The Hidden Matrix: Myth and the Human Mind
THE THREE GREAT QUESTIONS
Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
The beast’s massive ochre shoulders were hunched in readiness to charge. Its eye, limned with charcoal, still glimmered with inner life, after the passage of perhaps 25,000 years.
It was a bison. All around it, living, dying, were other creatures. Horses, red deer, boar. And the outline of a human hand upon the wall.
In that Ice Age bison in the caves of Altamira in northern Spain, I recognised an essential life force. It was the summer of 1969, and I was fourteen years old.
This was an experience of a different order to any other. One of those experiences you seal up inside yourself, against the day you might hope to understand them. I closed my eyes and let the images shimmer on the back of my lids.
In descending into the magically-charged atmosphere of Altamira, I trod in the footsteps of an Ice Age shaman on a vision quest, seeking in the stillness and darkness to merge into the spirit world.
When cave paintings such as those at Altamira and Lascaux were first discovered in the late nineteenth century, they were dismissed as obvious hoaxes. Clearly such potent works of art were beyond the mental or aesthetic capabilities of the primitive hunter-gatherers of the Upper Palaeolithic.
But they were not hoaxes. Instead, they offer us a direct link to the intellectual and spiritual world of our earliest ancestors. Partly through comparison with cultures such as that of the San Bushmen of the Kalahari, and partly through painstaking enquiry into the evolution of the mind, we can, with our twenty-first century minds, even begin to decode the meaning and importance of these extraordinary artworks.
The earliest rock art found, in the Chauvet Cave, dates back around 32,000 years. The modern humans of western Europe in the Upper Palaeolithic (who lived from about 45,000 to about 10,000 years ago, and created the paintings in the Chauvet Cave, Lascaux, and Altamira) demonstrate a command of abstract thinking, symbolic behaviour, and image-making that strongly suggest that what we think of as human consciousness (the sense of an “I” who is in control of an individual’s private mindspace) had already emerged in the period of the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition, between 45,000 and 35,000 years ago. This emerging consciousness was the crucible in which culture, art, language, and religion were alchemised into what we know as mythology.
Although the cave paintings are stunningly beautiful (Picasso observed simply, “After Altamira, all is decadence”), the motive for creating them was primarily religious rather than aesthetic. That is, they were painted not to be admired, but to be used, in shamanic rituals of transformation and ecstasy. The paintings themselves, representing either spirit animals or shamans transformed into animals, appear to be at least in part attempts to interpret the involuntary “back-of-the-retina” patterns known as entoptic phenomena, such as dots, grids, zigzags, and meanders. These patterns are as familiar now as they were in the Ice Age. Asserting themselves in the twilight zone between wakefulness and sleep, or between vision and hallucination, they may be the wellspring of mankind’s earliest art.
In the altered states of consciousness sought by the shaman, and the mind’s capacity for hallucination, lie the origins of all religious experience. In caves such as Altamira, the shamans of the Ice Age penetrated into the realm of the spirits.
My own descent into the caves of Altamira affected me deeply. It was, I know now, a sense of the sacred that lit the flame within me.
I am writing these words on a limestone ridge in the Cotswolds, England, looking down the Wychwood valley; a valley that itself was once at the bottom of the ocean. A spring that rises in my garden is streaming down to join the river Evenlode, and eventually the Thames. Dotted through the landscape are fragmentary patches of ancient woodland, part of the original Wychwood Forest.
This landscape—its streams, its rivers, its groves, its valleys, its hills—was once sacred to the Dobunni, the British tribe who built their hillfort on this ridge in the Iron Age, and who were later known as the Hwicce. The name Wychwood comes from Hwicce, and it means “forest of the sacred vessel”; the earlier name Dobunni means something like “the people of the goddess of the sacred vessel”.
That sacred vessel was simultaneously the valley itself, a Grail-like cauldron of plenty, and the womb of the Great Goddess.
The myth world surrounds and supports me, just as it did in Altamira.
* * *
At Altamira, I understood instinctively that this was the womb from which the world’s myths and religions were born. In the vision quest of an Ice Age shaman, mankind’s long quest for meaning began.
For me, too, it was the start of a lifelong search for the truths enshrined in the world’s mythology. In the current polarised arena of debate, we are expected to ally ourselves either with the hard proofs of science, or the soft unproveables of religion. I think this simplistic approach is absurd. The story of mankind is inseparable from the history of our attempts to answer the fundamental questions that haunt us about the the great mysteries of life, death, being and becoming.
