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IV Interpreting Myths
(modern surrealism movement)
The universal human practice of myth-making appears to be the earliest means by which people interpreted the natural world and the society in which they lived. Thus myth has been the dominant mode of human reflection for the greater part of human history. Greek thinkers of the 6th century bc were the first people known to question the validity of myth-making. In subsequent centuries the rationalism introduced by these Greeks and the monotheism (belief in one God) of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all but replaced myth-making throughout much of the world. In some Asian and African cultures, however, traditional stories retained their power and became important elements of religious systems. And some cultures in the modern world maintain a worldview based primarily on myths. These cultures include Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians, and the Maori of New Zealand.
In the early stages of Greek civilization, as in other ancient cultures, the truth of myths was taken for granted. The Greek word mythos, from which the English word myth is derived, was originally used to describe any narrative. Early Greek authors who employed the term drew no rigid distinction between tales that were historical or factual and those that were not.
In the 6th century bc, however, Greek thinkers began to question the validity of their culture's traditional tales, and the word mythos came to denote an implausible story. Greek philosopher Xenophanes, for example, argued that much of the behavior that the poets Homer and Hesiod attributed to the gods was unworthy of divine beings. By the 5th century bc, serious Greek thinkers tended to regard the old myths as naive explanations for natural phenomena or simply to reject them altogether. Nevertheless, myths retained their cultural importance, even after they had come under attack from philosophers. The ancient Greek tragedies, which remained central to civic and religious life in Athens through the end of the 5th century bc, drew their subject matter largely from myths.
In the early 4th century bc, Greek philosopher Plato systematically contrasted logos, or rational argument, with mythos-which in Plato's view was little better than outright falsehood. In his philosophical dialogue The Republic, Plato argued that the ideal commonwealth should exclude traditional mythological poetry on the grounds that it was full of dangerous falsehoods. Plato himself nevertheless devised myths of a sort to explore such topics as the birth of the world and death and the afterlife, which in his view fell outside the boundaries of logical explanation.
After Plato, most thinkers either tried to apply reason to the supernatural elements in myths or interpreted them symbolically. Euhemerus, a Greek writer of the 4th century bc, traced the origin of the gods to the deification of human rulers by their grateful subjects. This explanation for the gods is consequently known as euhemerism. Philosophers known as the Stoics and-much later-the Neoplatonists interpreted myths as allegories (narratives that employ picturesque language and images to convey a hidden message). Even as classical Greco-Roman civilization went into decline in the early centuries ad, the older, more critical spirit of Xenophanes was kept alive by Greek essayist and satirist Lucian of Samosata. In the 2nd century Lucian lampooned such myths as the birth of Athena from Zeus's head, as well as the Judgment of Paris, which supposedly led to the Trojan War.
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