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An essay donated by Susan Humphreys

Two foundational religious terms: Mythos and Logos:

Basic terms that influence religious wars, the conflict
between religion & science, hatred of the "other,"
origins, islamophobia, religism 1 homophobia, etc.

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Mythos and Logos:

"East is east and West is west and never the twain shall meet." Rudyard Kipling told us years ago. He makes a good point. How can we ever hope to solve the world’s problems if we don’t even speak the same language.  The language I am thinking about is that of mythos and logos.

I have been reading Karen Armstrong’s book, "The Battle for God, A History of Fundamentalism". It was this web site's recommended book for 2013-APR. 2 She writes:

"We tend to assume that people of the past were (more or less) like us, but in fact their spiritual lives were rather different. In particular, they evolved two ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge, which scholars have called mythos and logos."

Both are Greek words and can be translated as something like "story" or "account".

  • Logos dealt with physical reality and was interested in TRUTH that was universal and objective.

  • Mythos dealt with the mental or spiritual TRUTH that was personal and subjective.

From Wikipedia we learn:

"Logos was originally a word meaning 'a ground', 'a plea', 'an opinion', 'an expectation', 'word,' 'speech,' 'account,' 'reason,' it became a technical term in philosophy, beginning with Heraclitus (ca. 535–475 BC), who used the term for a principle of order and knowledge.

It isn’t any wonder that people have been confused about its meaning.

The Gospel of John identifies the Logos, through which all things are made, as divine, and further identifies Jesus as the incarnate Logos. Most Bibles translate Logos in these passages as "word". Which I think gives a misleading impression of what was meant.

Logos as used here is the principle of reason that gives order to the universe and is the link between the human mind and the mind of God. From my Harper Collins study Bible, New Revised Standard edition"

"Logos isn’t the physical reality, the world that we see. Logos used by John is 'reason' (more akin to logic or structure?, organizing principle behind the reality that we see) not 'a reason', as in the cause of something."

Currently,

  • Logos has come to refer to knowledge of the real, physical world of our senses.

  • Mythos to the knowledge of the world of our dreams, hopes, fears, and our imagination.  

Both Mythos and Logos use words to convey meaning. BUT:

  • Mythos uses words metaphorically, symbolically and conveys them in stories and poetry, ritual and drama.

  • Logos uses facts and figures, numbers and calculations, and conveys them….well scientific and historical writings are often rather dry and rarely  entertaining.

I might add that many people discover they gain a better understanding and retain more of what they learn of science and history when it is told as historical or scientific drama/fiction.

The TRUTH of Mythos sometimes appears to us in dreams and through meditation. The TRUTH of Logos through scientific inquiry, tests and retests. And sometimes through trial and error.

The TRUTH of Logos is of a practical nature, helps us solve physical earthly problems; how to grow bigger and better crops, how to build bigger and better structures, how to cure disease …..

The TRUTH of Mythos is of a spiritual or psychic nature, helps us solve mental, emotional, esoteric problems. Problems with meaning, with grief, with joy or lack thereof.

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There was a time, I think, when mythos and logos weren’t two separate concepts. Only as we began to understand our world and how it works did the two divide and eventually go their separate ways. Now it seems as though some people are either trying to insist they address the same spheres or some people seem to turn them around. The inability to distinguish between the "reality" of mythos and the reality of logos can be detrimental to the individual as well as society. It can negate the reality of suffering and deny the special uniqueness and talents of each individual.

One new age guru -- by claiming that there is ONLY one Universal Consciousness -- seems to insist that Mythos is the one and ONLY reality and that Logos is the mythology, the imaginary, non-real, appearing only in our minds. If I understand him correctly he is basically saying that because everything that we see and understand comes through our own perception which is subjective, there is no physical objective reality.

My response back is that you and I might look at a table and see it differently. You might see a piece of junk, and I might see an Early American treasure that just needs a little cleaning and polishing to once again be beautiful. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a table there. It doesn’t mean that the table doesn’t have its own reality, physical presence, and objective TRUTH.  It simply means that we humans can’t view it objectively. If we walk away to where we can no longer see the table, the table doesn’t disappear. It is still there for someone else to look at.

