Is not mythology, almost by definition, irrelevant, outmoded and false? In particular, is not classical mythology, with its misbehaving and devious deities, something we are better off ignoring or treating as primitive, unevolved, and of merely historical interest? Perhaps, if we feel we must teach mythology, for whatever relevance it may have to the history of our language, literature and art, it should be done with a cautionary statement as to its absurdity and irrelevance in the modern age:
What we are about to learn is how primitive people tried to understand a world that they often found incomprehensible and frightening. Today, we know better. By studying these ancient stories and beliefs, by noting the foolishness and ignorance of our ancient forebears, we can better measure our own progress.
Yet, children love the ancient stories: the abduction of Persephone by the dark lord Hades, the quest for the Golden Fleece, the tragic love of Psyche for Cupid, the Herculean task of subduing the three-headed dog Cerberus, the fearful tracing of the labyrinth in Crete to slay the Minotaur, etc. Not for a minute do children believe that these stories represent historical fact. Rather, they exist for them in the same world of the imagination as do Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Chronicles of Narnia, and TheFellowship of the Ring. These modern myths and their ancient predecessors affirm to the children the relevance of their own imaginations as they try to make sense of the world in which they live.
To value the imagination is to acknowledge the importance of what is not literal fact and to encourage our students to participate in the conversation about our human condition: How do we find meaning in our lives? Is there anything worth sacrificing our lives for? What does it mean to be a hero? How do we make sense of the suffering that is an inevitable part of our existence? How do we grow and develop so that we can lead a fully satisfying life? All these questions are essential components of the ancient stories, beginning with Gilgamesh’s quest for eternal life, Odysseus’ longing for home, and Achilles’ anger at the choices life has thrust upon him. These same questions animate all great art and literature throughout all human history and are as relevant today as they were then.
We, of course, could point to the relics of ancient mythology in our modern culture: words like Herculean and enthusiastic or the names of the moons around Jupiter (e.g. Io, Europa) or such Christmas customs as gift-giving and the evergreen tree, or we might speak of how the achievement of the Renaissance was made possible by the energy that the ancient pagan stories brought to the expression of Christian belief. One look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which joins pagan images with those from the Bible, reveals how inspiring the ancient stories can be when joined with contemporary expressions of belief. There is also the great literature of the world, ancient and modern, that profoundly draws upon mythology and its symbols, upon the journeys of larger-than-life heroes and the challenges they surmount, to establish a dimension of meaning that transcends the particular time and place of the reader. The great writers simply assume readers come prepared with a knowledge of mythology that will enable them to see the universal in the particular. Students without this knowledge are at a severe disadvantage in literature classes and, more significantly, often feel ill-equipped to participate in that literate conversation about values for which the great books are the occasion.
It is our responsibility as educators to equip our students with the knowledge and sensibility by which they can participate in this conversation about what makes life worth living. This conversation has taken place across the ages in all cultures and is itself a great achievement of mankind. To ignore, trivialize or denigrate mythology is to devalue the role that imagination plays in seeking answers to the questions that life thrusts upon us. These are the same timeless questions that Achilles and Odysseus faced. If our answers are different from theirs, we can at the very least feel compassion for those who were struggling with the same facts of existence as we do today. Compassion is itself an imaginative act by which we do what cannot literally be done: put ourselves in the place of another and know his or her struggles as our own.