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The Power of Myth

The word ‘myth’ has two basic meanings. It may mean an ancient story about superhuman beings, gods and heroes (e.g. Greek, Roman, Egyptian or Celtic myths) or it may refer to something illusory, fictitious or difficult to prove, something which is simply not true. The sentences ‘it was Prometheus who brought fire to people’ and ‘all English teachers speak good English’ are examples of these two meanings respectively.

 

Myth as a story has fascinated people for thousands of years. In old times myths were used to explain unknown phenomena like the cycle of nature or natural disasters, and to justify the existing order like the hierarchical structure of societies. They also reflected common virtues and vices or epitomised numerous wishes and desires of humankind - eternal youth, marital fidelity, unconditional love, undying devotion, true justice.

 

The basic difference between myths and folk tales is that the latter are more concerned with the problems and dilemmas of ordinary people rather than with unsolved mysteries of human existence. It is in folk tales that we are more likely to find wicked step-mothers and ugly sisters, magical spells and supernatural elements while gods and goddesses or heroes and Titans belong to the realm of mythology.

 

Many twentieth century thinkers studied myths in great detail formulating different theories. Greatly influential have been the anthropological studies of Franz Boas, Bronis³aw Malinowski and Claude Levi-Strauss; in psychoanalysis new ground was broken by the writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Cultural criticism owes a lot to the French structuralist Roland Barthes and his exposition of the myths of popular culture - see "Mythologies" by Roland Barthes for a review of this important work.

 

Artists throughout the ages have found mythical themes a vast source of inspiration. Painters and sculptors, poets and playwrights, composers and film directors alike still explore the rich world of mythology as they have done for many a century. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, James Joyce’s Ulysses, John Keats’ Endymion, G. B. Shaw’s Pygmalion, many Pre-Raphaelite paintings like Edward Burne-Jones’ The Mirror of Venus or The Garden of the Hesperides and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Proserpine - one could go on and on enumerating the titles, even though the given examples refer to British and Irish artists only. Each country would have its own favourite list.

 

Soon cinema-goers will flock to view the latest adaptation of the story of the Trojan war with Brad Pitt playing the role of Achilles. Love, betrayal and jealousy, courage, heroism and deception, human passions and divine intervention will find a new representation in yet another Hollywood production worth 180 million dollars. The three-thousand-year-old myth of beautiful Helen and the siege of the city of Ilium will probably attract crowds worldwide.

 

The magic of the silver screen, the magnet of a star-studded cast, the miracle of media hype - the myths of today. Will they last three thousand years too?


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