The concept and elements of Myths

One very valuable aspect in phenomenology of religion is the myth. To give a brief definition, we must say that the myth is distinguished from history not by criterions of veracity, but by its form. Therefore it does not refer to a history told, but to a story lived. In the words of Malinowski ‘it is a living reality that is believed to have happened in remote times and that it continues to influence the world and human destiny.’[1] We see therefore that the myth is really a cultural force with social implications. But it is not a static element in its culture. Malinowski again points out that ‘the myth . . . is constantly recreated; each historical change generates its own mythology, that meanwhile only relates indirectly to historical fact. The myth is a constant derived from a living faith that requires miracles; of sociological study that demands antecedents; of a moral standard that requires sanctions.’[2]
Myth in this way presents us with a probable thesis. I observe that the religiosity of a people, especially one that is animistic, is dynamic and based above all on its mythology.   So I ask myself some times, if the myths establish the religiosity or the religiosity creates the myths. In a way myth and magic share the same utilitarian value. While the first aims to be a practice of the manipulation of life, the second is based on ideas, concepts and beliefs in order to give meaning, above all to the religiosity. The explanations of life, of the existence of the powers that regulate the world, of the sicknesses, certainties and uncertainties, the ambiguity of the universe, everything can be found with its values in the mythology of the group, when this is preserved and transmitted.
My observation, above all of the Konkombas of Ghana, leads me to think that there is a modulation between the ethnic profile and the present mythology. In other words, the form of the society, whether it is traditional or progressive, ethical or amoral, magical or spiritual, theophanic or naturalist, coincides with elements in their mythology that is the base not only their beliefs but also on its ethnic-social profile, from it formation to the way it solves life’s conflicts. Being a dynamic mythology the representatives of the group, possibly with clear foundation in their mythology, not only use the existing myths, but create and recreate these and new myths in order to formulate the ethnic-social profile of the people and provide its expectations. In this way the mythology is not only foundational but also manipulated. This does not happen in an intentional collective way, but fragmented and individual way. Therefore the myths are able to preserve not only the explanations of life, but in some cases, they are a result made from life itself.
Among the Konkombas in Ghana the mythology centers around the personage of Uwumbor; it is enigmatic in speaking about this being that created and distanced himself, who observed the sin of ‘ukpakpalja’ - or the greedy man – and was revolted enough to take away with him the ‘paacham’ to paradise. However the mythology also affirms that Uwumbor from remote times, descended to earth two more times, both of them to punish the people by the increase of evil. This mythological belief coincided, however, with the epidemic that had devastated a large part of the Konkomba-Bimonkpeln people in 1870 and also the war against the dominate overlords of the land (Gonja and Dagomba peoples) in 1942 (that was repeated in 1993 and 1997). Especially in 1942 many Konkombas, specially many representatives of the chief clans, were killed. Similarly we perceive therefore that the mythology of Uwumbor and ukpakpalia dates back to the remote times in the distant past that supports beliefs and convictions from a distant god and present spirits, leading them to all sorts of acts of invocation, worship and fear. On the other hand we perceive a utilitarian element, possibly introduced intentionally, of the return of Uwumbor to explain the facts of life in the case of the epidemic and the lost war. In this way the myths function like a dialogue in groups with deeply help oral traditions, and interact with life explaining it and being molded to explain it.
So myths are narratives the most ancient ideas. Although new myths can be created, the oldest influence a community more. Some categories of myth need to be studied now.
Cosmogonist myths relate the systems and moment of origin of the universe and humanity by a god, gods or a generating life force. These myths help us in the theology of creation. The cosmogonist myths are present above all in traditional, historicist and theophanic and especially in spiritualist cultures in spite of also being found in magical groups. Normally totemic groupings possess vast preserved collections of cosmogonist myths seeing that they are rooted in the totemic logic that forms the group or clan.
Anthropogenic Myths tell of the creation of the life environment of mankind, such as animals, plants and air. Also they help us in the theologies of creation.
Ancient Myths that tell of important periods since creation. Among the Australian aborigines these periods are called the ‘dreamtime.’ Among the Bassaris of Togo the myths are described as ‘the trees that tell the story.’ These deal with the myths and legends that speak of the time in which god and mankind conversed, the first traitors, the first heroes, the most terrible crime, the names of those that come to be afterwards the famous ancestors, the beginning of the clans and groups, the division of languages, the dispersion of peoples and other aspects that ancient myths help us in the theology of the Fall.
Metamorphic myths relate important events that are reconsidered, because of changes from the ancient form of the world and to what it is today. Remember that among the Konkombas there is that myth that I told about the greedy man, the first created by Uwumbor, who climbed to the top of the treeeach evening to cut a good piece of meat from the blue sky that was low down and full of meat. His orders were to take only what was necessary for each day. However, not trusting Uwumbor one day the ‘ukpakpalia’ cut meat for very many days and hid it. On the following day this started to rot, and this made Uwumbor so greatly disillusioned he went far away, taking the sky, Paacham, with him to an unreachable height. This type of myth helps us with the theology of union with God and of the hope of the nearness of God, as we have in the theology of reconciliation.
Spiritual being Myths tell of invisible personages, their names, doings, origin and history. They help us to define the Beyond world and the present world.
Nature Myths tell and explain many times the facts of natures as how the rain, lightning, thunder, the course of the rivers and all the natural systems work. They are able to help us by extracting their explanations to explain the Gospel.
Messianic Myths are those that relate about personages and forces that bring salvation to the people. Anthropologists tend to believe that they are rare, however these myths occur implicitly in many diverse cultures. For the Tariana the myth of ‘Keeteh’ can represent messianism when it tells of the light that, at the end, radiates and sends far away the sadness of the Tária people. For the Konkombas of Ghana, the ‘mantotiib’ or friendship pact between former enemy families, points to one who will make a ‘mantotiib’ between God and mankind. For the Chakalis the breaking of a gourd bowl signifies forgiveness. Ballads praise ‘the one’ that will break the great bowl, in which are found all the evils of the Chakalis. These are messianic myths and help in the theology of redemption.
Independent of the anthropological divergences, whether the myths generate ideas or not, it is the ideas that interest us, and their origin does not matter. History is a truthful proven narrative and the myth requires faith, it is a narrative of life. As an example I shall relate a Tukano myth: When in creation the sun shone for the first time in the forest, the animals that were first touched by its rays became stronger; the birds are stronger and succeed in flying across great spaces, and later we have the monkeys and the land animals are heavier and weaker.   It is a myth, that is, for them what is important is the lived experience, as an impression of creation that requires faith and it does not matter when it happened or who saw.
[1] Malinowski, Bronislaw: Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays. Free Press, Glencoe 1948
[2] Idem
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