Working off the theme of my past post, a defense of anthropology, I was wondering if there was a similar argument for the merits of studying archaeology and mythology, and as it turns out, a poem written in 1931 did all my work for me.
I am a huge fan of mythology and the more you know, the more you realize how much mythology has influenced culture, art, and literature. The study of classical mythology has been considered a necessary part of any education for hundreds of years, so much so that students were not admitted to many of the higher universities without the ability to read classical writings. For admittance to Harvard, students were required to be able to read and write Latin all the way until the 1950s, and even later for admittance to Oxford or Cambridge.
Mythology has always played a strong role in our basic understanding of literature and religion, even in modern writings. References from classical literature and mythology are found everywhere. So studying mythology can be important to understand the greater concepts in our world around us.
And there is a term used to imply the importance of studying mythology, mythopoiea (myth-uh-pee-uh), which stems from a poem of the same name emphasizing the importance of mythology in our culture. “Mythopoeia” was written by J.R.R. Tolkien after a meeting of the literary group known as “The Inklings”. They were a group of authors and professors at Oxford during the 1930s and 40s, and they valued fiction writing, especially the use of fantasy as way to demonstrate ethical values and Christian morals.
Supposedly, C.S. Lewis had said that he didn’t find value in myths because they were not true, and though “lies breathed through silver”, they were lies nonetheless. He later came to write the Chronicles of Narnia, a mythopoeic narrative with abstract allegories to Christianity, possibly as a result of his viewpoint being changed by Tolkien’s arguments.
Tolkien, the author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, obviously found value in the reading and writing of myths and after this conversation with Lewis wrote Mythopoeia as a response. The poem, whose title means “myth-making”, defended mythology as a literary art that demonstrates fundamental truths of life. Tolkien argued that you cannot restrict your search for knowledge in the purely material world and that you must also seek truth and understanding in symbolism.
The poem is a narrative where the philomythos (myth-lover) speaks to the misomythos (myth-hater) about the value of mythology. The poem explains that the universe is a mystery and there is no way for an individual to understand everything in God’s plan. However, we have a sense and so we try to define our own world with mythology to help us comprehend the bigger issues in life. The act of creating the spiritual stories and retelling of the truths helps disclose these truths to others.
That humans retell the stories they are told and remake them to fit their own ideals and beliefs is an important part of the idea of Mythopoeia, and demonstrates the importance of it. Joseph Campbell claimed that “without relevant mythology, society cannot function well and happily”. Therefore, we need mythology to help us comprehend the things in our life which otherwise would overwhelm us with questions and wonder in our own world.
“To the one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless
even though ‘lies breathed through silver'”
PHILOMYTHUS TO MISOMYTHUS