Do Myths have Meaning?


When we read myths, we feel they are good stories, though some of these stories, we feel, could never have happened literally. But we all love to read good stories. The word for story or tale in Greek is mythos, from which myth is derived. A myth, however, is not just any story but a fabulous statement (story) containing some important truth. It is a story about things that happened a long time ago. It might appear fantastic, the product of erratic fancy at time, and that is why after the fourth century B.C. the word mythos came to mean "fiction" or even falsehood, as distinct from logos, the "word for truth." As per Robert Graves' definition, "Mythology is the study of whatever religious or heroic legends are so foreign to a student's experience that he cannot believe them to be true. Hence the English adjective 'mythical,' meaning 'incredible'."

H.P.B., on the other hand, approvingly quotes Gerald Massey:

For thirty years past Professor Max Müller has been teaching...that mythology is a disease of language, and that the ancient symbolism was a result of something like a primitive aberration. They [Max Müller, Cox, etc.] have misrepresented primitive or archaic man as having been idiotically misled from the first by an active but untutored imagination into believing all sorts of fallacies....My reply is....the origin and meaning of mythology have been missed altogether....Mythology was a primitive mode of thinking the early thought. It was founded on natural facts, and is still verifiable in phenomena. There is nothing insane, nothing irrational in it, when considered in the light of evolution, and when its mode of expression by sign-language is thoroughly understood. Mythology is the repository of man's most ancient science....When truly interpreted once more, it is destined to be the death of false theologies....(The Secret Doctrine, I, 303-304)

It is pointed out that when the Egyptians represented the moon as a cat, they did not think that the moon was a cat, nor did they mean to puzzle people. They simply saw that the cat sees in the night, and in the dark her eyes become luminous. In the heavens, the moon is the seer by night, reflecting the sunlight, and so the cat was adopted as a representative of the moon.

Luckily, not all authors regard myths as mere fanciful stories. Joseph Campbell writes that any good story would enchant us and teach us something, but myths are distinct in that they are potent, timeless tales which inspire and have the power to shape and control our lives. (World Mythology)

Myths, folktales, legends, epics, fairy-tales, all tend to shade into one another and are a little difficult to distinguish.

To comprehend the whole subject we must recognize that myths convey cosmic and anthropological facts just as fables convey truths about the social behaviour of men and women. Similarly, fairy tales reveal one aspect of the human subconscious, the psychic nature of every man. (The Theosophical Movement, Vol. 26, p. 5)

There are various kinds of myths: myths of creation, myths of human evolution, myths of heroes, myths of cosmic disasters, myths of supernatural beings.

Myths of creation speak of the origin of the world. A well-known one is the Hindu myth of the churning of the ocean. The devas and asuras gathered on Mount Meru and decided to churn the ocean to obtain amrita or the elixir of immortality. For this purpose, they uprooted Mount Mandara and used the snake Vasuki as the rope to twirl the mountain around, so that the sap of the plants that grew on it flowed into the ocean, and the ocean turned to milk and then to butter. Then slowly came out of it the Sun, the Moon, also Surabhi, the cow of plenty, other treasures, and finally amrita, the elixir of life. This is a myth of creation. The origin of the world, in Indian thought, is not creation, but it is seen as the emergence of cosmos out of chaos. In other words, as the churning of the butter-milk gives rise to butter, which comes to the surface, so also the churning of the ocean represents the differentiation of primordial, homogeneous matter, which results in the formation of the universe with its Milky Way, Sun, Moon, etc. Cow and bull are seen as productive and generative powers in nature, as well as solar and cosmic deities. The meaning and occult properties of the 14 things which came out as the result of the churning are explained only at the final initiation.

Through deceit, Vishnu gave the amrita to the devas, so there started the War in Heaven between the gods and daityas. "War in Heaven" has several meanings. It refers to the struggles and trials which a candidate has to pass through, on his way to becoming an Adept. This is the war between his higher and lower natures, in which the disciple either succeeds or fails. If he succeeds, he is called a "dragon-slayer," or even a "Serpent." As a serpent casts off its old skin, so the candidate is born in a new body—a spiritual rebirth. The War in Heaven also represents the war between the Aryan Adepts of the Fifth Race and the Atlantean sorcerers.

