The Myths that Make Us
by Sara Gorske & Brooke Lindsey
Myths, legends, folk stories, and fairy tales: perhaps it is these earliest human narratives which remain the most enduring. From Greek heroes to the tales of Grimm, certain recurring motifs found in these stories from across the world can tell us something about our deepest fears and questions. And in exploring those questions, they often seek to explain them. Although many oral traditions found their way into the religion and fundamental belief systems of the cultures from which they originated, the way we use the English word “myth” today tells a different story. Myths are, by definition, untrue tales. (1)
Yet, even the origins of the word “myth” itself tell us something different about what these stories mean. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, myths are “stories about divine beings, generally arranged in a coherent system; they are revered as true and sacred.” (2) So how has this word, which once referred to that which is “true and sacred,” come to mean something opposite—a story that is false?
It seems that the notion of story itself is placed in contrast with truth—it is the juxtaposition of fiction with fact. Yet even the way we convey knowledge based on empirical evidence is rooted in narrative. In a 2014 article published by the National Academy of Sciences, Professor Michael F. Dahlstrom argues that narrative communication can actually be used to strengthen scientific communication, writing that “narrative cognition is thought to represent the default mode of human thought, providing structure to reality and serving as the underlying foundation for memory.” (3) The rich narrative tradition of the past serves not as the primitive precursor to today’s science-based explanations; rather, storytelling is the fundamental means by which we convey human thought—including our assertions and explanations of the objective truths grounding the world in which we live.
When we examine recurring motifs in classic stories therefore, perhaps we can search them for the universal truths they often convey, rather than merely the creative means through which they are expressed. Myths, folktales, and fairytales seek to answer fundamental questions about mankind’s place in a world which often asks more than can be answered solely by reason. The evil stepmother. The quest for immortality. Man’s descent into a basal and bestial nature. What does the enduring nature of these motifs say about the human condition?
Take, for example, the classic struggle between “good” and “evil” which is used as the central underlying conflict in countless stories. This battle may be represented as a literal one, but more often, it is a subtle positioning of a protagonist, endowed with the qualities of innocence or chivalry, against his or her antithesis, with both pursuing the same goal.
In the simplest terms, the conflict between characters representing good and evil can represent humanity’s endless faith that each person is his or her own protagonist, pursuing desires which are fundamentally good but always seem to be thwarted, either by circumstances or others. However, this battle is more fully described by the basic idea of many religions: humanity is at war with that which we cannot see, leading the world to be categorized in a state of essential wrongness—what we call evil.
An example of this type of battle is the motif of the evil step-mother. Occurring in fairy tales such as “Snow White,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “Rapunzel,” the protagonists must come to understand that authority figures may not always deserve trust; they might want the worst, not the best, for those under their authority. This parent-child relationship is recurrently disturbing, because we have preconceived notions of good and evil, an ordering of how this relationship should ideally be. By removing the direct relationship of mother to child and extending the familial separation, these stories reflect a deep-set yearning that there is a true parent somewhere who would have desired good for the protagonist, but, through some tragic circumstance, can no longer care for their child.
In the book of Genesis in the Christian Bible and the Hebrew Torah, a creation story is told in which man rebels against God, his father figure, leading to his ultimate expulsion from paradise and fall into the world of sin. (4) By representing man’s quest to obtain essential goodness by breaking free of evil tormentors, myths and folk tales hearken back to a religious concept of reclamation: mankind must reclaim the right authority figure—God—and put false authorities to death.
One does not have to believe in an organized religion to feel that something is off-kilter about the way the world works, but without hope that there is indeed a universal good, the struggle between the two extremes becomes meaningless. The endurance of this motif suggests that mankind wants to believe that good and evil exist, and even that the manifestation of that force of good may be found in a parental figure with direct ties to the suffering protagonist.
A corollary to the loss of paradise in the Genesis story is the loss of immortality. Many religions prepare their practitioners to obtain some form of eternal life, whether this occurs after one life or multiple lives. Furthermore, the quest for immortality is a central feature of many cultures’ origin stories; from Gilgamesh’s travels around the Mesopotamian world to the folk in Ireland who wander into faerie country and live without a sense of time’s passage, people have never abandoned the idea that eternal life exists. Often, this eternal life is simply in a realm we cannot yet access. Unsurprisingly, each tale includes the element of failure, which is always due to the searchers’ essential humanness. Gilgamesh fails because he cannot deny his need for sleep, while those Irish wanderers retain a desire for the companionship of their friends and family. In the Genesis account, as well, man is literally cut off from the tree of life and its promise of life everlasting when he is overcome by the temptation to eat the forbidden fruit. (5)
If immortality cannot be obtained by humans in anyone’s stories, then, why does it remain such an essential goal? An answer once again lies in the Bible. Here on earth, people continue to require and desire. Yet, in the New Testament, Jesus promises that upon entering heaven, human wants and needs will be eliminated, satisfied fully in God’s presence, as they once were in the Garden of Eden. (6) Though immortality remains an appealing concept, it is unfathomable given the limitations of our human minds; incidentally, these limitations were instilled when mankind’s communion with God was severed.
Despite all the lost benefits associated with life before sin, however, that initial impetus to “eat of the forbidden fruit” undergirds today’s still-fallen world. If sin and its consequences were simply a thing to be experienced once, disliked, and abandoned, people would not still be straining to reach immortality and a triumph over one’s oppressors. Sin is thus revealed to have been, and to be still, a desirable thing.
