Every culture has evolved its own mythology, defining its character and offering a way to understand the world. In this sense myths might almost be said to be magic mirrors, reflecting not just our own hopes and fears, but also those of people from earlier times. Some of the stories are unimaginably old and were almost certainly recounted long before the birth of writing and the dawn of recorded history. Collectively, the tales form the basis of much of the world’s literature, philosophy and religion, and act as a powerful document of the human imagination. From Mesopotamia, the cradle of Western civilization, come legends of which we are able to glimpse only fragments, while the belief systems of other ancient societies, such as the Egyptians and Greeks, are far more readily accessible. The stories that have survived from these ancient civilizations describe gods that have long passed into history. Other deities, such as those of Hinduism and Buddhism, remain at the centre of living faiths, worshipped by millions of present-day devotees. But whether myths belong to current or long-vanished cultures, they continue to exert their influence on the civilizations of the world, as their themes are explored in literature and the visual arts, and the archetypes they present help to deepen our understanding of human psychology.
For the people who originally told them, the myths served many purposes. Not only did they provide answers to the great philosophical questions – how the universe came into being, the nature of the forces operating within it, the origins of the first human beings – but they also addressed more intimate issues, offering guidance on personal behaviour, social rules and what might happen in the afterlife. In combination, they provided the mental foundations of understanding and belief on which individuals could build their lives and – crucially – they did so in narrative form. These were stories that people could remember and identify with, that could make them laugh, cry and feel awestruck. Myths concerning gods and goddesses, for example, helped early human societies to give form and personality to powers greater than themselves and thereby make sense of an otherwise random and threatening universe. Another strand of mythology recounts the experiences of human or semi-divine heroes, and touches upon fundamental issues of existence, such as the power of love, the challenge of the unknown and the mystery of death. Then there are those myths that reveal an interwoven pattern of circumstances outside the control of both mortals and gods, where fate and destiny are inevitable.
Because the questions they address are so large, almost universal in their outlook, myths have always had an interest that crosses cultural boundaries. Yet anyone studying the subject quickly makes a surprising discovery: it is impossible to spend any length of time reading about the world’s myths without being struck by the strange similarities that link them. Many of the same themes – creation myths, life after death, the end of the world – constantly reappear, reworked in strikingly similar ways. Such likenesses are sufficiently marked to have attracted the attention of scholars from many intellectual disciplines who, over the years in their respective fields, have sought an explanation for them. One obvious route of transmission that explained how some common themes appear in Indian, Greek and Norse mythology was cultural diffusion. This is the idea that myths travelled from people to people through direct contact, such as trade goods might have done. However, this does not explain how the myths of Australasia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas – places that had no physical links in early times with the Eurasian stock of mythology – nevertheless revealed common features. Some other factor, then, seemed to be at work in the construction of such stories, somehow bridging distances that trade had never spanned.
The problem caught the attention of the great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, who further noted that many of the themes that recur repeatedly in world mythology – dark forests, abrupt transformations, monstrous creatures, abandoned children, descriptions of flying or falling – also featured in his own dreams and those of his patients. He used this connection to formulate his theory of the ‘collective unconscious’ – a section of the unconscious mind made up of memories and images shared with all humankind. Although many people have since challenged this theory, the attendant notion of archetypes – the term he used (borrowed from Plato) to describe universally recognized mental symbols – has passed into common currency. In Jung’s view these archetypes were the missing link between the individual mind and myth and it is the archetypes that make the great themes underlying world mythology relevant to this day. “That’s a myth,” people say, implying something is ridiculous or untrue; but they also speak of those things that touch them profoundly as having a “mythic” dimension. Perhaps this is why individuals still look to the old tales to help make sense of their own lives and the world around them. The fact is that the great mythic themes parallel our own experiences – they play out on an imaginative plane our deepest hopes and fears. It is because we can identify with and be moved by many of the strands within their narratives that myths remain of enduring interest and continue to attract new audiences – and new myth makers.