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Oxford University Press
Myth: A Biography of Belief / Edition 1

Myth: A Biography of Belief / Edition 1

by David Leeming
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Joseph Campbell wrote that mythology is "the wonderful song of the soul's high adventure." In Myth, David Leeming considers the role this "wonderful song" has to play in a world increasingly dependent on scientific and technical information. Exploring classic works such as the Song of Songs, the Tao Te Ching, the Rg Veda, the New Testament, and the Indonesian myth of Hainuwele, Myth reveals the cultural energies that ancient "mythmakers" sought to corral in their creations. Leeming argues that myths are, by definition, evolving creations that live on in the work of modern-day "mythmakers" such as W.B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, and Albert Einstein. Leeming provides an engaging new outlook on the role of myth in the works of these and other contemporary artists and scientists. The similarities between modern concepts like the "Big Bang" and ancient myths of creation illustrate our continuing need to confront the mysteries of existence by way of metaphor and narrative. Leeming suggests that myth and factual knowledge do not negate, but complement each other.

Whether it is the "American Dream," alien abduction, or belief in virgin birth and resurrection, these "living myths" play a very therapeutic role in the development of a healthy society. In Myth: A Biography of Belief, David Leeming shows that myths are still a fitting way to capture "the soul's high adventure."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 2900195161051
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication date: 07/31/2003
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

About the Author

David Leeming is Emeritus Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Connecticut and author of A Dictionary of Asian Mythology. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


    Myth and Religion

"It is through symbol that man finds his way out of his particular situation and opens himself to the general and universal."


Five "Religious" Myths


Happy are you, Israel, peerless, set free! The Lord is the shield that guards you, the Blessed One is your glorious sword. When your enemies come cringing to you, you will trample their backs under foot. Deuteronomy 33:29


There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his Messenger.

The First Pillar of Islam


God raised him to the heights and bestowed on him the name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow—in heaven, on earth, and in the depths.

Paul, Philippians 2:9-10

   Zen Buddhism

Nirvana is here and Now, in the midst of Samsara.... A wise man will see Nirvana at once in the ordinary things of life.... When master Tung-shan was asked "What is the Buddha?" he replied, "Three pounds of flax."

Watts, The Spirit of Zen, 30

   Moses and theShepherd

Once Moses overheard a shepherd talking. It sounded as if the shepherd were talking to an uncle or a friend, but he was talking to God.

    "I would like to help you, wherever you are, wash your clothes, pick lice from you, kiss your hands and feet at bedtime. All I can say, recalling you, is ahhhhhhhhhhhh and ayyyyyyyy!"

    Moses was very upset. "Are you talking in such a way to the very creator of heaven and earth? Don't you have more respect?"

    The shepherd hung his head and wandered off, saddened. But God came to rebuke Moses, saying:

What's wrong for one person is right for another, Your poison can be someone else's honey. I don't care about purity or diligence in worship. Or impurity and sloth. They mean nothing to me. I am above all that. One way of worshipping is as good as another. Hindus do Hindu things. Muslims in India do what they do. It is all praise, and it is all right. I don't listen to the words the worshippers say. I look inside for humility. That's reality. Mere language, phraseology, isn't reality. I want burning, burning! Be friends, all of you, with your burning. Burn your thinking in humility. Burn your phrases.

Celaladin Rumi

    Myth Types

Three general types of myth have been central to human societies and continue to influence the way we think, speak, and act today. Creation myths tell us where we came from, how things began. They are our primary myths, the first stage in what might be called the psychic life of the species. Creation is almost always linked to the concept of Deity, one of the strongest but most corruptible expressions of our collective being. Deities are metaphors for—dreams of—our ultimate progenitors, and psychology has taught us how important our mental depictions and memories of our parents are to any real understanding of our own identities. The story of the Hero is the most human and overtly psychological of the dominant myth patterns. Hero stories can be said to be metaphors for our personal and collective progress through life and history. Creation, Deity, and Hero all seem to lead inevitably to that very strangest and most mystical expression of the human imagination, the concept of union, which, depending upon era and tradition, has been called by many names, of which nirvana, individuation, self-identity, and wholeness are a few.