All of today’s desires, then, will only be eliminated when reunion with God is achieved—and eternal life happens to be a side effect. Yet in the typical human fashion of oversimplifying a convoluted world, that side effect is what is most often sought; consequently, the true benefits of immortality are rarely considered. Such go the stories of those Irish travelers, who achieve what they believed was their desire but ultimately wish it away because something greater—an end to the brokenness of humanity—has not yet been satisfied.
While the desire for the triumph of good over evil, or for blissful and eternal life, can represent forthcoming gifts from God, folk stories can also represent the inherent corruption of humankind—specifically, its insatiable desire for power—in its depiction of certain human struggles. While a direct power struggle may not always be evident—although kings and queens are often cast down, usurped, or restored—these stories have adopted various ways of veiling the human desire for power in specific metaphors. One such motif is the transformation (and reversal) of people into animal forms.
In fairy tales like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Wild Swans,” life as an animal, even partially, becomes a curse and a condition to be avoided at all costs. In “The Wild Swans,” for example, the transformation of twelve princes into swans, a state which can be escaped only at nightfall, becomes a way for rivals to legitimize their taking over of the kingdom, since an animal is unfit to rule. Additionally, in “Beauty and the Beast,” the longer the cursed prince stays partially animal, the greater his descent into a bestial nature. Eventually, his condition will appear irreversible, and his human faculties, including the ability to love, will be nearly irrevocably impaired.
Man-to-beast stories emphasize the lack of control that many people feel over their lives, even as they search to consolidate and increase control over nature and others. In Greek mythology, Zeus often converts his erstwhile lovers into animals without their consent; since the Greek gods are themselves personifications of nature, these stories seem to represent the cruel twists of fate that plague humans who try to subdue nature, only to find the tables reversed. In a sinful world, attempts to regain mankind’s place as stewards of the earth are ultimately futile, since the ground itself has been turned against its master. (7)
When God placed humans in the Garden of Eden, He gave them the command to have dominion over the other creatures and things of the world, with a harmony between man (as an earthly steward) and his subjects existing in Eden. (8) However, they still resented the fact that God maintained ultimate authority, leading them toward a prideful desire to be “like God” themselves. This attitude has persisted, with struggles over authority and power lying at the basis of some of the greatest conflicts in history. After the fall, the word “rule” is introduced, and people began to corrupt the original meaning of dominion into one of pure power, even as that power became harder to grasp. (9)
As much as the transformations in these stories reflect a subjugation to a perceived inferior form, the reversals ultimately illustrate a motif that runs past the origins of the Genesis myths and throughout the Bible as a whole. When the transformations in these stories are reversed, not only are the bestial characteristics eliminated, but the princes are restored to a state of superhuman beauty.
While this could be read as reiterating the superiority of the human form over all other creatures, each of the characters returns to a human state having learned valuable lessons about the errors of sinful pride or complacency. In addition, the reversed transformations are almost always affected by the power of love. In a sense, there is no greater metaphor for the Christian life: Jesus promises his followers that through faith in God and His love for them, they will be restored to an existence in the glorious presence of the Father, freed from sin forever, and in possession of life everlasting. (10)
Renowned fantasy author—and Christian writer—C.S. Lewis once described Christianity as a unique “true myth.” (11) Certainly, Biblical stories like those in Genesis reflect many of the same tropes and motifs found in the wealth of myths, legends, and fairytales celebrated throughout human history. But the thing that makes the Christian myth special is that it is no mere tale. Rather, it is the kind of “true and sacred” story originally intended by the word “myth.” Christianity may be preserved in narrative fashion, but the fundamental truths it reveals about the nature of our universe—down to the very deepest desires present within each human—are anything but fictional.
The Genesis story details the descent of man into sin, and explicates the longings that mankind has for being the protagonists of their own stories, conquering the trials put before them, and achieving incomparable rewards; but, while folktales can capture those hungers, both they and the stories in Genesis are ultimately incomplete pictures of humanity in its fallen state. Looking beyond, to the restoration of God’s people by His love, however, satisfies the questions put forth in these tales and asked by every person who has heard them. The enduring motifs of many cultural tales are not likely to disappear any time soon, as evidenced by the resurgent popularity of fairy tale retellings and stories about mythology, but the longer they are asked, perhaps the more likely that people will seek answers, and may just find them in faith.
Sara Gorske is a junior in the College of Engineering majoring in Materials Science and minoring in Art History. When she’s not working through endless lines of numbers and Greek letters, she’s most likely visiting a fantasy world on a page a few millimeters from her nose.
Brooke Lindsey is a sophomore from Phoenix, Arizona majoring in Philosophy and minoring in Spanish. She is passionate about ethics, espresso, and her family dog named Mr. Pettibone.
- Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “myth (n.),” 8 April 2019, <http://www.oed.com/search?searchType=dictionary&q=myth&_searchBtn=Search>.
- Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “myth (n.),” 8 April 2019, <https://www.etymonline.com/word/myth>.
- Michael F. Dahlstrom, “Using Narratives and Storytelling to Communicate Science with Nonexpert Audiences,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, no. Supplement 4 (September 16, 2014): 13614–20, <https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1320645111>.
- Genesis 3:6 (ESV); Genesis 3:23 (ESV)
- Genesis 3:22 (ESV)
- Isaiah 49:10 (ESV); Revelation 7:16 (ESV)
- Genesis 3:17-19 (ESV)
- Genesis 1:26-30 (ESV)
- Genesis 3:16 (ESV)
- II Corinthians 13:11 (ESV); Amos 9:14 (ESV)
- Michael Ward, “C.S. Lewis on Christianity as the True Myth,” Patheos, March 9, 2016, <https://www.patheos.com/topics/religion-and-myth/cs-lewis-on-christianity-as-the-true-myth-michael-ward-03-09-2016>.