Myths offer imaginative answers to the imponderable questions about origins and death, about the limits of the natural, about the workings of the human mind, about knowledge and desire. They can provide a charter for racial and national identities (Moses, King Arthur); they explain where things come from: Ovid's Metamorphoses is a forerunner of Kipling's Just- So Stories. No people has yet been found that hasn't made up a rattle bag of mythical stories about itself.
This narrative legacy is usually aligned with a low oral, as opposed to a high lettered tradition, and it reflects human appetite for entertainment, for trespass, scandal, violence, gore, sex, shock-horror, and the inexplicable ways of fate. Myths relate the deeds of men and women, divinities and other, with inexhaustible inventiveness. (I just came across a new mythical incestuous permutation, in a story from Central Asia: a young mother, recently widowed, is given her own future husband to wet nurse and raise until he's old enough to marry her.) The mythical tradition also communicates highly coloured and dramatically inflected collective histories of peoples (The Mahabharata, The Iliad, The Mabinogion) into which are knotted the shared values and beliefs of their hearers. If they are authored - by Homer, for example - the author acts as a mouthpiece of a common poem or body of legends. When these kind of stories are home-grown (the hero Cuchullain eating the salmon of knowledge), they used to be pushed into the back room labelled "the childhood of the race" and considered suitable for juvenile reading only.
It was during the Renaissance that the mythology of Greece and Rome were first recovered and re-interpreted with enthusiasm, the humanists digging in archives and libraries for manuscripts and translating and retelling them with relish: the Palazzo Te, in Mantua, built by Giulio Romano for his friend and patron the Duke, includes a tremendous vertiginous Fall of the Giants (from Hesiod) and a reception room in which the story of Cupid and Psyche is painted in sportive and voluptuous fresco. No outsider would imagine that this palace belonged to a Christian prince in the most powerful Catholic culture in the world.
The stratagems the church used to justify the return of the gods (and goddesses), with their displayed flesh and their wild ways, were ingenious: some prelates saw Bernini working on his wondrous Apollo and Daphne, in which she is turnng into a laurel tree to escape the god's attentions. One of them was indignant: such a beautiful naked girl would arouse impure thoughts. But another cardinal present, the future Pope Urban VIII, instantly came up with a couple of verses: a lover who pursues mere physical beauty will end up with nothing but a handful of leaves, as Apollo did in his pursuit of Daphne, and when he tastes the fruit, he will find it as bitter as the laurel. Bernini hardly had this in mind, but the message was inscribed on the base of the statue.
For Freud, a myth like Oedipus marrying his mother enclosed the key to consciousness and sexuality; elements in such stories prefigured the symbolic content of individual dreams and the personal struggles reflected therein. At the same time, anthropologists were beginning to study the beliefs of peoples who had little or no contact with Western or Classical or Christian culture and discovering features in common. The structuralist school of anthropologists, led by Claude Levi-Strauss, proposed a grid- like common architecture, founded on linguistics, which inspired a rich crop of studies but these methods of pursuing the meaning of myth have given way to more historical interjections, concentrating on the social context in which certain stories flourish.
A new tolerance of fantasy - indeed a fresh hunger for the marvellous - is rehabilitating mythical phantasmogoria as a topic of interest and a human resource. Poets no longer refer derisively to a "myth kitty", as Philip Larkin did; Arthurianism is flourishing in England again, and on the whole it's acknowledged that the difference between a lie and a story, as the novelist Paula Fox once wrote, is that a lie conceals the truth, but a story tries to uncover it.
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