I believe that with a little work I can turn the  piece of junk back into an object of beauty and use it as an end table in my living room.

  • Beauty is of the realm of Mythos.

  • Functionality is of the realm of Logos.

I’d also like to remind the guru that even HE still has to breathe clean air, drink clean water, eat and defecate, IF he wants to continue to speculate about what is and is not real.

Now that last sentence was pure poetry, at least it rhymed and poetry is one of the tools of Mythos even if the subject matter is of Logos.

There are two dangers that I see coming from trying to turn Mythos into Logos -- or from simply not being aware of the different spheres in which they operate.

  • First there are very real problems that we face. They aren’t imaginary. People are hungry and unemployed; our air and water is easily and far too often polluted and unfit for human consumption; there is a great deal of hate and violence, suffering and tragedy. Hate and suffering are problems of Mythos but the physical actions spawned by hate and injuries to bodies that cause suffering are problems of Logos. Hunger and physical injuries can’t be cured by calls to love your neighbors or prayers alone.

  • Second when people are taught that there is only ONE reality, that of a supra consciousness, love, God, that there is no you or me, them or us, it actually relieves them of any responsibility for their actions here and now, because as some might say, it will all wash out, or even out, or seem like just a dream in the end. If there is no physical reality why worry about what I do to myself or to others?

I don’t live on the plane or in the realm of Mythos and neither do you. We LIVE on this physical plane, in the realm of Logos.  

There are some that try to deny that the plane or realm of Mythos is "real". They belittle and demean the stories that convey Mythical TRUTHS as well as the practices of meditation, or ritual or of dream time, that help people break free (metaphorically) for a short time of the physical plane to catch a glimpse of or be a part of the spiritual/transcendent realm. Many medical doctors have had (some still have) a hard time accepting that the mind (the realm of Mythos) can be used to ease the pain caused by disease and injury (the realm of Logos).

If you have never had a "transcendent" experience it will be almost impossible to convince you that such experiences occur. But they do. I have experienced them, they are very "real", again metaphorically speaking. That is the clincher. They are metaphorical TRUTHs of the realm of Mythos not physical TRUTHS that are of the realm of Logos, even though they certainly feel like physical truths.

Karen Armstrong tells us that:

"Myth was not reasonable; its narratives were not supposed to be demonstrated empirically. It provided the context of meaning that made our practical activities worthwhile. You were not to make mythos the basis of a pragmatic policy." 2 P. xvii

And when people have, the consequences have been disastrous. She tells the story of Pope Urban II and the first Crusaders:

"... it remained true that whenever logos was ascendant, the Crusaders prospered. They performed well on the battlefield, created viable colonies in the Middle East, and learned to relate more positively with the local population. When, however, Crusaders started making a mythical or mystical vision the basis of their policies, they were usually defeated and committed terrible atrocities."

The realm of Mythos has helped many a mathematician and scientist and even common folks like me solve problems we face that can’t be reached through the logic and reasoning of the realm of Logos alone. There have been many times when I have been stumped in my writing, if I sleep on it, or take a walk or a hot bath, the answer to my problem will often pop into my head. The realm of mythos taps into our subconscious. Logos on the other hand can’t help us understand or figure out questions of meaning. It has trouble dealing with our sorrows and frustrations, our anger and our joy.

Some of the knowledge learned through Mythos is timeless and universal; tales of death and resurrection, of struggles through labyrinths and mazes. Some knowledge was very specific referring to local mountains or springs or historic battles and leaders. Both the knowledge we learned from Mythos and Logos was to help us solve problems -- not create them. Unfortunately knowledge  gained from both has been used for immoral and shameful purposes and to justify and sanctify (in the case of Mythos) our actions.