To explore the great treasure chest of the world’s mythologies is to access a vast database of knowledge and creative thinking, and to unlock the secrets of our own minds. Myth is the name we give the metaphors through which we reconcile the world we see with the world we perceive. Myths are mental structures before they are narratives; concepts first, stories second. They are, in effect, tools, as real and as useful as a hand-axe or a computer.
Mythology was not simply invented by the Greeks “to cheer themselves up”, as Guillaume Apollinaire put it. Myths are a fusion of the creative, spiritual, and social impulses of mankind. They have many functions, some religious, some aesthetic, some practical. They have developed alongside science, not in opposition to it, and it is the combination of mythological speculation and scientific discovery that has made man the sophisticated thinker we now take as the norm. From the discovery of fire to today’s quantum physics, it is mankind’s ability to make leaps of imagination that is the key to our evolution.
Essentially, each society’s myths are a pattern-book for every aspect of that society’s culture. If we were imaginative enough, we could recreate the culture from the myths.
All the key issues about being human, from basic survival to social structures and individual psychology, have been thought about endlessly before, in every culture on every continent. Many of the results of this long intellectual and spiritual quest are enshrined not in science or philosophy but in mythology. If we apply to the world’s myths the same spirit of intellectual enquiry and creative freedom that was required to create them, we will discover, at the interface of myth, science, and belief, answers to those three key questions. Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
* * *
Mythology is the hidden matrix of the human mind, a deep structure hard-wired into the human brain.
Mythological thinking is so deeply wired into our brains that even the most hard-nosed scientist or the most rationalistic philosopher cannot escape it. The logical positivist philosopher A. J. Ayer was such a staunch non-believer that he declared in his 1936 book Language, Truth, and Logic that even to say “There is no God” was completely meaningless. Yet when he had a near-death experience in 1988, he confided to his doctor, “I saw a Divine Being. I’m afraid I’m going to have to review all my books and opinions.” Ayer remained an atheist to the end, but this incident shows how mythological thinking persists in even the most ruthlessly logical mind.
The human brain is divided into two cerebral hemispheres. Recent research by neurophysiologists suggests that the right hemisphere of the brain, which is the site of creativity, of abstract thought, of nonverbal awareness, and of emotional understanding, is where ideas and concepts too complex to be formulated in language by the left hemisphere are encoded into visual images, the metaphors of myth.
Metaphor, language, poetry, and myth all stem from the same root, which is the interplay of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. The human mind, and everything created by it, is shaped by the workings of the neuronal circuits of the cerebral cortex of the brain. As ideas slip back and forth between the right and left temporal lobes, transforming as they go from abstract concepts to concrete images to strings of words, they enact the primal metaphor-making that lies at the root of how we think, how we understand, how we experience, how we speak, and how we worship.
Myths exist in the present, not just in the past. And most of all they exist in our own minds. They are the filter through which we see gaze out at the world, like a superfine mesh that you don’t even notice is there. In the words of the sculptor Michael Ayrton, in his novel The Midas Consequence, “We live by myth and inhabit it and it inhabits us. What is strange is how we remake it.” Where myth is now is inside our brains, every one of us. We can’t escape it.
* * *
In his recent book The Grand Design, the physicist Stephen Hawking sparked a media frenzy with his assertion that, “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.” Hawking argues that. “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.”
Logically and scientifically there is nothing contentious about these statements. And they fit with the mood of our times, in which a fashionable crusading atheism seeks to persuade us all that believing in God is like believing in Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy. Yet I think that Hawking is profoundly wrong to see physics and metaphysics as incompatible.
It’s fair to say that the way in which scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins use the word God is not very nuanced. What, for instance, if God and the laws of physics are the same thing?
* * *
Science, like religion and mythology, exists in a cloud of unknowing. Modern physics especially, with its hidden dimensions and parallel universes, has turned every scientist into a kind of mythmaker.
Most scientists today subscribe to a cosmological model of the creation of the universe, the Big Bang theory, which was first proposed in 1931 by Georges Lemaître, a Roman Catholic priest. It goes something like this.
In the beginning, there was nothing at all. In this nothingness there came into existence a “singularity”, a primeval atom infinitely dense, infinitely hot. All time and space, all matter and energy, were compressed inside it, and came into being with it.
Suddenly the singularity inflated like a balloon, becoming very much larger and very much cooler. This became our universe, which continues to expand and cool to this very day.
The universe is mainly comprised of dark matter, which we cannot see with our eyes or observe with instruments. The dominant energy of the universe—nearly three-quarters of its energy density—is an equally mysterious and unknown dark energy, which permeates all of space.
