Myth and History

As moderns, we are all believers in history, which is to say that we are disbelievers in myth. We credit history as the record of events that actually, objectively occurred in the empirical world of space and time. We discredit myth, history’s ontological opposite, insofar as we equate it with falsehood. Myths are mere subjective fantasies, “figments of the imagination” (cf. “fiction”, < L. figmentum).

But the ancients recognized that the recurrent and universal motives of mythology are truer and more meaningful than the local and evanescent facts of history. Even the temperamentally scientific and down-to-earth Aristotle (vid. his posture in Raphael’s “School of Athens”, supra) described the symbolic fictions of myth as “more philosophical” than the mere facts of history. And without myths, one might add, history usually goes awry.

In general, religious mythologies–in contrast with political mass movements–serve a morally salubrious purpose. Consider the chastening effect on human behaviour of the mythologem of God’s judgment and destruction of the world. How much of the unprecedented moral depravity of the previous century (the two world wars, Nazism, communism, the burgeoning epidemics of teen pregnancy and illegitimate births, the abortion holocaust, the all-devouring parisitism of the welfare state) might we have been spared had people still believed in a final Day of Reckoning for their sins?

Lacking a compelling eschatology, our post-religious generations have been obliged to invent a succession of pale secular alternatives (overpopulation, AIDS as a supposedly universal plague, nuclear winter, global warming, etc.). But having been dreamed up by political ideologues, they have never succeeded in burrowing into the depths of the collective psyche.

The ancients recognized that apocalypses had to be divinely ordained to have any practical effect. Indeed, the Greeks and Romans (an infinitely more otherworldly and upright civilization than they were given credit for by the Christian one that superseded it) preached a never-ending cycle of world destruction and renewal by the alternating agencies of fire and flood (ekpyrosis and exygrosis, as they called it).

In this regard, Christianity is rather more lax in its attitude to sin and damnation than paganism. Its biblical God has delivered one measly Flood, and has faithfully kept His promise never to repeat the exercise. Undoubtedly, God has made many foolhardy decisions over the aeons, which He has come eventually to regret. But the rashest promise a deity has ever made in the annals of religious history was not to unleash another Flood. We need a Flood. We’re overdue.