Between Fact and Fiction: the Power (and Fun) of Mythology

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Know what all the cool kids are doing? Mythology. I nerd out about mythology. I read it. I teach it. I write books loaded with it. This raises questions for some people—people who regard the joy that I take in reading myths as skeptically as I regard the joy they take in playing Sudoku or eating kale. The difference, of course, is that they are wrong and I am right. Myths are awesome. Those other things are just math and ugly lettuce.

“What is a myth, anyway?” you might ask. “Isn’t that what Jamie and Adam try to bust with experiments that generally involve blowing something up?”

No! Admittedly, Urban Legend Busters is not a cool enough name for a program that involves launching Molotov cocktails with a duct-tape trebuchet—but urban legends are what they bust on that show, not myths. The embarrassing amount of time and money I spent earning my degrees and certificates has qualified me to know the difference. Basically the only other thing it has qualified me to do is to write silly stories about a magical detective—it’s a select skill set. But take out your pencils; this will be on the test: a myth is a sacred narrative.

Myths are not fiction and they’re not fact. They’re myths. A myth is to be respected, not busted. My mythology class spends weeks drilling this concept. The resurrection of Christ is a myth. Siddhartha’s enlightenment is a myth. The voyage of Odysseus is a myth. That doesn’t mean that these stories are false, nor does it mean that they are true. It means they are true on a different level. You don’t need to believe them to respect that their messages are vitally important to a culture and to understand that they carry within them values that are central to that culture.

“So? Myths are sacred stories. Who cares, nerd? I have Pokémon to catch.”

Start caring! Because, just like those Pokémon you’re after, myths are all around us, even if we don’t notice them. In fact, that Ninetails you hopped your neighbor’s fence to catch yesterday is based on a fox spirit of Eastern mythology. Zapdos is based on a Native American thunderbird, Golurk on a rabbinical golem, Drowzee on the Japanese baku. It doesn’t stop with Pokémon, either. Myths are everywhere, every day—and I do mean every day; the days of the week are named for the Germanic gods Tiw (Tuesday), Woden/Odin (Wednesday), Thor (Thursday), and Frigg (Friday), as well as the sun and moon (Sunday and Monday). The Roman Saturn (Saturday) even snuck in there for good measure.

If you’ve ever said “bless you” after a sneeze, or “knock on wood” for luck, you’ve been influenced by mythology. If you know where your Achilles tendon is, if you ever heard an echo, if you’ve ever eaten breakfast cereal, or even if you simply have clothes on your back, you have been influenced by mythology. If you have a phobia about myths and you think mythology is your nemesis, if it fills you with fury that I keep harping on about it … too bad! You have been influenced by mythology.     

“Yeah, but I’ve survived pretty long not knowing that clothing is named for the fate Clotho. How important can myths be?”

Myths matter. You can quibble about who makes the myths, but it cannot be denied that myths make us. They are instructive—cautionary and inspirational. They teach us to be heroes and to watch out for villains. They teach us that struggle comes before success. They teach us about honor and mercy and bravery. Myths teach us to be human.

We forget this when we see religion invoked as an excuse to be inhuman. Hitler claimed the Nazi regime was a Christian movement. ISIS claims their terrorist acts are carried out in the name of Islam. Terrorists in Burma have even claimed adherence to Buddhism, a religion best known for promoting peace and coexistence. Fear and hate come not from any one religion, but from ignorance. Isolation breeds ignorance. We fear what we do not understand, and with our increasingly global society, we cannot afford to keep willfully refusing to understand. Stories teach perspectives. As our own stories became a part of us, we gained empathy for those like us. If we expand the diversity of the stories in our consciousness, then we expand that capacity for empathy. The world desperately needs more empathy and it desperately needs less ignorance.

It is completely possible to coexist. I was fortunate to grow up in a diverse family of Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and Christians. Masks of Hanuman and Ganesh hung in my childhood room; I ate matzo balls at Passover and decorated a tree at Christmas—which I later learned was really a pagan tradition anyway. Our Thanksgiving dinners did not end with violent disagreements. They ended with pie. The world also desperately needs more pie.

“Fine, but seriously, I could be doing Sudoku right now.”

Curse your contemptible math boxes! Mythology isn’t just important, it’s also FUN. Myths are the original blockbusters. Think Civil War or Batman v Superman was epic? Superhuman powerhouses duking it out until they realize they have a lot in common, then teaming up to save the world? Try Gilgamesh versus Enkidu. That hit theaters—and by theaters I mean clay tablets—circa 2150 BCE (1500 years before Homer wrote about a guy crashing his boat into every monster he met on his way home). Prefer romances? Mythology has loads. That Shakespeare dude straight ripped off Pyramus and Thisbe when he wrote Romeo and Juliet. How about a raucous buddy comedy? There’s the one where Thor drinks a lot and lets Loki talk him into cross-dressing and getting married to a frost giant. (It’s almost as good as the one where Loki becomes a mother.)

Heroes, villains, love, war, monsters. Go read some myths, already. I promise, they’re loads better than kale!

Top image: Thor (2011)

ghostly-echoesWilliam Ritter is an Oregon author and educator. He is the proud father of the two bravest boys in the Wild Wood, and husband to the indomitable Queen of the Deep Dark. Ghostly Echoes is the third book in his New York Times bestelling Jackaby series. It’s on sale August 23 from Algonquin Young Readers.


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