Home About Me My Books FAQ Reviews Essays etc. Space Miscellany Contact

Thumbnail: movie poster for E.T.
The New Mythology of the
Space Age
by Sylvia Engdahl - Page 4 of 16
Thumbnail: astronomical photo

6. Myth as Metaphor

On one point, virtually all modern theorists of myth agree. Myth is metaphorical. It is not a primitive form of science, and not all members of a culture who find its myths meaningful take them literally (though naturally, some people do). We can see this clearly, of course, in the case of religious myths, at least those of religions other than our own—but it also applies to myths that aren’t primarily religious.

This point is sometimes unclear because there are still older books in libraries that say the function of myth is explanatory, and that its explanations of the universe are indeed a primitive form of science. That was the accepted view in the late 19th century and early 20th. Edith Hamilton held it, for instance; and her work is enjoying new popularity because of its excellent retelling of Greek myths. You have to remember, though, that she wrote more than 50 years ago. Even Segal [Robert A. Segal’s Joseph Campbell, An Introduction was required reading for the course] does not make plain the significance of the time factor; in contrasting “The Romantic and Rationalist Approaches to Myth” on pp. 265 ff., he mentions that Tylor and Frazer were Victorian anthropologists, but fails to point out—there or elsewhere—that there that there aren’t any “rationalists” (in his sense of the term) among contemporary mythologists. In the anthropology courses I took dealing with mythology, the views of Tylor and Frazer were presented as obsolete.

Another source of confusion about this is that Campbell often expressed the view that myth has four functions, one of which, he said, was to explain the world—although sometimes his discussion of those functions has seemed inconsistent. I think this was because he never believed myth “explains the world” in the sense of primitive science, as many readers, including Segal, have assumed. Rather, he meant all along that myth serves to make sense of the world: not to explain it in literal terms, but to express metaphorically the pattern and order a culture sees in it.

Nowadays, the idea of myth as metaphor or symbol is central to most interpretions, especially Campbell’s; where scholars disagree is about what the metaphors mean and what they accomplish. We aren’t going to go into the controversies in detail in this course. What’s important is for you to recognize is that myths do mean something apart from their literal meaning. This may be entirely in terms of the individual psyche, or there may also be sociocultural factors. Some anthropologists believe the function of myth is social, e.g. that it upholds the rights of the king or ruling class. While this may be true in some cases, I personally do not feel that it’s ever the reason why the myth emerged and became meaningful to people. The king may have used it for his own purposes later on, but that’s another issue! Similarly, some myths have been used for religious teaching purposes and even to reinforce dogmatic views of authoritarian religions, but this was not why people found such myths appealing in the first place. In my opinion, bodies of mythology reflect and express the views that prevail in a culture. They don’t form those views, except insofar as there is a feedback effect on new generations.

Campbell often found that people didn’t understand what he meant when he said a myth is a metaphor. I have a videotape about him, not part of the series, which I happened to record for time-shifting and then saved; there, he speaks of having been on some talk show (my tape starts in the middle of a sentence so I don’t know details) and realizing after a while that the interviewer had no idea what a metaphor is. He kept saying, “It’s a lie.” Finally Campbell forced him to give an example of a metaphor, which many people know as simply a “figure of speech,” and the interviewer came up with “If a man runs fast, we say he runs like a deer.” Campbell replied, “No, in a metaphor we say he is a deer.” English teachers know that, but evidently the average talk show host doesn’t!

But even people who understand figures of speech often have difficulty in conceiving of a whole story or body of stories as a metaphor. There’s a difference between a metaphor and an allegory. An allegory is deliberately designed with symbols representing specific ideas (usually moral ideas) that its author believes to be true. A metaphor is a way expressing ideas about things less well-defined than that. Often its images are literally believed to be true, at least at the time of its origin. But even when they aren’t believed literally, they are useful ways of envisioning the universe, or aspects of the universe—either physical or spiritual aspects—that can’t be fully explained in other terms. We can and do try to interpret metaphors, but we cannot fully succeed. They are saying something there aren’t any better words for.

Campbell says, in a chapter of his book An Open Life called “Myth as Metaphor,” “We must not confuse mythology with ideology. Myths come from where the heart is, and where the experience is, even as the mind may wonder why people believe these things. The myth does not point to a fact; the myth points beyond facts to something that informs the fact.”

