28 October 2011

Why We Read Mythology

Often, when I come across a blog I haven't read before that mentions Ambleside Online, I notice that the curriculum is mentioned with a warning--something along the lines of "great curriculum, but uses fairy tales and/or myths." These "warnings" are usually worded in such a way that it is assumed that the blogger and her readers all understand how awful and immoral it is to read fairy tales and myths.

I have already discussed fairy tales a little.

Today, I want to discuss the Greek and Roman myths, and why someone might read them...and not be evil, after all.

He he.

Last night, I read a portion of a chapter in Philip Lee's Against the Protestant Gnostics, a book which I am reading slowly, as it requires all of my brain power. Here is an example passage:
All of this is not to say that either the Gospels or the epistles are in these instances setting out to dispute gnostic claims or that there is always a conscious argument against gnostic individualism. It is simply to recognize that biblical religion is far removed from the kind of narcissistic concerns we find in gnostic writings.
Our English word "narcissistic" has a long history. We all know what it means, but the interesting reason is why we know what it means. Other words in our personal vocabularies have been derived mostly by contextual usage. Authors or people we know use certain words, and once we figure out how to use them myself, we integrate them into our vocabularies.

But words like "narcissism" and  "narcissistic" are living words to us. Most of us know them because we read the myth of Narcissus as a child. We can tell explain that these words involve a deeply rooted character flaw of self-centeredness, selfishness, and pride--but not only these things. There is also a dangerous form of introversion and a lack of awareness concerning the surrounding world. It is the myth which gives the word such a powerful imagery, something a dictionary-plus-context never could.

Knowing a single Greek myth gave my comprehension of an admittedly difficult {for me, anyhow} book a depth that would not otherwise have been possible.

Examples of this kind abound.

Milton is arguably the brightest of all our Christian poets {excepting John the Revelator, of course--my apologies to all the Dante fans out there}. And yet I would argue that a child who has not had an education which offered him a basic mastery of Greek and Roman myths cannot read Milton at all.

Not really.

Let's just take Milton's assertion that his poem was given to him by the Muses. Who or what are Muses?

In the first 40 lines of Book III, Milton makes reference to:
  • The Stygian Pool {which is a reference to the River Styx in Hades}
  • The Orphean lyre { which was invented by Hermes}
  • The heavenly Muse
  • Thamyris
  • Maeonides
  • Tiresias
  • Phineus
How in the world could someone get through those 40 lines with understanding if they don't have a basic knowledge of Greek myths? I know that when I was in high school, I tried to read Milton and couldn't. I knew I was lacking something, but didn't know what. I now know that, among other things, my lack of breadth of Greek and Roman knowledge was to blame.

If we decide to keep mythology away from our children, we are isolating them in a historical vacuum. We are cutting them off--forever--from the most important, most beautiful thoughts which have ever been expressed. Milton was doing something important, but they will never have their souls touched by his work.

This is basically the argument made in the Introduction to Bulfinch's Age of Fable {assigned in Ambleside Year Four}:
We propose to tell the stories relating [to the Greek and Roman gods] which have come down to us from the ancients, and which are alluded to by modern poets, essayists, and orators. Our readers may thus at the same time be entertained by the most charming fictions which fancy has ever created, and put in possession of information indispensable to every one who would read with intelligent the elegant literature of his own day.
Not only Milton, but Byron, Spenser {another brilliant Christian poet who is unparalleled}, Macaulay, Shelley, Armstrong, Moore, Shakespeare, Keats, Lowell, Milman, Landor, Dryden, Swift, Hood, Coleridge, Schiller--the list literally goes on and on and on.

To say nothing of the novels {and nonfiction} of the likes of C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesteron, and even Rudyard Kipling.

The introduction to Charles Kingsley's The Heroes begins with an explanation of all the ways in which the Greeks have left their mark upon the earth, which really is amazing when we consider that we are over two-thousand years removed from them. He tells us that, next to the Jews, our world owes more to the Greeks than any other culture--their advances in art, science, math, literature, and so on and so forth are mind-boggling. Kingsley then reminds his readers:
For you must not fancy, children, that because these old Greeks were heathens, therefore God did not care for them, and taught them nothing.

