A way to understand the power of myth

Dialogue is a great magazine that helps resource schools in the teaching of A-level religious studies. I write for it, and this is an excerpt from a piece in the current issue, on the power of myth. I try to draw an analogy with the power of words…

How do words work? Well, there is one theory of language that understands words operating on five different levels. (I’ve read about it in association with the ideas of the psychotherapist Ignacio Matte Blanco.)

First, unsurprisingly, is the literal level. Here, words or phrases have a straightforward meaning. If, for example, I utter, “I am a tiger”, that can be treated as an empirical statement. It is either true or false, accurate or inaccurate. That is the way the literal level of language operates.

A second level is the analogical. Here, the literal meaning is eclipsed in favour of something more subtle that seeks expression. For example, consider this proverb: “Better to live one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep.” To understand this phrase you have to sit with it for a while and contemplate what it might be suggesting. Presumably, the proverb is implying that there is something about the way tigers live that is good for humans too. Perhaps it is their courage, their independence, their stealth. What is quite clear is that the proverb is not advising you to go and dwell in the Bengali jungle and attempt to kill monkeys with your nails and teeth. To read the proverb in that literal way would destroy the meaning, as well as being ridiculous.

The third level is the metaphorical. It takes us down another rung of the ladder into a deeper meaning again. William Blake’s famous poem, The Tyger, provides us with a tiger example that works at this level. He writes that the tiger burns bright, displays a “fearful symmetry”, has fire in its eyes. So, asks Blake, what “immortal hand or eye” made such a creature? What work is displayed in such beautiful menace? Who is mirrored in the fire behind the tiger’s eyes? The answer is God. The tiger becomes a metaphor for God and by contemplating the tiger the reader of the poem might gain a fresh sense of what the psalmist calls, “the fear of the Lord”. That is the genius of Blake’s verse.

The interesting thing about the metaphorical level is that it can’t be described in a literal way at all. God is not the fire in the tiger’s eye. Empirically speaking, there is no fire in the tiger’s eyes, let alone divinity. God is not even like the fire in the tiger’s eye, as if the meaning might be analogical: God does not flicker, is not coloured orange, does not generate thermal heat. And yet, somehow the image opens up something of the divine to us. To try to translate the metaphor into more straightforward language loses that possibility. The metaphor has to work on its own terms.

We come to the fourth level, and here things go mad. At this level, all meaning breaks down, even the metaphorical. It is a use of language that is hard to make any sense of. Instead, words deployed in this way provoke a sense of loss or terror, disturbance or dislocation. Take the word “tiger” again. It might be used in this fourth way by someone who was suffering from a psychotic episode. “I am a tiger!” they might yell or scream in a panic of craziness. The phrase would serve to inject into you something of their terror and dread. The communication is emotional not rational. In that sense, there is no meaning to be made of it. Instead, it conveys a side of life that is perhaps just beneath the surface for most of us some of the time. It is an experience that has to be survived as much as understood.

Then finally, beneath the troubled waters of this fourth level, lies a fifth. Its meanings are calm and unifying, though equally resistant to easy interpretation. This is the deepest sense in which language can be used. It is the one associated with mystery.
To keep to our example one more time, the story of the Buddha and the tiger comes to mind. It tells of the day the Buddha, in a previous life, took pity on a hungry tigress. She was unable to feed her cubs and so the Buddha lay down in front of her, wounded himself, and sacrificed his life for hers.

The striking quality of the story is its peacefulness. It is an account of a man being killed by a wild animal, and yet it conveys a sense of equanimity. It can be read in many ways, of course. But perhaps part of what it is suggesting is the oneness of existence. It is saying that, in a sense, the Buddha’s life was worth no more than the life of the tiger and her cubs. He simply passed life on. Maybe it is not too fanciful to imagine that the Buddha murmured, “I am the tiger”, as he lay down before her. He did not mean it in a literal or mad way, but as a mystic. The story attempts to capture something of the unity of things, the lively being that flows through all sentient creatures.

Again, this meaning cannot be translated into back up the higher levels. Read as a literal story it would provoke moral outrage. Of course the life of the man is worth more than that of the tiger! If the story is to carry any insight at all, and if that insight is to be experienced, the story must be allowed to tell itself, in its own terms. It must be allowed to speak from the fifth level of meaning.

This is an article about myth, which comes from muthos, the Greek word for story. I’ve offered a long introduction, but I hope you get the point. In everyday speech, the word myth has come to mean a fabrication, a false belief, an idealized but ridiculous conception. I think that this must be because the literal has gained the upper hand in the modern world, presumably because the scientific and empirical way of engaging with life has become so powerful. My argument is not against the value of the literal: being able to speak factually and accurately is often crucial, useful and illuminating. But it does seem to me to be a profound loss when we place so much faith on the literal that we lose sight of the other ways that words can be used – the analogical, the metaphorical, the mad and the mystical. Only then do myths come to be regarded as colourful but silly fabrications, as the conveyors not of deeper meaning but false beliefs.

Myths use words and phrases in all of the five senses that we have discussed. Part of their joy is the way they can slip and slide across levels of meaning. Take the story of the Buddha and the tigress. There is, in fact, a literal sense in which the life of the tiger and the man are one and the same. Evolution suggests that all mammalian life on Earth originates from a common source. But whilst that is scientifically accurate, it is a rather concrete way to read the story, humanly speaking. The theme of sacrifice feels as if it carries more weight. That would be to treat the story analogically: we too might sacrifice something of ourselves for the next generation like the Buddha. Or there is the metaphorical that draws attention to the kind of man the Buddha was. He loved life, else he would not have cared to save the cubs, but he was not attached to life and so could offer his own life up without panic or struggle. We might sit with life and death in the same way, the story suggests.

The mad side of the story is evident too. Imagine being an onlooker. To watch this event would have been shocking. It would have stuck in your mind like a barbed thorn. What a mix of folly, horror and excitement!

Then, there is the mystery, which we’ve discussed.

To put it another way, myths use language in order that we might explore multiple aspects of life. The great advantage that myths have is that they, generally, tell stories that are gripping and archetypal. This helps to keep the analysis alive: the myth lives within you in a way that the factual cannot. As it points to what is not yet understood, or what will never be fully comprehended, the story’s vitality is not lessened in the telling and retelling. Indeed, it deepens with repeating as the levels reveal themselves.

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