Forms of Knowing and Spiritual Activity: Myth and Mythology


Why do we try to understand myth?

Why do we want to perceive the essence of myth and religion, analyse their content, compare forms, and study their origins? We should not treat myth, prehistoric religion, and mythological poetic tradition of the old with positivist or Marxist condescension. Ancient spirituality is not just humanity’s “infant identity”; it is not just a primitive pre-class communication form of describing the world based on handmade artifacts. It seems to hold the key to the mystery of the origins of man as both a natural and supernatural being.

Myth and religion have accompanied people throughout human history. Mythological-religious consciousness is the oldest and most integral form of viewing the world; it is the first experience humans had of understanding the world and themselves. Religion acts as the most powerful force in the social, political, and cultural life of society. Religion underlies motivation of people whose activity and attitudes compose real historical matter. Not less than seventy percent of the five plus billion people living today profess a religion, and are members of a church or cult. Therefore, in order to understand modern social-political and cultural processes we must know the basics of religious history and philosophy.

Learning about historical and cultural phenomena of mythology and religion enriches people spiritually. Knowing main lines in classical (Greek and Roman) mythology is an integral part of good education because it lies in the foundation of modern European culture.

Any modern person, who professes the ideology of universal human values, democracy, humanism and freedom of conscience, must be able to distinguish between a multitude of religious faiths, cults and teachings, as well as various religious ideals and values.

Guided by positivism, we study ancient history as if it were a mere succession of political regimes, the development of production, advancements in culture and science. We totally ignore the main thing, which is the motivation of people whose actions make up the true fabric of history. Meanwhile, we could find answers to many questions of history, solve many of its mysteries if we looked at the psychology of viewing the world through myth, cult and religion. Even the most elementary type of learning – learning about oneself – requires an initial notion different from “I” as a principle of cognition. “I” cannot be the universal and necessary principle of a theory of non-contradictory and verified knowledge. “I” cannot be the source and basis of immediate obviousness. The awareness of consciousness of itself in self-consciousness is already mediated; in this sense “I” is not the simplest, indivisible or irreducible something from which the existence of everything else could be derived. Something or Someone, which underlies this, appears to be hidden in the ancient myth as a form of direct knowledge, which is crucially different from “ordinary” knowledge, whether empirical or discursive.

Even elementary consideration regarding myth as the starting point in anthropo-sociogenesis allows us to conclude that only through understanding its nature and inner meaning as well as its socio-psychological mechanisms can we find answers concerning the following:

  • The origins of sociality and reasonableness, and their essential relationship;
  • The existence of man as a supranatural being;
  • The nature of spirit, spirituality and their various objectifications;
  • Principles and issues of human relations with nature, and images of nature in culture;
  • The emergence of culture and the logic of its development as well as the evolution of object-symbolic activity, its forms and directions;
  • The dynamics of thinking and theoretical activity of man including philosophy, art, science and their origins in cult and mysticism;
  • The genesis of traditional institutions: authority, community, state, family, church, education etc;
  • The logic of ancient history and the meaning of epic wars.

The study of the influence of ancient myth, mythogenic consciousness and religion on the origins of humanity and its early history should be made the most important part of learning about myth. This learning has the following objectives that run through it: the analysis of the projection of myth and religion on consciousness (e.g. psychological and mental states, thinking and subjectivity), sex (emotionality, subconscious and libido), sociality (socialisation, morality and law), and nation (church, ideology, and politics). Numerous scholars have tried to tackle these problems, some with considerable success. Systematic approaches also exist. What is lacking though is any consensus in this area (except Marxist consensus, but their critique is gnoseologically negativistic and, therefore, holds no productive potential). There is an abundance of historical, theoretical and religious material: originals, commentaries, exegetic texts, and reference publications. Despite this, there is a clear need for a fundamental mechanism of objectification of such supersensual meanings and symbols as religious faith.

Conceptual and methodological complexity of studying mythology and religion derives from the fact that it implies a combination of three major aspects of myth and religion as objects of study: (1) their own substance, (2) the historical and cultural context of their development, (3) the structure of mythological and religious consciousness containing religious and mystical experience and faith. Therefore, there can be an unlimited number of attempts to address these questions, and we can only hope to see a systemic completion of this great enterprise.

Common features of myth as such

Myth is one of the most obscure areas of human consciousness. The essence of myth defies positivist methods of modern science. Historiography, ethnology, sociology, folklore studies, linguistics and psychology analyse and model solely external, in effect, variable myth parameters in its ritual aspect. The internal substance, including the mystical meaning of myth and the psychology of beliefs, is left outside the scope of scientific understanding. The meaning of myth requires meditative feeling and personal mystical experiencing. This method is a qualitatively different from the ones described above.

Any mysticism exists in personal experiencing, the experiencing of an intimate encounter with the otherness of an Absolute Existence. Rational descriptions and analyses of a mystical experience always leaves out very important, essential aspects. A special language is required that would fit the uniqueness of a mystical experience to express and understand that mystical experience which implies a certain detachment from the event that triggered the experience.

