Meaningful, Foundational Stories: Religious Myths

An old, popular story among orthodox Christians in present day Palestine states that, before Jesus ascended up to heaven, he left his footprint engraved in this stone located at the Ascension Chapel on the Mount of Olives.  Because of their faith in Jesus as the Christ, countless pilgrims from many parts of world visit this sacred site to remember and celebrate this important event as narrated in the Gospels

 

In their oral and written expressions, stories are fundamental in all societies but more so in world religions because of what they mean, the place they have, and the roles they play in the lives of believers.  Allow me to provide a few examples.

In antiquity there were many explanations for the causes of changes in the firmament.   In an universe interpreted as the realm of deities and spirits, good and bad, in pre-historic and primeval cultures, what we call “eclipses” were interpreted according to some foundational stories.  Some ancient Chinese believed that a heavenly dragon consumed the sun and, as a result, humans needed it to scare it away by banging pans and pots.  Vietnamese cultures blamed a giant frog instead, while Norse cultures made hungry wolves responsible for it; however, a Viking version affirmed that a wolf stole the sun but only temporarily.  Old Hindus claimed that Rahu, accused of stealing the nectar of the gods, devoured the sun causing darkness to occur.  In some African ethnic groups eclipses happen when the moon and the sun fight with each other.

In hunting and collecting societies, shamans are closely associated with animals, trees, and mountains because, in their traditional stories, they have a special relationship with the spirits, and these spirits are in charge of nature.  Rituals are typically consistent with this worldview.  Oral accounts reinforce this understanding by helping these groups how to interact with the cosmos.

In the Shivaist Hindu literature, there are many texts that affirm that Shiva, lord and sovereign over the entire universe, is the dancing god who takes pride in presenting himself as the creating and destroying deity of everything there is the cosmos.  In communicating these intrinsic attributes of his persona, this popular deity dances in joy in the story, but equally inspires dances in the hearts of mortals who, in accepting Shiva says about himself and truing to emulate the example of Shiva, join in the celebration as well.  Dancing is part of an integrated cosmos.

In a branch of Gnosticism, an ancient combination of religious and philosophical values, there was a tradition that stated that the world was a replica of the aeons and an incarnation of evil.  More specifically, it was the creation of the demiurge, a divine impersonal being who has nothing to do with a Supreme Being that is seen as absolutely good and to whom humans might have access through esoteric knowledge cultivated by reason.

In Islam, it is believed that Mohammed and angel Gabriel went on a mystical journey (or ascension) to Jerusalem and later to the 7 heavens, where Allah showed the prophet the characteristics of heaven and hell.  After this experience, Mohammed returned to Mecca with a much better understanding of the afterlife.

Among the Cherokees there is a story about how herbal medicine began.   Hunters were getting sick and dying because of spells that animals cast on them.  As soon as the plants and the herbs of the forest knew about the predicament the hunters found themselves in, they offered themselves to be used as medicine to heal the hunters.   The story explains and legitimates the beginning and use of natural medicine.

On the island of Marajo, in northern Brazil, there is a folk, old story circulating among the population that says that the many buffalos they have are not originally from there.  They came swimming across the ocean from west Africa many centuries ago.  Although hard to believe from a more rationalistic perspective, this way of explaining reality provided meaning and structured the lives of indigenous communities.  Their truth was understood from a different vantage point.

Inspired by the popular stories about the pre-Hispanic figure Quetzalcoalt, the feathered serpent, moved many ancient Toltects to build pyramids, altars, and temples in its honor.  In the city of Teotihucán, we find the remains of a temple with many images as a ritualistic act of worship to honor this animal-divine figure who is responsible for the creation of human activities on the land, the giver of goods, and calendar divisions.  This temple might have been a tribute to the creation of time.  Myths and rituals work together.

If rituals are the body of world religions, as some scholars have argued, stories like the ones I have briefly mentioned above are the soul of their respective religions.  Because of the truths they contain, they are powerful and meaningful for their creators, recipients, and preservers.  In the classical study of religion, the examples we have summarized are popularly known by the name of myths.   Without them, religions would not exist.

But how should we define myths more formally?  In their written and oral forms, myths are powerful narrations that contain, program, and develop collective patterns of understanding, evaluation, organization, and actions among religious communities.  Of different forms, character, popularity, age, dominance, and intentionality, myths have a very special place and role to play in the formulation of the worldviews and praxis of religious communities.  They help believers encounter and connect with realities that are the most important ones in life for them.  Through the lens of faith, myths enable religious communities to articulate their beliefs, values, and choices.  Through myths, religions believe to encounter themselves with the Unknown and seek to develop their relationship with it.  Myths carry in themselves and with them the potential for life and death, and many times come across to us as being legendary.  They are not worth the same or equal, though.  But the decisive function they have in articulating the identity and mission of religious communities is undeniable. Many definitions may be given, but rather than delving into the complexities of this issue, we believe that our definition is a good starting point, at least to initiate our conversation.

Several characteristics help further define these great, divine-like or extraordinary stories[1]

Since they are by-products of their own cultures and historical moments, religious meaningful stories not only reveal important insights about the cultures of the religions but also about who they are what they do to survive in their respective environments.  In other words, myths reveal what kind of productive activities religious, ethnic groups did in the land in order preserve their lives and families.  There is, then, a very close connection between communities that are hunting-collectors, agricultural, or a combination of both, and how they view their cosmos and the divine powers.  In these kinds of society, the mythology portrays the gods, goddesses and/or spirits as responsible or as the sources of all the activities that cultures do to support themselves.  From this perspective, when myths are analyzed the emphasis should be, not just on what they tells us about the other worlds and their powers, but primarily what they reveal about the people who believe in those stories. The focus must be on is absolute or independent.

