is sticking closer to tradition:

          “I answer that, There are different opinions about this question. For some say that even if man had not sinned, the Son of Man would have become incarnate. Others assert the contrary, and seemingly our assent ought rather to be given to this opinion.

          For such things as spring from God’s will, and beyond the creature’s due, can be made known to us only through being revealed in the Sacred Scripture, in which the Divine Will is made known to us. Hence, since everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of Incarnation, it is more in accordance with this to say that the work of Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, Incarnation would not have been. And yet the power of God is not limited to this; even had sin not existed, God could have become incarnate. (Summa Theologiae, III, 1, art 3, resp)

  • “Here at last is someone he can talk to. (Perhaps he regrets this later, when she will not shut up. But that is a tale for another time.)”


  • The Deuce

    Sort of an aside, but to my understanding, the words “mythic” and “mythical” have somewhat different connotations from each other. I take the word “mythic” to mean that something is told in an epic style using lofty language, making use of symbolism and metaphor to get the main point of the story across in dramatic fashion. I take the word “mythical,” (and also “mythological”) on the other hand, to imply that the thing or event described doesn’t exist or didn’t happen. So, I would describe the Fall as it is related in Genesis to be mythic but not mythical. Is my understanding of the language correct?

    • Mark Shea

      Pretty much. A real primeval event that happened in time and on earth, but described in mythic non-literalistic figurative language in by the sacred author.

      • The Deuce

        I understand that. What I’m wondering is if my understanding of the English language regarding the distinction between “mythic” and “mythical” is correct.

        • Hezekiah Garrett

          Yes and no. Some definitions of the two words differ. Some are identical.

          The problem is the lack of precision in English. It really is a terrible language for expressing important concepts and ideas.

  • T. Claude Weaver

    People who fail to appreciate the difference between religious truth and historical truth, miss out on the rich lessons held in mythology.
    The inroads being made by Fundamentalists into the Catholic church is indeed disturbing.

  • The story of the Fall is told in “figurative” language, according to the Catechism. That is, it is not newspaper language, but it is telling us about something that really happened in history and on earth, not in cloud cuckoo land. If you think that a myth is a falsehood or even necessarily unrelated to real events, you simply don’t understand what myth is.

    I like how Chesterton put it in a book review he wrote near the beginning of his career (in 1901)

    “The first part of Mr. Baron’s work deals with the ancient writings, on which he argues ingeniously enough, but about which he ignores two small points—first, that they are ancient, and, secondly, that they are writings. A man cannot comprehend even the form and language of the Psalms without a literary sense. For what are the essential facts? A great… people lived thousands of years ago who had, by what, from any point of view, may truly be called an inspiration, a sudden and startling glimpse of an enormous philosophic truth…

    …But their unique historic interest lies in this: that by a strange circumstance, that has every resemblance to a miracle, they discovered it in the morning of the world, in an age when men had and needed no philosophic language. Hence they threw it into poetical language. They spoke of this startling speculative theory with the same bold, brisk, plain-coloured imagery with which primitive ballads commonly speak of war and hunting, women and gold….. But Mr. Baron… is merely interested in the theological and dogmatic side of the matter. He does not seem to be aware that the Bible is rather a fine book. He thinks… that a sentence or two in the style of the Daily Telegraph will “elucidate” the style of Scripture, which is as straightforward as a nursery rhyme… He really supposes that to say that God is not “under obligation ” for an “animal sacrifice” contains all that is contained in such a daring, simple, and unfathomable sentence as ” If I were hungry, I would not tell thee.”

    -March 2, 1901, The Speaker

    • Oops! Didn’t mean to bold all that….Sorry!