Just as there was a beginning to all things, so there will be an end. Some think there will be a Big Rip, and the expanding universe will simply tear itself apart. Some foresee a Big Freeze, in which the universe atrophies and cools to absolute zero. And others predict a Big Crunch, in which the universe folds back in on itself to create a new singularity—and therefore possibly a new cycle of creation.
All of this can be supported by complex mathematics, but it remains a theory, with many competing versions, all of which require huge leaps of faith. No scientist knows for sure what brought the singularity into existence, or what made it inflate, or when, whether, or how the universe will come to an end. No one knows what dark matter is, or dark energy, or dark flow.
If versions of the Big Bang theory were being collected from scientists by ethnologists from one of the parallel universes whose existence is suggested by the superstring theories of quantum physics, they would classify them as variant myths, not as scientific facts.
These myths of the Big Bang would be printed alongside the Hindu creation, in which the mysterious First Cause creates the Golden Nucleus (Hiranyagarbha, which can equally be translated Golden Egg, Golden Embryo, Golden Womb, or Golden Germ), in which Brahma, the first consciousness, sleeps in nothingness until he wakes, and breathes out the universe, which will last for a day of Brahma—two billion years—before he breathes it back in, in a never-ending cycle of creation.
Or they might be compared to the creation myth of the Juaneño and Luiseño of California, who tell how in the beginning there was nothing at all, just nothingness, and that in that nothingness two clouds formed, named Vacant and Empty, from whom everything in this universe was born.
In the religions of Abraham—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—God created the heavens and the earth within the original nothingness. Unless one applies a relentlessly literal and simple-minded definition of the word God, there is nothing in these myths that need offend a scientific mind. The Qur’an even anticipates both the Big Bang— “Are the disbelievers not aware that the heavens and the earth used to be joined together and that We ripped them apart, that We made every living thing from water?”—and the Big Crunch— “On that Day, We shall roll up the skies as a writer rolls up his scrolls.”
* * *
At its most potent, myth can literally stop time, as in the account of the nativity in the second century gospel the Protevangelium of James. When Jesus is born (in a cave in the desert, not a stable), the narrative suddenly shifts from the third person to the first:
Now I, Joseph, was walking, and yet I did not walk, and I looked up to the air and saw the air in amazement. And I looked up to the vault of heaven and saw it standing still and the birds of the heaven motionless.
Although their songs speak confidently of “millions and millions of years to come”, the Ancient Egyptians did not think that even eternity would last for ever. A day would come when the sun god grew tired, and would destroy all he had created. This was promised to Osiris by Re when Osiris was first given charge of the underworld. He would reign there for millions of years, but eventually there would be an end. Re promised to destroy all creation, to fold the land back into the primal ocean from which it emerged, and to change himself “back into a serpent that men cannot know, that the gods cannot see.”
This serpent, the true original form of god, containing the forces of both creation and chaos, will sleep in the cosmic ocean, its head in its tail, until it should wake from its slumber and create the world once more.
Cycles of time, in which the world is repeatedly destroyed and then recreated afresh, are found in many mythologies, from the Hindu to the Norse to the Hopi. Sometimes, as in Zoroastrian myth, the end of time means the end of creation and a return to eternity.
Sometimes the destruction of the world is complete. Other times it is simply turned upside down, flooded, or cleansed with fire. The gods can become angry with humanity, as the Judeo-Christian god did at the time of Noah, and decide to eradicate mankind and start again.
When Atlantis, Poseidon’s favoured island, fell from godlike grace into pettiness and greed, it was overwhelmed by the waves, and sunk to the bottom of the sea.
I thought of this on the perfect sunny morning of December 26, 2004, on the beach in Phuket, Thailand, as I watched the Andaman sea retreat, and then fling itself at the land in a vicious, relentless surge, devouring everything in its path.
This was how it was in Atlantis, or in Noah’s flood, or Utnapishtim’s, or Viracocha’s.
Somewhere deep beneath the Indian ocean, an earthquake had triggered this tsunami. The whole planet vibrated with the shock, and a sliver of a split-second was snipped from time.
I looked up to the air and saw the air in amazement.
* * *
I believe that language, mythology, and religion evolved together, necessarily intertwined, and that the metaphorical thinking that shapes both myth and speech is the ground of all human culture.
The territory of myth is also the territory of the poetic imagination. In a sense, this is a book about the poetics of belief, and how that poetry has been shaped and been shaped by the innate human need for stories and storytelling.
