Myth is not a dirty word
On reclaiming the power of myth as guiding force for good
“Climate change is a myth”
“Trickle down economics is a myth”
“It’s a myth that gum takes seven years to digest in your stomach”
What do these three phrases have in common? Putting aside the fact that they tend to be uttered by very different groups of people — climate change deniers, the growing proportion of the population who are losing faith in modern-day capitalism, and any given kid boasting of their superior knowledge in the playground — they all have one thing in common.
Each makes use of the word “myth” as a synonym for “lie”, “untruth”, or “thing that has not been unequivocally proven”. Any why not? Isn’t that what “myth” means?
Well, yes and no… the answer to that question lies in examining the original meaning of myth and how it has changed in modern culture.
Once upon a time, long, long ago, before the internet, before computers, before books even, there was myth and myth was good.
Myths were the guiding stories that helped us to make sense of the world around us. They were the carrying system for lesson delivery. Originally borne out of a need to explain natural phenomena in the absence of scientific understanding, early humans created myths to explain that which at the time was unexplainable. We invented gods. We accredited supernatural powers for the incredible things that we witnessed around us; the sun, the moon; the powerful and resourceful animals with which we shared our home. We created stories surrounding life and death.
Traditionally, myths were handed down orally from person to person, generation to generation, translating and transferring the lessons and cultural values of our ancestors. For example, the myth of the lost city of Atlantis, which originated from Greek philosopher Plato, told of an advanced utopian civilisation that eventually became greedy and immoral. Consequently, the city was destroyed by the gods. The lesson communicated within this myth is to be careful not to let greed take over and to live a good and moral life.
Myths didn’t profess to be literal truths. They rather contained a seed of truth wrapped up in story and therein lay their universal appeal. The word ‘myth’ originates from the Greek word mythos, meaning ‘word’ or ‘tale’ or ‘true narrative.’
Then somewhere along the way, myth took a turn. We forgot about the delicate seed of truth contained within the core, and began to brutally dissect the intricate beauty of the story that we had so neatly wrapped up around it.
We discovered science. We found new ways to explain the world around us. Mathematics and physics explained the Earth was not the centre of the universe. We realised that the sun and the stars were burning balls of gas, many light years away. We determined that the universe was in fact so vast that we needed to come up with the concept of light years.
As we began to dissect natural phenomena into their constituent parts, we came to place increasing value on rational thought, objective truth, and that which could be empirically proven. Such has our emphasis on rational thought that the word myth itself has come to be culturally synonymous with “a made-up story or false theory that we told ourselves before we knew better”. From that which was once revered, supernatural, and transcendent, myth has become less of a force that inspires and guides people and cultures, and more akin to a weapon wielded by those who seek to discredit another’s point of view. The practice of ‘myth-busting’ became a point of pride, proving that we knew unequivocally that somebody else was wrong.
Our human propensity towards dualistic thinking and our discomfort with paradox and ambiguity has meant that as we come to understand more and more of the world in scientific terms, we further reject those things that science can’t objectively explain. If we can’t “prove” it, we abandon any value or truth that it might hold. I find it somewhat ironic that despite science telling us that we have so much yet to learn about the human brain, we still have unwavering faith in the power of our intellect. We assume we know better than the natural intelligence of the planet which we call home. We have relegated our other psychological functions such as sensing, feeling, and intuiting to the realm of quackery, pseudo-science, and superstition. These were highlighted in popular culture by psychologist Carl Jung but have also been embedded within the traditional knowledge systems of indigenous cultures around the world for countless generations — cultures who we colonised, violently and systematically suppressing those traditional knowledge systems.
One of the most significant myths to fall by the wayside in our modern lives is the one that says that we are intricately connected with each other and with the natural world. Putting aside the biophysical truth beneath the concept of interconnectedness — we after all exchange 98 percent of the atoms in our bodies with the world around us every year — this story that we are separate from each other and from nature is a convenient one. It is much easier to for us to excuse our exploitation of the environment if we consider ourselves apart from it. It is much easier to trample upon the rights of other people if we consider ourselves discrete individuals rather than a collective species. It’s a story that goes back many hundreds of years. To quote Alanis Morissette, “there was an apple, there was a snake, there was division”.
In the Māori language, there is an oft-quoted whakataukī (proverb) that says “Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au,” which translates to “I am the river, the river is me.” Where reductionist, scientific thought labels this as symbolic, many Māori understand this mythology as literal, as ancestry is traced back not only to people but also to the mountains and rivers that nurtured their ancestors. It is a story that science and western rational thought tells us is not true. But in part I think it is the casual casting aside of such mythic narratives that enables us to collectively do so much harm to our home planet.
