In my last post about mythology, I said that myth isn’t metaphor.
Metaphor is a popular way to look at myth these days, which is why it deserves some pushback. I maintain that myths aren’t allegories of the human psyche. Of course, any lens can be applied to any text; you can do a psychoanalytical critique of any given myth and find some worthwhile insights that way.
But the genre of myth exists, was invented, toward a different end. We humans, mythmakers, we tell and act out myths to express truths bigger than ourselves. Myths exist not just to tell us about our own minds, but to tell us about the world.
In my mind it boils down to the word “is”
This touches on a way of seeing that’s quite different, I think, from how we as a society interact with the world, and it may be tricky to tease out the idea, but bear with me as I give it a try.
Probably best to start with what a metaphor is. No, first, let’s start with simile.
If you recall from English class, a simile is descriptive language that compares one thing to another. The tip-off is the word “like” or “as.” Each warrior was like a single droplet of water, which, when advancing, moved as a wave.
Metaphor doesn’t rely on those words, like and as. It goes a step further, into the realm of “is.” A wave of warriors crashed on the enemy, receded and crashed again, pounding the adversary until it broke apart, and apart, into many scattered grains that had been rock.
If only I had known that in seventh grade. I remember being told that you make a metaphor simply by saying one thing is another: the moon is a coin. This made no sense to me. The moon is not a coin. To say it’s a coin when it’s not, that felt off. I concluded at the time that metaphor was an awkward charade, best ignored: a clumsy kind of comparison that sounded more like misinformation than poetry.
Turns out, metaphor is much deeper and more beautiful than I knew, and it’s everywhere. Any time you describe something in terms you’d normally associate with something else, you’re probably using a metaphor. The daily grind. A blanket of snow. A broken heart.
These are beautiful and powerful comparisons — but note, they are comparisons. No one’s saying that a chain reaction is actually composed of steel links, or that a mean person’s heart is physiologically cooler than that of someone else.
Myth, now. Myth isn’t about comparisons. When the ancient Egyptians said that their Pharoah was the sun-god, they weren’t saying that here, in this one particular context, he had demonstrated certain sun-goddish qualities. They weren’t suggesting that you could tap a deeper truth about the man by noticing some things he had in common with the god. They were saying, he was the god.
Such an assertion is difficult to a modern ear. We think in scientific terms. We see the world rationally (or we suppose we do). We think: but there is no god, or: but the sun-god wasn’t God, or: but that guy was really just a human being, or: but you can’t be a human and also a god.
I bring up ancient Egypt because I’m reading Before Philosophy by Henri and Henriette Frankfort, et al. This is one of my favorite books on mythology, and it’s giving me reason to ruminate on the subject again for the first time in a while. There’s a point in there where they bring up the idea of consubstantiation, which contains the notion of “is” that I’ve been circling around in this post. Whereas metaphor suggests an “is” to make a comparison, consubstantiation says “is” and means it, literally. It’s consubstantiation to say that the sun-god is a distinct personage, and so is the Pharoah, and yet they share in one another’s substance.
It reminds me of the Trinity
It reminds me, too, of the doctrine of transubstantiation: the moment in which the bread and wine of communion become the body and blood of Christ. I remember a Catholic friend of mine struggling to defend the idea that when the wafer was blessed and eaten, it became the flesh of the crucified Lord inside them. “You mean, you think that if you looked in your stomach, you’d find flesh with Jesus’s DNA in it?” someone pressed. Irritably, my friend said yes.
“But how could that be?” I thought.
It’s a pretty strange and mysterious idea. Consubstantiation,* though, resonates with me. I don’t know if it’s the fact that I was raised in the church and tried at a young age to wrap my mind around the notion of the Trinity: three persons, one God. I never could really sort that out, but I did accept it — as a koan, I suppose. Something true and also inexplicable. A contradiction that somehow isn’t.
* I’m using the word here in the broader context provided by Before Philosophy — not in the Christian theological sense where consubstantiation is a direct and specific counterpoint to the doctrine of transubstantiation. Note, despite my friend’s answer, the Catholic position on transubstantiation is not actually that the wafer turns into meat.
In any case, these ideas go to the heart of what myths are, which makes them hard for most of us to know what to do with. It’s easy for us moderns, or postmoderns if you like, to look down at the ancients as silly infantile little people who actually (ha! ha!) thought that the sky was a goddess whose body was supported by four pillars. Even if we’re not presuming superiority, we balk at the notion that what the stories said was simply true. We don’t believe that. We don’t see the world that way.
It’s easier, then, to think of myths as metaphors. Comparisons only. Comparisons that tell us about the fascinating internal workings of our own minds.
I propose a less narcissistic, more difficult way to look at these stories. I propose that we take them at their word. To do so, one has to push against the boundaries of one’s worldview. Yet this is possible and fascinating work — more fascinating, to me, than trying to understand the clockwork of one’s own mind.