Many people think the essence of story is plot; but it is not. The essence of story is metaphor. Our brains interpret the world through metaphor. This natural instinct to understand one thing by comparing it to another lies at the root of human thought and of the language in which our thoughts are expressed.
Even such a seemingly abstract verb as “to be” is generated from a metaphor. The proto-Indo-European root for “to be” is *bhwā, meaning “to grow”. To be is therefore to grow—to be actively alive—while the forms “am” and “is” both stem from another root, meaning “to breathe”. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “Every word was once a poem.” As we begin to understand the origins of language in metaphor, this formulation seems ever more apt.
Myths, like all stories, are made out of words by the imagination, and the imagination works by using metaphor to transform one thing into another. This transforming power of the imagination is the motive force of all mythology.
Myths are stories that tell us the truth about ourselves. They fold the world over on itself until points that were distinct touch and merge, and by establishing these equivalences they show us who we are.
* * *
Everything about myth and religion excites and fascinates me, from its origins in the vision quests of Ice Age shamans, through its role in transforming mankind from pastoral nomads to agrarian city-dwellers, right up to the rifts and fissures that threaten to tear the modern world apart along the faultlines of conflicting religious worldviews. Myths aren’t just fanciful stories that people told in the past, they are the urgent organizing principles that shape societies and drive cultures.
In our world, there is now a disconnect between religion, which is organized and relatively static, and society, which is disorganized and fluid. The explosion of interest in New Age spirituality and alternative belief-systems, which started in the 1960s, shows no sign of slacking off. Instead highly-educated post-industrial westerners are meditating in spirit circles, suffering in sweat lodges, accessing their inner animal selves in shamanic rituals, and reviving worship of the gods and goddesses of antiquity. Endtime cults, neo-paganism, covens of witches and circles of druids—all of these may seem peripheral to the age of Facebook and the i-Pad. But they are evidence of a deep-seated spiritual rootlessness caused by a sense of separation from the sustaining power of a shared mythology.
After the First World War—the great fracture point of modern history—the lack of a common mythology that would carry Britain beyond the shattered dreams of the Age of Empire began to trouble various writers and thinkers. In 1930, L. A. Waddell published The British Edda, an attempt to re-package Norse mythology as “an ancient British epic”. The book—its binding sinisterly marked with a swastika—is a mere literary curiosity, a failed British parallel of Hitler’s misuse of Germanic myth for fascistic ends. But Waddell was not alone in turning to Norse and Germanic myth in the search for a mythology for England. After all, if our days of the week still honour the Norse gods—Tiw’s day, Woden’s day, Thor’s day, Frigg’s day—and our most cherished festival, Christmas, coincides with the Norse Yule, this was the obvious place to turn. And so, in the dying weeks of WWI, a scholar of Old English and Old Norse, J. R. R. Tolkien, sketched out the first drafts of what he hoped would be, “a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic to the level of the romantic fairy story . . . which I would dedicate simply: to England; to my country.”
Whatever you think of the literary worth of Tolkien, his ambitious aim of offering the public his own version of an English mythology was undeniably successful in terms of longterm sustained popular appeal. The Lord of the Rings was published between 1937 and 1949; in 2003, when the BBC launched its Big Read survey to find Britain’s favourite book, The Lord of the Rings was the clear winner. And not only that, but of the top five choices, only Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was not in some way influenced by Tolkien. The other titles—Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire—all operate in the same area of mythological speculation and imaginative fantasy that Tolkien mapped out.
Attempts are often made to read The Lord of the Rings as an allegory of the rise of Nazism and the threat of the atomic bomb, but the truth is spookier than that: in the themes of Germanic mythology, Tolkien found these things already foreshadowed, and simply deduced their pattern from the existing mythological matrix.
During the Second World War, while Tolkien’s first readers were losing themselves in his epic fairytale, Britain’s leader, Winston Churchill, was also deliberately shaping a mythology of Britishness, to set against the Aryan supremacism of the Nazis. In his wartime speeches Churchill deliberately roused echoes of figures from the mythology of noble striving and plucky resistance that defines Britain’s sense of itself. For all its rhetorical strength, a speech such as “We shall fight on the beaches” derives its subconscious impact from its half-remembered resonances with figures such as King Arthur, Boudicca, or Earl Byrhtnoth and his thegns at the Battle of Maldon in CE 991:
Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener,
courage the greater, as our might lessens.
