Heraclitus famously said “phusis kruptesthai philei,” meaning “a nature likes to be hidden” (Heraclitus, DK B 123, Themistius, Orations 5.69b). Myth, the poetic word (logos), is a way that the truth of a God or human’s nature can be discovered. It’s noteworthy that the Greek word for truth, “aletheia,” is a combination of an alpha privative with “letho,” literally meaning “unconcealment” or “unhidden.”
And this very much reflects the nature of myths. Myths have been used by inspired poets, philosophers, those who established the Mysteries, and by the Gods themselves in oracles. The myths are themselves divine, being divine symbola which share in the essence of the eternal Gods, and as such are situated outside and independent of our mundane linear history, being holy truths which are eternal and everlasting. They are delivered to us mortals through divine madness brought by the Muses (Plato Phaedrus, 245a). Insofar as the myth presents the story and through that story the Gods and humans ethos is revealed, the myth is true. Mythology is understood to be a poetic process by which the Gods “disclose” or “reveal” themselves and others to humankind, both within the narrative of the myths themselves, or to those listening to the myths, who are in truth listening to the divine inspirations of the Muses.
We must keep the mind that while the myths are divine, they share a likeness to a body: while a shallow exterior is visible and clear to all, the soul and mind are hidden, and must be looked into to be truly understood. Myths represent the Gods themselves and the goodness of the Gods, but they are riddles that must be solved to be truly understood. The paradoxical element in them is designed to turn our minds to the hidden truth that lie underneath. The dramatic setting of the myths are filled with knowledge that is insinuated into the ears of those who cannot receive divine truths in their purest form; truths that are too sacred for direct expression, and require secret interpretation to find out what they mean.
Plato, for instance, uses myths in his theological descriptions of life in Hades, as did the son of Calliope, Orpheus, before him. When Antisthenes, Xenophon and Plato discuss certain ethical theories, they often use myths as one of the ingredients, not casually or absent-mindlessly but on purpose.
A God by definition is a manifestation of Good, and as a manifestation of good they cannot commit sin, and they cannot die. When a myth speaks of a God doing blasphemous things, such as adultery, robbery, father-binding, and the like, it is not to be taken literally; but rather understood on a philosophical level that explains the nature of mankind, the divine, or the relationship between the two. In the divine Plato’s dialogue, the Republic, he writes that each God is the best thing possible, and hence divine myths that describe otherwise must have hyponoiai, “hidden meaning” (Plato Republic, II.378d–e). This is ultimately why literalism is so incompatible with understanding the true nature of the Gods and our existence. To take texts wholly literal is to look past the riddled divine truths that they hold. A benefit of myths is that we have to use our minds to search for the pure truth in them, and do not have our minds idle. Hermeneutics is necessary to understand the whole truth.
Five types of myths
Sallustus, a contemporary and close friend of the divine Julian, proposes systematic treatment of interpreting the myths that has an ultimate aim of accounting the Gods and the cosmos in Platonic ethics and Hellenic religion (Sallustius, IV).
There are five types of myths: theological, physical, psychic, material, and mixed.
The theological interpretation of myths use no bodily form but contemplate the very essence of the Gods themselves. The theological interpretation can be singled out for its applicability to all myths and because it interprets myth in reference exclusively to the nature of the Gods and their relationship to a model of the cosmos in its totality. The other modes of interpretation are mostly only useful in their specific context; either not being uniformly applicable to all myths, interpreting the myths as concerning things other than the Gods, or interpreting the myths only concerning particular sectors of the cosmos. Theological myths are often used by philosophers; such as Plato and Orpheus, for instance, who used myths in their theological descriptions of life in Hades.
Example: Kronos swallowing his children. Since God is intellectual, and all intellect returns into itself, this myth expresses in allegory the substance (ousia/being) of God.
Physical myths are a type of myth that often suits poets. Physical myths can tell us about the relationship between the Gods and nature.
Example: Kronos is Time according to the physical interpretation. This is based on the wordplay Kronos/chronos. The children who are brought forth by time are devoured by that which brought them forth.
Psychic myths are another type of myth that suits poets. Psychic myths, as the name suggests (Psyche/Ψυχή), pertain to the activities or faculties of the soul itself.
Example: Sallustius explains in his example of the myth of Kronos that our soul’s thoughts, though communicated to others, remain within us.
The material interpretation of myths are is one that attributes a God’s essence to corporeal/material natures that are attributed to them. It is important to note that to say these objects are sacred to the Gods, like various herbs and stones and animals, is fine; but to confuse these items with the Gods themselves is a mistake. This is why the Material interpretation can never be the sole interpretation of a myth.
Example: They call the earth Isis, moisture Osiris, heat Typhon, or again, water Kronos, the fruits of the earth Adonis, and wine Dionysus.
