2020-01-20

Why Certain Kinds of Myths Are So Easy to Believe

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by Neil Godfrey

But what if you can’t turn off the TV because you don’t even think it’s there?

What if the materials that train the mind to think in certain ways and to accept alternative realities are not understood by the audience — and perhaps not by the authors, either — to be fictions, at least in the usual sense of that word? (Johnston)

Sarah Iles Johnston (Distinguished Professor of Religion, Ohio State University)

This post is based primarily on the first of two essays by classicist Sarah Iles Johnston exploring why Greek myths captured imaginations so strongly and what made them “real”, even “historical”. We will see that Johnston’s thesis overlaps with M. David Litwa’s in How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths but I will save a more detailed comparison with Litwa’s views when I return to reviewing that book.

Most of us know at least a few of the ancient myths and that’s part of the problem when it comes to understanding how the ancient peoples who believed them heard them. We have books with collections of myths and we read each myth ripped from the context in which it was originally understood.

I do want to suggest that, having fallen into the habit of excising Greek myths from their narratives, scholars have long overlooked one of the most salient and significant features of mythic narratives: their ability to engage their audiences emotionally and cognitively. . . . [T]his habit prevented us from understanding some of the most important reasons that myths were able to help create and sustain ancient Greek beliefs in the gods, heroes, and the divine world more generally . . . .

(Johnston, Narrating Myths, 174)

We will see that Johnston analyses the way Greek myths were able to allow listeners to feel that they were not merely hearing a story that happened long ago but that they themselves “were living amongst the gods and heroes, even if as lesser partners” (p. 190).

The Magical Myth

To make her case Johnston begins by explaining a very common type of ancient myth that was quite different from Greek myths.  Johnston uses a term that is closely related to magic: “historiola”, meaning “a short mention of an analogous mythical story” (Maas, 37). Example, an Egyptian “historiola” myth:

… Isis came out of the spinning house [at the hour] when she loosened her thread. “Come, my sister Nephthys! See, my deafness has overtaken me! My thread has entangled me! Show me my way that I may do what I know [how to do], so that I may extinguish him with my milk, with the salutary liquids from within my breasts. It will be applied to your body, Horus, so that your vessels become sound. I will make the fire recede that has attacked you!”

While the mother recites these words, she applies her own milk to her child, just as Isis applied hers to Horus. The child’s fever is expected to break, just as Horus’s fever broke.

And one more:

To take another example: if a baby has a headache, then its mother might invoke the paradigm of “banished headache” by telling of how Christ pushed the Evil Eye off a rock to stop it from giving headaches to another baby, thus “persuading” her own child’s headache to go away as well (Pócs 2009.29, from a Romanian example that is still in use today).

(p. 177)

That’s magic, in my view. Repeat a story that happened long ago and in a far-off or far-away “world” and apply it to cause the same thing to happen in the present moment. They are like curse pronouncements. Repeat a formula that draws down the power of the spirits and have them act in this world accordingly.

But that’s not the way it worked with Greek myths.

Take the myth of Persephone. In place of a direct cause-effect action between the mythic story and the real world we enter the realm of metaphor:

The story of Persephone’s annual return from the world of the dead, for example, when narrated in connection with the Eleusinian mysteries, was not meant to suggest that initiates into the mysteries would similarly return from the Underworld for a portion of each year after they had died, but rather reminded them that initiation ensured them happier existences down below once they had gotten there. Persephone’s experiences were a metaphor for those of the initiates; the two shared the salient characteristic of being partial triumphs over death but differed insofar as, among other things, although Persephone annually returned to the world of the living, the dead initiates did not. When narrated in connection with the Thesmophoria, the same story metaphorically expressed the celebrants’ hopes that crops would once again rise from the dark earth into which seeds were cast; the two shared the salient characteristic of anticipating the annual return of something desirable but differed insofar as, for example, although Persephone returned each year in her own right, the crops “returned” only in the sense that their seeds generated new plants to replace them (an idea that, in turn, served as a metaphor for the Thesmophoria’s other focus: the successful conception and birth of new human children). The fact that some stories, like this one, could serve as meaningful accompaniments for two different festivals with different primary goals underscores their metaphorical nature: had the relationship between the myths and the rituals I just described been one of straightforward analogy, such double service would not have worked very well.

