When I was a child we studied mythology in school, but the books we studied from all made the assumption that these stories were ridiculous fictions no one believed in anymore. This didn’t make sense to me. Billions of people still believed in the Bible, and what was that but a collection of mythological stories? Now it may be objected that the stories of the Bible are true and the myths are false, and this is what a great many people would insist. Other people would insist that neither set of stories is true, that they are all “just myths,” in the common sense of a fictional story which people mistakenly believe.
Dismissing the sacred stories by which so many believers understand the world seemed closed-minded and narrow to me. But it also seemed that there was no objective basis for declaring one set of myths to be ridiculous fictions, while holding up another equally fantastic set of myths as the literal truth.
The people of the ancient world believed in their gods, just as fervently and sincerely as the believers of the Christian world accept the stories of the Bible. There were skeptics and cynics back then, and there are skeptics and cynics now, but there is something about those ancient stories, something amazing and moving that speaks to us after so many centuries. It isn’t just entertainment or humor. It’s the presence of the numinous, the hint of something vast and mysterious behind the bones of the saga itself.
In the words of the great Chinese poet Li Bai, “peach blossoms on flowing waters- mysteriously vanish. There is another Reality- not of the human realm.”
It seems to me that this is exactly the feeling of reading a myth, if we read it with an open mind and a receptive spirit. Did King Arthur actually preside over the Round Table, sending out his knights errant on the quest of the Grail? Did Theseus really slay the Minotaur? Did Odin hang from the World Tree to learn the secrets of the runes?
Not in the sense in which Caesar was emperor of Rome, no. These things did not happen as factual events in historic time. But there is something there. Mythology still evokes the awe of the numinous, the sense that there is “another Reality- not of the human realm,” as Li Bai put it. The mysterious and essential truth is still there as it always was.
The world we live in is the world of magic- a world where the divine lurks behind every shadow, peers out from between the lines of the ancient stories, reveals itself in random comments and the seemingly mundane, and always retains its mystery because Mystery is what It is.
“The gods are here, forever present between somewhere and nowhere!” That’s from another T’ang Dynasty poet, the “demonic genius” Li Ho.
Between somewhere and nowhere, the magic still lives. If you can see that, if you can feel that, then you might enjoy the ideas I’ll be discussing here.