Literary Theory: Mythos/Logos and the Birth of Fiction

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A mosaic from the ruins of Pompeii depicting Plato’s Academy.

Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Jove, from whatsoever source you may know them.

Homer, The Odyssey (trans. Samuel Butler).

These days, when a story is described as a myth, it is assumed not to be true. However, this was not always the case. In the first age of ancient Greece (800-500 B.C.), myths explained phenomena that people did not understand, and supplied the people of Greece with a sense of history. The inspiration for these stories was supposed to have been given to the poet by the Muses. Because the myths were the result of divine inspiration, they had authority and were seen as reliable. Since it was assumed that stories told the truth, there was no such thing as fiction. Interestingly, the authority of a myth depended on the audience’s response: if people appreciated the song/poem/etc. on an aesthetic level, they were likely to accept the story as true.

Around 550 B.C., Grecian society went through a transformation. First, they forged more trade relations with other nations, which meant that the merchants came in contact with more different cultures than ever before. On top of that, there was a rise of a new scientific ways of thinking, including the development of philosophy and rhetoric. Rhetoricians, for one, realised that words have the power to manipulate factual reality, and thus, that ‘truth’ is subjective. Because they discovered more and more about the unknown, people increasingly relied on a more rational mode of thinking.

This led to the distinction between mythos and logos. Both words mean ‘word’ in ancient Greece, but interpret it in different ways:

Mythos: Story (implied: lie, deceptive)
Logos: Rational (implied: truth)

With this distinction came the development of the concept of fiction. Now, people realised that a story does not necessarily correspond with factual reality.

It’s important to note that this development took place within the elite. The common people weren’t aware of this distinction. Thus, in the time between 500 and 300 B.C. (roughly), there was a double climate in Grecian society. On the one hand, logos was increasingly seen as the domain of truth, but on the other hand, mythos was still very much alive in the everyday lives of the people. Many writers chose to combine the two ways of thinking, and used the form of the myth to reflect on modern themes. For example, the hero Theseus was initially mostly depicted as a violent warrior, but was now also presented as the peaceful “founding father” of Athens, as a part of Athenian propaganda.

The two ways of thinking are both important to this day, especially for religious people: they complement each other. Where logos is concerned with practical matters, mythos offers meaning. Myths and other religious texts are not reasonable and do not empirically prove anything, but for many people they can offer a way to make sense of things that logos cannot explain.

The mythos/logos distinction may not be absolute, but it can be a helpful conceptual tool when discussing changes in the discourses of science and religion in history.

FURTHER READING:

Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism.

I may not agree with everything Armstrong says, but this book does give a good historical overview of the mythos/logos distinction and the role of these two ways of thinking in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Plato. Republic.

In book ten, the “ancient quarrel” between poetry and philosophy is discussed.


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