Myth is the main and only form of the ancient man’s worldview. Myth is not only a form of public consciousness but also a form of social existence. Myth is a syncretic form of conscience that does not differentiate the real and ideal components of an event (existence) or even tell an event itself (the objective) from an attitude to it (the subjective).

Contemporary worldview is primarily based on the advances of science which views reality through the cause and effect relationship and excludes purpose as the origin of the world. Compared to modern culture and cognition myth presented a completely different form of perceiving the world and man, nature and society. Myth is dominated by the belief that nature has meaning and purpose. Myth animates reality through senses and strives to register and comprehend the extrasensory (numinous) nature of things.

Myth is an archaic form of holistic perception which has to do with an undifferentiated esthetic continuum. Reality is not broken into a subject and an object in myth; and people have not yet isolated themselves from nature (syncretism).

Strictly speaking, myth does not contain thinking if we understand by it rational reasoning operating abstract notions. The world has a profoundly concrete form in myth; myth itself is concrete as a means of expressing and interpreting the world and life in the world. The concreteness of myth is the main characteristic of its content, which unites opposite definitions.

Mythological beliefs derive from, and are reproduced by, the intuitive work of consciousness rather than the analytical one. The intuition of all-encompassing world being, which incorporated elements of entire reality both experienced through the senses and known in the extrasensory way, has proved capable of synthesizing and expressing understandable and clear-cut forms of mythological ideality, as well as their metamorphoses.

Myth does not only animate and humanise nature, but it also deifies it. Deification of natural phenomena and human traits is interconnected; therefore, it is wrong to believe, following Feuerbach, that man abandons his best qualities as a representative of his kinship in the figure of deity. These features could not be identified and recognized by human consciousness unless people comprehended their living environment. Myth embodied an indeterminate longing for being and life undivided into functions and a deep meaning of god as the basic form of the productivity of human spirit (Kurt H?bner, The Truth of Myth. Moscow: Republic, 1996).

The genesis of mythological worldview is one of the most difficult research questions. There are several major interpretations of mythology tracing it to different sources and pointing out different factors that have influenced its development.

The interpretation of myth as allegory and a form of historical memory belongs to the Stoics and Epicureans, who lived in the Hellenist period when myth had already started to lose its strength. They believed that in myth people humanised natural phenomena when they could not understand the nature of physical processes in any other way than by analogy with themselves. It extrapolates to the world the traits and qualities it finds in itself and exteriorizes its subjectivity. In other words, it assigns to natural phenomena and processes the meaning it can conjure up itself.

It must be said that together with the anthropomorphisation (humanisation) of nature we witness a reverse process – that of the zoomorphisation (likening to animals) of humans. The zoo-morphisation is a special form of totemic consciousness, which is the ideology of an isolated tribal clan where the tribe is the community of relatives.

Some interpret myth as a form of historical memory when the figures of chiefs, rulers, military leaders, heroes and wise men, preserved in tales and legends, with time tend to acquire the status of deity. Oral and written traditions, which contain information about historical persons, acquire extra details, indirect statements (metaphors), and exaggerations (hyperboles). In general, the longer the time distance between the past and the present, the more archaic consciousness was inclined to exaggerate the ethical value of a person or event from the past (see, Hesiod’s poem, Works and Days, the figurative depiction of the change of metals, centuries and historical degradation of culture). Thus, the reverse side of the interpretation of myth as a form of historical memory is the interpretation of myth as a “language disease”.

The fear of the surrounding world filled the entire human being; it was so great that it could crash a person, unless that fear was localized as a certain outside force, e.g., a demonic one. Myth was a way to remove negative experience and a form of sublimating a psycho-neurotic energy as a phantasm. Phantasm is something that connects the ungraspable nature of this inexpressible something, which acts as the reason of fear with some known elements of possible manifestation: something is perceived by consciousness as someone, who has a certain number of features, with each of them individually is understood to varying degrees. “Man perceives mysterious fate in the image of the unpredictable mood of a being with whom man must come to an agreement by request or sacrifice” (Kurt H?bner, The Truth of Myth. Moscow: Republic, 1996: 42).

The connection of myth and ritual or, to be more exact, making ritual and ritualization part of myth, reveals the social nature of mythological consciousness. Archaic man could not act, let alone act purposefully, if he did not have any ideology, spiritual justification, or plan for the activity. Any serious undertaking had to be blessed first. Therefore, on face value, the general interpretation of myth can be easily likened to a machine of archaic cognition.

Greek and Roman mythologists suggest that myth should be treated not only as concrete narrative of early religious consciousness, which relate to each other in the way content relates to form, but also as an etiological explanation of a historically developed ritual. The ideal element of mythological consciousness – the mythologem – is a descriptive-didactic aspect of ritual. Once created, the mythologem was capable of transforming the ritual by incorporating new elements in the religious ceremony. Referring to the “father of history” Herodotus, the Greek apologetic fathers of Christianity Lactantius and Athinagoras called ritual a collective sacral esoteric practice that mimetically reproduced acts of god or heroic passions.

