Our timeless need for myths
Myths and legends have been part of human culture since the beginning, but in our modern world we often feel disconnected from such stories. We spend so much time focused on the origins of a myth and the meaning behind it—the “why”—that we forget to let the story be told and experienced.
In their article “The Cyclops: Portrait of an Ogre” in the Summer 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Mercedes Aguirre and Richard Buxton use the cyclops from Greek mythology as a prime example of looking beyond the “why.” While they do indeed touch on the different types of cyclopes and briefly look into their potential origins, Aguirre and Buxton also encourage us to look beyond them.
What makes a myth exceptional is not its supposed origin, but rather its meaning and timelessness. Stories are told but legends live on. The historical and cultural origins of myths will always be cause for speculation but in the end, they really don’t matter. In their discussion of the mythological cyclops, Aguirre and Buxton write, “Far better to imagine a breed of primordial giants with overlapping and paradoxical characteristics, capable of constructiveness but also destructiveness. Indeed, there is much more to the cyclopes than meets the eye.”
Sometimes in our search for the “why,” we treat ancient peoples as simplistic. We look down on them for believing in fantastic and otherworldly creatures. Obviously, a gigantic one-eyed monster can’t exist, so those who told the stories must have been intellectually inferior to us. This, too, is meaningless since we assume the ancients believed their legends to be factual. We forget that in the modern era, we have myths and legends of our own. The epic tales of larger-than-life heroes such as Batman and Superman have inspired humanity for over seven decades and only continue to grow. However, the majority of the population does not believe a lonely billionaire orphan dresses up like a bat to fight crime.
Superheroes have become the new mythology, stepping in to fill a void in the human heart that was once occupied by the likes of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, and Aeneas. These heroes manifest the struggle of being human—of leaving the villages of our youthful innocence to brave the dark caves of the world and the monstrosities within (and within ourselves) to achieve a spark of greatness. Odysseus entered the cave of a terrible cyclops that wanted to eat his friends and then masterfully outwitted the creature to save them. Bruce Wayne becomes the monster in the cave—the Batman—and outwits the maniacal villains that seek to sow chaos on the streets of Gotham City. Both are stories of braving the monsters of the world for the sake of those we care about.
After rethinking our society’s own relationship to mythology, read more about the myths of the ancient cyclops in “The Cyclops: Portrait of an Ogre” by Mercedes Aguirre and Richard Buxton, published in the Summer 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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