Mixed types of myths are the types of myths often used to suit religious initiation, since every initiation aims us at uniting us with the world and the Gods. They touch all four prior levels. Mixed myths have to be interpreted in relation to the different levels of being.
Example: They say that in a banquet of the Gods that Discord threw down a golden apple; the Goddesses contended for it, and were sent forth by Zeus to Paris to be judged. Paris saw Aphrodite as beautiful and gave her the apple. Here the banquet signifies the Hypercosmic powers of the 12 Gods, which is why they are all together. The golden apple is the world, which, being formed out of opposites, is naturally said to be “thrown by Discord.” The different Gods bestow different gifts upon the world, and are thus said to “contend for the apple.” Paris, representing the soul which lives according to sense, does not see the other powers in the world but sees only beauty, and declares that the apple belongs to Aphrodite.
This myth can be interpreted to be Mixed because the myth says something on all four levels:
- Theological component: It tells us something about the class of Hypercosmic Gods (that is, the 12 Olympian Gods whose activity lies in the Hypercosmic Realm, which is just beyond the world we know, and are thus primarily responsible for the administration of the world).
- Physical component: It tells us about the relationship between the Gods and the world.
- Psychic component: It talks about the way a certain kind of soul responds to the divine.
- Material component: It talks about the composition of the world (i.e., as based on the conflict of forces).
Sallustius writes of myths that “these things never happened, but always are. And mind sees all things at once, but reason (or speech) expresses some first and others after.” (Sallustius, IV) What Sallustius describes is the concept of mythic time. Mythic time is different from the predominantly Abrahamic view that standardly conceptualizes time and story as something that has a clear beginning, middle, and end, with “today” being set at a specific point along that line. Instead, mythic time is the concept that some myths exist outside of any linear time; rather existing in a special, generalized time. Mythic time always is, and does not exist in any sort of prior time. It is simultaneous and eternal, existing outside the boundaries of the linear time we reside in. (Long 2015)
Myth & Ritual
Myth can be deployed in ritual for aiding in lifting our souls upwards towards the divine. The use of myths in rituals, or references to myths, can be symbolic of the activities of the deity or deities to whom the rituals are directed towards. It is one of many common features to prayer practices (such as hymns) found in many religions, and aids in making common prayer become theurgic by raising us to the divine; at least to a level appropriate to the worship of the material Gods.
Since myths are in accordance with the cosmos, they may be used in rituals and festivals as a means of imitating the cosmos; lifting our souls upwards towards mythic time, and thus closer to the Gods through theurgy.
Example: Hilaria, the festival dedicated to the Great Mother and Attis that’s celebrated on the March equinox, which thoroughly uses myth as a component in its celebration as a means of imitating the cosmos.
- Attis falls from heaven to live with a nymph. This is seen as our souls having fallen from heaven and living with the nymph, which represents material existence. For this we abstain from corn and unclean food such as roots, as they from the ground, and since Hilaria being dedicated to lifting the soul upwards, they are deemed hostile to the soul.
- Then comes the cutting of the tree and the fast, as this represents a distances of ourselves from the generation of material existence by symbolically cutting it off. Following the fast is the feeding on milk, which represents the rebirth of Attis, after which come rejoicings and garlands and, as it were, a return up to the Gods.
- The season of the ritual is further evidence. The rites are performed during the Vernal equinox, when the fruits of the earth are ceasing to be produced, and day is becoming longer than night, which applies well to spirits rising higher.
“It is now evident what branch and what sort of philosophy may properly on occasion employ myths. And to support my argument I call to witness the authority of those philosophers who were the first to use myths. Plato for instance in his theological descriptions of life in Hades often uses myths, and the son of Calliope [Orpheus] before him. And when Antisthenes and Xenophon and Plato himself discuss certain ethical theories they use myths as one of the ingredients, and not casually but of set purpose.”
-Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus / Julian the Philosopher
“We may well inquire, then, why the ancients forsook these doctrines and made use of myths. There is this first benefit from myths, that we have to search and do not have our minds idle.”
Butler, Edward P. Essays on a polytheistic philosophy of religion. New York: Phaidra Editions, 2014.
Iamblichus, and Emma C. Clarke. Iamblichus on The mysteries. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
Kupperman, Jeffrey S. Living theurgy: a course in Iamblichus philosophy, theology and theurgy. London: Avalonia, 2014.
Long, Steven M. “What is Mythic Time?” Steven M. Long. October 19, 2015. Accessed July 20, 2017. http://stevenmlong.com/what-is-mythic-time/.
Sallustius, “On the Gods and the Cosmos”, 4th Century AD, accessed July 19, 2017,http://www.platonic-philosophy.org/files/Sallustius%20-%20On%20the%20Gods%20(Taylor).pdf
Shaw, Gregory. Theurgy and the soul: the Neoplatonism of Iamblichus. Second ed. Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2014.
Julian, and Wilmer Cave (France) Wright. The works of the Emperor Julian. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.