Just this week I learned the Top Ten Myths about an aspect of my school-- that is, the Top Ten Popular Misconceptions. The word myth refers most often today to misconceptions, fallacies, and outright lies. If you believe a myth, you're living in a fantasy world.
The Greeks had a word-- mythos-- that originally meant a story or an account. In the early centuries of Greek civilization (say 800-400 BC), mythos had no negative connotation, and according to mythologist Bruce Lincoln, often meant a story with authority and power.
Then Socrates and Plato came along and invented logic, and it was all downhill for mythos. They, along with later philosophers, elevated the word logos, which originally meant an account, a mathematical telling, or a plan, to the level of a true story, as opposed to mythos, a false story. Plato strongly disapproved of old stories, especially those about bogey-men that ancient day-care workers told little kids to scare them into being good. Philosophy, the logos, the true word, would cure all that, and no one would be ruled by fear anymore.
The Gospel of John appropriated logos, capitalized it, and made it into another name for Jesus ("In the beginning was the Word...", John 1:1). Logos now became Christian property, and mythos was relegated to the status of the lies that pagans told.
Christianity, following Plato's lead, has given us the Top Ten Myths.
Mythologists love to make up definitions of myth, and I am no exception. I try to keep it as simple as possible-- "a myth is a story told over and over again that helps a culture come to terms with its reality" is my latest. My definition has the advantage of being applicable to any kind of story, whether it has gods, heroes, monsters, or anything else we associate with Greek mythology. To me, myth is everywhere, not just in the ancient world. That's why I have a category for essays about American myth.
Our myths tend to come in patterns rather than individual stories, and you will see politicians exploiting these story patterns in order to sway public opinion. Robert Reich, Labor Secretary under President Clinton, and an accomplished writer, speaker, and professor, laid out in his Tales of a New America four kinds of historical stories that dovetail with American values and help us come to terms with our reality:
1. The mob at the gates: America has to stick together, or The Enemy is going to get us. Currently, we have two Mobs threatening the American Way, a spiritual and military enemy (Muslim extremists), and an economic enemy (China). Past Mobs have included Nazis, Indians, Mexicans, Communists, even extraterrestrials. How many movies can you think of which include these groups as the bad guys?
2. The triumphant individual: This is "the parable of the self-made man," according to Reich, "the little guy who works hard, takes risks, believes in himself, and eventually wins wealth, fame and honor." Every election, every candidate always talks about America as the land of opportunity, where anyone can achieve anything if he or she is willing to put in the sweat.
3. The benevolent community: At times of crisis in America, we all pitch in, help each other out, and restore each other's faith in human nature. Reich uses the movie It's A Wonderful Life as an example of a benevolent-community story, but more often you hear this tale in the newspaper after some community tragedy or natural disaster. Like clockwork, the media will come out with tales of extraordinary generosity in the midst of some crisis.
4. The rot at the top: This is one of the most favored movie subjects of all time. A corporation, government, or secret society is always trying to control events from behind the scenes, and it's up to the little guy to expose it and put things right. The Firm, a novel by John Grisham and a movie with Tom Cruise, deals with rot at the top of an influential Southern law firm. Maybe you also remember that in Who Killed Roger Rabbit? the central conflict is based on a (supposedly real-life) conspiracy by auto- and tiremakers to destroy public transportation in Los Angeles.
Do you know of any stories where a triumphant individual uses the resources of his community to stop the rot at the top which is allowing the mob at the gates to take over our country? If you could write that screenplay, you might become rich.