The Value of Myths
From early days, man defined himself and his world through stories. The mind and heart travel further along their hidden roads and secret passageways than a body does down the modern superhighway. The places reached are brighter and darker than any place the body visits. We must have stories in our lives to make sense of life. We need the consolation and inspiration they bring us. Bards were once highly regarded as retainers of oral histories before literacy was common. Sadly, many people in the modern world have lost touch with the potent power of tales. Why waste time with fantasy and myths when the real, concrete world has so many demands of its own? The wise know this is nonsense: they still consider storytellers a cherished group. Bridget Waldron notes the millennia-long love of tales the Irish have has deeply ingrained itself into the fiber of their being:
Fairy tales, folklore, and legends play a notable role in the foundation and development of nearly every culture and society. These stories serve as entertainment, education, and a means of socialization, and can often be linked to other cultural phenomena such as religion and spirituality. The fairy tales of Ireland are specifically rooted in spiritual beliefs and superstitions, and while modern religions have widely replaced these early belief systems, Gaelic and Celtic folklore has shaped the culture of Ireland in significant and lasting ways. Just as the Grimm brothers’ tales were used as entertainment as well as educational and moral lessons for children, Irish fairy tales were aimed at instructing and engaging all ages. According to Joseph Jacobs in his book Celtic Fairy Tales, “nowhere else is there so large and consistent a body of oral tradition about the national and mythical heroes as amongst the Gaels” (Jacobs, xx). The effect of the fairy faith’s absorption of modern Christianity created a canon of tales that intertwines spiritual beliefs, lessons of morality, and entertainment value to create a lively and unique set of fables and a lasting impact on the culture of Ireland. (“Changelings”)
William Bascom provides a reason why myths are so integral to our understanding of ourselves and our world:
Myths are prose narratives which, in the society in which they are told, are considered to be truthful accounts of what happened in the remote past. They are accepted on faith; they are taught to be believed; and they can be cited as authority in answer to ignorance, doubt, or disbelief. Myths are the embodiment of dogma; they are usually sacred; and they are often associated with theology and ritual. Their main characters are not usually human beings, but they often have human attributes; they are animals, deities, or culture heroes, whose actions are set in an earlier world, when the earth was different from what it is today, or in another world such as the sky or underworld. Myths account for the origin of the world, of mankind, of death, or for characteristics of birds, animals, geographical features, and the phenomena of nature. They may recount the activities of the deities, their love affairs, their family relationships, their friendships and enmities, their victories and defeats. They may purport to “explain” details of ceremonial paraphernalia or ritual, or why tabus must be observed, but such etiological elements are not confined to myths. (4)
In modern days, however, use of the word myth has morphed from teaching a truth to mean the opposite context or to point to a matter of unsolved mystery. “Oh, that’s just a myth,” people say now to something they consider untrue after someone else expresses belief in it. The scoffer sees no reason to share the other’s belief, no basis for it in the real world. Whether this is true or not, for the scoffer, it is not even as substantial as smoke on the wind. “History became legend, legend became myth,” Galadriel says in the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring movie. She demonstrates the degradation and devolution throughout the millennia from the hard facts of reality into an embellished version of the truth which can go from something a bit hard to believe all the way to an entirely fanciful myth not believed at all.
Morgan Llywelyn states the same happened to Cuchulain and the warriors of the Red Branch, whose stories form the Ulster Cycle: “Memorized as they happened, then handed down from generation to generation by bards before the introduction of literacy, the adventures on which these tales are based took place at least two thousand years ago. Originally intended to chronicle actual history, during successive centuries the stories were transformed into myth” (vii).
Perhaps this devolution is part of the Celtic nature. Jeffrey Gantz notes, “The Celtic storytellers’ sources fall into two broad categories: myth and folklore on the one hand, history and pseudo-history on the other. Inasmuch as the Celts, true to their escapist nature, tended to view history as what ought to have happened rather than as what actually did, fact and fiction in The Mabinogion are not easy to distinguish” (13).