    We commonly use the word "myth" to mean a generally held belief or concept that is clearly untrue or merely fanciful. It is a myth that crime never pays, that George Washington never told a lie, that all women are intuitive, or that walking under a ladder brings bad luck. This definition of myth as false belief or superstition develops naturally enough from the more accurate understanding of the word as a fabulous and obviously untrue narrative of the deeds of heroes and gods—characters such as Odin or Pallas Athena or the Native American Trickster. But whereas common usage myths of the under the ladder sort are for the most part products of the secular world, mythic narratives are the sacred stories of religions.

    All cultures and religions have sacred stories that the common sense of people in other cultures and religions recognizes as myths. The carrying off of the maiden Persephone by the god Hades is a fanciful and untrue story of someone else's religion. We call that story a myth. It is difficult to believe that the Buddha was conceived in a dream by a white elephant, so we call that story a myth as well. But, of course, stories such as the parting of the Red Sea for the fleeing Hebrews, Muhammad's Night Journey, and the dead Jesus rising from the tomb are just as clearly irrational narratives to which a Hindu or a Buddhist might understandably apply the word "myth." All of these stories are definable as myths because they contain events that contradict both our intellectual and physical experience of reality. But since stories of the ancient Hebrews and Jesus are central to "our" monotheistic religions we tend to resist labeling them as myths. Religious people have always assumed that their sacred stories are both unique and different from myths. Not only the rabbi, the imam, and the priest, but the Hindu holy man, the Navajo shaman, and the Dogon animist will invariably say that the stories of his or her religion are in many cases historical and certainly the vessels of eternal truth.

    Certain lay thinkers—Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell are three of the best known—have suggested that both definitions of myth, as illusory stories and as containers of eternal truth, are valid simultaneously. For these thinkers, the great sacred stories are products of the imagination, but are nevertheless in some sense true in ways that history cannot be. Eliade emphasizes that so-called myths are regarded by believers as "true history" because they are always concerned with "realities." The emergence creation story of the Hopis is a "myth" in the common usage sense. It cannot be true because it is outside our human experience. Yet the Hopi are there on their mesas in what we call Arizona, and their lives are centered in the reality of their myth; in fact, their self-identity is dependent on it. That is, the Hopi creation myth expresses the reason for being, the sacred mana without which the Hopi do not exist. The Hopi are literally energized in the present time by their myth. In any case, Eliade would say, what is false about a belief that we are children of the Earth, that we emerged from the Mother of being?

    Jung and Campbell take a more specifically psychological approach; for them, myths are comparable to dreams and should be regarded as seriously as we regard dreams. Myths provide direct insight to the collective psyche or the collective soul, and to repress or dismiss them as mere illusion is psychologically and spiritually harmful. Dreams provide us with important information about ourselves—information uncorrupted by conscious defense mechanisms. Myths do the same thing for cultures. In short, say Jung and Campbell, we need myths—those of our individual and cultural past and origins—and a mythical consciousness in the present time, to show us who we are, self-knowledge and identity having to do with intangibles that transcend mere name, parentage, and geographical location.

    Eliade, Jung, Campbell, and others who take myths seriously as vehicles for truth almost always do so as universalists or comparatists. At the level of the archetypes revealed by comparison—the universal psychic tendencies that result in such ubiquitous themes as creation, the descent to the underworld, the concept of divinity, and the hero quest—mythologies may be said to be the dreams of humanity, products of what Jung called the "collective unconscious." At the very least, the archetypal images become the basis for a kind of universal symbolic language, through which, as Thomas Merton puts it, "we are summoned to [a] new awareness ... of the inner meaning of life and reality itself" (Merton, 1,2,11).

