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A myth is a story that has widespread shared meaning and whose specific origins are usually unknown. Myths often have an epic quality, and often serve as a means by which to explain the origins of a people or to explain naturalistic phenomena. Myths often reveal aspects of a culture's religion, history, values, morals, and world views.
The types of myths
Citing David Strauss and John Fiske, John Remsburg stated in his 1909 book The Christ that there were three kinds of myths: Historical, Philosophical, and Poetical. While Biblical studies professor J. W. Rogerson in 1984 doesn't go as far as Remsburg did in labeling the different forms of myths he does cover much the same ground in his paper "Slippery words: Myth" which shows just how complex the word "myth" really is. Modern works still reference back to Strauss's terms while others use the concepts but different terms.
Secular philosophy and religious myths need not always be combined as demonstrated with historical myths that explorers like Columbus or scientists like Galileo were "crusaders" for Science against an ignorant and oppressive Church.
A Historical myth is "a real event colored by the light of antiquity, which confounded the human and divine, the natural and the supernatural. The event may be but slightly colored and the narrative essentially true, or it may be distorted and numberless legends attached until but a small residuum of truth remains and the narrative is essentially false. A large portion of ancient history, including the Biblical narratives, is historical myth. The earliest records of all nations and of all religions are more or less mythical." (The author seems to be saying that real history got mixed with ancient concepts of the Supernatural and the divine. The story may be essentially true or largely legend and largely untrue.)
"A Philosophical myth is an idea clothed in the caress of historical narrative. When a mere idea is personified and presented in the form of a man or a god it is called a pure myth. Many of the gods and heroes of antiquity are pure myths." (The author seems to be saying that a philosopher expressed an idea through a historical narrative which may have been entirely myth or made up.)
"A Poetical myth is a blending of the historical and philosophical, embellished by the creations of the imagination. The poems of Homer and Hesiod, which were the religious text books of the ancient Greeks, and the poetical writings of the Bible, which helped to form and foster the Semitic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism, belong to this class." (The author seems to be saying that one or more poets wrote the ancient equivalent of a historical novel. That was part real or believed to be real and part fiction.)
Myths form the basis of many religions, explaining everything from how the world was created, to the relationship with the dieties. The mythos that inform most religions are complex, and touch on most aspects of both everyday life and the spiritual world. Examples from modern religion include the story of Noah, the story of Jesus and his life, Buddha's time under a bodi tree, and the marriage of Mohammad. Many religious myths have a moral point to them, and were used to teach lessons and impart wisdom on the listener.
Because myths are tied to a culture's various religious and social beliefs and practices, myths are often studied draft a picture of how cultures lived and behaved at various times in their development.
Myths are also often a way to create propaganda; a way to create a certain view of the present or past.
The poetical myth of 'Christopher Columbus sailing west to prove the Earth was round' is one such example. Created by Washington Ivring's biography of 1828 it served two propaganda purposes: it made Columbus into an example of explorers who brave all to push our understanding of our world further and it depicted the Church as an impeder of Man's quest for knowledge. In reality, the Earth was known to be round even by the illiterate as there was the occasional fresco showing Jesus holding a round Earth. The real debate was on the size of the Earth.
Another poetical myth is that of the Spanish Inquisition. While the Spanish Inquisition had gotten out of control in the period of 1478-1499 it had seen a mammoth clean up begun in 1500 by Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros (Ximénes de Cisneros) turning it into "one of the most efficient and compassionate judicial bodies in Europe"
However it was ruthless in it treatment of heretics and after getting themselves practically devastated in the Battle of Mühlberg in 1547 the Protestants turned to the only other weapon they had—the printing press and its power of propaganda. The Spanish Monarchy and the Inquisition did not understand this new weapon, even considering it beneath them...with disastrous results.
In 1567 the Protestant propaganda machine put out A Discovery and plain Declaration of the Sundry Subtill practices of the Holy Inquisition Of Spain under the pseudonym Montanns which collected all their previous work into one work and claimed to be by a victim of the Spanish Inquisition which not only acted as if horrors of the 1478-1499 period were going on but that things had gotten worse. After the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588 the propaganda machine really kicked into high gear with all Inquisitions being painted with the same broad brush. It was said these Inquisitions killed millions as a way to claim property and suppress freedom using charges of witchcraft and heresy as justification for the torture and burnings the engaged in. As the Anglican Church of England spread it own form of Protestantism around the globe, becoming a world power and turning both Spain and Italy into political backwaters, and the Age of Enlightenment came into being the fast declining Inquisitions became examples of Roman Catholic tyranny and oppression with the Inquisitions getting torture devices (such as the Iron Maiden) in their heyday that in reality hadn't existed at that at that time and power they had never had.
An interesting poetical myth is that Abraham Lincoln was a much beloved President. Even the most casual examination of the contemporary material will reveal he was arguably the most hated President of the United States. His assassination on a Good Friday caused him to be turned into a kind "American Moses who brought his people out of slavery but was not allowed to cross over into the Promised Land" in the North while the South turned him into their "Greatest Friend" who if he had lived would have spared them from Reconstruction.
George Armstrong Custer gives an excellent example of how poetical myth is shaped by the factors of the time. In They Died With Their Boots On (1941) Custer is portrayed as a courageous soldiers who is forced to lead his men to death to delay the Native Americans, egged on by corrupt politicians in the pocket of corporate interests, from slaughtering the white settlers. In Little Big Man (1970) Custer is portrayed as a egotistical maniac who killed women and children in the name of glory. Both portrayals reflect the times with the second echoing the My Lai Massacre and general view of Vietnam.
In popular contexts, a "myth" is a falsehood. Sometimes the myths are intentional falsehoods, to act as a carrier of one group's views that has been "disproved," such as the "myth of weapons of mass destruction," or Ann Coulter's The Myth of McCarthyism. But really anything that has been disproved is often labeled a "myth." "I heard putting plastic in the microwave is dangerous. Nah, that's just a myth."
- Dundes, Alan (ed.) (1984) Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth University of California Press ISBN: 9780520051928 62-71
- Reventlow, Henning Graf (2010) History of Biblical Interpretation, Volume 4: From the Enlightenment to the Twentieth Century Society of Biblical Lit pg 220-222
- Havis, Don (2010) Not Resigned: Selected Works (1950-2010) Page 97
- David R. Law (2012) The Historical-Critical Method: A Guide for the Perplexed Bloomsbury Publishing
- The Christ a Myth
- Madden, Thomas F. "The Truth About the Spanish Inquisition" Catholic Education Resource Center
- (1994) "Myth of the Spanish Inquisition" BBC/A&E
- Tagg, Larry The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln: The Story of America's Most Reviled President Savas Beatie