(p. 184)

To understand the point further:

. . . the aim of a traditional historiola, after all, is to cause something in the quotidian realm to pattern itself after something in the mythic realm not in only one or two salient ways but rather as closely as possible. 

(p. 182)

But Greek myths were not like that. They did not have that sort of magic power; they were not told to produce magical effects in this world.

. . . the deeds described by the myths existed on a continuum that flowed uninterruptedly into the time of the listeners. A well-narrated Greek myth would leave those listeners feeling not that they were repeating paradigmatic actions of the gods and heroes that had been performed eons ago (as is the case with historiolae), but rather that they were living amongst the gods and heroes, even if as lesser partners.

(p. 190)

No, the Greek myths were different. They somehow “prepared their audiences to feel as if they were living amongst the gods and heroes.”

The Metaphorical Myth

Persephone, Latin Proserpina or Proserpine, in Greek religion, daughter of Zeus, the chief god, and Demeter, the goddess of agriculture; she was the wife of Hades, king of the underworld. In the Homeric “Hymn to Demeter,” the story is told of how Persephone was gathering flowers in the Vale of Nysa when she was seized by Hades and removed to the underworld. Upon learning of the abduction, her mother, Demeter, in her misery, became unconcerned with the harvest or the fruitfulness of the earth, so that widespread famine ensued. Zeus therefore intervened, commanding Hades to release Persephone to her mother. Because Persephone had eaten a single pomegranate seed in the underworld, however, she could not be completely freed but had to remain one-third of the year with Hades, and spent the other two-thirds with her mother. The story that Persephone spent four months of each year in the underworld was no doubt meant to account for the barren appearance of Greek fields in full summer—after harvest, before their revival in the autumn rains, when they are plowed and sown. (From Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Again we use the Greek myth of Persephone’s annual return to the world of the living. This myth was recited not to perform a magic ritual but to express, through metaphor, an important phase of life for hearers.

The myth was narrated as part of the Eleusinian mysteries to assure the initiate that a better life awaited him or her after death. The initiate was not expected to come back to the world of the living as Persephone did; the myth stood as a metaphor for a happier existence after death.

The myth was again narrated at Thesmophoria festival held (mostly) at the time of planting. The myth expressed hopes that the seeds would produce a good crop. It was not, however, performed in a magical sense to make the crops grow.

The fact that some stories, like this one, could serve as meaningful accompaniments for two different festivals with different primary goals underscores their metaphorical nature: had the relationship between the myths and the rituals I just described been one of straightforward analogy, such double service would not have worked very well.

(p. 184)

Myths were narrated in other contexts, too. A poet who sought to honour an athlete who brought great honour to his city by being victorious at special games (e.g. “Olympics”) would likely relate a tale of a mythic hero, e.g. Heracles, as a comparison in honour of both the athlete and the god. The actions of the hero might be set in the same place where the myth is being told.

See the earlier post: Five Foundation Myths of Cyrene

One of the goals towards which the Argonauts strove, in Pindar’s fourth Pythian, was the establishment of Cyrene, where the poem itself was presented many generations after the actions that the myth described.

A mythic narrative might also be delivered in, and perhaps indeed composed for, a setting that visually cued its events: Pindar’s Isthmian 4, which tells the story of Heracles and Antaeus, was performed in front of a Theban temple of Heracles that included a pedimental relief showing the two characters wrestling (Krummen 1990.33-95).