Internal differentiations in myth

Myth is the earliest form of human experience when people tried to comprehend the world around them and themselves. Myth is traditionally viewed as the earliest form of public consciousness. Myths are the ideology of a prehistoric collective based on clan or tribe. Man constructs the world order in myth and determines the origins of everything by establishing the dependence of nature and himself on gods and spirits who embody phenomena and forces of nature.

All positive, descriptive and classifying definitions of myth, which we give it today, are no more than overtones, a way of talking about what we cannot already or yet talk about.

Originally, the language of myth was evidence of some obviousness we cannot understand yet. Early philosophers were the first to interpret and critique myth. They suggested the approach we use today. It implies that the language of myth is a symbol, metaphor (transfer based on similarity) and hyperbole (exaggeration). In myth, the symbolic is linked to the sensory, the formal to the material, the factual to the fictional, the fantastic to the real, the rational (notional) to the emotional (sensorial), the abstract (generalised) to the concrete (consisting of opposite definitions). Myth is a syncretic form of consciousness. People who had mythological consciousness did differentiate themselves and the environment or the social (public) and the natural (wildlife). They did not juxtapose themselves as a subject with the world as an object.

Known myths can be classified according to several criteria. We will cite some of them. Mythology can be divided into polytheism and monotheism based on the number of deified entities. Polytheism (believing in multiple gods) or paganism are mythologies that, as a rule, include ideas about numerous distinct supersensory subjects that act in isolation or together with each other. Polytheistic gods, spirits, and demons are not absolute, i.e. they do not include all supernatural abilities. Monotheism (believing in an all-encompassing god) acknowledges the existence and the absolute status of one God, the creator of the world and the source of all being who governs directly or indirectly natural and historical processes.

Animism, pantheism and transcendism are based on the ratio between the natural and supranatural (non-natural and transcendal, i.e. transcending the limits of possible experience) in the essence of a deity or deities.

Animism is a belief in spirits that are not accessible through senses, but that inhabit the visible world and rule over it. Animist spirits are part of the world and are not something cardinally different from it in composition.

Pantheism is the deification of nature implying that everything is part of an all-encompassing, immanent God; it understands nature as a visible God, a God that is revealed through a multitude of forms and manifestations of life.

Transcendism postulates that God is put outside the world and has no connection points with the world other than the “revelation” or exceptional cases of God’s intervention into nature or the world’s history. God is absolutely transcendent, i.e. He can neither be logically deduced from reality (nature) nor can He be defined through anything real; therefore, the knowledge of God can only be obtained through negating concepts that might be applied to him.

Opposite ways of treating nature and the world are the object and basis of religious thinking antinomies.

Gods are very diverse in ancient myths. They can be divided into:

a) zoomorphic, i.e. animal-like; they tend to be part of totemic cults in which people worshiped an animal that had gaven birth to humankind;

b) anthropomorphic, i.e. human-like (e.g., Olympian gods in Ancient Greece);

c) animistic gods or spirits; spirits could serve as sources or patrons of forces or manifestations of nature: water, fire, wind etc.;

d) demonic or evils spirits or anti-heroes.

Ancient people deified not only natural phenomena and individual things (fetishes), but also their dead ancestors; hence, as many anthropologist and historians believe, the cult of heroes as patrons of a clan, tribe or community.

Gods of ancient myths, especially in Europe, had all human attributes: they had human temperament, mental states and passionate nature. They could everything a human could do but to a much greater degree. It was very rare that ancient myths created a single absolute deity, they mostly had a hierarchy of gods different in rank and possessing different abilities. The only exception among ancient mythologies was the religion of Jews who made their tribal god (Yahweh or Jehovah) the supreme ruler of the world assigning to Him the role of Creator and the Almighty.

Character of mythological thinking

The main feature of mythological thinking was people’s confidence that they could talk to deities, spirits and demons. If they performed rituals correctly and delivering sacrifices they could get from gods what they wanted (e.g., asking for rain in a drought or luck in hunting, good fortune in seafaring, etc.). This confidence could hardly stem from our ancestors’ overconfidence. There must have been some more valid reasons than just mere psychology, especially bearing in mind that the human psyche was less developed then than it is now. It was simpler and more immediate.

The obviousness of mythogenic notions has given rise to magical practices: ceremonies, rituals and other mystic acts designed to “butter up” good spirits and scare off evil ones. Magic was a form of religious ceremony, a form of early religious consciousness, a practice of fortune telling, and a way to accumulate, save and transfer mystic knowledge. Magic survives in archaic cultures and pagan cults as well as occultism and satanism (e.g., shamanism of northern nations, the cult of voodoo in Africa and Latin America etc.).

Published earlier: Barezhev K.B. Elements of Philosophy (in Russian). St Petersburg State Institute of Economics and Management Press: St Petersburg, 2012.