Myths serve many purposes for civilization. Through them, we can learn about values, beliefs, and ideals of cultures long past. Myths connect us to our collective past, to the cultural collective unconscious, through the use of archetypal figures—larger than life heroes and heroines, mother images, evil personifications, tricksters, et al. Myths endure because we, as a civilization, endure. While the study of history—of specific facts, events, important persons, places, things, and times—is essential (for the knowledge and understanding of what WAS is crucial to the knowledge and understanding of what IS), the study of myth, the “story” of his-STORY (or her-STORY) enlarges upon those facts through the tales of archetypal personages–personages who, within the cultural context of past civilizations, portray the idealized qualities (good or bad) of the people of those past civilizations. History is, by nature, retrospective, subject to interpretation; which, in turn, is subject to what is relative to the interpreter. No one is alive today who was witness to events in the far past. Even if one believes in multiple incarnations, the most recent incarnation does not usually carry a conscious memory of the past. If they do, that person would have had to exist at a specific place and time to be aware of, and eyewitness to, what would later be deemed important aspects of studied history. But, through myth, we receive a sense of story, of why we are, what we are, who we are, and who our ancestors were. In short, myths tell the story of the hopes and dreams, the ideals and values, of the people much better than do dry, written historical facts and figures. The story gives substance to the interpretation of the past. The story gives us glimpses into the psyches of those who preceded us. Fairy tales, epics, fables, and myths: all tell us the story of humanity at its best and its worst. And, usually, if one looks carefully, of the gray areas in between. These elements of the story are woven into the fabric of our existence. Popular culture in the form of story today, in regards to literature, movies, television, and so forth, is not so different from the popular culture of yesterday. Technology-wise, yes. But, the ingredients are the same.
One such myth is that of the arrival of a god, who then dwells among humans in human form, dies, and is resurrected. Evidence of a similar story to the Nativity, dating from around 1700 BCE, was discovered on the wall of the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Amen at Luxor, which is said to have been built by Pharaoh Amenhotep III. Ancient Egyptian statues dating back centuries before the birth of Christ depict the infant god, Horus, with his mother, Isis, standing alongside him. These statues are amazingly similar to later statues depicting the baby Jesus and his mother, Mary. The story of Horus also follows the standard pattern used in the story of the life of Christ, with some changes in text and detail. A prototype of the myth of the killing of the firstborn males of a group to prevent the hero’s threatening the status quo is found in the Old Testament, as well as in other ancient cultures which, by centuries, predate the recounting of the myth as the story of Herod’s actions. The date of celebration of the birth of Jesus, which was decided upon by early Church fathers when the myth became a religion, is the same date many cultures celebrated the Winter Solstice–how better to convince people to celebrate a new version of a myth than to incorporate the old with the new? But, that is not the point of this blog. All of this is common knowledge—not new knowledge, at that– and can be easily accessed. Of course, there are disagreements among scholars as to the validity of some comparisons, and there is discussion as to whether the comparison should be in pattern or archetypes, and so forth. There are also quite a few professing Christians, and true Christians, who completely believe the actuality of the myth as it is presented in the New Testament. Again, the truth of the myth, or the truth which led to the myth, or however one chooses to look at the myth, is not the point.