    It might be said that for the comparatist, the truth of a story such as the resurrection of Jesus becomes evident only when it is compared to other stories of the resurrection, such as those of Osiris or Persephone, and in that comparison is freed from the restrictions of the merely local or the merely sectarian. According to this view, the real importance of the resurrection myth, whether or not it is based in some sort of historical fact, lies in resurrection and not in the individuals who are resurrected. "Symbols," as Heinrich Zimmer suggested, "hold the mind to truth but are not themselves the truth" (Campbell, Masks 4: 625). The point is that when we discover through comparison that resurrection and virgin birth, for instance, are not the private property of Christians or that covenants with God are not peculiar to Jews, we are faced with something that transcends the literal interpretations of so many so-called fundamentalists and are freed to appreciate a human truth that is larger than our particular cultural truth. Instead of focusing on the historicity and literal truth of all aspects of Jesus's life, for instance, we can finally consider the reality of resurrection and virgin birth. As a Zen master once said to me, "The first step of Zen is to kill the Buddha."

    Without direction, the comparative approach is one that occurs to the strict "believer," if at all, usually in the context of a confrontation with a significant modern dilemma. The dilemma in question is particularly acute for a religion that stresses its exclusivity, that preaches the literal and historical rather than the symbolic truth of its myths, that presents itself as the only earthly embodiment of eternal truth, as the "way." The dilemma grows out of the conflict between the scientific-rationalist training that is the basis for our everyday experience of the world and the mythic and ritualistic experience that is central to any given religious tradition. From a very early age the individual learns the importance of being rational. Yet the very essence of myth and ritual is anti-rational. Life in our temples and rituals, in the physical and psychological space we designate as temporarily or permanently holy, is radically different from life in the "real" world. In ritual or liturgical space we deal with the mystery behind life and we act uncharacteristically—we sing what we could speak, we wear costumes, we assume unusual postures, we imitate the actions of mythic ancestors—and we celebrate events that are clearly impossible according to the laws of reason. At some level the young believer is aware of the discrepancy, and the discrepancy must inevitably be disturbing, especially if no vehicle is provided for the assimilation of the myth and ritual into the world of rational experience. The student learns that one and one always equal two, that an object in a vacuum always accelerates at a particular speed, that reproduction depends on a particular coincidence of events, and that death is the negation of particular life, but when that same student enters the religious space of his or her tradition and is told that Yahweh spoke to Moses from a-burning bush, that Mary became pregnant with Jesus without "knowing" a man, or that spirits are alive and well in trees, the student's psyche has to adjust in some way to this contradictory set of messages or risk a kind of social schizophrenia.

    One way to adjust is simply to deny the validity of the religious beliefs or at least to de-mythologize and de-ritualize them. Ritual postures and actions can be eschewed as unnecessary absurdities and the wisdom of prophets and culture heroes can take precedence over any supposedly miraculous events of the distant past or ancient claims to godhead. Most religions contain "reformist" wings that represent this point of view. Another approach is to accept the sacred stories literally, with or without the assistance of complex ritual, and to become what is called a fundamentalist. The phenomenon of fundamentalism has always been with us and is particularly prevalent today.

    Still another answer to the problem is the comparative approach mentioned earlier. To make this comparative leap out of religious or mythic exclusivity is not to deny the validity of one's own sacred stories, but rather it is to see their universality as truthful metaphors and to relate them to our current level of knowledge and experience. This kind of ecumenism does not require the giving up of the rituals or the sacred space of one's culture or religion. It is surely unrealistic, in any case, to attempt to create a world religion, as one does not worship archetypes but cultural embodiments of archetypes. In fact, the universal language of myth and archetype requires the elements of particular cultural experience in order to be realized, just as dreams require the local experience of individuals. Sectarian myths and rituals, as identifying cultural actions, are important for the establishment of cultural identity and a state of awe without which there is little chance for the knowledge contained in the mythic sphere to affect our lives. In ritual that "works," the barriers of rationalism are at least momentarily broken down, allowing the emotional experience of the reality and truth of divine incarnation, godly covenants, or death and rebirth embodied in but by no means restricted to our own cultural myths. The fact that Christian ritual celebrates the incarnation of the Unknown in Jesus, while Hindu ritual celebrates it very differently but apparently at least as effectively in Siva, Visnu, or the Goddess, is a mystery that becomes acceptable and just according to what might be called "God logic" as opposed to human logic. More important is the fact that all cultures are joined in their many different ways in the great "religious" and mythological process of examining the Unknown. Together we are all doing what Thomas Berry suggests is the defining human act of making creation conscious of itself, the act that differentiates us from other species and is perhaps our reason for being. To put it another way, if the emergence myth defines and energizes the Hopi as Hopi, the very existence of myth and ritual defines us all as a species.