The earliest myths helped explain such questions of how the world came to be, why humans were different from other creatures, why the sun rose and what we needed to do to make sure it kept rising each morning. Joseph Campbell has written a whole series of books about mythology. I suggest you read them if you haven’t already. You will gain a better understanding and -- I would hope -- appreciation of Mythos.

As the discipline of Science developed it removed much of the magic and mystery from the myths. However, without some magic and mystery life can at the least be dull, and have no sparkle. At the worst it leaves people totally adrift without any sense of meaning or purpose to their lives. BUT it doesn’t have to be that way.

Loren Eisley an early environmentalist said:

"If there is magic on this planet it is contained in water."

He was fully aware of the real issues, of problems with pollution , but didn’t lose his appreciation for the wonder of it all.

I don’t believe in a Transcendent Being or Deity of any kind, but I have a great appreciation for and admiration for the wonders of nature. I can enjoy the magic of watching a seed sprout and unfurl its folded seed leaves. I am relieved and happy when the first Red-winged blackbirds return to my pond after their winter vacation. Usually the males arrive in February long before the cold departs to stake out the best nesting sites.

Some find magic in the birth of a child and from watching that child explore and discover its self and the world around it. The magic and wonder is there for those that don’t believe in God as well as for those that do, IF they are willing to see it and understand it for what it is and what it isn’t.

Albert Einstein said about religion and science: 

"The Jewish scriptures admirably illustrate the development from the religion of fear to moral religion, which is continued in the New Testament. The religions of all civilized peoples, especially the peoples of the Orient, are primarily moral religions. The development from a religion of fear to moral religion is a great step in a nation’s life."

"Common to all these types is the anthropomorphic character of their conception of God. Only individuals of exceptional endowments and exceptionally high-minded communities, as a general rule, get in any real sense beyond this level. But there is a third state of religious experience which belongs to all of them, even though it is rarely found in a pure form, and which I will call cosmic religious feeling. It is very difficult to explain this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it." 3

Its all in our mind -- simply a matter of perception as Mythos tells us.  And perception generally is a personal experience, not a universal phenomenon. Whether you understand the world as Einstein sees it or as I see it doesn’t matter, at least it doesn’t matter to me and I am sure Einstein didn’t care one way or the other. I am secure in my beliefs. Your disbelief or arguments won’t shake my understanding of my Mythos, what is true for me.   

Unfortunately there are many that are deeply disturbed that others don’t understand and accept their MYTHOS as the absolute, ultimate and only TRUTH. This leads to hate and fear of the "other" and the religious wars that have torn our world apart. They seem to think that if everyone will only believe what they believe that it will erase all of their own doubts and prove those beliefs are TRUE. It’s as if Truth is determined by popular vote, the more people that support a position the greater the TRUTH.

They use the logic and reasoning of Logos in an attempt to prove their Mythos and then get angry when their logic or "science" is shown to be faulty. Some try to insist that their Mythos is actually Logos, the one and only reality and Logos is the mythology, nothing more than a fantasy and they get angry when someone tries to bring them back down to earth to face reality, the world of Logos.

What are we to do? Was Rudyard Kipling right? East is east and West is west and never the twain shall meet? Does that mean that we can never figure out a way to live together, a way to allow each one to believe what he/she wants to believe without feeling threatened?  Is it impossible for people to agree to disagree on some issues (Mythos) and still be able to find a way to work together for their mutual benefit, and for the benefit of those that can’t help themselves? I hope not.

If we can’t find a way to put aside or control our fears and hate, racism and bigotry, greed and envy, desire for power, wealth and dominance, persecution and all out war, than both our Mythos and our Logos have failed us.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Religism" is a word created on this web site to mean hatred towards -- and a desire to discriminate against -- persons who follow a different religion or no organized religion. It is in the same class of terms as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, islamophobia, etc.

  2. book cover image Karen Armstrong, "The Battle For God, A History of Fundamentalism," Page xv. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

  3. Book cover image Albert Einstein, "The World As I see It" Page 25-26. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

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Originally posted: 2013-MAY-04
Latest update: 2013-MAY-04
Author: Susan Humphreys

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