“Hail to thee blithe spirit, bird thou never wert”. Thus begins an ode to a nightingale. But what does the poet have in mind? He writes a paeon to a bird and then states that the feathered creature never was a bird. Is he lying to his readers? No, he is telling us a truth that lies beyond the truth. In metaphor he is stating that the warbling trill of a nightingale exists in the realm of superlatives. He expresses this truth by using the music of verse. As a result the poet lifts his reader to a more exalted plane than if he had simply said that the nightingale has a pretty song.
I had a friend with whom I would go hiking. In many ways he tended to be extremely concrete (even more concrete than my wife accuses me of being). As a brilliant engineer and inventor he had acquired international recognition and fame. Like many of his background and training he held fast to the idea that for a fact to be true it had to be measured. Otherwise they could not be labeled as factual or true. He and I would have lively discussions on the trail about whether there are different ways to express truth besides physical measurements. Because he was a militant atheist I would often use religious myths and metaphors as examples of truths that can’t be measured.
Why have certain myths and legends endured for millenia? Could it be that they are more than interesting stories? I would like to suggest that they convey universal truths about the human condition. If they did not they would have been consigned long ago to the dust bin of history. To illustrate I might reflect on the myth of Adam and Eve. Symbolically the story tells us that all humans are born into bliss and innocence. They are expelled from that Eden when they bite the apple (mothers breast). Never again can they return to infant state of stress free existence. Everyone is destined to experience greater difficulties and greater struggles as they age as decreed by God in the myth.
How better to describe the rivalry and murderous jealously of siblings than the story of Abel and Cain or that of Horus and Seth. As pointed out by Freud, a son’s competition with his father is laid out in the tale of Oedipus. Jason and Medea tell of the murderous revenge of the jilted. Struggles for power are set forth in David and Saul, David and Absolom. and so on ad infinitum.
These stories shed light upon human conflicts and dilemmas. Perhaps there exist more direct and simpler ways to plumb the human spirit. Yet the indirect and often occult nature of the myth reveals truths about humans that simpler and more direct narratives fail to. In that sense they represent psychological and behavioural truths that can not be submitted to the tyranny of a yardstick.
Not too many generations ago these ancient stories were part of the heritage of most educated persons. No longer is this true. No longer do people read these tales that so beautifully illustrate the challenges of being human. We are poorer fas the result of it.