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Thumbnail: book jacket, Power of Myth
The New Mythology of the
Space Age
by Sylvia Engdahl - Page 3 of 16
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3. What Mythology Is, and Isn’t

Important definition #3: “Mythology” as used in this course means a body of metaphors widespread in a culture, expressing ideas common among ordinary people about the relationship of humans to the physical and/or spiritual universe. It does not refer to mistaken beliefs, except insofar as individuals who don’t share a given idea may consider it mistaken. Further, it deals with wider issues than the personal psyche.

There are many senses in which the word “myth” is used, and so “mythology” is an especially confusing term. Here is a summary of what it means—and does not mean—in the sense it’s used in this course. You’ll find a fuller explanation of these statements (not necessarily in order) in lectures 4 through 11, which it’s important to read carefully. If, after reading those lectures, you have questions, be sure to ask them—the discussion later in the course won’t be clear to you unless the terminology is clear.

1. Mythology expresses a culture’s outlook on the universe—not just the physical universe, but the perceived place of humans in a spiritual sense, in terms of self-image, goals and fears. In our culture, there are many contrasting views of these issues, so Space Age mythology is not self-consistent.

2. Mythology is based on the mythopoeic mode of thought (see lecture 7), not the rational mode of thought. It is not the same as speculation. A story or film may contain both myth and speculation, but if it reflects speculation alone, it’s not part of our mythology.

3. Myth deals with concepts that we cannot understand through reason. If we have enough knowledge about something to explain it fully in rational terms, we no longer express it in terms of myth (at least not in the sense the word is used by mythologists. We may believe “myths” in the sense of mistaken ideas).

4. Myths are always “true” on one level or another to people who find them meaningful. This does not mean they’re always believed literally, since their metaphorical nature is often recognized. And it certainly doesn’t mean that they are objectively true—later, even for the same person, they may in the light of new knowledge be shown as false. But a person who responds to a myth always feels at the time that “this is about the way things are.”

5. The mythopoeic mode of thought always involves emotion, but not all emotion is mythopoeic. We feel emotions about human relationships and about world affairs, among other things. If we have strong opinions based on reason, we have an emotional investment in their acceptance or rejection. This does not mean that we’re thinking mythopoeically.

6. All myth is expressed in terms of metaphors, but not all metaphors are myth. We use metaphors in many other ways; for example, all literature with artistic merit contains metaphors, and rationally-derived scientific concepts are often expressed metaphorically for purposes of communication. This alone does not make ideas mythic.

7. Scientific projection is not mythic. There’s a difference between a metaphor and a projection. The monoliths in the movie 2001 are a metaphor, as is the whole Star Gate sequence and the ultimate fate of the astronaut. The space station and ship, however, are projections of today’s knowledge—we don’t need mythopoeic thought to portray them.

8. Ethical concepts are not mythic. Myths may express ideas of morality, but myths aren’t about ethics or moral values. If we set out deliberately to teach morality in an imaginative story, that is allegory, not myth. (Some writers use the term “allegory” for any symbolically-expressed idea, but that’s a loose definition and often misleading.) Similarly, ideology is not myth, although mythic material is sometimes used to promote ideology.

9. Historical fiction is not mythic. Ancient cultures, which were focused on the past, had myths dealing with imagined history—often because their way of lending authority to an idea was to give it a past foundation. They had no records of their real history, accounts of which were passed down by storytellers who elaborated it with mythic themes. Recorded history, such as is portrayed in our historical films, is another matter; even when it’s fictionalized and/or shown falsely, it is not based on mythopoeic thought (although mythic themes may of course be presented in historical settings).

10. Not all fiction set in the future is mythic. Our culture, unlike ancient ones, values the future more than the past and therefore has myths dealing with the imagined future; but the mere fact that a story takes place in future doesn’t make it a myth. Most written science fiction and some film science fiction is based on rational thought (speculation) rather than mythopoeic thought; this is true even when it contains metaphors if they’re deliberately devised to express views not widespread in our culture.

11. Mythology is not necessarily artistic, although it may be artistically presented by a particular author or filmmaker. The ideas in mythology are not original ideas; on the contrary, they are by definition banal, since they are ideas common in the culture to which the myth is meaningful. In the study of mythology, cultural significance is not judged in terms of artistic worth.

12. In principle, a small group of people or even a single individual can create a myth, or perceive an idea mythically, because it is the individual mind that enters the mythopoeic mode of thought. However, the concept of a mythology—that is, a related body of myths—as studied by mythologists normally connotes a mythology meaningful to a whole culture or subculture, or to a significant percentage of the population. Thus, although mythopoeic ideas do appear in genre-oriented SF, we can’t call them part of Space Age mythology on that basis alone.

13. Many myths deal with the human psyche and have been widely discussed as representations of psychological truth; the major theories of myth emphasize its psychological significance. However, a culture’s mythology encompasses more than this. If myths were only of psychological significance, one mythology would do just as well as another and there would be no reason for the differences between cultures, or for turning away from old mythologies over time.