Some elements of Celtic mythology are quite easy to distinguish, as they are so far beyond the pale of even the most elastic suspension of disbelief, they must be dismissed as nothing but myth. Just to name two: those who turn into animals after the touch of a magic wand (104-106) or turn themselves into any manner of thing to escape a pursuer or to hunt for their victim (“Taliesin,” maryjones.us). Some of the more believable elements are in the story of Finn and the Fianna, their interactions with those they meet, and the relationships between them. The good and evil done within the tales are believable and are not necessarily completely mythical.
There are also elements of these Celtic tales one wishes were real, like the Thirteen Treasures of Britain. Some of the most useful are Mwys Gwyddno Garanir, The Hamper of Gwyddno Long-Shank: put food for one in this and enough for a hundred appears; Kar Morgan Mwynfawr, The Chariot of Morgan the Wealthy: it quickly takes a man anywhere he wants to go; and Gren a desgyl Rhygenydd Ysgolhaig, The Crock and the Dish of Rhygenydd the Cleric: whatever food one wants will be found here (“Thirteen,” maryjones.us).
Man has grown much since the first ones saw lightening and heard thunder and imagined it the actions of the gods. But have we truly made progress? Ancient peoples were more in touch with the world around them than modern man is. With all our technological advances, we have lost much of the wonder and terror of an intimate relationship with nature. We protect our feet and cut them off from touching the soil. We travel not on foot, buffeted by wind, cold, and rain, or blessed by sun and warmth, but in temperature-controlled shells that offer optimal comfort, yet remove us from experiencing the natural world. Our houses offer the same safe, artificial environment. Many of us still worship gods, none more demanding than the text and so-called smartphone, but we lost early man’s potent belief in the unseen world. For our distant ancestors, stories of gods and heroes, which we consider fantastical myths, were concretely real. Even now, the Irish hold to traditional beliefs about fairy mounds and other mythological sites. Perhaps this is partly tongue-in-cheek for some, but still they live steeped in the old stories. For them, the old, otherworld of Faerie is just as vividly present as the concrete reality of the current mundane world and interacts with it (“Changelings”).
For any age, for any person, myths have something to teach us, whether based in verifiable historical facts or the artifice of a dreamer who sees more. “After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear” (Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 147). Or as Merlin notes in the second volume of Stephen R. Lawhead’s masterful Pendragon Cycle:
. . . it came to me that the way to men’s souls was through their hearts, not through their minds. . . . The surest way to the heart is through song and story . . .
Perhaps it is how we are made; perhaps words of truth reach us best through the heart, and stories and songs are the language of the heart. (Merlin 150)
Are we wise enough to heed what these stories tell us?
Bascom, William. “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 78, no. 307, 1965, pp. 3-20.
Gantz, Jeffrey, translator. The Mabinogion. Penguin Books, 1976.
Jones, Mary. “The History of Taliesin.” Celtic Literature Collective. www.maryjones.us/ctexts/taliesin.html. Accessed 11 June 2017.
—. “The Thirteen Treasures of Britain.” Celtic Literature Collective. www.maryjones.us/ctexts/thirteentreasures.html. Accessed 11 June 2017.
Lawhead, Stephen R. Merlin. Harper Voyager, 1988.
Llywelyn, Morgan. Red Branch. Ivy/Ballantine Books, 1990.
The Fellowship of the Ring. Directed by Peter Jackson. New Line Cinema, 2001.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter. Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Waldron, Brigit. “Changelings, Fairies, Deities, and Saints: The Integration of Irish Christianity and Fairy Tale Belief.” Transceltic.com. www.transceltic.com/irish/changelings-fairies-deities-and-saints-integration-of-irish-christianity-and-fairy-tale-belief. Accessed 18 June 2017.
This is an essay I wrote for my Master’s Degree at Signum University.
What a well written article. Written from the heart, and gives so much value to myth and legend. Powerful stories to be told and retold over time. Thank you my heart is full.
Thank you very much! Glad you enjoyed it. 🙂