So also there is another myth in the Puranas regarding the War in Heaven. When Soma (moon) elopes with Tara, wife of Brihaspati (Jupiter), it causes a War in Heaven—a war between gods and demons. Usanas (Venus) or Shukracharya (leader of the danavas) is on the side of Soma, Brihaspati or Jupiter is the symbol of exoteric or dead-letter form of worship, or ritualistic worship. Soma is the mystery god and presides over the mystic and spiritual nature in man and universe. He is concerned with rebirth of man as a spiritual being. Tara, wife of Brihaspati, is shown as one who is wedded to dogmatic worship, yet longs for true wisdom. Thus, she represents spiritual aspiration. Soma eloping with Tara implies Soma initiating her into the occult mysteries, and their union leads to the birth of Budha, or Mercury, or Hermes in Greek mythology, which represents esoteric Wisdom.

Talking of Hermes, we find that in Egypt, especially, there are many gods with heads of birds or animals. Thus, Hermes, the God of Wisdom, is also associated with Hermanubis and Anubis.

Thoth: He is the god of wisdom and of authority over all other gods. He is the recorder and the judge. His ibis-head, the pen and tablet of the celestial scribe, who records the thoughts, words and deeds of men, and weighs them in the balance, liken him to the type of esoteric Lipikas. Thoth carries the serpent-rod, emblem of Wisdom....He is the Greek Hermes, the god of learning....Hermes was the serpent itself in a mystical sense. But he is the foe of the bad serpent, for the ibis devoured the snakes of Egypt. (The Theosophical Glossary)

All of this also applies to Ganesa, the elephant-headed god. He and all of the above are presiding deities over birth and death and guide human beings to their spiritual goal. He is the scribe of the gods. Also the separation of the sexes, during the Third Root Race, was presided over by Ganesa or Hermanubis. The animal head is the occult symbology followed by the ancients. One explanation for this is given by Mr. Judge in Notes on the Bhagavad-Gita (p. 41) where he says that the animal head (or beast) signifies strength, and the man symbolizes wisdom. These two must go hand in hand. For, strength without wisdom can only cause confusion, and so also when one needs to take action, mere intellect is useless without strength.

The other meaning is suggested in a note on Hermanubis:

The fact is that, esoterically, Adam and Eve while representing the early third Root Race—those who, being still mindless, imitated the animals and degraded themselves with the latter—stand also as the dual symbol of the sexes. Hence Anubis, the Egyptian god of generation, is represented with the head of an animal, a dog or a jackal. (Glossary)

So also there are myths relating to the evolution of man. One such myth is that of Prometheus. There was a time in human evolution when man was so only in form but was really no better than a beast. The myth says that Prometheus stole fire from heaven and brought it to earth; for this, Zeus punished him by tying him to a rock and sending a vulture every day to peck at his liver. Every time the bird tore out the organ, a new one would grow, and once again the vulture would peck and the torture would continue. This agony lasted for long, until he was freed by Herakles or Hercules.

Prometheus bringing fire to earth refers to the light of mind given to man by solar deities or manasaputras, who endowed him with the power to choose and to think and reason. At incarnation, this mind becomes dual. The aspect of mind which is entangled with kama (passions) represents the eternal vulture of unsatisfied desires, despair and regret. Zeus represents the Host of primeval progenitors, or "Fathers," who created senseless men without mind, while the divine Titan (Prometheus) stands for spiritual creators. This drama is enacted every day within us, where the lower passions chain, or obstruct, the higher aspirations to the rock of matter and give rise to the vulture of pain, sorrow and repentance.

Prometheus also represents fire by friction. The name Prometheus is related to the Sanskrit word Pramantha, i.e., the instrument used for kindling the fire. H. P. Blavatsky points out that this myth of Prometheus bringing fire to earth does not represent man's first discovering the fire, because fire was never discovered but existed on earth from the beginning. This relates to the opening of man's spiritual perception (The Secret Doctrine, II, 523). In the Vedic sutras we are told that by rapidly rotating the stick in the socket, first heat and then fire was produced. The stick was called Pramantha, the disc was called Arani. Thus, Prometheus represents fire by friction or Pavamana fire, which cements Manas with Buddhi. The gift of mind was given so that man could become as a god. But man can become so only when his terrestrial and divine natures are in harmony, or the animal element is controlled and subdued.

