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Origins are *Mythsterious.*

BY Mark C.E. Peterson January 17, 2021

Four Drawings of the Myth of Apollo; Decoration of a Wall over a Mantel, Sala di Apollo, Palazzo Cavina, Faenza. Felice Giani, 1816. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Public Domain.

The mystery of the universe and the wonder of the temple of the world are what speak to us through all myths and rites—as well as the great effort of man to bring his individual life into concord with the whole. 

(Joseph Campbell, Primitive Mythology, 109)

Myths are the masks of God, the personae, the mediations that connect us to experiences both obvious and mysterious. When I was younger everything seemed pretty obvious but, as time has gone by, everything has become increasingly mysterious: love, spaghetti squash, ostriches.

“Mystery,” etymologically, refers to the initiates and secret rites of the “mystery” cults in ancient Greece. Petitioners were led into the darkness of a deep cavern and, as they approached the altar, the figure of the deity would be revealed by degrees as the torchlight fell upon it. This idea of “holding a light up to slowly” resonates with the Greek idea that truth – including all the truths we take to be obvious, even in the caverns of our daily lives — is always mysterious and is only disclosed or revealed over time. The light we hold up, the one that allows us to relate ourselves to and find meaning in these truths, that firelight is mythological language.

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So not only has the truth become increasingly mysterious, it’s become increasingly mythsterious as well.

In addition to relatively obvious truths, (about, say, ostriches), say, this includes the more mysterious truths connected to religious and spiritual life, the meaning of which is revealed to us through the firelight of our own mythological relational understanding. It seems like nothing can be truly meaningful without recognizing its mythsterious nature.

Even myth is a bit mysterious.

“Myth” is a term of unknown origin and, when academics talk about it, they usually pair mythos with its more respectable cousin, logos. Logos refers to the rational, discursive, explanatory kind of thinking we do when we try to figure out how the world fits together. Mythos is… well, a bunch of stories told around ancient campfires? Charming frosting for the cake of understanding? “Primitive” attempts at science? Like any academic question, you can chase this one around all day like a greased pig.

Fortunately, Robert Zaslavsky has done some of the legwork for us by looking at how Plato actually used the term. Plato indicated when he was using logos and when he was using mythos.

“…what clearly marks off a mythos from a logos is that a mythos is first and foremost an account of the genesis of the phenomenon.”

 (Platonic Myth and Platonic Writing by Robert Zaslavsky. University Press of America. Washington DC. 1981, 15)

Mythos describes the kind of language Plato uses when he talks about the genesis of things — and genesis gets us back to origins. Mythical language is related to origin stories.

Origins turn out to be both mysterious and mythsterious

Here are two handy examples, one cosmic and one personal.

Once astronomers noticed that the universe seemed to be expanding, they began to work out the math tracing the movement of stars, galaxies, and galactic superclusters backwards toward a single point. So far, the math provides a glimpse into what the universe was like a few nanoseconds after creation — but they haven’t been able to get all the way back to the beginning yet, and this is where things get mythsterious.  

What do physicists call the creation event they know must’ve happened but can’t describe mathematically yet? 

“The Big Bang.”

You’ll notice that “Big Bang” is not a technical term. It’s mythological language, a narrative or metaphor (a myth!) designed to put us into relationship with an event we haven’t been able to fully explain.

That’s the cosmic example.  

Here’s the personal and even more mythsterious one: you.

Personal origins seem pretty obvious, at first.  Like the universe, your birth is a well-established fact with plenty of corroborating evidence, even if you don’t happen to remember it yourself.  I don’t know about you but my mom, especially on my birthday, is fond of reminding me that she was there at the time.  So, the fact of my origin, my birth, is readily disclosed by documentation (birth certificate), by the evidence of my senses (I’m here now) and, of course, by my mom.

Plate 1: The Creation of the World (Orbis fabrica), from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses.’ Antonio Tempesta, 1606. Public Domain.

But here’s where it seems to get muddy: How do I put myself into relationship with something I cannot remember, of which I’ve had no experience? You do it the same way you put yourself into relationship with any facts, whether obvious or mysterious: you need an origin story. You need a myth about your beginning. What works for cosmic origins also works for yours.  

This matters. Finding meaning in your life depends, to some extent, on finding meaning in your origin, in where you came from, even if you don’t remember it yourself. And the gap between the easy certainty that we were born and the uneasy absence of any memory of the event, that is the mythstery — a mystery disclosed and made meaningful by the firelight of myth. 

So it’s fascinating to think that the origin of myth is tied not only to cosmic creation stories, but to our own, personal, origins: origins we know occurred but cannot recall and on which the meaning of our lives most urgently depends. 

Our lives are, in this way, the most mythsterious things of all.


Thanks for musing along!

Mark C.E. Peterson is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies with the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and former President of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture.  He began his work at the University of Toronto focused primarily on Hegel’s natural philosophy and its links to the history of science and technology. These interests evolved to constellate around the larger questions of how humans are related – scientifically, philosophically, and spiritually – to nature. A practitioner of both taijiquan and kundalini yoga for over 40 years his academic research is currently engaged in a semiotic analysis of the relationship between explanatory and narrative/mythological accounts of nature and an Aristotelian re-examination of environmental ethics.

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