The Vocabulary of Myth, Part III

Myth and Mystery…

The De-mythologizing and De-mystifying Valency of Science…

     In our own time, Joseph Campbell has eloquently restated the problem, and the paradox, of myth:

The forms of sensibility and the categories of human thought…so confine the mind that it is normally impossible, not only to see, but even to conceive, beyond the colorful, fluid, infinitely various and bewildering phenomenal spectacle.

Yet, as Campbell continues,

The function of ritual and myth is to make possible, and then to facilitate, the jump–by analogy.  Forms and conceptions that the mind and its senses can comprehend are presented and arranged in such a way as to suggest a truth or openness beyond.  And then, the conditions for meditation having been provided, the individual is left alone.  Myth is but the penultimate; the ultimate is openness–that void, or being, beyond the categories–into which the mind must plunge alone and be dissolved.  Therefore, God and the gods are only convenient means–themselves of the nature of the world of names and forms, though eloquent of, and ultimately, conducive to, the ineffable.  They are mere symbols to move and awaken the mind, and to call it past themselves.

Myths are self-transcending fictions; by means of provisional, approximative, and manifestly inadequate symbols and images, they point beyond themselves to a transcendent, divine order which, as Plato described it in the Timaeus, is “impossible to know or express”.

For such reasons, the ancients described the myths as “mysteries”.  We are all familiar with the popular meaning of that word:  something difficult or impossible to understand or explain, because it is unusual, paradoxical, or even miraculous.  But in antiquity and the Middle Ages, the noun mysterium was rather more exalted in meaning than in its current pauperized usage.

The festival of Christmas, for instance–or what the de-mythologizing and demystifying fanatics of political correctness insist on calling the Holiday Season—was conventionally understood as the celebration of the first of the two central “mysteries” upon which the Christian religion is founded:  the Incarnation, i.e., the descent of the eternal, incorporeal, and invisible God into the flesh and the world of space and time.

As the text of the Christmas motet begins, “O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum” (O great mystery, and wondrous sacrament).  The text is instructive:  its more or less synonymous conjunction of the words “mystery” and “sacrament” tells us something rather important for our present purposes.

In popular modern usage, as I’ve said, one might call any phenomenon that is difficult to comprehend or explain a mystery:  for instance, the mystery of flight (as folks at the beginning of the last century used quaintly to refer to that cutting-edge technology), or of calculus, or (to continue to list things I’ll never understand), the mystery of the golf swing, or the mystery of the popularity of the Liberal Party in Canada.

But in the pre-modern imagination, the word “mystery” was reserved for an entity or event that was not merely incomprehensible but also experienced as sacred, as a sacramentum; and indeed the mystery—the incomprehensibility and wonder—of it was inseparable from its sacredness. Everything that is mysterious is sacred:  ordained by God, a manifestation of God, or a concealment of God; and everything that is sacred is by necessity mysterious.


That mystery is rooted in the Divine was the universal attitude of the pre-modern.  As modern anthropologists have defined it, the mark of the primitive psyche is to invest with—to project upon—everything in nature that is inexplicable to it, a consciousness and a will, indeed, a personality very much like its own (only rather more powerful and therefore more dangerous).  Every important event in the life of the tribesman or the  history of the tribe, every anomaly in the natural order (earthquake, flood, birth, an unexpectedly bountiful harvest) was conceived as the effect of God’s inscrutable and capricious beneficence or displeasure.

When what we call “Science” finally intervened to explain these events, it could only do so, of course, by ascribing them to purely physical causes, that is,  by de-mystifying them.  Science, in due course, expunged from the universe every trace of Soul or Mind or God.  The inscrutable living Spirit that was formerly and from time immemorial thought to reside at the centre of, to animate and govern everything that exists and occurs in the world, was pronounced dead, and the de-spirited carcass of the cosmos assumed thereafter to be moved by the cold hand of mechanical law.

Here, again, is one of the most obvious differences between the modern and pre-modern outlooks.  If the ancient reflex was to multiply and aggrandize mystery, the modern project is to diminish and ultimately abolish it.

From the end of the eighteenth century to the present, nonetheless, Science, and scientific criticism, have tended to pronounce the death of mystery and God with a dogmatic excess of certitude and materialistic zeal.  “Scientific” critics of the Bible, for instance, have told us, with overweening confidence, that the parting of the waters of the Red Sea during the Exodus was the result of no miraculous intervention by God, but is merely the dim folk memory of a freak drought or unusually low tide, abetted perhaps by a sudden windstorm.  This is a nice bit of modern rationalization, but as such it is of course wholly beside the point.  To reduce a religious mystery to a meteorological event, and explain that event in accordance with the principles of natural causation, is to completely misapprehend it.

As any student of mythology knows, the parting of the Red Sea didn’t happen, at least not in the sensible world of space and time; it is poetry, not history, symbol not fact.  The very point of the story is mythic and symbolic:  to demonstrate the majestic power of the God of Israel, who with a “mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (in the words the writer of Exodus) shepherded his people out of bondage in Egypt and into the Promised Land, just as he would later liberate them from captivity in Babylon and greater Persia; as he would be beseeched to liberate them again from the Empires of Greece and Rome; and as eventually he would release all mankind from bondage to Satan, sin, and death.

The Israelites’ passing over dry-shod of the Red Sea is, beyond that, an only subtly veiled historical transcription of the ancient mythologem of the nocturnal death and matutinal resurrection of the Ancient Near Eastern sun-god, who every night set in the western sky and descended into the waters of the underworld sea, there to encounter the chaos-dragon Tiamat, or Apophis, or Rahab, or Leviathan (all historicized by the Hebrew biblical authors as the evil Pharaoh), to conquer him and deliver from his belly the captive dead into the light of salvation.

This, as we will see, is one of the foundational and recurrent myths that govern the whole course of the so-called “history” of the Judaeo-Christian Bible.