Over on Gary Corby's blog, there have been some really good posts about religion in Classical Greece, and it's gotten me thinking again about where we draw the line between mythology and fiction, a discussion I've been wanting to begin here for a while.
The word Myth has some serious connotations of religious aspects, while at the same time carrying with it the implication of fiction. When you take a minute to consider the things we call myth, and consider to be mythology, you generally end up looking at religious stories of now defunct, or practically dead religions. Religions which, for one reason or another, are no longer recognized or state-sanctioned, though at one point they may have dominated in a particular region or area of the world. Myth is a politically correct way of calling the stories of an entire people, an entire faith, fiction. Myth is what we say when we're talking about gods, heroes, and faith traditions, that we have decided as a culture, as a race, as a country, as an individual, are invalid and utter hogwash. The things we don't believe in, but somebody else does.
Generally speaking, you don't see people going around accusing The Bible of being mythology-- although the reality of the situation is that it isn't any better or any worse than most of the other collections of stories and beliefs of religions that didn't survive the spread of Christianity. I guess in some ways the word Myth can be compared to the term Barbarian. Originally, Romans and Greeks used the term Barbarian to describe anything Other and outside of themselves. The Germanic tribes, for instance, were considered barbarians. Others. A group of people culturally different from themselves. Myth is what we call the beliefs and stories of those others in a parallel way. Our personal beliefs are not Myth, but Truth. Everyone else on the other hand... That's another story.
But here's the tricky part. Somewhere, somewhen, and to someone, those things we call myths were Truth. History. Fact. They were part of reality, woven into culture and religion and daily life. They were the real thing (whether they actually happened or not). They were The Bible of another race, another culture, another country, another person. So what exactly is the process which results in turning those Truths, yes, with a capital T, into Fiction? And, can it be argued that Fiction itself can become myth?
When we reinterpret and reinvent the myths of the past, are we giving them new life? Are we adding to the library and depth of the story we toy with? If, as we think we know now, those myths are just fiction, just stories, then what makes the fiction we write with them now, those reinterpretations and reinventions, any less valid? If Thor never did walk the earth, is my modern interpretation of him, my book in which he makes an appearance just as much part of the "true" story of his mythology as what's written in the Sagas?
Three thousand years from now, will the historians look back at my work of fiction involving the Norse Gods, and shelve it beside Snorri's Prose Edda? Why not? If we consider Ovid to have imparted source material of Myth to augment the stories of Homer and oral tradition, if we consider Euripides plays to be documents which chronical mythical events, then is a modern novel dealing with those same stories, those same characters, those same gods, not also part of the myth? And if so, then is it really Fiction anymore? Or has it been turned into something else? Something more?
On the other hand, if those Myths are Truth, are actuality, are History--maybe we should rethink classifying them as Mythology, and grant them some kind of greater respect. And, if we're going to allow that some part of a particular myth might be true, or some part of a particular set of religious stories is true, how do we judge with certainty that the rest doesn't bear that same kernal of truth also? And maybe, if we want our truth, our personal Bibles, to be treated with respect, we should stop and think before we dismiss any other story born of faith as Myth.
One final question: if people anywhere are still worshipping a god or gods, can we still call those traditions and stories surrounding that worship Mythology?
Think about it. Talk about it. Ask questions. Ask the hard questions and don't be afraid of the answers.