A Definition of "Myth"
WHAT IS A MYTH?
A myth is a traditional story whose author is unknown. It has its roots in the primitive folk-beliefs of cultures and uses the supernatural to interpret natural events and to explain a culture's view of the universe and the nature of humanity.
AN EXAMPLE OF A MYTH
Midas, king of Phrygia, was rich above all men in the world, yet, like others who have much, his heart was set on more. Once he had the chance to do a service to a god, when in his garden was found old Silenus, who, strayed from the train of his patron Dionysus, had lain down here to sleep off a drunken bout. Midas sportively bound the wandering reveller with roses, and, after filling him with the meat and drink he loved, took him back to the god of wine; then so well pleased was Dionysus to see that jovial companion, that he bid the friendly king choose any reward he liked to ask. Midas did not think twice.
" Grant me this boon then," he cried eagerly: " that whatever I touch may turn to gold!"
" So be it!" laughed the god, pledging him in a cup of wine; and Midas left his presence exulting to know that henceforth his wealth was boundless.
Impatient to test his new-given power, as he walked through the woods he tore off a twig, and lo ! at his touch it had turned to yellow gold. He picked up stones from the path, then they, too, became pure gold, and every clod he handled was at once a glittering nugget; he grasped an ear of corn to find it hard as gold; and when he plucked fruit or flowers they were like the apples of the Hesperides, so that soon his attendants went groaning under the burden of gold he gathered on the way. Weighed down by his golden robes, he himself would fain have been borne along, but when he mounted a mule it stood a lifeless image, and the litter on which they laid him was too heavy for the strength of all his men. Almost beside himself with pride and greed, he got home to his palace, where, as he brushed through the portal, its posts turned to golden pillars; and when he threw himself on the nearest seat, it was henceforth such a costly throne as any king in the world might envy.
Fatigued by his journey and its excitements, Midas called for food. Obedient menials made haste to spread a table, while others brought basins in which as their lord plunged his hands, the water froze forthwith into golden ice. So it was when he sat down to eat. He smiled to see how his plates and bowls changed to gold, as beseemed; but his smile became a frown when the first savoury mouthful met his lips as tasteless metal. In vain he tried to swallow such rich fare; the sweetest morsel crunched between his teeth like ashes; and when he would have drained a cup of wine, the drink was solid gold.
Tormented by hunger and thirst, he rose from that mockery of a banquet, for once envying the poorest kitchen-boy in his palace. It was no comfort to visit the growing mass of his treasures; the very sight of gold began to sicken him. If he embraced his children, if he struck a slave, their bodies turned in an instant to golden statues. All around glared hateful yellow in his eyes. It was a relief when darkness came to hide that now-abhorred wealth. Then, flinging off his heavy golden robes, he sank with a sigh upon a soft couch that at once grew hard and cold; and there he tossed restless all night, the richest and the most wretched man alive.
In sleepless despair, with the first light of dawn he hastened to Dionysus, earnestly beseeching him to take back his gift of splendid misery.
"So men's dearest wishes oft prove unwise!" wailed the god. " But once more I grant thee thy desire. Seek out the source of the Pactolus, and by bathing in its pure waters thou mayst undo the spell laid upon thee."
Scarcely waiting to thank him, Midas set off for that healing stream. Driven on by the gnawings of hunger, over mountain and plain he panted till he came to the Pactolus, whose sandy bed was streaked with gold wherever he trod; and men say that scales of gold may still be turned up to mark his footsteps. When he reached its cool fountain and hurled into it his fevered body, the crystal water was stained as if by gold. But no sooner had his head plunged beneath it, than that fatal gift was washed away; and to his unspeakable joy Midas came out able to eat and drink like other men.
This king was not always so fortunate in his dealings with the gods. Cured of his greed for gold, yet no wiser in his mind, he took to roaming the green woods, and there came upon Pan at strife with the great Apollo. For that rude Satyr had presumed to boast his pipe of reeds against the god's lute; and they took Midas for judge which of them made the sweetest music. After listening to their strains, the dull-eared mortal gave judgement for Pan; then Apollo, in displeasure, punished him by decking his head with the ears of an ass, even as the Muses spitefully turned the daughters of Pierus into birds, when these mortal maidens would have contended with them in song on Mount Helicon.
The first pool into which Midas looked showed him how shamefully he had been transformed; but this time he could hope no favour from an angry god. Slinking into his palace by night, the king would have hid from all that he bore those long, hairy ears. His head he kept wrapped night and day in a turban such as makes a shield against the sun for men of the hot East. None knew why Midas went thus arrayed, save only his barber, to whom he could not but disclose the truth, binding him by oaths and threats never to breathe it to hurnan ear.
But the barber, for his part, could not bear the weight of such a secret which he must not tell. Itching to let it out, yet fearing his master's wrath, he stole down to the lonely bank of the river and scooped out a hole, into which he whispered " Midas has ass's ears", hoping to be heard by no man. But where he had opened the ground, there grew up a clump of reeds that, as often as they were stirred by the wind, kept on murmuring, "Midas has ass's ears".
(Moncrieff, A.R. Hope. 1907. Greece and Rome. London: George G. Harrap.)
Reviewing the Definition
1. Remember that one characteristic of a myth is that it "uses the supernatural." Supernatural means, "above the forces of nature." Gods, for example, are supernatural forces. Which of the characters from the Midas myth is an example of a supernatural force?
2. Another characteristic of a myth is that it "interprets natural events." Which natural phenomena is explained by the Midas myth?
3. A third characteristic of a myth is that it explains, "the nature of humanity." This means that myths try to show what people are really like. They often show human weaknesses and teach lessons or give warnings. What human characteristic is revealed in the Midas myth?
4. Finally, you should recall that myths often express a culture's view of the universe, of how everything is controlled. The ancient Greeks believed that there were gods who controlled their destinies. How are these gods portrayed in the Midas myth?
Check Your Answers.
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