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Hello reader, and welcome to the second post in the ‘Divisions’ series, which is peeled wholesale from the pages of my academic journal.

Last time, we left off on the suggestion that myths should not be evaluated solely on their intellectual content–that is to say, on what the myth says explicitly.  The important moves of the myth are not the ones in which they talk about people riding eight-legged horses or throwing around a hammer too heavy for anyone to lift.  The important moves of the myth are hidden.

My philosophy teacher asked a question of the class.  He said “What is the difference between a legend and a myth?”  Now, I have had a slightly unconventional education, so I raised my hand and said “A myth is more sacred, where a legend is more in the realm of the profane,” to which probably a few people said “say what now?”

Let’s back up a bit.  With the aid of a gentlemen named Mircea, let’s hash out a rough idea of what I mean by “the sacred.”

The first possible definition of the sacred is that it is the opposite of the profane.” 

Helpful.  Thanks.

But in reality this is quite helpful, because we know what the profane is.  It is the ordinary, the normal, the mundane.  In recent times it has taken on a negative connotation, but put simply, what is profane is simply and literally unholy. 

So. The sacred, or the holy, is something that is not part of our daily experience. Indeed, our friend named Mircea says quite explicitly that we “become aware of the sacred because it manifests itself, shows itself, as something wholly different from the profane.” 

The passage right after that is the really fun one though;

“The modern Occidental experiences a certain uneasiness before many manifestations of the sacred.  He finds it difficult to accept the fact that, for many human beings, the sacred can be manifested in stones or trees, for example.  But…what is involved is not a veneration of the stone in itself, a cult of the tree in itself. The sacred tree, the sacred stone are not adored as stone or tree; they are worshipped precisely because they are heirophanies, because they show something that is no longer stone or tree but the sacred, the ganz andere.” 

It would probably be helpful to speak a little German at this point; ‘ganz andere’ means “all other,” or “wholly other.” It is used here to represent something that is, quite simply, outside of our ordinary experience–a feeling, emotion, or presence that we most definitely do not feel every day.

So, to recap: what is the sacred?

Have you ever stood on the edge of a cliff and looked over? Or stood at the foot of a magnificent oak tree and felt dwarfed by its presence? Does the ocean make you ponder the vastness of infinity? Do you feel a deep, all-consuming awe when you read through astronomy textbooks?  Has your heart ever pounded out of your chest as you took someone’s hand for the first time?

That,   That is the holy.  I want to stress here that this concept of the sacred is not tied to religion.  This is strictly a matter of spirituality–our experience of the spiritual.  The most vehement atheist in the world can still be reduced to tears in the face of nature’s majesty.

In contrast, our normal existence? The daily hungry/thirsty/bored/happy/sad/tired/rested cycle? That is the profane.  The normal.

Returning to our topic: what is the difference between a myth and a legend? Well, properly speaking, a legend takes place in the profane world.  King Christian X of Denmark  is the subject of legends.  He was an ordinary man who did not exhibit supernatural powers, even if he was a lovely person.  No demons came down to do battle with him.  No angels sang for him.

A myth, by contrast, is touched by the sacred.  King Christian X of Denmark is not a myth.  Cu Cuchulain is.  Cu Cuchulain was a warrior, who was quite literally touched by the sacred: he was a violent, enthusiastic fighter blessed by the old Gods.  When surrounded by his enemies, the Morrigan, the Crone, came down to rest on his shoulder, and he tied himself to a rock to keep upright and fighting till the very end.

This myth conveys a story–a man of tremendous, possibly insane bravery.  It conveys something that the old Celts valued (something that their descendants still value today): mad loyalty and a reckless enjoyment of  trouble for trouble’s own sake.   In short, it conveys a cultural value.

Ah, see? Not so difficult; eight hundred words later and we’ve arrived at this conclusion: The purpose of a myth is not to be literally true.  The purpose of a myth is to express a value, to act as a carrier for morality.

Why do we start a philosophy course with mythology? Because mythology informs and inspires philosophy.  Mythology creates the cultural world in which people operate. Especially in terms of ethics and imagination. A myth is a narrative of significance, value, divinity, cosmic importance. It carries a message. Is it true? Does it matter?  If you learn a virtue from a story–if you learn courage, integrity, honesty, loyalty from a story–does it matter if it’ s true or not?

I don’t think so.

But we aren’t done yet.   Tune in next time, and we’ll talk about our friend Mircea Eliade some more, with an exploration of the role that space plays in the sacred.



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