* * *
While writing this book I have often jokingly referred to it as The Key to All Mythologies, after the never-ending project pursued by Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. But I don’t believe that there is a single key that will unlock all the secrets of myth, just as there is no single theory of everything that explains all the mysteries of science. Close examination of a myth is more like looking through an old-fashioned kaleidoscope than unlocking a safety deposit box. My hope here is to suggest many meanings in each myth. In doing so I will draw on ideas from a powerful toolbox of disciplines, including neuroscience, linguistics, cognitive archaeology, and evolutionary psychology.
In 1734, in his Principles of a New Science, Giambattista Vico launched the search for a universal “language of the mind”. This quest was pursued in the 20th century by scholars of linguistics, such as Noam Chomsky. When I conceived this book, my idea of myth as “the hidden matrix” of the human mind was consciously modelled on Chomsky’s notion of universal grammar, an inbuilt linguistic instinct shared by all humanity.
Daniel Everett’s recent account of a remote Amazonian tribe, the Pirahãs, has thrown Chomsky’s theories into doubt, by demonstrating that the Pirahã language lacks recursion (the ability to fold one sentence, grammatically, into another), which Chomsky had identified as the key component of human language and linguistic creativity.
Whether or not this fatally compromises the whole idea of universal grammar, Everett’s revelation that the Pirahãs are a people without myths certainly shook my notion of the primacy of story and the hidden matrix. Here is a culture seemingly immune to myths, or fiction of any kind. Asked what came first, the Pirahãs had no sacred stories about cosmic eggs or primal oceans. Pressed, the best they could come up with was “bananas”.
The Pirahãs have no concept of a creator. As they have no myths, so they have no religion, and have been steadfastly resistant to generations of Christian missionaries, including Daniel Everett, who was alarmed to find that, instead of converting the Pirahãs, he was steadily losing his own faith.
This resistance to the idea of a god or gods, and lack of interest in ideas of creation and the cosmos must in some way be connected to, or derive from, or be the reason for, the peculiarities and limitations of the Pirahã language, which is an isolate, seemingly unrelated to any other human tongue. This language has not developed recursion, which essentially enables us to express two ideas at once, and its speakers have not developed myths, which can be seen as ways of mediating between two opposite notions.
* * *
Today, as our planet faces the prospect of global warming and vanishing natural resources, there is a clash between two opposing worldviews, each of which has deep mythological roots. The first is that of the quest hero and the conqueror, the myth of empire and of progress. This is the philosophy that has driven western society through the Industrial Revolution and out the other side into our brave new world of microchips and crack cocaine. The second is that of the protective deities of the natural world. James Lovelock’s theory of the earth as a self-regulating superorganism is not new, as he recognized in naming it after the Greek earth goddess Gaia.
Almost everything about this clash between what one might call the myth of progress and the myth of ecology has already been played out in the sorry history of conflict between the Native Americans and the whites in North America, where the essential battle lines were mythological rather than territorial. Land ownership was the very basis of the white man’s economy; for the Native Americans, the idea of buying and selling land was as silly as the notion of buying and selling one’s soul. The Native Americans thought of the world as a great sacred circle; the whites thought of it as a straight line, like a railway track, on which humanity was gathering pace on the journey “from savagery, through barbarism and civilization, up to enlightenment,” in the words of the director of the Bureau of American Ethnology at the dawn of the twentieth century.
Every major Native American resistance movement was powered not by political ideology or military might but by the prophetic visions granted to charismatic individuals who had made the spirit journey to the land of the Master of Life. Neolin’s vision united the Algonquians under Pontiac in the war of 1763-1766; Tenskwatawa’s prophesies rallied the tribes behind his brother Tecumseh in the Red Stick War of 1813; the Ghost Dance movements of 1870 and 1889 were inspired by the teachings of two Paiute mystics, Wodziwob and Wovoka. Wovoka’s vision was based on a near-death experience very similar to that of A. J. Ayer’s. In it, God gave Wovoka “the power to destroy this world and all the people in it and have it made over again.”
Today we are constantly reminded of these past conflicts, as the interests of modern geopolitics and transnational business shear up against those of tribal mythologies. In the Kalahari, the San Bushmen are struggling to reclaim their lands and protect them from the interests of tourism and mining; in peninsular Malyasia the Orang Asli are under pressure to abandon their myths and convert to Islam; in the Orinoco delta the precious eco-niche of the Warao is under threat from multinational oil exploration. The famous legal battle fought by the Ngarrindjeri of South Australia when developers proposed to build a bridge at the mouth of the Murray River, between Goolwa and Kumarangk, is a clearcut example of this worldwide collision of incompatible mythologies.
