The voice of Joseph Campbell has been echoing in my head since 1989. My friend and mentor, Dave Anderson of Butler County Community College, introduced Campbell to me when I first began teaching at the college level and I knew I had found someone important.
But it all began well before that. I began reading myths when I was very young. The Twelve Labors of Hercules, Theseus and the Minotaur, Jason and the Golden Fleece were some of my earliest ventures into myth. I loved the characters, the themes, and the lessons that resided in myth.
From there, I delved into Norse mythology: Thor with his mighty hammer, Mjolnir, tales of Odin, and, of course, Beowulf.
I realized, from early on, that these stories somehow embodied truths about the human spirit, and, as my other friend and mentor, Art Barlow from Clarion would say, “All myths are true.” He’s right, all myths point to spiritual truths that can be identified and felt by all humans.
Before I move any farther, allow me to offer a definition of myth. Myths are stories, rituals, and works of art that point to transcendent spiritual truths. Think of it this way: Humans live in the physical plane, but we also know that there is a spiritual plane “out there” somewhere. This is the realm of the non-physical. How do we know what occurs in the realm of the non-physical? How do we begin to understand how we are connected to the spiritual realm? Through our myths.
The problem, as far as I can tell. Is that we’ve kinda screwed up the interpretation of our myths. We either treat them as fairy tales that are not literally true and therefore mostly irrelevant, or we treat them as literal, historical facts, which make them equally irrelevant because when we interpret them as facts, we mistake the symbol for the referent and therefore remain focused on the symbol.
For example, once upon a time, a girl named Red Riding Hood didn’t really come across a wolf dressed in her grandmother’s clothing, did she? And even if she did, we don’t interpret the event in literal terms.
Instead, we take the spiritual/psychological truth from the story and move on. The story teaches us that it’s certainly important for a young woman to understand that there are big, bad wolves in the physical realm and that a young lady should be careful. So, even though the myth didn’t actually occur (or maybe because it has occurred symbolically so many times in human history) we can gain a spiritual truth from it.
In contrast, religious fundamentalism would take us in the opposite direction. Instead of allowing the symbols to remain symbols that transcend the physical realm, fundamentalists of all stripes attempt to codify the symbols and events into actual historical events. And while there may be one or more historical events connected to the emergence of the symbol, we need to allow the symbol to point to the spiritual truth without getting caught up in the need to demonstrate the scientific validity of each of the symbols.
Guess what? There are many flood stories in mythologies from around the world. They teach us that we live on the razor’s edge—that disaster can strike any time—and often does. In Noah’s case, it also teaches us to have clean hearts and to be prepared for difficulty on our journeys through life.
Therefore, to focus on the story of Noah’s Ark as an actual historical event and begin searching mountains in the Middle East or Africa for remnants of Noah’s Ark is to miss the point. The story of Noah is simply another flood story generated by human beings, in the physical plane, in order to comprehend a larger spiritual reality.
That’s what myth does. It points from the direction of the human heart toward universal truths within the spirit realm. It provides humanity with a roadmap to understand our place within our cultures and within the cosmos. It should be leading us always toward larger, shared spiritual truths and not toward arguments about whose god is mightier.