14. Though cultures studied by mythologists had a single dominant mythology, this is not the case with ours. Space Age mythology does not wholly replace traditional mythologies; it exists alongside those of ancient religions. The dissonance this creates is tempered by the fact that unlike former cultures, ours generally doesn’t employ the same metaphors in religious observances as are used in entertainment—even when similar issues are dealt with. So the emerging mythology is not a complete mythology, and it may never be, even when it is more mature.


4. The Ambiguous Term “Myth”

The term “myth” has had conflicting meanings since ancient times. Scholars have long debated the issue of what myth really is, but the general public didn’t become aware of it until the airing of the TV series Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, which became very popular. This made clear to the PBS audience, at least, that myths are to be taken seriously. Before, the average person was likely to consider the term ”myth” synonymous with “fairy tale” or even with “falsehood,” and mythology teachers had to spend a tremendous amount of time and effort fighting those misconceptions.

The noted mythologist Mircea Eliade points out in his book Myth and Reality that the analysis of Greek myth by the Greek intellectual elite was what led to the view that myths are mistaken beliefs: “If in every European language the word ‘myth’ denotes a ‘fiction,’ it is because the Greeks proclaimed it to be such twenty-five centuries ago.” But, he goes on, the criticisms of the Greek rationalists were “aimed primarily at the doings of the Gods as narrated by Homer and Hesiod.” This critique was renewed by the Christian apologists and, after the victory of Christianity, it prevailed everywhere in the Greco-Roman world. Homer was a poet, not a theologian or mythographer, and he was very selective in choosing stories that would appeal to his audience; he did not attempt to deal with the entire body of Greek mythology, and of course neither he nor his readers knew anything about mythologies of other cultures. He turned genuine myths into literature. Myth thus came to be judged in terms of whether it was historically true or merely art and/or allegory, whereas today we recognize that it is neither.

Popular definitions are still prevalent in the English language, however; so we have to be careful to notice the context when reading or using the term. It’s legitimate to say that a mistaken idea is a myth, but this is an entirely different usage than “myth” in the context of beliefs studied by mythologists. There is also a borderline usage, which is even more confusing. For instance, some scholars consider categories such as Westerns myths, which they certainly are in the sense that they’re a somewhat stylized and unrealistic picture of life. The old West was never just as it’s portrayed in Westerns, and, as in many types of literature, the characters in Westerns may be mythic heroes in the psychological sense. But true mythology accomplishes more than that. It contains elements that are metaphors for a culture’s view of what it cannot understand in rational terms. Traditional bodies of mythology had such metaphorical significance in ancient cultures; the ideas underlying science fiction—as distinguished from individual works—are beginning to have it in ours. Westerns do not have any comparable significance.

In contrast to this wide, vague use of the term “myth,” some scholars go to the other extreme and use an extremely narrow one. According to these scholars, there is a definitive difference between myths and folktales; they use “myth” only for stories dealing with gods and goddesses. Some, such as Eliade, define myth in such a way that it is confined to stories about the origin or sacred history of a culture. Campbell’s definition is much broader than that; in Segal’s words it includes “rituals and beliefs as well as stories of all kinds.” That’s my usage, too. And my view encompasses more than than Campbell’s, because he focuses entirely on psychological significance in recognizing myth, whereas I feel, as do most anthropologists, that there is a cultural significance apart from that.

The serious study of mythology is undertaken by scholars in many fields: psychology, anthropology, comparative religion, and literature. (The paperback edition of Segal’s book carefully quotes a review from each of these fields on its blurb page.) You will find published discussions focusing on the aspects of it most relevant to each of these fields, and it’s well to bear in mind what the author’s specialty is when judging whether or not the definition given is a comprehensive one. Also, it’s well to remember that theorists in all these fields disagree among themselves as well as with each other.

Another area of ambiguity is the difference between a myth and a body of mythology. A myth is a particular story or concept; we might speak of the myth of a particular god or hero, or of heroes in general (as Campbell does in The Hero with a Thousand Faces), or of “The Myth of the Eternal Return” as Eliade does in his book by that name. Similarly, we might speak of the myth of “ancient astronauts” having visited Earth. But a body of mythology encompasses many related myths which, taken together, express a culture’s outlook on the universe. Myths (in a mythologists’ sense of the word) don’t exist in isolation; a single story or concept that doesn’t fit into a pattern is not a myth but merely a bit of folklore. In the case of Space Age mythology, we could not call it a mythology at all if it did not have many facets. This, I think, is one reason why mythologists have not recognized it as a new mythology. They have not been SF enthusiasts and have noticed SF concepts only as fragments which, quite possibly, struck them as rather silly. Most myths do seem silly to unbelievers who take them out of context.

There are other reasons, of course, why Space Age mythology hasn’t been considered comparable to earlier mythologies, which I will go into later. The key factor in my conviction that it is indeed comparable, despite these reasons, is that many people of our era are more attracted to it than to conventional mythic imagery. As an example of the evidence for this, I’ll quote one statement by Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth: He said, “After our youngest son had seen Star Wars for the twelfth or thirteenth time, I said, ‘Why do you go so often?’ He said, ‘For the same reason you have been reading the Old Testament all of your life.’ He was in a new world of myth.” In other words, the world of Star Wars, Star Trek and other popular-culture science fiction is becoming more meaningful to new generations than the traditional mythologies of our culture. That transition, and the reasons for it, is the main focus of this course.


