Fact is everybody’s truth. Fiction is nobody’s truth. Myth is somebody’s truth. It’s a cultural truth, a religious truth, a nation’s truth, one that binds a community together by giving them a common worldview to function within.
Science can tell you how the world functions, but only myth can tell you why it functions the way it does. The idea of God, for example, is a cultural truth: it is not part of Buddhism, Jainism, or secularism. Likewise, the idea of prophets makes no sense in the Hindu worldview. The idea of hero, villain, and victim is a Greek mythic idea, which was imposed by modern storytellers on mythologies around the world, leading to distortion of cultural ideas. Equality is not a rational concept. It is a subjective truth, a belief that comes to us from Abrahamic mythology. Likewise, the idea of justice comes from Greek mythology. These two Western ideas are often at loggerheads.
Of course, followers of myth believe their truth is the truth. Outsiders disagree. This is the cause of all tribal, religious, and nation-state wars. Let us explore 10 mythological stories from around the world to appreciate how different people have tried to make sense of the world.
Cost of wisdom: The story of the god-king Odin and his sacrifices for spiritual growth.
Odin was the king of the Aesir tribe, simultaneously a god of war and earth and a god of sky, wisdom, poetry, and magic. He was shamanic, a lover of ecstasy, and trance, and often ‘effeminate’, embarrassing the Viking warriors who preferred his masculine side. One of the most striking attributes of his appearance is his single, piercing eye. His other eye socket is empty—the eye it once held was sacrificed for wisdom. He gave it up so he could drink from the well of wisdom. On another occasion, Odin hung on the world-tree Yggdrasil for nine days and nights, receiving no form of nourishment from his companions, sacrificing himself to himself, so that in the end he perceived the runes, the magically-charged ancient Germanic alphabet that was held to contain many of the greatest secrets of existence.
Odin often appears as a leader of the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession of the dead through the winter sky. He rides a horse that has eight legs and travels with his raven and a wolf, who give him information about what is happening in every corner of the world.
From another name of Odin, Wotan, comes the name ‘Wednesday’, linked astrologically to the solid-liquid ambiguous Mercury, a planet that is somewhere in between the masculine Mars and the feminine Venus.
The spider trickster: When a spirit tried to capture all of the world’s wisdom.
Anansi, in the form of a spider, once decided to hoard the entire world’s wisdom in a pot for himself. When he succeeded, he attempted to hide the pot at the top of a tree where nobody could find it. He tied the pot in front of him and tried to climb the tree, but kept sliding and losing his grip. His son, who had followed him, suggested he tie the pot to his back so he could climb more easily. When Anansi tried to implement his son’s suggestion, the pot slipped and fell to the ground. The wisdom fell out and a sudden rainstorm washed it into the river and from there to the waters of the ocean so that everyone in the world now owns a little bit of it.
Beauty contest that led to war: How feuding goddesses caused the Trojan War.
All the Olympian gods were invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis except Eris, the goddess of discord. Angry, Eris decided to teach the assembled Olympians a lesson. She threw amongst them a golden apple on which was engraved the words, ‘For the most beautiful.’ Three goddesses—Hera, goddess of household, Athena, goddess of skills, and Aphrodite, goddess of beauty—claimed the apple and fought over it. No god, not even Zeus, dared judge who of the three goddesses was the most beautiful, and hence worthy of the apple. Finally, the goddesses were told to go to Paris, prince of Troy, known for his understanding of female beauty and his fair judgements. The three goddesses presented themselves to Paris and tried to impress him with their beauty. When he could not decide, each tried to bribe him secretly. Hera promised to make him ruler of the greatest kingdom in the world. Athena promised to make him the most admired warrior in the world. Aphrodite promised him the hand of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world.
Paris accepted Aphrodite’s offer. He gave her the apple and with that, he and the land of Troy earned the enmity of Hera and Athena forever. Thus, the cause of the Trojan War was not so much human folly as it was the pettiness of the gods.
Underworld: Gang wars are older than you think
There were two sisters who hated each other: Inanna who ruled the world, land of the living, and Ereshkigal who ruled the underworld, land of the dead. Inanna decided to visit the underworld. She told the gatekeeper of the underworld that she wanted to attend her brother-in-law’s funeral rites. But perhaps she actually wanted to conquer the underworld. Before she left, Inanna instructed her minister Ninshubur to plead with the gods Enlil, Nanna, and Enki to save her if anything went wrong, and dressed elaborately for the visit. Her garments, unsuitable for a funeral, along with her haughty behaviour, made the queen of the underworld suspicious.
Following Ereshkigal’s instructions, the gatekeeper told Inanna she could enter the first gate of the underworld, but she had to hand over a piece of clothing. She asked why and was told, ‘It is just the way of the Underworld’. She obliged.
Inanna passed through a total of seven gates, each time removing a piece of clothing or jewellery she had been wearing at the start of her journey. When she arrived in front of her sister, she was stark naked and vulnerable. Ereshkigal turned Inanna into a corpse and hung her on a hook.
Three days and three nights passed and Ninshubur, following instructions, went to Enlil, Nanna, and Enki’s temples and demanded they save the goddess of life, love, and living. The first two gods refused, saying it was her own mess, but Enki was deeply troubled and agreed to help. He created two sexless figures (neither male nor female). He instructed them to appease Ereshkigal and, when she asked what they wanted, ask for Inanna’s corpse and sprinkle it with the food and water of life.
Things went as Enki said and the two sexless beings were able to revive Inanna. But Ereshkigal’s demons followed Inanna out of the underworld and said she wasn’t free to go until someone took her place. They first came upon Ninshubur and asked her to take Inanna’s place. Inanna refused, saying she had helped her as she had asked. They next came upon Dumuzi, Inanna’s husband. He was enjoying himself though his wife was supposedly still missing in the underworld. Inanna wasn’t happy and said the demons could take him. Dumuzi tried to escape his fate but a fly told Inanna and the demons where he was. It was then decreed that Dumuzi would spend half the year with Ereshkigal in the underworld, and the rest of the year with Inanna.