This whole process of freeing the mind from the passional nature so that it can reflect the light from the higher nature is a long one involving one's going through trials and struggles. This is depicted by the 12 labours of Hercules, who finally frees Prometheus. Even these 12 labours are very allegorical. The first is the killing of the Nemean lion, for which he had to fashion a special weapon. The second is the slaying of the nine-headed water-snake. But whenever he cut off a head two more grew in its place. He was helped in this task by his nephew, who used to cauterize the decapitated neck with a burning torch, so that new heads would not grow. This reminds us of the statement in The Voice of the Silence: "Kill out desire; but if thou killest it, take heed lest from the dead it should again arise." Kill out from the very roots. The last labour is where he had to go to Hades, and bring up a fierce three-headed dog, Cerberus.

We are given a similar account in Homer's Odyssey, which speaks of the wanderings of Ulysses. Mr. Judge mentions that reading the interpretation of the wanderings of Ulysses had an ennobling effect on him (Letters That Have Helped Me, Vol. I, No. 11). One of the interpretations given by Thomas Taylor is very enlightening. After the Trojan war was over, Ulysses, or Odysseus, with 600 others set sail for home, but the direction of the wind took him in a different direction and he met with 12 mythical adventures. These adventures are symbolic of the soul's journey through temptations of earthly life, and its gradual progress till it reaches its true spiritual home.

His first adventure or trial is that he forgets his mission and joins the company of Lotus-eaters. This shows our intoxication with false views. Then he and his companions come across an island where the latter are swayed by the enchantress Circe, are given a magic drink and turned into swine. Here, Ulysses is helped by Hermes-Mercury (or the power of discrimination), who gives him a herb. This saves him from falling prey to sense-attraction. Next he is asked to go to Hades, which represents sense-life or earth-life; we need to wake up from its illusion and be born into the world of Spirit. Going to Hades or Hell implies that, in the trials of initiation, the candidate has to look deep into his consciousness and face the whole of his lower nature without getting disturbed. Candidates are literally made to sit in a dark room, all alone. Descent into the lower worlds means touching the lowest levels of consciousness, facing them, purifying them, and then rising with fully purified consciousness. Then there is the blinding of the one-eyed Cyclopean giant, which means turning away from one's own Cyclopean or lower nature. The next adventure is spending seven years on an island with the goddess Calypso.

The "one-eyed" Cyclopes,,,three in number, according to Hesiod—were the last three sub-races of the Lemurians, the "one-eye" referring to the Wisdom eye; for the two front eyes were fully developed as the physical organs only in the beginning of the Fourth Race. The allegory of Ulysses, whose companions were devoured while the King of Ithaca was saved by putting out with a fire-brand the eye of Polyphemus [the Cyclope], is based upon the psycho-physiological atrophy of the "third" eye. Ulysses belongs to the cycle of the heroes of the Fourth Race....His adventures with the latter [Cyclopes]...is an allegorical record of the gradual passage from the Cyclopean civilization of stone and colossal buildings to the more sensual and physical culture of the Atlanteans, which finally caused the last of the Third Race to lose their all-penetrating spiritual eye. (The Secret Doctrine, II, 769-770)

We may still ask, do myths have meaning? The term "meaning" is used in many different senses. "Meaning" is often defined as the practical consequence of a thing in our future experience. Thus, to understand a myth is to understand its purpose, its significance. Now, we can grasp the significance of it only when we understand its relation to other things, or its place in the system as a whole. It also means becoming aware of its practical consequences. A myth in the true sense is inspiring.

Prof. C. S. Lewis points out that a myth makes what was merely a principle imaginable. That is the beauty of the myth; it makes use of symbols and conveys psychological facts and truths in a tangible manner. He also says that when myth is translated, innumerable abstractions or truths arise from it. "Myth is the mountain, whence all the different streams arise which become truths, down here in the valley." ("Myth Became Fact," in The Grand Miracle, pp. 40-41)

...the so-called "myths," in order to be at least approximately dealt with in any degree of justice, have to be closely examined from all their aspects. In truth, every one of the seven Keys has to be used in its right place....(The Secret Doctrine, II, 517)

Thus, whether any truth comes across to a person, or he finds the myth meaningless, all depends upon how it is read.





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