‘Experts, I fear, aren’t much help here. You can collect academic definitions for as long as your patience lasts. “The word myth,” as Northrop Frye rightly says, “is used in such a bewildering variety of contexts that anyone talking about it has to say first of all what his chosen context is.” Folklorist Liz Locke put it more bluntly in 1998: “such a state of semantic disarray and/or ambiguity is truly extraordinary.”
Finnish folklorist Lauri Honko nonetheless gives a definition that kind of sounds like what you’d expect from an expert: a myth is
a story of the gods, a religious account of the beginning of the world, the creation, fundamental events, the exemplary deeds of the gods as a result of which the world, nature and culture were created together with all parts thereof and given their order, which still obtains. A myth expresses and confirms society’s religious values and norms, it provides a pattern of behavior to be imitated, testifies to the efficacy of ritual with its practical ends and establishes the sanctity of cult.
This is a fair appraisal of how myth has often been regarded by anthropologists. But it is fraught with dangers and traps. Like the word “anthropology” itself, it seems to offer an invitation to make myth something “other”: something belonging to cultures not our own, and most probably to ones that even in the circles of liberal academics retain an air of the “primitive.” Gods, creation, ritual, cult: these are surely notions that we in the developed world have left behind and only pick up again with an air of irony. Our “gods” are not real beings or agencies but metaphorical cravings (“he worships money”) or celebrities (rock gods and sex goddesses).
This picture is tenacious, and I suspect it accounts for much of the resistance to the notion (and there is a lot of resistance, believe me) that anything created in modern times might deserve to be called a “myth.” To accept that we have never relinquished myths and myth-making might seem to be an admission that we are not quite modern and rational. But all I am asking, with the concept of myth I use in this book, is that we accept that we have not resolved all the dilemmas of human existence, all the questions about our origins or our nature—and that, indeed, modernity has created a few more of them.
One objection to the idea of a modern myth is that, to qualify as myth, a story must contain elements and characters that someone somewhere believes literally existed or happened. Surely myths can’t emerge from works of fiction! The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski asserted as much, saying of myth that “it is not of the nature of fiction, such as we read today in a novel, but it is a living reality, believed to have once happened in primeval times, and continuing ever since to influence the world and human destinies.”’