My point IS about the importance of the continuity, the endurance, of myth, specifically the myth which recounts the birth, life, and death, of a hero. Many myths evolve in accordance with the needs of the people they represent. They evolve to “fit” the community at large, the known world. And, when a culture needs a “savior”, a hero , of some sort, or needs an explanation for evil, or desires to know what happens at the point of death, or wishes to attempt to make sense of calamities and catastrophic events, that explanation is created in the guise of story. That story, many times, is defined as religious belief, which then perpetuates the myth until it is no longer needed, with some myths enduring the test of time because they are still needed at some level. Humankind seems to possess a fundamental need for something outside of its own existence, something “divine”, something otherworldly, to explain the unexplainable. From the beginning of human time, and, in my opinion, most likely as soon as we evolved enough to stand upright and developed the ability to reason and to think as humans, we have created gods, both male and female, and told stories of their birth, their exploits, their travails, their anger, their deaths, and resurrections. We have anthropomorphized everything from the cosmos to trees. We have attributed thunder, eclipses, lightening, birth, death, evil, and good, all of these things, to whatever would fit within our current knowledge and cultural pattern to something outside of our human selves, until we evolved enough to no longer need certain myths. So when a civilization needs hope (which seems to always be the case), it creates a myth of a savior, a hero, to offer hope. And, because of the state of humanity at all points of history, this is the most enduring myth of all. Whether we lived in a cave 10,000 years ago, or we live in a modern suburb in the 21st century, we, as humans, generally need heroes, because heroes offer hope. Even an atheist or agnostic will acknowledge the appeal of a hero. So, whether one believes a hero myth or not, it is generally accepted that society likes heroes, and—where they do not exist—creates them in one form or another.
So, the myth of a hero, in this case, the myth of a god (or son of a god) who is born or otherwise becomes vulnerable (human), lives among humanity, institutes change, is killed or dies violently, and is resurrected has continued to evolve to fit the circumstances, to fit cultural changes, to fulfill that need for a hero. That myth is re-told as the story of Jesus. The myth becomes the basis for a religion, which perpetuates the myth and adjusts it to fit. The myth endures in the guise of religious belief, and the vast majority of those within that belief (Christianity) believe the myth to be fact, even as our ancestors believed their version of the myth to be fact. In the year 2010 A.D., most of Western Civilization prepares, once again, to celebrate that myth, in its most recent form, to celebrate that story, on December 25th. Every year. For over two thousand years. Which, really, if one thinks about it, is just a drop in the universal bucket as far as time goes. People can fuss and fume all they want about “putting the “Christ” back in Christmas”, or “I hate this time of year, I am not celebrating a Pagan holiday”, or “I don’t believe in Jesus, I’m not doing anything”, or “it’s CHRIST-mas, not the HOLIDAYS” (see note below), or any number of other fussings and fumings on both sides of the coin all they want. That is their choice. Some may believe the myth; others may decry it. Some may not care. Some may want to compartmentalize it, to universalize one form of it. Some know it for what it is. Others want it destroyed. Or ignored. Or commercialized. Whatever the case, the simple fact remains that the myth is a powerful one, one that has endured through many incarnations, and will probably endure through many more. Someday, it may not be a “Christian” myth. It may take another path. But, I do believe, if history is any indication, that it will endure. And I, for one, think that is a good thing.
I choose to celebrate Christmas– I choose to celebrate the Holiday Season, NOT because I believe the myth is fact. Or even based upon fact. But, because the myth is myth. I respect the myth. I respect the need for myth, the need for story. The need for something larger than life, larger than myself. I honor the myth. And, I celebrate the myth. As I celebrate the collective need, the desire, that humanity have such a myth, in whatever form it might take. For me, Christmas, the entire Holiday Season, is a good thing, a time of hope, a time of reflection, a time of—dare I say it?—magic, even if that magic is only an illusion. For the same reason, I do not have a problem celebrating Mass, especially on that holy—and YES, I consider the myth to be holy, if only for what it archetypically represents—time of year, although I am sure there are those who will call me a sinner for doing so. And, so, I too, along with millions of others, prepare to celebrate the Christmas Season, the Holiday Season, the Winter Solstice, the continuation of a myth as old as time, with joy and thanksgiving. I celebrate because it is that continuous and enduring myth that connects me to humanity through the ages.
NOTE: –It is, to me, a sad reflection on Christianity when some professing Christians believe that their story is the only valid story for this time of year—they self-righteously don’t count Chanukah or Ramadan, or the celebration of the Winter Solstice, or the holydays and celebrations of other cultures that base those celebrations on cycles, not the Gregorian or Julian calendar. I do not find it coincidental that, many years, these celebrations are so close to the celebration of the myth of Christ. But, that’s the topic of a whole other blog.