“Myth embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words.” I recently came across this quote from Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Coomaraswamy was a philosopher and metapmhysist from Ceylon, and like many eastern thinkers had a more holistic view of the world than western rationalism. We’re taught from a young age that myth is something false, not true. This colloquial use of the word is so common that those of us who’ve specialized in myth slip into it during everyday conversation. Words, however, have uses rather than meanings. Coomaraswamy was engaging this reality in the quote above. Words can take us only so far in exploring reality when we have to break into either formulas or poetry. Although they are under-appreciated poets are the purveyors of truth.
Having studied ancient mythology in some detail, it became clear to me as a student that these tales weren’t meant to be taken literally. Instead, they were known to be true. It takes a supple mind to parse being true from “really happened,” as we are taught in the western world that on what “really happened” is true. In other words, historicism is our myth. Meaning may not inhere in words, but when we use words to explore it we run up against lexical limits. Is it any wonder that lovers resort to poetry? On those occasions when I’ve been brave enough to venture to write some, I walk away feeling as if I’ve been the receiver of some cosmic radio signal. We have been taught to trust the reality of what our senses perceive. Myth, and poetry, remind us that there’s much more.
The Fundamentalist myth is that the Bible is literally true. If they’d stop and think about it, they’d realize the mockery such thinking makes of Holy Writ. The Good Book doesn’t look at itself that way. In fact, it doesn’t even look at itself as a book—an idea that developed in later times. The time and the cultures that produced the Bible were cool with myth. They may not have called it that but the signs are unmistakable. Ananda Coomaraswamy knew whereof he wrote. The closest to absolute truth we can come takes us to the end of declarative, factual writing. Scientists writing about the Big Bang devolve into complex mathematical formulas to explain what mere words can. Myth is much more eloquent, even if we as a society, dismiss it along with other non-factual truth.