Since myths are rooted in space, culture, and time, the focus in contemporary analysis should not be on what the future holds, but on the past and how that past is up-dated in every generation.  There is, then, a very important historical component upon which to fix our eyes.

Critical reflection enables us to make that call and challenges destructive myths as well.  This led to rise of contemporary prophets in the history of many religions. Take for instance, Gandhi’s rejection of the Caste System because that system, in his prophetic analysis, legitimated socio-economic differences in the Hindu population and would keep the members of the lower stratum there because of something bad they did in their previous, reincarnated lives.

Upon this basic understanding of myths, we can now explore other important aspects of meaningful religious stories.

In terms of their functionality, religious myths play important roles in society.  Taking into consideration different angles of interpretations and areas of human knowledge and experience, let us simply identify a few of them.[2]

(1)  Myths are references to some kind of primeval condition, outside of time and place, some sort of paradise or special realm we all yearn for and need (Eliade).

(2)  As social creations, stories of this kind are a reflection of a community’s present social organization (Smith).   Through myths, religious communities how they are structured.

(3)  Existentially, one may think of myths as answers to our place and role in the universe, as a way of relieving fear of misfortune and death (Malinowski).  They help religions deal with issues they cannot control and the finitude of life.

(4) Psychologically, myths may be taken as expressions of collective unconscious in the form of theme-images (for example, heroes, mother earth, sin, reconciliation, etc.) (Jung).  They do embody ideas of the larger culture of which they are not fully aware but still shape their understanding.

(5)  Broadly speaking myths may be taken as cultural attitudes towards death, life, and the universe (Campbell).  Myths do embody popular ideas from the environment in which they developed.

(6) They also facilitate psychosocial development.  There is something so powerful about these stories that facilitate healthy transitions though the life-cycle stages.

(6)  Foundational stories of this kind evoke feelings of awe, gratitude, respect, fascination, fear, guilt, and concern while creating, eliciting and reinforcing experiences of mystery.  These feelings are believed to be innate.

(7)  Myths present an ordered universe, provide meaning, and reduce fear.  Without them life would be shapeless, chaotic and nonsense.  Thus, they serve a purpose.

(8)  These stories create a strong sense of community facilitating integration and participation and providing appropriate patterns of conduct to reach these goals.

Religious myths have some shared characteristics that make their classification possible.  As confirmed by first-hand observations and reasonable analyses, there are at least three main kinds: myths of Beginning, Separation, and Destination.

(1)  Beginning.  This type normally describes or explains the origin of the universe, humanity, the earth, all the elements of nature, superior beings,  beliefs, rituals, taboos, or moral rules of importance for the religious communities.  These myths, naturally, serve as the justification for what believers do and hold on to. This is a very popular type. Take, for example, the creation of stories among the Mayans and the Babylonians.

(2)  Separation.  This kind focuses on events that describe or explain what has started a rift between the divinity and humans, and among humans themselves.  Stories of this sort, although setting some kind of beginning, put the emphasis more on alienation.  The Garden of Eden story in the OT, for example, narrates how Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden because of their disobedience to God’s commandment, and how that transgression triggered a series of problems at different levels in the entire created order.

(3)  Destination.  These myths typically talk about the end or goal of human existence.  They are futuristic in nature and purpose.  Reaching the Brahman (or going back to a particular deity to become one with him or her and breaking the karma cycle) or Nirvana (as the cessation of suffering and full illumination), as explained in texts or oral tradition, are good example of myths of destination.  Stories that highlight punishments also fall under this category.

Religious myths may simple and straight forward in the message they convey and what their function is in a religious tradition or group.  But when they are too elaborate or have too many details, religious stories could easily complicate our interpretations and make their classification hard to do.  Since any narration could have different meanings, sometimes the above types might overlap.  When this happens, in addition to being aware how multidimensional myths could be and how imperfect our rubrics are, it is important we focus on what seems to be the main purpose or emphasis of the story.  We should be open to other systems of classifications or rubrics since our classifications never exhaust what is out there.

[1] When we qualified myths this was, we are adopting a Western perspective according to which the natural and supernatural can be divided because these realms are substantially different.  However, in more traditional or pre-historic religions such a distinction cannot be made because for them the cosmos is an integrated system of which its elements cannot and must not be neatly separated.  They do not even have a word for the word “myth.”

[2] Please remember that the functions of myths are determined by the points of view adopted and the methods used to communicate those views.

 

About amartinez

Dr. Aquiles E. Martinez is Professor of Religion (Biblical Studies) and Coordinator of the Religion and Philosophy Programs at Reinhardt University. Ordained in the United Methodist Church, Dr. Martinez has dedicated a good part of his life to equip pastors and church leaders in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, with the appropriate skills, knowledge, and experiences so they can serve their communities effectively. In addition to his many books, articles, and essays published in English and Spanish, Dr. Martinez has served several churches and the global community as an effort to help people develop significant relationships with God and their neighbors, especially with marginalized communities.
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