Mythos and Logos

Cross at Kells, IrelandCross at Kells, Ireland
(9th-10th century)

Symbolism came more naturally to people in the premodern world than it does to us today.  In medieval Europe, for example, Christians were taught to see the Mass as a symbolic reenactment of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.  The fact that they could not follow the Latin added to its mystique.  Much of the Mass was recited by the priest in an undertone, and the solemn silence and liturgical drama, with its music and stylized gestures, put the congregation into a mental “space” that was separate from ordinary life.  Today many are able to own a copy of the Bible or the Qur’an and have the literacy to read them, but in the past most people had an entirely different relationship with their scriptures.  They listened to them, recited piecemeal, often in a foreign language and always in a heightened liturgical context.  Preachers instructed them not to understand these texts in a purely literal way and suggested figurative interpretations.  In the [xi] “mystery plays” performed annually on the feast of Corpus Christi, medievals felt free to change the biblical stories, add new characters, and transpose them into a modern setting.  These stories were not historical in our sense, because they were more than history.

Henri Bellechose, “The Saint-Denis Altarpiece” (1416)Henri Bellechose, “The Saint-Denis Altarpiece” (1416)
[Musée du Louvre, Paris]

In most premodern cultures, there were two recognized ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge.  The Greeks called them mythos and logos.  Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary.  Each had its own sphere of competence, and it was considered unwise to mix the two.  Logos (“reason”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world.  It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality.  People have always needed logos to make an efficient weapon, organize their societies, or plan an expedition.  Logos was forward-looking, continually on the lookoout for new ways of controlling the environment, improving old insights, or inventing something fresh.  Logos was essential to the survival of our species.  But it had its limitations: it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggles.  For that people turned to mythos or “myth.”

Giovanni Bellini, “Christ Blessing” (c.1465)
[Musée du Louvre, Paris]

Today we live in a society of scientific logos, and myth has fallen into disrepute.  In popular parlance, a “myth” is something that is not true.  But in the past, myth was not self-indulgent fantasy; rather, like logos, it helped people to live effectively in our confusing world, though in a different way.  Myths may have told stories about the gods, but they were really focused on the more elusive, puzzling, and tragic aspects of the human predicament that lay outside the remit of logos.  Myth has been called a primitive form of psychology.  When a myth described heroes threading their way through labyrinths, descending into the underworld, or fighting monsters, these were not understood as primarily factual stories.  They were designed to help people negotiate the obscure regions of the psyche, which are difficult to access but which profoundly influence our thought and behavior.  People had to enter the warren of their own minds and fight their personal demons.  When Freud and Jung began to chart their scientific search for the soul, they instinctively turned to these ancient myths.  A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time. [xii]

Baldovinetti, Madonna and ChildAlessio Baldovinetti, “Madonna and Child” (c.1460-65)
[Musée du Louvre, Paris]

But a myth would not be effective if people simply “believed” in it.  It was essentially a program of action.  It could put you in the correct spiritual or psychological posture, but it was up to you to take the next step and make the “truth” of the myth a reality in your own life.  The only way to assess the value and truth of any myth was to act upon it.  The myth of the hero, for example, which takes the same form in nearly all cultural traditions, taught people how to unlock their own heroic potential.  Later the stories of historical figures such as the Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammad were made to conform to this paradigm so that their followers could imitate them in the same way.  Put into practice, a myth could tell us something profoundly true about our humanity.  It showed us how to live more richly and intensely, how to cope with our mortality, and how creatively to endure the suffering that flesh is heir to.  But if we failed to apply it to our situation, a myth would remain abstract and incredible.  From a very early date, people reenacted their myths in stylized ceremonies that worked aesthetically upon participants and, like any work of art, introduced them to a deeper dimension of existence.  Myth and ritual were thus inseparable, so much so that it is often a matter of scholarly debate which came first: the mythical story or the rites attached to it.  Without ritual, myths made no sense and would remain as opaque as a musical score, which is impenetrable to most of us until interpreted instrumentally.

— From the Preface to: Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), pp. x-xii.