    William Doty, in defining the words myth and mythology, suggests a connection between the universal ma, the sound a baby makes at its mother's breast, which is also the Indo-European root for mother, and the root sound mu out of which emerges the Greek word mythos, literally "to make a sound with the mouth" or "word." This ma-mu connection he calls "mothermyth," which we might also call the beginning word, the first stage in the articulation of creation. Doty traces the development of the mythos word to its Homeric meaning first as style and then as the arrangement of words in story form, then to Plato as a metaphorical tale used to explain realities beyond the power of simple logic—such as the famous myth of the cave—and finally to Aristotle's use of the term as that most important of dramatic elements, "plot," the significant arrangement of events for the ritual process that was Greek tragedy (2-3). Mythology or mythologia is a combination of mythos and logos, or informing principle, later the "Word" of the Christian creation myth of John, which begins "In the beginning was the Word." To study mythology is to study myth-logic in general, or the defining myths of cultures in particular, or the cultural and collective inner life of the human quest for self-identity that stretches back at least to the Paleolithic cave paintings, themselves expressions of our defining drive to make a metaphor, to "tell a story," a drive that continues into the present.

    Myth Today

Mythologists are always asked about myth today. If mythical consciousness and myth-making are so important to our individual and collective beings, how do the old myths operate now, and where are today's myths, today's myth-making, and today's mythmakers? Or have we become so mastered by our so-called scientific-rationalistic aspect that we can no longer take seriously anything beyond its scope?

    The first point to recognize is that for the most part we do not consciously invent myths as myths any more than we consciously create dreams. There are, of course, consciously created philosophical narratives used to explain inexplicable mysteries, Plato's cave myth being one. Modern science uses "thought experiments" in a similar manner. Here, for instance, is physicist Erwin Schrödinger's (1887-1961) famous Cat in the Box experiment:

In a box there is some radioactive material, an atom of which has a 50 percent chance of decaying in a set time and being recorded by a detector. There is also a live cat and a container of poison in the box. If the atom decay does not occur, the container will break and the cat will die. There is seemingly a 50 percent chance that after a certain time the cat in the box will be dead. So, we know after a while that the cat is either dead or alive. But, in the world of Quantum Mechanics this logic does not apply. According to that world, the cat cannot be either dead or alive until we actually open the box to see what has happened. Only through conscious observation does anything become real. (see Gribbon, 2-3)

    And there is Einstein's space-traveling Relativity Twin Paradox:

There were two twins. One went on a round trip into outer space. When he got back home he was younger than his brother, because his heart, brain, and bloodflow "clocks" had slowed down during the trip. This is because time has a material or "length" aspect. The space twin was surprised on his return to discover how much older his brother was. (see Capra, 170)

    Still another good example of such a myth is Nobel Prize winner Alfred Gilman's description of G proteins, in which aspects of cellular activity are treated as conscious beings:

Cells need to know ... most of the agents convey information through intermediaries. They issue orders ... relay the information to a series of intercellular middlemen that ultimately pass the orders to the final executors. (quoted in Artigas, 97-98)

    It is not surprising that a science fiction writer such as Madeleine L'Engle should seize upon such narratives for the much-loved young adult series that includes A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters, in the second of which, for instance, the setting for an exciting struggle for survival is the cellular world of the human bloodstream.

    But, for the most part, myths are created by the collective imagination as metaphorical projections of the way things are in life. Myths emerge from our experience of reality, from our instinctive need to clothe that experience in mimetic story and concept. It is also true that as our experience as cultures and as a species changes, so do our myths. Old myths (and related rituals) grow and new ones are born so that we can step out of our merely material lives and project onto a screen, as it were, our relation to the whole picture of existence. Again, it could well be that to repress this growth and this birth is as damaging to the culture and the species as the analogous repression of the dream messages of the psyche would be to the individual.

