Why Read Myths? An Apologia

Few people today believe that past history and culture are important. This article is for people who do think the past is important and who are trying to provide their students with a truly good education, but who are concerned that reading classical pagan myths is at best a waste of time or at worst a spiritual threat.

It’s important to start with three key premises – rarely made but of infinite importance: first, it is possible to read something, see that it is false, and not believe it; second, it is possible to read something, see that it is false, not believe it, and not base your life on that falsehood; third, it is possible to read something and accept that part of it is true but another part of it is false.

Here are some examples:

First, it is possible to read something, see that it is false, and not believe it. If you have read a math book and found that the editor forgot to correct 10 + 5 = 37, you have read a false statement, but you do not believe that 10 + 5 = 37. You instead probably check to make sure you’re fully awake and then mutter, “No, 10 + 5 = 15. Let me see who the editor of this math book is and never buy this brand again!” If you have read Cinderella, you have read about the Fairy Godmother, but you probably do not believe that fairy godmothers exist – although you might have a very kind human godmother in your life!

Second, it is possible to read something, see that it is false, not believe it, and not base your life on that falsehood. In the examples above, few people who read 10 + 5 = 37 in a poorly-edited math textbook would buy a 37″ picture frame for a photo that is 10″ wide with a mat that would add 2.5″ to each side. Likewise, few people who read Cinderella will expect a Fairy Godmother to drop out of the sky whenever things go wrong in their lives.

Third, it is possible to read something and accept that part of it is true but another part of it is false. In the case of the poorly-edited math textbook, most people will reject 10 + 5 = 37 as inherently false and will avoid buying textbooks from that careless company. But while nothing about the poorly-edited math problem is true, it is possible to learn several true things from that situation. You can learn which textbook company sells a bad product. You can also learn that editing your writing is important.

In the case of Cinderella, most people will not expect help from any fairy godmothers. But reading Cinderella might encourage the thoughtful reader to think or do several good things. The thoughtful reader could be grateful that he did not have an evil stepmother and two evil, ugly stepsisters. He could consider his behavior to see if he has been harsh or domineering toward someone – if he has been like the evil stepmother and the two evil, ugly stepsisters. He could consider his behavior to see if he has been polite or kind to people who are rude to him – if he has been, or should be, more like Cinderella in that respect. He could consider others who have been kind to him when he has been in difficulty – if someone has been toward him like the Fairy Godmother. He could consider whether he consistently takes time to think about anything – like a good story – that inspires him to wonder, to reflect, to be in awe – and not to spend quite all his time thinking about how he can make money.

All three of these premises apply to the issue of reading the classical pagan myths.

Few people who read myths believe they are factually true, and few people who read myths base their lives on them. While there are probably some people who worship the gods of the Greek pantheon 2500 years after doing so was in vogue, most people view the Greek pantheon for the man-made story it is: during a thunderstorm, almost no one prays that Zeus would stop playing darts with the lightning bolts – most people just cringe and hope the electricity doesn’t go out so they can keep binge-watching Netflix.

However, many people who read myths reject them as factually false but – in many key respects – morally true. Consider again the case of the fairy tale Cinderella. The story is made-up. Yet it is extremely true-to-life and because of this, it offers a great deal of food for thought – examples to avoid and examples to emulate. There are many people who are cruel to their family members. There are many people who are kind to individuals in distress. There are many people who have to forgive and be kind to the people who mistreat them.

The classical pagan myths fall into the same category of literature as fairy tales: both types of story are factually false, but both types of story prompt many serious moral reflections.

Myths and fairy tales also encourage their readers to pause and wonder at the mystery of the invisible, rejoice at the reward of the righteous, and long for the “happily ever after”.

It is this last point – the invitation to be in awe of something worthy of admiration – that makes fairy tales and myths particularly important reading amid modern culture. Twenty-first-century America lusts after wealth, material goods, political power, and physical safety. Twenty-first-century America rejects morality and worships at the altars of the modern pantheon: the gods “Socialism”, “Radical Feminism”, “Scientism”, “Deconstructionism”, and “Intersectionality”.

