Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1787
In the modern understanding of the concept, myths are imaginative stories of enduring significance that embody the values, beliefs, and the worldview of a given society. True myths are different from philosophical allegories, fables, fairy tales, and parables, although there are similarities among all of them. True myths embody the central beliefs, typically religious beliefs, of a people. Ideologies such as fascism, nationalism, and civil religion are also rooted in myths and derive appeal from mythical context. Myths are found in every society, however primitive or advanced, and are jealously guarded by every society as part of its heritage.
Most myths originated in the preliterate stages of societies and for centuries were passed on orally before some of them came to be written down as epics by poets and writers. Myths also continue to survive in unwritten or uncodified forms in less literate societies. Comparative studies have uncovered similarities among the myths of all peoples, leading some scholars to hypothesize that myths represent certain archetypes of the collective unconscious that are common to humanity. Others believe that these similarities have resulted from cultural interchanges. Some theorists attribute the origin of myths to the need to create stories in order to give meaning to the ritual practices of primitive tribes. In their view, the rituals predate the myths.
Meaning and Functions
Most myths are highly complex in structure, containing multiple layers of meaning, open to differing interpretations, and are closely tied to a nation’s collective experiences, self- image, and identity. Theoretical elaborations of myth result in metaphysics and theology; the enactments of myths in rituals give rise to cultic practices that engender emotionally charged responses in their participants.
Myths serve numerous functions for a given society. They may provide ultimate answers for perennial philosophical problems, such as questions concerning the origin of the universe; the nature of human beings and varieties of life forms; and the meaning of disease, suffering, and death. Myths may also serve as legitimizing ideologies for the existing social and political systems, customs, taboos, and practices. For example, the existence of the fundamental inequality of various castes in India is explained by the myth of the origin of these castes from different parts of the same divine body. Myths also contain explanations for various ritual practices and taboos associated with birth, initiation rites, burial ceremonies, and annual celebrations. Finally, myths embody the cultural ideals of a society insofar as they help to determine what is important, how its members are expected to live their lives, and which historical figures (saints and heroes) exemplify the ideals that are worthy of imitation.
In spite of the numerous attempts over the centuries either to discredit myths as lies or to interpret myths as allegorical narratives of ordinary human experiences or to devalue myths as preoperational thought, myths continue to flourish. Myths energize human experience, as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung have argued; myths help maintain social cohesion through the enactment of cultic practices and rituals, as French sociologist Émile Durkheim has argued; myths definitely form the substance of the arts and literature, as art historians and literary critics know. Some have argued that sciences themselves utilize mythological models to understand the physical world and help create new myths through fictions and conjectures. Myths may serve as the broad framework for explaining—correctly or incorrectly—historical events and political upheavals. while providing the ideological basis for battles between contending groups. It is a reflection of the power of myth in human affairs that in the twentieth century, the efforts at demythologizing religious narratives and the efforts of social and political reformers to secularize their societies have failed, as is evident from the resurgence of fundamentalist movements in virtually every part of the world.
Myths effect and affect the censorship of ideas in various ways. First, because of their influence upon a society’s collective understanding, they set the basic parameters for public discourse and action on social issues, and thus exercise direct and indirect control over the expression of ideas. Careful analysis of a day’s news reports—reports on crime, political debates, cultural controversies, ethnic and racial conflicts, sporting events, scientific advances, and so on—reveal wide use of mythical concepts, images, and explanations. Decisions as to what is considered newsworthy, what narrative formats and words are appropriate, what behaviors and actions are to be upheld as exemplary and what conducts deserve public condemnation, who should be elevated to the status of heroes, and who are to be denounced as villains depend upon the underlying mythical beliefs and their preferred interpretations within a particular group.
Second, in the social-political arena, myths express themselves as a society’s civil religion that affirms its institutions, history, and cultural practices as sacred and designed to further some ultimate divine plan. The American civil religion—a mixture of Protestantism and nationalism—for example, casts the national symbols, heroes, holidays, and political rituals as sacred and beyond criticism. Desecration of the national flag or other symbols of national identity draw widespread social condemnation and even legal sanction. It is true that some societies have invoked myths to justify a complete overthrow of an existing social order. However, successful revolutions result in the establishment of a new order that may suppress criticism as counterrevolutionary, foreign, and traitorous. The religiously inspired revolution in Iran in 1979 and the subsequent extensive censorship of ideas deemed counterrevolutionary illustrate this point. Even in a relatively more open society such as the United States, media generally tend to legitimize the government’s action, especially when it involves a domestic law enforcement situation or foreign military intervention. The mainstream media generally tend to denounce or silence dissenting voices as unpatriotic and harmful to the national interest.