    The Challenge to Religion

Traditionally, religions have been the repositories and interpreters of sacred stories—of myths—and the creators of rituals to express them. But as religions become institutionalized or associated with secular political power, these collective sacred metaphors and the religions themselves tend to be distorted for self-serving or political purposes. One need only look at recent events in the Middle East, in India, in Indonesia, in the Sudan, in Sri Lanka, or in Northern Ireland, to mention only a few examples of the politicized misuse of religion. Historically, the phenomenon in question has by no means been limited to extremist fringes or extremist religions. The history of mainstream Christianity, for example, contains glaring examples of repression: of the feminine principle embodied in Mary and the Holy Spirit, of the Jewishness of Jesus, of the "truth" revealed in the apocryphal gospels, of the essential message of peace conveyed by Jesus himself, and of the human mind's natural need to interpret its intellectual and physical environment. The distortions of fundamentalism are, of course, more obvious and more marked by literal interpretations for political purposes. The militant self-righteousness of fundamentalist Christianity and of fundamentalist Islam and Judaism, too, are clearly in contrast to the tolerance expressed in the New Testament, the Qur'an, and the Torah and in the compassionate teachings of the founders and prophets of the Abrahamic religions. If we think of religiosity as an aspect of our quest for psychological wholeness, the misuse of religious myth is analogous to a conscious editing of our dreams or a denial of their real metaphorical meaning in order to deceive ourselves and those around us. In the process we block the path to enlightenment. Historically, as cultures, we have done just that, misinterpreting our myths to justify, for example, arguments for gender and racial superiority and economic privilege, thus precluding social wholeness.

    The problem facing religions is not only the perversion of existing myths and traditions but the repression of new revelations. With the exception of some forward-looking factions, religions around the world today all too often not only still claim to be the sole repositories of eternal truth but repress or resist the messages of the myths that are emerging in our time. Religions are said to be timeless, by which too many religious people often really mean unchanging. Individuals grow, cultures develop, knowledge and horizons are expanded, but institutionalized religions often resist development, failing to realize that it is not the religious system or the culture it represents that is sacrosanct but the continuing growth in human consciousness it should be nurturing. As Mark Schorer has said, "Myths are the instruments by which we continually struggle to make our experience intelligible to ourselves" (Doty, 10).

    When that continuing process is forgotten or denied, the function of religions is taken over by others. Sometimes this is healthy and natural, sometimes it is not. Myths can be appropriated and tampered with by individuals and societies who pass off metaphor as fact, attempt to turn myth into history or history into myth and who even create ritual systems to provide the awe and wonder that bring myth to life. American "robber barons" of the nineteenth century played havoc with the myth of predestination as did the formulators of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny with the myths of Eden and the Messiah. Twentieth-century Western totalitarianism in its various forms owed much to the messianic and utopian aspects central to the Judeo-Christian tradition and created de facto religious systems, complete with ritual and dogma to support the artificially created myths in question. Communism, dominated by the "trinity" of Marx, Engles, and Lenin, promised a utopia based on a communal bonding that would not have surprised or offended early Christians. Military parades before the assembled leaders on the balcony above Red Square took on the aura of religious ritual. In China the cult of Mao included myths of the leader's almost superhuman intellectual and physical power. In Hitler's Germany, too, the Führer was glorified as a culture hero, and the justification for German dominance owed much to ancient myths such as those contained in the Niebelungenlied and the operas of Wagner. In mass meetings surrounded by the mythic symbols of National Symbolism the Hitler Youth expressed devotion to their hero in a style that suggested religious fanaticism rather than political loyalty.


Excerpted from MYTH by David Leeming. Copyright © 2002 by David A. Leeming. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Chapter IIntroduction: Myth and Religion3
Chapter IICreation: Myth, Science, and Modernism27
Chapter IIIDeity: Myth and Gender67
Chapter IVThe Hero: Myth, Psyche, Soul, and the Search for Union107
Text Credits169

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