While the elevation of science has provided great leaps forward in medicine, agriculture, technology, transport, and urban planning, the loss of adherence to something more mysterious, something greater than ourselves, and greater than the sum of its parts has many of us searching for deeper meaning. I know it certainly has for me. Humans are a storytelling species; we have built our world upon narrative. In all our evolved cleverness, we think that we are rational beings moved simply by reason and objectivity. But in truth we are complex, messy, and inconsistent beings who are moved much more readily by story and narrative than we are by facts and figures. Several decades of inaction on climate change has shown us that.
Those of us who grew up in religious households or who prescribe to some sort of faith are yet familiar with myth, whether we recognise it or not. All major religions make use of parable, story, and allegory to teach, inspire, and make sense. They tell us how the world came to be, they instruct us how to lead a good life, and many of them contain important lessons in how humanity might live together in harmony with each other. But the observance of traditional religion — the mainstay of myth in recent centuries — is on decline around the world. In part, because we have alternative ways of explaining the world, and I think also in part due to the ways in which it has been abused by those who seek power and control. Along with the loss of the myth, ritual, reassurance, and comfort that religion provided to us in the past, comes a sense of emptiness and disconnection.
Abandoning that which cannot be proven robs us of our sense of wonder, awe, and admiration for the unexplainable. There is immense value in letting go, and believing in something that we feel, rather than empirically know, in the depths of our human psyche.
I believe the time has come to reclaim the word “myth” to be a force for good.
Myth is not a dirty word; myth is a belief in something larger than ourselves, larger than what we can understand. It is a trust in our innate humanness; our faith in the human condition. I recognise that this is shaky territory in this age of misinformation, conspiracy theory, and distrust in authority (which is unfortunately often well-earned by the more marginalised in our society). Let me be 100% clear that I’m not saying that we should abandon science, start treating COVID-19 with alternative remedies, or attempt to kumbaya our way out of the climate crisis.
What I am saying is that without an adherence to a central guiding story that moves us to action (because let’s be honest, those hockey stick climate graphs aren’t cutting it), we will not be able to change our culture, habits, and behaviours at the speed and to the degree that is required to address climate change, economic inequality, and other complex, wicked problems.
In my forthcoming book, A Future Untold: The power of story to transform the world and ourselves, I outline ten new myths for humanity that have a change in helping us shape a more regenerative, equitable, and just world. These new (and yet ancient) myths reorient predominant narratives that underpin our understanding of “the way things are” to provide a glimpse into how things could be in the future, if enough of us believe.
These new myths include:
- Moving from me to we, in recognition that rampant individualism is hampering our ability to make meaningful progress on complex global problems.
- Valuing collaboration over competition, as a way of re-orienting our economies and societies towards collective effort.
- Recognising that the world is full of abundance. The vast majority of the scarcity that we experience is a product of perverse economic systems, political discord, embedded racism, and other harmful stories we tell ourselves about other people and their value.
- Adopting a mindset and practice of regeneration. In many areas, sustainability is not enough; it’s no good sustaining a broken and damaged system. We need to build regeneration into our models of agriculture, education, urban planning, and circular product design.
- Recognising the value inherent in indigenous belief systems, which remind us that everything on the planet is interconnected.
In closing, I point you towards two recent Netflix documentaries that contrastingly outline the magnitude of the problems we are facing, and a inspiration for solving them. Breaking Boundaries, starring Sir David Attenborough and Johan Rockström (the latter of whom has kindly contributed the foreword for my book) introduces nine ecological planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. Going beyond them risks crossing tipping points from which there may be no return. While justifiably alarming, the documentary is ultimately uplifting, concluding that there is still time to turn things around.
The second documentary is Fantastic Fungi, which highlights the incredible network that exists beneath our feet — mycelium. This underground, out-of-sight network that supports the proliferation of mushrooms and enables trees to communicate is an apt metaphor for the stories that connect us all. When the interconnected matrix of stories that underpin our lives are healthy, the people thrive. When they are not, we all suffer.
We are significantly behind the eight-ball on a number of fronts. To speed up the change that is necessary for a healthy thriving planet full of happy people, we need to believe in new stories that paint a different future.
It is time to take back the power of myth, to shine a light on the future and uncover the beautiful path forward that we have all but forgotten.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed the story, feel free to clap — remember you can clap up to 50 times if you like it a lot! If you’d like to support my efforts in writing about storytelling for impact, narrative change, and systems change, you can do so through Patreon.
This article is adapted from my upcoming book, “A Future Untold”, launching on 28th September 2021. For updates on the book, you can sign up here. Thank you!