Third, since myths are the source of a society’s moral beliefs and practices, creative works in the arts and literature come under censorship to scrutinize their moral rightness and political correctness. Works that contain sexual themes have often been subjected to censorship in the belief that they serve the prurient interest of the public. For this reason, as every art history student knows, artistic depictions of male nudes, for example, tend to be of Jesus on the cross or of Saint Sebastian shot with arrows.
In order to understand the Western cultural opposition to obscenity and pornography, it is important to trace that opposition’s origin back to its mythological grounding. The mythologies that exert the heaviest influence on Western culture are Middle Eastern in origin and these have been transmitted through Judaism and Christianity. These mythologies contain the theme of the epic struggle between the forces of good and evil. Good is whatever is associated with the world of the spirit (light), whereas evil has affinities with the flesh (darkness). The monastic and the spiritual tradition within Christianity has reinforced this dualistic metaphysics through its insistence on renouncing worldly pleasures in all its forms. Sins of the flesh or sexual indulgences were particularly condemned because of the belief that Satan, the leader of the forces of evil, utilizes sexual pleasures as a means to deceive and enslave human beings.
Throughout history efforts to suppress sexuality and its expressions have resulted in extreme forms of censorship in art and literature. Because Christianity considers sex a taboo subject, open discussion of related matters such as sexual development, birth control, and sexually transmitted diseases have been discouraged. Several Christian Fundamentalist organizations in the United States in the twentieth century have advanced the cause of censoring sexually oriented materials. Christian Crusade, Citizens for Decency Through Law, Citizens for Decent Literature, Clean Up Television Campaign, Crusade for Decency, Morality in Media, and the National Federation for Decency are a few of these organizations.
Fourth, mythical beliefs may prompt a society to suppress scientific ideas that are perceived as harmful to traditional faith. The Roman Catholic church, for example, established an Index Librorum Prohibitorum (index of prohibited books) as its official mechanism to censor books that it considered offensive to faith and morals. The establishment of the Index was justified by appealing to the practices of the early church and the Apostles. For example, it is claimed that at Ephesus the Apostle Paul witnessed the burning of a heap of superstitious books (Acts 9:19). The burning of books was a common practice wherever the Church expanded its influence.
Religious groups also vigorously seek to suppress scientific ideas that seem to threaten their religious beliefs. The most celebrated case of a state attempting to suppress the teaching of a scientific theory in the United States was the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee. The teaching of the theory of evolution was outlawed or suppressed in several states. Although the Supreme Court of the United States in 1967 overturned laws prohibiting the teaching of the theory of evolution, the teaching of the theory in public schools continued to draw opposition from Fundamentalist groups. Other areas of study, such as archeology, history, ethnographic studies, anthropology, sociology, and new methods of biblical and literary criticism have also come under fire from Fundamentalist groups.
Censorship and Differences in Worldviews
The desire to censor a set of ideas and expressions is common to Christianity and other messianic and prophetic religions, such as Islam. They view history as the story of an ongoing conflict between the dual forces of good and evil, which is expected to end in a final victory for the forces of good under the leadership of a divine messiah or prophet. This view of history and world events compel the members of these societies to engage in missionary activities, and many of them consider censorship as part of that mission.
The worldview of messianic, militant religions, which seek converts and condemn nonbelievers, is in contrast with the more (but not perfectly) tolerant, pluralistic, and cyclical worldviews of nonmessianic religions, which are generally less concerned with dogma. Censorship in these societies is likely to be for political rather than for moral or religious purposes, although political censorship may take the disguise of religiousness.
G. S. Kirk’s Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures (1970) contains an excellent discussion of the major modern theories of myth. Burton Feldman and Robert D. Richardson’s The Rise of Modern Mythology, 1680- 1860 (1972) presents an excellent anthology of scholarly opinions on myths, with commentary and bibliography. Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God (New York: Viking Press, 1969) is a multivolume study that sheds light on the relationship between myth and culture. Mircea Eliade’s Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries: The Encounter Between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities (1957) explores the place of myth in modern society. Campbell’s Myth and Reality (1963) contains an insightful analysis of the persistence of myths in modern times.
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