Myths have existed as long as history goes back. They seem inextricable from other facets of human life and often become more extraordinary when written and read during hard times. Human beings cling to them nowadays as exciting tales with many a relevant message and in the past, they were seen as established fact. Myths and fantasies are therefore key to understanding the human psyche and discovering more about ourselves than centuries of proven fact can reveal.
A myth or fantasy will usually have a hero, brave in character, who must dauntlessly face numerous obstacles in order to achieve his or her goal. The hero may have flaws in their character and, many times, it is these which must be overcome, as well as the physical problems which stand in their way. Take the twelve labours of Hercules, undergone in order to expiate his sins. Poor Hercules, driven mad by his scheming step-mother Hera, killed his own sons. Like all humans, past and present, he was susceptible to impetuosity and, in his case, it resulted in a terrible crime. This hero was no beacon of virtue, but a being propelled by his emotions. Myths such as these serve not simply as moralizing passages or epic tales, but speak to the reader, allowing them to identify with the central protagonist and elevate their own feelings and actions to another, grander context.
However, in days gone by, mythology served a very different purpose. Without science, creation myths arose, explaining how the world and all things in it came into being. Human beings look for an answer. It would be idealistic to assume that this need for knowledge was borne of a boundless curiosity. No, as Mencken said ‘Most people want security in this world, not liberty.’ And we can see this through the establishment of myth as truth. Once a myth had been assimilated into the consciousness of the population, there it stayed. Created not just by poets, but by politicians as well, myths and legends were used to justify beliefs, cultures and rules. Indeed, clear examples of where myth was used to trick the population can be seen. The mysterious circumstances surrounding the death or disappearance of Romulus (a character whose existence we cannot be certain of, but worshipped later by the Romans as the God Quirinus), founder of Rome, were explained away by the senate, who maintained that Romulus had been deified. This excuse was used to pacify the youth of the time, whose emotions were running high and to quash the other, more evident theory of his murder by the senators themselves. However, instead of openly questioning the senate, as a few began to believe the story, more and more were drawn in to the myth. This prevented a very likely uprising. People were more satisfied with the myth, because it disguised the grim reality of life or even, the total and utter ignorance of the populace. When scientific evidence came along which disputed the validity of a myth, its proponents were often persecuted. When one myth had been called into question, the whole system of belief was liable to fall under scrutiny as well. Rather than risk widespread dissent, these myths were only propagated more widely, despite the evidence against them. Consequently, we see how, in many countries of the world today, myths and unsubstantiated beliefs are routinely disseminated by the leaders, in order that their populations might remain subjugated.
This also explains why an ordinary person would willingly choose to turn to myth – it is simply much easier. Often, it feels more consistent with our ways of life than scientific theory and the myth provides a source of ‘evidence’, no matter how unfounded, that will satisfy many people’s minds. As mythology feels so complete, compared to science which is still grasping for information, it gives a person a greater sense of surety, which in turn provides comfort, and it is this which often helps human beings cope in life. However, that which we call myth commonly refers to ideas and stories which have fallen out of popular belief. Television programmes regularly centre on topics such as Arthurian Legend, and these myths often have the greatest levels of escapism attached to them. Their appeal lies in their mystery; we shall never really know whether King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table did exist – after all, mediaeval chroniclers wrote about them in great detail, and the Tudor family believed themselves to be related to them. Perhaps though, the aspect of this myth which holds such great popularity is that it is a way of glorifying our history. Some mythological periods seem better than the era in which we live now and they serve almost as an exaggeration of the trite idea of ‘the good old days’. We like to think that wondrous tradition and ceremony preceded our existence and that we are born into a world that has seen great things before. This also gives us some hope of great things to come. Through them, we are transported to different eras and dimensions and can, for a while, leave behind the constraints of the world we live in, whether these be societal or, indeed, physical.
Fantasies serve as a forward projection of myths past. The Harry Potter series infuses modern day magic with a mythical tradition stemming from previous centuries. A magical element in all myths and fantasies increases our fascination (in a world where things can be rectified with the flick of a wand, perhaps the recession would not be so troubling). Yet, once again, the heroes of the series must face difficulties that cannot merely be solved by artful magic, but must be overcome on the strength of human emotion. Harry Potter, with love and an open heart on his side, triumphs over Voldemort, who has traded his soul for immortality. No, Harry is not the possessor of a divine benevolence, but of a human one. This cleverly links back the fantasy with our own world – we like to see that human action and emotion has always been relevant and will continue to be relevant, however fantastical the future world may turn out. This ensures consistency between human lives: past, present and future.
Myths and legends have in them characters who surpass the laws of nature which are fixed constraints and, as science encroaches more and more on what was once solely the ground of religion and myth, seem to us to be all the more insurmountable. Therefore, myth touches people in several ways, for, whilst myths past and even present do provide a strong sense of security, they also fuel some of the inner needs humans have to break boundaries. Some people will test the waters to a greater extent, risking their lives for something they believe in (take Galileo) but within all of us, exists a desire to break rules, emerging in real ways (i.e. rebellion, anarchy), but also in the formation of mythological and fantastical thought. Myths are often formulated and read by the most ordinary, supposedly down-to-earth people, but they provide a way for us to break the most immutable boundaries of all – ones put into place not by people, but by nature.
We can therefore say that myths and fantasies and our need to read and watch them are manifestations of many of our emotions and desires. However, as Joseph Campbell wrote, the first function of mythology ‘is that of eliciting and supporting a sense of awe before the mystery of being’. We use myths to enhance our wonderment at the power and strength of human existence. Whenever does a fantasy include not humans, but robots? That is more our idea of a dystopia. Myths and fantasies serve to reinforce the validity of human life and experience – a great hero’s trials will always bear some resemblance to our own, more minor tribulations and, it can fill us with an overriding sense of not being alone and, moreover, of being part of a most momentous tradition.