5. The Nature of Myth

Below are some quotations from various sources pertaining to the nature of myth. From them, you may get a feeling for what myth is; and with myth, the feeling is all-important. Space Age mythology is worthy of that name, in my opinion, because people feel about it as they do toward myth. That’s the only real criterion.

But these quotations refer to traditional forms of myth, and your first reaction may be that to put Space Age mythology in the same category is to take it too seriously. Surely SF themes don’t compare to the fundamental concerns of established religions, or even those of ancient, forgotten religions! That’s true, of course. The emerging mythology does not deal fully with either the social or the spiritual problems that humans confront. It is not a complete mythology because older mythologies co-exist with it.

Thus, many people believe both in the new mythic ideas and in those of ancestral religions they consider timeless. And the two are not necessarily incompatible, except with respect to their metaphoric representation of the realm beyond the sky. For this reason, we may never develop a complete mythology based on current perceptions of the universe. On the other hand, we may; a century from now a new religion not yet born may predominate in our society. For now, though, we must recognize that the popularly-accepted Space Age mythology doesn’t cover all aspects of human relationships to the universe, and neither overestimate nor underestimate its impact.

Another problem you may have in thinking of mass-media SF as myth is that it’s less polished than classical mythology. This is not surprising, because we have encountered classical mythology only in the form handed down to us by poets such as Homer. The stories of the Greek gods did not originate as literature! They were enjoyed for centuries by ordinary people equivalent to today’s TV audiences. No doubt the myths of all cultures were passed along by gifted bards and storytellers, but these artists were using well-known imagery in tales that had been told around campfires or at hearths long before they were put into the form of art.

Furthermore, any such tales that we know have already stood the test of time. Space Age mythology, on the other hand, we see at a very early stage of development (and because of our technology, its specific expressions are frozen at that stage). So we can’t make comparisons on the basis of artistic value; we can only look at underlying ideas. Here, then, are some thoughts about what kinds of ideas we are looking for:

“As a point of departure, we may define myth as a narrative which gives symbolic expression to a system of relationships between man and the universe in which he finds himself.” —Melville and Frances Herskovits, Dahomean Narrative.

[Myth is] “a story embodying and declaring a pattern of relationship between humanity, other forms of life, and the environment.” —R. J. Stewart, Creation Myth.

“Myth is to be defined as a complex of stories—some no doubt fact, and some fantasy—which, for various reasons, human beings regard as demonstrations of the inner meaning of the universe and of human life. Myth is quite different from philosophy in the sense of abstract concepts, for the form of myth is always concrete—consisting of vivid, sensually intelligible narratives, images, rites, ceremonies, and symbols.” — Alan Watts, Myth and Ritual In Christianity.

“In the most accurate sense, myths are not falsehoods but are the patterns of ... images, symbols, and metaphors which have been used to understand and to convey human experience. Myths are structures of thought, frameworks for making sense of experience, that rise along with cultures and shape their evolution. They are the media though which individuals perceive and pass on collective beliefs.” —Toby Johnson, The Myth Of the Great Secret.

“Myths do not have to do with analyzing and scientifically discovering causes. Myth has to do with relating the human being to his environment.” —Joseph Campbell, Transformations Of Myth Through Time.

“A myth is a way of making sense in a senseless world. Myths are narrative patterns that give significance to our existence.” —Rollo May, The Cry For Myth.

“[A]s the imagery of a dream is metaphorical of the psychology of its dreamer, that of a mythology is metaphorical of the psychological posture of the people to whom it pertains... One cannot predict the next mythology any more than one can predict tonight’s dream, for a mythology is not an ideology. It is not something projected from the brain, but something experienced from the heart...” —Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches Of Outer Space.

“The sense that the world has a purpose more profound than its description, and that we ourselves have an existence separate from our day- to-day experience, somehow deeper than our circumstances, is the source of all myth. The mythic dimension is intuitive, imaginative, inexact yet vibrant: in its clutches we confront the things we know but cannot explain.” —A Common Reader (Bookseller’s Catalog).

“It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.”
—Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

“The first condition ... that any mythology must fulfill if it is to render life to modern lives is that of cleansing the doors of perception to the wonder, at once terrible and fascinating, of ourselves and of the universe of which we are the ears and eyes and the mind.” —Joseph Campbell, Myths To Live By.

“I would not be at all afraid to state that with 2001 you may quite possibly have saved any number of spiritual and physical lives. For it is within the power of a film such as yours to give people a reason to go on living—to give them the courage to go on living... How can man now be content to consider the trivial and mundane, when you have shown them a world full of stars, a world beyond the infinite?” —Letter from a fan, quoted in Jerome Agel’s The Making Of Kubrick’s 2001.


Copyright 1995, 2003 by Sylvia Engdahl. All rights reserved.

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