Hit Or Myth: Do Myths Matter?

During recent weeks, I’ve been thinking about my own wider reading in addition to my writing.  I’ve been taking some time to listen via audiobooks to Jordan Peterson’s lecture series on “The Psychological Significance of Biblical Stories“, and I have to say I find it all really interesting.  I’d like to qualify this by stating that this article you are reading now is in no way based on religion and is not in any way designed to promote any religion above another.  Similarly, I’m not even normally the kind of person who would believe deeply in Biblical stories, let alone sign up for a series of lectures about them.  Having said all this, I’m a big fan of Peterson’s “Critique of Postmodernism”, so I figured I would sign up to find out more about his other works and studies; especially when they have links to areas of my own interest and expertise, such as civility, comity and empathy.

I’ve found the lecture series itself to be extraordinary, and it has inspired me to sit down at my laptop and write.  Peterson has given himself an outrageously ambitious task though, whereby his aim is to couple religion with science; two vastly differing schools of thought, and ones that are culturally divisive to say the very least.  I’m a very person-centred practitioner in my work, and so sitting on a fence between science and religion isn’t really something I need or want to concern myself with, but what I do take interest in is the concept of faith; belief in a system that teaches us lessons - based on science, experience, or a combination of the two.

Hit or Myth

A thought that Peterson laid out in his lectures – and one that got me thinking - is the concept of myths as archetypal stories, which draws from the work of Carl Jung.  I want to make sure I’m sensitive here with the word ‘myth’, as for some people or cultures who choose to believe and live their lives by them, they could be as real as anything that science could ever empirically prove, yet the word itself signifies that such a documentation is simply ‘not real’ or is fabricated in some way.  We can understand that those with a religious belief could particularly take offence at this word, so sensitivity is a must, as well as an understanding that the term is used generically here.  Peterson argues that ‘myths’ - and indeed parables as stories documented in the Bible - are “much more” than simple fairy tales or “wish fulfillment” stories that many people may believe.  He states that they are deep lessons about the nature of humanity, encoded in story form, and re-told over generations.  Most importantly, Peterson suggests that these myths provide a collective unconscious backdrop for our modern-day civilization.  Again, in looking at this, I think it’s a good idea to steer away from religion.

Let’s look generally at more secular based myths and zone in on the work of Aesop and his fables.  A very popular fable from the renowned collection is that of The Boy Who Cried Wolf.  Despite the fact that it is very unlikely that The Boy Who Cried Wolf is a real documentation of an event that actually happened, the story itself represents an archetypical moral lesson that is applicable to modern society.  Because the story is so popular around the globe and across the generations, we can with ease warn another person of the consequences of “crying wolf”, and our mutual knowledge of this myth (called the collective unconscious) would allow that simple statement to carry a huge amount of information and weight behind it in terms of serving as a warning to live our lives by.

Now, as a counterpoint, imagine if the fable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf didn’t exist, and Aesop, nor any of his peers, had ever written such a tale.  How would you explain, to a friend, colleague or peer, the moral woven within that story?  How would you explain to them what “crying wolf” means, and how would you make the point as to why they should be careful about doing it?

The capacity to articulate a moral, such as the one in The Boy Who Cried Wolf would, at the very least, take longer, be harder to understand, be easier to forget, and most likely lack emotional impact that a story, fable or myth would have the vehicle through which to convey.

It seems to me that Peterson is quite right in the fact that myths and legends – whatever you call them and however you define them - can be powerful tools for conveying ethical truths and truths about human nature.  This concept gives a lot of weight as to why Biblical populations and ancient societies and civilizations held such tales in high regard.

My summary is this question.   If you truly hold or base a belief system on one of these stories, does calling it a myth, fable, parable, or even a ‘story’ cast a linguistic view that this system is somewhat false? 

As with the ‘stories’ themselves, words carry a lot of meaning.

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Neil Smith