The State government committed to building the bridge, only to be challenged by the local Ngarrindjeri Aborigines. Kumarangk—known to the whites as Hindmarsh Island—was, they said, a sacred site. The island and the waters around it had a profound significance for the Ngarrindjeri people. The point where the sweet water of the river and the salt water of the sea meet represented the life force itself, and to allow the bridge to be built would have disastrous consequences. For this is where all the ngatji, the animal-and-bird totemic ancestors of Ngarrindjeri clans and individuals, are said to live and breed.
The Ngarrindjeri also said that Kumarangk was especially sacred to women. However, the reasons why this was so were “secret women’s business”, and could not be revealed to any man. Even some Ngarrindjeri women denied any knowledge of this, leading a Royal Commission to conclude—unfairly, a Federal Court Judge now agrees—that the secret women’s business was a hoax.
The bridge was built. To many Australians, this no doubt represented progress. But to the Ngarrindjerri it was a cruel blow to the sacred living body of their land, devastating not just to its ecosystem but to the web of spiritual power that lies at the heart of Ngarrindjerri myth and culture.
* * *
For scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins to reject all ideas of god by setting up a simplistic opposition between religion and science is to ignore the vast resources of the world’s mythologies, which encode the intellectual and spiritual heritage of mankind.
Even if we accept that all gods and religions are constructs of the human mind, that doesn’t mean that they are untrue. Ideas are probably the realest things we ever encounter. The Book of Genesis tells us that “God created humankind in his image.” An alternative translation by the Hasidic master Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav is a subtler interpretation of the original Hebrew: “God created mankind with an imagination.”
Fierce minds such as Richard Dawkins encourage us—if we are right-thinking, progressive individuals—to put religious myth behind us, to raze it to the ground. But there is more than a whiff of “The King is Dead. Long Live the King” about the intellectual feat of killing God.
A world without gods is just a world with a hole in it where the gods used to be—and as nature abhors a vacuum, myth will rush in to fill that hole, in one form or another.
Every culture is rooted in its myths. If you could succeed in killing the myths, the culture itself would die. This is what governments have hoped to do in banning the myth-based rituals of tribal peoples, such as the Sun Dance among the Lakota.
But myths are very resilient to attack. Richard Dawkins’ idea of the self-replicating meme—or discrete transmittable piece of cultural knowledge—as the driver of evolution has been applied by Jack Zipes to the fairy tale, but it is even more applicable to myth.
In our society, you could try to kill myth by dismantling organised religion, by cancelling Christmas and Easter, Passover and Eid and Diwali, pulling down all places of worship, and so on and so forth, but the truth of it is that you’d better be sure to have an alternative, culturally feasible mythology on hand for people to frame themselves against.
* * *
In my view it is just as mistaken to see science and mythology as opposites as it is to make a sharp distinction between myth and religion.
The innate flexibility of myth actually mimics scientific method in the way it adjusts theories to fit the facts rather than cutting the facts to fit the theory.
An example of this can be seen in the mythology of the Achumawi of California, as told to C. Hart Merriam in 1928 by Istet Woiche. Merriam had a high admiration for this old mythteller, the Speaker and Keeper of the Laws of the Madesiwi band, and for the extraordinary depth of his knowledge of science, nature, and humanity, all encoded in the myths of his people.
When Istet Woiche learned that the earth spins on its axis and circles the sun—not part of the traditional lore of the Achumawi—he considered it carefully and decided it must be true, reasoning that “If the world did not travel, there would be no wind.” He incorporates this new knowledge seamlessly into his mythology, assigning the task of setting the planet turning to World’s Heart, one of the two pre-existing deities.
Many mythologies actually anticipate the multiple universes of modern superstring theory. For the hunter-gatherer Chewong people of the Malay peninsula, for instance, this world is simply Earth Seven, in a complex cosmology of separate but interconnecting universes.
According to superstring theory, the universe actually exists in 11 dimensions of spacetime. It follows from this that what we perceive as reality is in fact only a deceptive presentation of the universe in a form that our limited senses are able to understand. Hinduism and Buddhism have taught for several millennia that the entire material world is simply Maya—illusion.
A society’s attitude to its myths can encompass many elements beyond simple belief; one recent study of the ancient Greeks is provocatively titled, Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? Another examines "Atheism in the Ancient World".
Myth, science, and religion are not incompatible. They are all ways of looking for or looking at the fundamental “truth” of life, and answering those great open-ended riddles posed for us by Paul Gauguin—Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?