What exactly is the purpose of myths?
According to sociologist Mircea Eliade, myths have the same mystical powers as rituals.
As myths are recounted, the participant re-enters the past sacred event – almost as if the time separating it from the present moment collapsed (or did not exist at all).
This puts the participant in contact with the transcendent reality who was present at that time: the first element of the purpose of myths.
Eliade phrases it this way:
In imitating the exemplary acts of a god or of a mythical hero, or simply by recounting their adventures, the man of an archaic society detaches himself from profane time and magically re-enters the Great Time, the sacred time.
So what happens to the participants in sacred rituals and the recounting of sacred myths?
When the participant connects with the transcendent reality through the sacred passageways that collapse time, they come into contact with what Eliade calls a “paradigmatic model” – that is, with absolute truth and goodness, toward which they will want to strive and ultimately imitate:
The myth relates a sacred history, that is, a primordial event that took place at the beginning of time, ab initio... Once told, that is, revealed, the myth becomes apodictic truth; it establishes a truth that is absolute.
This paradigmatic model – this absolute truth – is not abstract; it is embedded in the stories of the creation and the heroes that completed the act of creation.
Making this model present is the second part of the purpose of myths.
Thus there is a call within the myth to imitate the actions and the virtues of heroes (and to shun the actions and vices of villains).
Rituals and myths, then, provide two functions:
- They strengthen the participants by putting them into contact with the sacred moment of origin (and through this, the transcendent reality itself).
- They present a paradigmatic model for action and virtue, which is felt to be absolute truth.
The breakthrough of the transcendent reality is not neutral. It provides strength and a paradigmatic model to all participants who enter into the rituals and myths that re-present it.
In so doing, it tells us how to attain our true purpose (divine purpose) which in turn tells us how to live our lives and how to develop our character (by imitating the heroes of the great time of origin).
The actions of the great heroes show us not only how to act, but why we ought to act that way; they give us clues about the end and goods for which we should be living, and show how certain actions fulfill those ends or goods.
For Eliade, religion is the key not only to connection with the transcendent reality, but also to purpose in life, to the ends and goods connected with that purpose, and to the virtues and actions that accomplish them.
Without religion, “traditional man” (who lived in a society before the pervasiveness of the scientific and Enlightenment mentality – prior to the 18th Century) would have been purposeless, directionless, and virtue-less.
He would not only have been lost; he would have been insignificant and even reduced to nothing.
This last point deserves explanation.
For traditional man, the sacred is reality, and the profane is insignificant and virtually unreal. So failure to make contact with the sacred is to be reduced to nothingness, and failure to imitate the paradigmatic model of the sacred is to be reduced to insignificance.
In Part 3, we will explain how Eliade came to the remarkable conclusion that for four millennia, human beings from virtually every culture around the world yearned for and sought the sacred.