The word ‘myth’ is commonly understood to mean something that is untrue, false or otherwise not supported by evidence. This meaning is itself untrue, as myths are neither, strictly speaking, true in a literal sense, but neither are they false, as they are meant to convey a deeper truth. A ‘myth’ is simply a story, and can be interpreted to convey truth or to spread falsehood. What is usually labelled as a ‘myth’ today is not a story with a variety of meanings, but rather a lie which has no basis in fact. For example, the myth of Scotland’s landscape being formed by the actions of a primordial woman known as the ‘Cailleach’. It would be absurd to think that a giant woman existed and shaped the land by doing things like letting a well in a mountain overflow to form a loch, but since the Cailleach is a personification of Mother Nature herself, this helps us to interpret the myth in a way that we can understand.
This is because the events described in myths have taken place so long ago that none now live who remember them, and so it is necessary to describe the events in a way that is easier to remember rather than completely accurate. The problem with the modern use of the word ‘myth’ is that it assumes the inherent falsehood of stories like this because they cannot be true in a literal sense, and so discredits the entire story altogether. This is a narrow way to perceive reality, as it means that only that which is material or tangible can be considered true, while deeper meanings and multiple perspectives are neither considered nor questioned.
Mythology is highly dependent on factors such as culture and environment. The features of a particular country’s landscape give myths observable meaning to the people that inhabit it, which is why the forests and mountains of Northern Europe are said to be home to elves, trolls and fairies, beings which are specific to the traditions of these lands. The mythological creatures that are said to inhabit the jungles of South-East Asia are of a similar nature but different form, because their appearance and behaviours are rooted in the folk-consciousness of the people that inhabit that part of the world, as well as the local environment. This also means that different mythologies reflect different values depending on culture. The aristocratic and pastoral ethics of the Ancient Persian epic, the ‘Shahnameh’ (‘Book of Kings’), where the main characters are noble cavalrymen who play polo, hunt lions and fight in great battles for their king, would find little resonance with the hunter-gatherers of Prehistoric Finland, whose mythology is primarily concerned with creation and supernatural tales of heroes journeying to the underworld.
The peoples of the world tell stories about heroes and gods that they admire and aspire to, as they represent the best people to survive in their own environment and embody the potential excellence of their own folk. Our ancestors would look to their lore in times of hardship to give them strength and wisdom. The story of Robert the Bruce, who was inspired to continue pursuing his ambitions by a spider who never gave up when tying to build a web, even after successive failures, serves as a moral to encourage us to learn from our mistakes and push ourselves to reach for success. Now, this story is probably not literally true (apparently the spider was actually seen by one of his kinsmen who told the king-in-exile, in order to encourage him) and is technically more of a legend, since it is based on a historical event. This matters not, its purpose is not simply to inform us about the past, but to apply what our ancestors have learned in our current and future endeavours.
However, a people’s mythology can be obscured or obstructed through competing forms of media, namely modern mass media and academia. These institutions do not exist for the sake of the survival of a race of people, but rather for their own survival as institutions and the international system that they support. Greek and sometimes Egyptian mythology may be taught to school pupils who learn about history or, if they’re lucky, Classics; but Nordic or Celtic mythology is only at best taught at university level and available for enthusiastic readers, but at worse is portrayed in heavily watered down and maladapted forms in Hollywood films and TV series. The effect of mass media is that it creates its own mythology in place of that belonging to a particular race, and serves only to promote ideas that reflect the values of the establishment rather than the folk that consume it. This is also the case with organized religions, who have a universalist approach to mythology which manifests as dogma, which is interpreted as literal truth by their most fundamentalist adherents. This is why only among the most honest academics, and hardly ever among mainstream Abrahamic clergy, is it admitted that their own teachings are simply variations on Judaic mythology (which is itself a mishmash of Babylonian, Egyptian and Canaanite mythology). Since the events of the Old and New Testaments are not generally presented to us as ‘mythology’, this means that the word ‘myth’ as applied to other traditions gains the connotations of ‘false belief’; which is why, to many today, it sadly retains this meaning.
One size does not fit all in this world, there are many ways to determine truth and it is important that this is what we look for when we interpret stories. Myths that are interpreted incorrectly or purposely misused to control or abuse a population should not receive the support of the masses, as the acceptance of lies only creates an impregnable castle in the clouds for those who gain power by fleecing ordinary folk. While it is is interesting to study the comparative mythologies of nations around the world (which is especially helpful if your people have a mythology that has been suppressed and only survives in fragments), it is one’s own local and ethnic tales which will appeal most to the soul and whose meaning can be best understood by the individual. In a way, the myths are themselves abstract constructions, but they are designed not to distort or obscure history; rather, their importance is more applicable to the present state of things than the past, which has passed into the well of memory and slips further away from us in time.
We will not find Truth in lies, nor lies in Truth. Objective Truth is beyond literal and metaphorical, it simply is. Our folk myths are precious and must be preserved, though it is only natural that once they come into regular, oral use, the descriptions and language will change over time, but the meanings will remain the same. Mythology is not simply a static collection of literary verses, but a living and growing body of lore which maintains and is maintained by a people through regular recitation and discourse. Those of us who enjoy reading regularly can find more books and other information about mythology than ever before on the internet, while others with more aural sensibilities can listen to recitations either in audio-book form or by seeking out storytellers active in their communities. Tradition helps us to continue our story, while modernity makes us forget it. We have precious little time to recover our heritage before we are tested to survive in the new world that is emerging…