The Bible tells us that it was not so, but that God's mercy is over all His works, and that He understands the hearts of all people, and fashions all their works. And St. Paul told these old Greeks in aftertimes, when they had grown wicked and fallen low, that they ought to have known better, because they were God's offspring, as their own poets had said; and that the good God had put them where they were, to seek the Lord, and feel after Him, and find Him, though He was not far from any one of them. And Clement of Alexandria, a great Father of the Church, who was as wise as he was good, said that God had sent down Philosophy to the Greeks from heaven, as He sent down the Gospel to the Jews.

For Jesus Christ, remember, is the Light who lights every man who comes into the world. And no one can think a right thought, or feel a right feeling, or understand a real truth of anything in earth or heaven, unless the good Lord Jesus teaches him by His Spirit which gives man understanding.
The entire introduction is a worthy read, but this excerpt is enough for our purposes.

My point here is that there is value in reading the stories of the Greeks. Not only do they have a practical value, many of them illustrate the human condition or some aspect of wisdom in a way that deserves to be respected. We can learn from them. Our own art can be inspired by them.

The next time someone tells us that "Christians don't read mythology," let's remind ourselves that the Lord tells us to think on things which are noble and pure and good and true. This means that some Greek myths are certainly not worth reading {as is some "Christian" literature}. And others are priceless and worthy of being passed on to the next generation. We are commanded to give honor where honor is due...even when it is due to the heathen.

7 comments:

  1. The Odyssey probably isn't a myth as described here (although perhaps some would say it is), but my kids were all excited that The Wind in the Willows' chapter "The Return of Ulysses" had to do with the Odyssey which we had read a children's version of earlier.

    I agree with you, obviously, that mythology can be read profitably by the Christian. I appreciated this apology and shake my head in wonder at those anti-mythology anti-fairy tale folk.

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  2. It wasn't until we studied the Greek gods, that we even really understood how significant it was that Paul and Barnabas were called Hermes and Zeus, in Acts 14. Excellent points, Brandy. Now I have to go click on all those links you snuck in there! :)

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  3. Great post! I agree with Heather, that understanding Greek/Roman religion helps us understand the world in which Jesus was born into.

    I remember taking a class in college called The Roman Epic in which after reading through Ovid's Metamorphoses (Ovid's retelling of many of the myths) we then read a few of Shakespeare's plays to see how much Ovid influenced him, or (dare I say) stole from him, which was totally acceptable. The point is that, like you said, not knowing these myths makes you functionally illiterate if you ever want to read authors such as Shakespeare, Milton, etc.

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  4. And I guess we didn't even get into artifacts! Paintings, sculpture, architecture...

    I hadn't thought about understanding the times of Christ when I first wrote the article, but I think you are right on that the "fullness of time" happened to be highly influenced by mythology and Greek/Roman culture. My pastor preached through the letter to Pergamum {Rev. 2} recently, and there is a reference in it to "living where Satan's throne is" and he explained the possibilities, all based upon knowledge of mythology and paganism. There was a temple of Zeus there, but our pastor actually thinks this is a reference to the worship of Scylla, who is often portrayed as a serpent. The children were totally tracking with this part of the sermon because of their knowledge of mythology...

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  5. My dad has always pointed out that God prepared Greek and Roman culture to be the birthplace of the NT. The language and culture allowed for the discussion of ideas that Hebrew did not have the words or ideas for.

    These myths also help us to see the petty cruelty of "gods", which is true not only in Greek culture but in other polytheistic societies.

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  6. This is a timely entry for me as we are experiencing great resistance in our circles over this exact issue. Your points are excellent and will be used. Thank you!

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  7. Kathy, Those are good points, too! There are so many angles to come at this subject from, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that a blanket dismissal of mythology is short-sighted.

    SarahJane, Glad I could help!

    You know, I was reading the end of Miss Hickory to my children at lunch today, and I came across this passage:

    >>A walk through an orchard. Through an orchard when the apple trees are in bloom! The Sleeping Beauty has awakened there. Daphne, dressed in her new draperies flutters a welcome to Persephone returning with her hands full of violets. The Bluebird darts down with pieces of Heaven on his wings. Anything wonderful can happen in an orchard.>>

    Myth is everywhere!

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