The word mythos (μῦθος) can mean “word,” “conversation,” “narrative,” “speech,” “story,” “tale,” or “true narrative,” referring not only to the means by which it is intended to be transmitted, to be told out loud, but also to how it is rooted in truth. Mythos is closely related to the word myo, meaning “to teach” or “to initiate.” Contrary to the popular way the term is used today, the word mythos is meant to convey a truth, typically of a religious significance. This is why we can sometimes find the word theomythia, “divine myth.” Myths are revealed to us mortals through divine madness (i.e., divine possession) that is brought by the Muses (Plato Phaedrus, 245a). As such, myths can be called theologia, or theology. Theology means “speech about the Gods,” and can thus be used to refer to the poets and their myths, alongside a more “theoretical” discourse about the divine.
Heraclitus famously said “phusis kruptesthai philei,” meaning “a nature likes to be hidden” (Heraclitus, DK B 123, Themistius, Orations 5.69b). This tells us that 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.” 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. However, a God by definition is a manifestation of the Good, each thus being “the best and the most beautiful thing possible” (Plato Republic, 381c), and so They cannot commit sin and They cannot die. When a myth speaks of a God doing blasphemous things, such as adultery, robbery, father-binding, etc., it is not to be taken literally. To take myths literally is to commit the sin of hubris, as it arrogantly assumes that one can comprehend and understand a divine mystery at a single glance, and it commits the aggression of dragging the divine down to one’s own level. Rather, these myths are to be understood on a philosophical level that explains the nature of mankind, the divine, or the relationship between the two. In the divine Plato’s 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).
So the nature of the myths, while divine, 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 unconcealed 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. This means that we have to use our minds to search for the pure truth in them, rather than let them be idle. We see myth deployed by divinely inspired poets and theologians such as Homer or Hesiod, those who established the Mysteries, Gods Themselves in oracles, and divine philosophers such as Plato and Orpheus, who used myths in their theological descriptions of life in Hades, or Antisthenes and Xenophon, who deployed myths as an ingredient when discussing certain ethical theories, “not casually or absent-mindlessly but on purpose” (Flavius Claudius Iulianus, II 103). This is ultimately why literalism is so incompatible with understanding the true nature of the Gods and our existence; to take myths wholly literal is to look past the riddled divine truths that they hold.
Quite simply, interpretation is inseparable from myth, with every myth requiring some degree of hermeneutics. And though some elements of a myth may serve purely narrative purposes, it can be properly understood that every myth about the Gods has a vital salvific core to impart. Plato writes that “a myth was saved, and it will save us if we believe it” (Plato Republic, 621b-c). This informs us that through intelligent interpretation we save the myth’s salvific core, which in turn saves us. The myths are themselves divine, containing elements of symbola and synthêmata, and share in the essence of the eternal Gods. Each myth is an ontology, being active on every plane of Being, including the physical, and as such are situated outside and independent of our mundane linear history, being holy truths which are eternal and everlasting.
Gods in Conflict?
In myths Gods can sometimes come into conflict with eachother. However, crucial to understanding such apparent hostilities is that they are not mere anthropomorphic emotionality. Gods in conflict in myth represent joint creative Activity (Energeia). Ostensibly, They express an apparent conflict between Gods’ projects in the Kosmos; however, conflict is a form of relation, and hence a form of cooperation. Gods in conflict in a myth are thus in truth cooperating far more than Gods who have no mythic interaction with eachother at all. This is overwhelmingly reflected in worship, such as with Pan and the Nymphes. In myth Pan has a hostile relationship with the Nymphes– however, in ritual worship, They are worshiped together frequently.
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 Godhood is intellectual, and all intellect returns into itself, this myth expresses in allegory the ousia (substance/essence) of the Gods.
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 Eris, the Goddess of Discord, threw down a golden apple; the Goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite 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).
The eternity of myths is important in understanding the words of Sallustius, who 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 the divine myths do not exist within any linear time, but rather exist in a special, generalized time which is eternal and always is. It is simultaneous and eternal, existing outside the boundaries of the linear time we reside in (Long 2015). And because Mythic Time exists in a generalized time which is in a fundamentally out-of-step existence than our own, it can be used as an agent for the “sanctification of space in order to manifest and experience hierophany” (TheLettuceMan, July 12 2018) via ritual imitation.
Myth & Ritual
This potential for myths being deployed in ritual is commented on in Proclus’ commentary on the Republic (Proclus, In Rep. I, 83.15-22):
“To a small number of people who have woken up to understanding, myths reveal the sympathy which they have towards reality, and the hieratic rites themselves impart faith that their power is connatural with things divine. For the Gods themselves rejoice at hearing such symbols and they are persuaded readily by those who call upon them, and they show what is peculiar to them [tên heautôn idiotêta] through these tokens [synthêmata] because they are appropriate [oikeios] to them and most familiar [gnôrimos].”
Myth are divine synthêmata, divine tokens within material reality, and thus are in accordance to the cosmos as manifestations of the activities of a deity or deities. As such, they are often deployed in ritual and festivals as a means of imitating the cosmos– aiding in lifting our souls upwards towards the divine by transforming a common prayer into a theurgic one– at least to a level appropriate to the worship of the material Gods.
Example: The Hilaria, the festival dedicated to the Great Mother and Attis that’s celebrated on the March equinox, thoroughly uses myth as a component in its celebration as a means of imitating the cosmos. Sallustius explains it in his catechism “On the Gods and the World” (Sallustius, IV):
“Now the Mother of the Gods is the principle that generates life; that is why she is called Mother. Attis is the creator of all things which are born and die; that is why he is said to have been found by the river Gallus. For Gallus signifies the Galaxy, or Milky Way, the point at which body subject to passion begins. Now as the primary gods make perfect the secondary, the Mother loves Attis and gives him celestial powers. That is what the cap means. Attis loves a nymph: the nymphs preside over generation, since all that is generated is fluid. But since the process of generation must be stopped somewhere, and not allowed to generate something worse than the worst, the creator who makes these things casts away his generative powers into the creation and is joined to the Gods again.”
Thus, “as the myth is in accord with the cosmos” (Sallustius, IV), we for that reason celebrate festivals and holidays which imitate the cosmos, “for how could we attain higher order?” (Sallustius, IV). Thus, during the Hilaria (Sallustius, IV):
“And at first we ourselves, having fallen from heaven and living with the nymph, are in despondency, and abstain from corn and all rich and unclean food, for both are hostile to the soul. Then comes the cutting of the tree and the fast, as though we also were cutting off the further process of generation. After that the feeding on milk, as though we were being born again; after which come rejoicings and garlands and, as it were, a return up to the Gods.”
“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 (II, 103-105)
“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.”
-Sallustius, On the Gods and the World III
“What would any of you give to meet with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? I am willing to die many times over, if these things are true. . .”
-Plato, Apology 41a
Butler, Edward P. Essays on a polytheistic philosophy of religion. New York: Phaidra Editions, 2014.
Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, and Wilmer Cave (France) Wright. The works of the Emperor Julian. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.
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.