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Mythology and our imagined worlds

"The Boat of Charon, Sleep, Night and Morpheus" by Luca Giordano
"The Boat of Charon, Sleep, Night and Morpheus" by Luca Giordano
“The Boat of Charon, Sleep, Night and Morpheus” by Luca Giordano. Image credit: Wikimedia

Across history, natural phenomena have been explained by communities in the form of stories and fables. Earthquakes, meteorites, floods, droughts and storms are the work of supernatural deities arguing or going to war. In the complex narratives that these stories form, communities have been treated to rich tales of heroes and villains doing battle, playing tricks on each other and misbehaving by other means.

All mythological accounts share a common appeal to the existence of supernatural forces or beings, whose exploits are both the cause and the influence of our natural lives. From the chaos, the disordered world of nothingness, came order. In Greek mythology, Chaos gave birth to five divine beings who would go on to form the world. The deities reside in their own realm, enjoying all manner of pleasures and tastes inaccessible to the ordinary humans below, as Icarus woefully discovered. Some mythology points to a chief god, from Zeus to Odin; others point to a mother goddess, such as Devi of Hindu myth, who designed the world.

Perhaps a reflection of our stories’ human authorship, the gods behaved as we do, falling in love, coming to blows, relaxing and labouring at the behest of others. Zeus fathered numerous children with plenty of lovers. Similarly, the stories of the gods are clear indications of their authors’ opinions of the politics of the time. In Japanese mythology, the first two humans have children and wed. The first woman, Izanagi, makes a speech at the ceremony, but their child turns out to be a mutant. Holding the wedding again, this time with the first man speaking, the rest of the children turn out fine.

The work of the gods contributes to our own affairs – after all, the gods are responsible for our own creation! Christianity teaches that God created the world perfectly. Man was fashioned out of dust and God’s breath; from the first Man came Woman. To the Maya, the Hero Twins Hunahpu and Ixbalanque morphed into our sun and moon after beating the demons of the underworld in a ball game. The Aztecs believed that to preserve the sun, human sacrifice was required.

Divine intervention could act to humanity’s benefit. Prometheus defied the Olympians to deliver fire to humanity. When ancient Egyptians died, magical lines from the Book of the Dead enabled their spirit to enter the afterlife. The gods could also step in when their creation was delinquent or defective. Christianity accounts for a Great Flood, saving only a handful of the population to restart the world.

Britain possesses its own heroic narrative in the form of King Arthur and his quests with the Knights of the Round Table. The medieval historian William of Newburgh complained in the 1190s that a contemporary, Geoffrey, had “endeavored to dignify” the Arthurian myths “with the name of authentic history,” in order to liven British history up. These of course were magical stories that contradicted the existing scholarship written by Bede; secondly, Geoffrey’s mythology did not fit the Christian teaching to which William and his society strictly adhered.

Mythology is no longer a dominant feature of modern society and its successor, religion, is in decline. But the tales, values and messages of the narratives are preserved and studied by many specialists today. The rich stories and beautiful images of mythology continue to influence today’s culture and literature.

This article was informed by a lecture delivered by Christopher Dell, author of Mythology: An Illustrated Journey Into Our Imagined Worlds, at the 2016 York Festival of Ideas. Much of the information presented here was made accurate with reference to the content of Dell’s book.