To be sure, Campbell is considering mainly religious myths, and at first glance science fiction may seem to be something quite apart from that (although it’s not; the religious themes in science fiction, especially films, are extremely prominent, which is something I’ll be going into in detail later on). In any case, he is talking about what the myth means to the individual in terms of his or her own life. In this course, I’m focusing on cultural meanings. But there is a strong parallel. A culture’s mythology expresses the aspirations of that culture, whether in specifically religious terms or in other terms. The mind may wonder why people believe in faster-than-light starships traveling around at Warp 8 without regard to the laws of relativity, and yet the fact is that today most people in our culture do believe in them on the metaphorical level if not the literal one.

In my opinion, and that of many others, myths always embody truth of some kind, even though they’re not literally true as historical fact (and even though some false concepts may be mixed with the underlying true ones). Truth about incomprehensible subjects is more often found in myth than in rational speculation. As one of my students in an earlier class put it, “Real truth can only be shown via a story, in sort of an indirect way.”

Most serious scholars who study myth view it as having this kind of significance. However, most of them focus entirely, or almost entirely, on the psychological truths it reveals about individuals. I certainly don’t want to play down its psychological significance, which is immense. And in fact, most scholarly papers on mythological significance of science fiction also focus on individual psychological significance; I’ll be quoting from some of them. However, the course will focus more on its significance in terms of what it says about how our culture, at present, interprets real truths about the future and the universe.

Of course we don’t know much about these real truths. Therefore, we can’t interpret them adequately in terms of science (though in science fiction, we commonly use scientific or pseudo-scientific explanations among the metaphors). So we create stories, and when a large number of stories employ similar metaphors, and the public starts believing that yes, this is the way the universe is, or the way the future will be, then that shows something about our culture’s current conception of “real truth.” (It does not, of course, tell us what the real truth really is—a hundred years from now there may be another new mythology.)

For example, nobody really knows much about the origin of the human mind. Ancient cultures wondered about this, and they adopted metaphors because they couldn’t understand it—usually involving literal belief in creation of humans by personified gods. Today, we still don’t understand it, and most of us don’t believe literally in anthropomorphized gods anymore, although we may well believe in God as a metaphor for something not understood. But that metaphor is not meaningful to everyone. So we see all kinds of new ones arising (some of which are believed literally by some people) which originated in science fiction: for instance, the “gods from outer space” metaphor, which suggests that extraterrestrial civilizations had something to do with the origin of our species; and the “artificial intelligence” metaphor, which says we can make android minds just like human minds once we learn enough.

I am not saying that there is no truth in any of these metaphors; on the contrary, there undoubtedly is. Metaphors do express truth. Those that become widespread enough to have mythic significance certainly do. But it is not the same kind of truth as literal truth. I’m sure that our future conception of extraterrestrials will be very different from today’s, and that if we ever do create artificial minds they won’t reside in anything resembling Asimov’s robots. To say this is not to downgrade their significance, any more than to say we don’t believe in personified gods is to downgrade traditional religions—although all too many people have tried to downgrade both, under the mistaken impression that literally-expressed truths are the only sort that matter.

7. The Relationship Between Myth and Science

Because the older concept of myth as a primitive form of science pervaded material read by scholars in other fields at the time of their education, the relationship between science and mythology is very commonly misunderstood. For instance, you will find historians of science who try to recontruct the astronomical beliefs of, say, the ancient Egyptians or Mesopotamians in terms of their mythology, assuming that unless most of them had believed it literally, it wouldn’t have been such an important aspect of their culture. This is comparable to saying that because Biblical imagery has been and remains important in our culture, the Bible gives an accurate description of our astronomers’ premises—the only difference is that our technology and our libraries reveal so much about our science that no hypothetical archeologist of the future could make such a mistake.

Nevertheless, by non-mythologists myth is still often viewed as something that’s outgrown with increasing scientific knowledge. An element of truth underlies this view because as knowledge increases, subjects formerly dealt with only by mythology become accessible to science also. Mythology itself, however, is never outgrown, though the specific myths that a culture finds meaningful ultimately change.

Scientists in particular are prone to discount myth as silly or childish, to believe that even when science and mythology co-exist in a culture, the people to whom myths are meaningful must believe them literally and thus be less intelligent than scientifically-oriented people. This is not usually the case. What’s often called mythopoeic thought (another term for metaphorical thought) is indeed different from logical thought, and some people are indeed more inclined to one than the other, but confusion of myth with fact in the presence of evidence is not mythopoeic thought; it is simply a case of logical reasoning from false premises. Furthermore, both modes of thought occur in all cultures—the notion that one mode is “primitive” while the other is “modern” was demolished by anthropologist Paul Radin in his 1927 book Primitive Man as Philosopher. Most of us are capable of both. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t enjoy science fiction movies.