Like meeting a stranger in a foreign country who speaks your language, fairy tales and the classical pagan myths offer a refreshing reminder that it is the modern world that has lost its sanity – its reverence for the divine, according to Herodotus.

If twenty-first-century Americans dared to read them, Americans would find that classical pagan myths rebuke the lust for wealth and material goods (Midas), warn against the lust for political power (Sophocles’ Antigone and Plato’s Republic), and totally excoriate the lust for physical safety (Achilles, Patroklos, Odysseus, Theseus, Hercules, Aeneas, Nisus and Euryalus, Pallas).

Twenty-first-century Americans who read classical pagan myths would find that:

  • those myths repudiate socialist idealism by showing the inherent injustice of failing to reward excellence (Agamemnon and Achilles);
  • myths distinguish between wise queens who honor heroic men (Penelope and Arete), and tyrannical queens who destroy heroic men (Klytemnestra, Medea, and Brunhild);
  • myths remind science-saturated minds that the kosmos is more than the physical material that meets the eye (Prometheus and Pandora);
  • myths reprove deconstructionists’ misuse of language (the Embassy to Achilles);
  • and myths reprimand individuals who pride themselves on their “intersectional identites”, because all men meet with misfortune and therefore deserve pity (Eumaios), and because judging by appearances frequently results in evildoers receiving rewards and the righteous being condemned (Plato’s Republic, Sophocles’ Theban Trilogy, Hercules at the Crossroads).

Classical pagan myths show the futility of pride (Daedalus and Iccarus), the lethality of revenge (Medea), the necessity of justice (Orestes), the dignity of the poor (Baucis and Philemon), the nobility of heroism (Theseus and the Minotaur), and the immutability of true love (Odysseus and Penelope).

Yet as important as these points are, classical myths also make – for Christian readers at least – an even more important point: man-made stories can never outdo the truth, holiness, power, and love of the Lord. Readers of myths should find the wiles of the gods, their immorality, weakness, and fickle support extremely disconcerting. Even the Greeks and Romans were dissatisfied with their gods. The thoughtful Greek or Roman knew in his soul that such deceitful, shameless, helpless, mutable beings were not worthy of worship.

In Christian history, the Greco-Roman era, filled with individuals disillusioned with their grotesque pantheon, was “the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4) – the time in which God became man. The Greco-Roman era – steeped in tales of gods and demi-gods who visited men (Zeus, Hermes, Athene, Apollo, Venus), who suffered with men (Heracles, Theseus, Achilles), who out of love slogged through Death and Hades (Heracles, Theseus, Orpheus, Aeneas, Pollux, Odysseus, Hermod) – and longing for a God Who would truly do all that was the era in which Christ the Son of Man (Matt. 20:28), the Man of Sorrows (Is. 53:3), the Firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:18) Who holds the keys of Death and Hades (Rev. 1:18) came.

While the most important reasons to read classical pagan myths are their support of goodness and condemnation of evil, their invitation to wonder, and their ability to highlight the supreme greatness of the Lord, myths also have two practical advantages.

First, myths reveal the origins of many aspects of Western culture. If you name a day of the week, a planet, or a constellation; if you’ve watched My Fair Lady or The Avengers; if you’re fed up with your narcissistic friend; if you’ve won a medal etched with a laurel crown; if you’re excited about the Olympics; if you’re studying for a degree in psychology; if you listen to music on Pandora; if you love The Lord of the Rings – you’re referring to cultural developments inspired by classical pagan myths.

The second practical reason to read myths is that myths, along with fairy tales, are useful for teaching writing. They are short, and they are often already familiar to students. This allows students to concentrate on coming to grips with the fundamentals of writing before they need to write about longer or more difficult books.

Classical pagan mythology may not appeal to everyone – it didn’t even appeal to many Greeks and Romans – but it should not be ignored. In the pandaemonium of our present culture, it is, ironically, the mythic whispers from the past that remind us of the truths our culture desperately needs to hear.

(c) Grace Hughbanks, 2021