The word “myth” is a slippery thing, for the minute one tries to pin it down with a rational description, it either dries up or slides out of reach. That eminent compendium of definition, the Oxford English Dictionary gives the following entry for “myth”:
A purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions, or events, and embodying some popular ideas concerning natural or historical phenomena.
Properly distinguished from allegory and from legend (which implies a nucleus fact) but often used vaguely to include any narrative having fictitious elements.
One’s rational response to this definition is to agree, even while one’s heart is dissatisfied. For those who follow a particular faith, it is even less successful, for “myth” of a sort is usually at the core of their faith: a supernatural person embodying and concerned with natural and historical phenomena. Our minds are trained to accept the idea that myths are “made up stories”, but at some point our hearts quibble. While those whose religious beliefs are shaped by Judeo-Christian teachings are willing to accept the tales of the Greek myths as “made up,” the term “fictitious” becomes an unacceptable description for their own traditions. Some feeling insists that there is truth in the myths of one’s religion, truth of some sort or another. This then is where the problems of defining and describing myth arise: myth is not aimed at the rational response, but rather directed toward the non-rational (or emotional, or subjective) and intuitive response to the world.
Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton University Press: 1973) gives this explanation:
If superior in kind both to other men and to the environment of other men, the hero is a divine being, and the story about him will be a myth in the common sense of a story about a god. (AC, p. 33)
The point is that myth is about something other than “mere” humanity. If mythic characters represent a human quality, they do it in a distilled and highly potent way, untainted by other qualities. The god Pan, for instance, in his ambiguous mischievous way, embodies that highly charged excitement which in its negative manifestation is called panic. A “mere human” could not convey this representation, embody this quality: either the human character would simply be an example of someone caught in the emotion or they would stretch to become something more than human.
When a Sub-Creator sets out to include a mythic dimension to his Secondary World, these qualities of myth are things he needs to keep in his mind. Formal religion with its rituals is not a sufficient substitute for the mythic background, because ritual properly celebrates the remembrance of a mythic event or person. Without a sense of the myth behind the ritual, the reader will find the formal religions presented in the Secondary World rather flat. Further, if myth is present in the Secondary World, there must be at least some of the peoples of that world who believe in the myth.
If the Sub-Creator pays insufficient attention to a myth he has placed in the story and has a character who believes in the myth, he can easily end up cheating the character. If the author does not know what the characters believe, he can by inattention make the characters look like fools.
Myth is the heart’s explanation of why things are as they are in the world – the heart’s explanation and not the minds. Myth has little to do with scientific fact. Science and rationality will answer the question “What is the sun and why does it rise and set?” with facts about stars and rotations, and probably end up by pointing out that the sun itself is not moving around us – it doesn’t really “rise and set”. Unless an Author creates his peoples in such a way that they begin by knowing these scientific facts, their myths will not speak of the sun factually (as we know it). Indeed, a race of peoples who did know these facts would not speak of the sun “rising” or “setting”. However, if an Author considers handling myth in a traditional fashion, he needs to discover what sort of an outlook his peoples have about their sun (or suns). For those of us who live in temperate zones, the sun is friendly. To wake in the dark of night in order to watch the coming of sun is a heart-filling experience: the horizon turns grey and then a thread of gold appears, and gradually this gleaming, blinding presence rises up to begin its march across the sky. But supposing one lived in an extremely arid zone: the sun would be no friend there, rather a thief who steals away the night’s coolness.
Myths reflect, among other things, the way a culture responds to its environment, what the sun and moon mean to the people, and how important and powerful the winds and weather are to them.
The forces of nature, supernatural and elemental emotional forces, these are the types of things which draw on the garments of personality in myth. Myth is not about inanimate objects, but about a living, active universe. Northrop Frye describes the mythopoeic impulse this way:
Nature is now inside the mind of an infinite man who builds his cities out of the Milky Way. This is not reality, but it is the conceivable or imaginative limit of desire, which is infinite, eternal, and hence apocalyptic of the whole of nature as the content of an infinite and eternal living body which, if not human, is closer to being human than to being inanimate.(AC, p. 119)
Apocalypse! Revelation! Myths are the lightning embodiment of the heart’s perceptions. Beware, for any moment now you will realize that the thunder rumbling about in those cloud-banked skies in the sound of Thor’s hammer: the sparks from the anvil will be flying and soon his feet will come crashing through the trees with wind and rain on his heels.