You will sometimes see the term “pre-logical” used in reference to mythopoeic thought. I disagree strongly with this usage, which is one about which there has been a good deal of controversy. I prefer the interpretation of Radin, who believed, and had considerable anthropological evidence to demonstrate, that mythopoeic and logical modes of thoughts co-exist in all societies. He attributes the term “pre-logical” to the French scholar Levy-Bruhl, who used it in his classic work Les Fonctions Mentales dans les Societes Inferieurs. I haven’t read Levy-Bruhl myself, but according to Radin, he contended that “primitive” peoples are incapable of logical thinking, and Radin’s work was an attempt to refute this notion.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, anthropologists seriously believed that so-called “primitive” races were not as highly evolved as the rest of us. Today we recognize this as racism, but it wasn’t recognized then, so Radin’s effort to prove that some members of “primitive” tribes could reason as well as “modern” man didn’t receive the universal attention it deserved. Certainly it was not applied outside the specific area of anthropological field work, as it should have been. Most mythologists failed to notice it. Consequently we still have a great many believers in “pre-logical” thought, a concept which was originally founded on racist principles. Scientists are particularly prone to assume it’s accurate, without having the slightest idea of its background.

Many, to be sure, might say that each individual has “pre-logical” and “logical” portions of the mind. This does reflect the fact that two modes of thought exist, although currently it’s more fashionable to speak in terms of “right brain” and “left brain” capabilities (which is itself a largely metaphorical explanation of something not fully understood). The “pre” concept, however, is nevertheless usually a holdover from Levy-Bruhl, who chose that term only because he believed it was a matter of racial evolution. There are exceptions; some theorists believe that the human mind becomes capable of certain modes of rational thought only if exposed to cultural influences that lead to their development. This is certainly the case at least with regard to modes demanded by advanced sciences; but the same might be said (and by mystics, often is said) of various modes of intuitive thought. So progressive degrees of thinking ability don’t imply that intuitive, mythopoeic thought is less advanced than rational, logical thought per se—and they certainly don’t imply that some populations have greater innate capacity for reason than others.

There are other complications. One of the main current theories of myth is that of French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (which I’ll go into later because some scholarly interpretations of popular-culture science fiction have been based on it). If you skim his book The Savage Mind, you might get the idea that he’s saying myth is a form of science; but actually he is using “science” to mean not what we think of as science, but simply understanding of the universe. (Also, “savage” in the title is a translation of the French “sauvage”, which doesn’t have the same connotations that “savage” does in English; he’s studying cultures without high technology, as most anthropologists do, but he doesn’t consider the minds of their people innately different from ours.) Anyway, to greatly oversimplify, Levi-Strauss says there are two kind of science, one that works by means of concepts and another that works by means of signs and images. This is just another way of saying that there are two ways of trying to comprehend the universe, rational thought and mythopoeic thought. And, Levi-Strauss says, “It is important not to make the mistake of thinking that these are two stages or phases in the evolution of knowledge. Both approaches are equally valid.”

Why do these semantic issues matter? Aside from the racist origin of the “pre-logical” notion, it’s harmful, I think, because it reinforces the false idea that myths are merely childish explanations of something intelligent people should be describing scientifically. They are not that at all. They are a different mode of explanation, not a poor substitute destined to be outgrown—although the literal belief in myths, which is an application of logical thinking to mythopoeic material, is indeed outgrown as a culture’s knowledge increases.

Lately another, more subtle, expression of the idea that myth is primitive science has been appearing: some scholars have been suggesting that our current scientific concepts, such as the theory of the Big Bang, are myths. Even Campbell did so occasionally. The idea of this assertion is that our science shouldn’t be taken literally any more than earlier ideas, because someday we’ll outgrow it—which of course is true. But scientific concepts are not derived in the same way as mythic ones; they are products of rational thought, not mythopoeic thought. Are they metaphors? Yes, certainly they are. The eminent physicist David Bohm held that all scientific theories are metaphors, including his own. But to say that all myth is metaphor is not to say that all metaphor is myth! To make no distinction between rational thought and mythopoeic thought is to define myth so broadly that the term becomes useless.

This is not to say that concepts from current science don’t pass into Space Age mythology and become meaningful metaphors there in the mythic sense. They definitely do; this is particular significant in the case of science fiction. But these concepts as conceived by scientists bear little relationship to the popular, mythic images based on them. The theory of black holes is a complex scientific idea derived through rational analysis of evidence. The idea of a starship falling into one is something else entirely—it’s akin to the Greek tale of Scylla and Charybdis.

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

If you got to this page by searching, please read the Introduction to the series.

Space Subsite Home
Lots more that I have written, or collected, about space!
Next Page