Verbal, and perhaps physical, gestures on the part of the poet (deixis ad oculos or deixis ad phantasma or some blend of the two) could bring the two worlds together as well. Lines 362-63 of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, for example, suggest that its performer, standing in Delphi, directed the audience’s eyes to the very spot where Apollo had once left the body of the Python to rot as he repeated what Apollo had said on that occasion: “Now rot here!,” momentarily suggesting that the snake was rotting there still. Apostrophe worked similarly: when, in Olympian 1, Pindar directly addresses Pelops in the second person, it is as if the poet and we, his listeners, are suddenly brought face-to-face with the hero (Athanassaki 2004.330).

(p. 188, my formatting)

Greek tragedies were generally based on a well known mythical narrative, yet the playwrights were free to make modifications to the story to make it relevant to current concerns facing the audiences.

In the Iliad we read of Achilles telling the tale of the myth of Niobe to King Priam of Troy to persuade him to eat again after the death of his son Hector. Niobe, the myth went, eventually was persuaded to eat again even after losing many children. So the analogy was used to encourage a change in behaviour. It was not a magical formula. It was a tale told that in some symbolic way represented a current situation or person.

The two worlds may also be presented as sharing the same values, limitations, and advantages . . . .

The two worlds, the mythic and the present day, were sometimes conflated. The founding of Cyrene was integral to the myth of the Argonauts and a famous poem linked current athletes with mythic ancestors. I recall from my undergraduate days reading how the goddess Athena appears to resolve a dispute by establishing the Athenian jury-court system.

All of the techniques I have mentioned so far help to draw together a specific figure or event from the mythic realm with a specific figure or event in the quotidian world.

(p. 189)

In the narratives the mythic world and everyday world of listeners are merged. They are not identical. But spatially and temporally they do overlap. Gods and reminders of gods are introduced into the lives of persons and places where they live. I have not covered all of Johnston’s techniques here but the essay is available online. See the bibliography at the end of this post.

In fact, all of the techniques I have been discussing might be said to help merge the two worlds not only spatially (as in the case of the historiolae, where, for example, Saint Lazarus and Our Lord take a walk in our town), but also temporally: the Acropolis under whose shadow a tragedy is presented morphs into the Acropolis where Poseidon once struck the earth with his trident and Medea once offered Theseus a poisoned cup of wine. In this way of thinking, there was no moment at which the mythic world decisively changed into the world that we know today; the deeds described by the myths existed on a continuum that flowed uninterruptedly into the time of the listeners. A well-narrated Greek myth would leave those listeners feeling not that they were repeating paradigmatic actions of the gods and heroes that had been performed eons ago (as is the case with historiolae), but rather that they were living amongst the gods and heroes, even if as lesser partners.

(p. 190)

The Power of Narrative Fiction

Anyone who has read a good novel knows the power of narrative fiction to change our outlook on life, the world, other people.

And when it is tailored and narrated skillfully, a fictional work can present something that we have never experienced before so convincingly that our minds accept it — thus enlarging our sense of what might be possible. Therein lies, at least partially, the popular success of any number of fantasy authors: Jules Verne, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ursula K. LeGuin, Neil Gaiman, etc. Or to switch to a darker genre and some startlingly concrete results: The Exorcist enlarged our sense of what might be possible so effectively as not only to cause readers to throw the book away unfinished and moviegoers to faint and vomit but also to “stimulatfe] an unprecedented demand for Catholic exorcisms” for decades to come. William Peter Blatty’s novel and William Friedkin’s film were able to make even the most doubting minds believe in demonic possession, at least temporarily, and in some cases much longer.

Moreover, by definition, we, as audience members, leave our day-to-day expectations at the door when we enter an effective narrative and tacitly agree to be pulled along by the story without continually comparing it to what happens in our everyday lives. This means that we temporarily dismantle the cognitive barriers that are patrolled by mundane logic, the five senses, and our customary value systems in order to open ourselves up to scenarios that may differ significantly from what we encounter outside the narrative. . . .  And from this point on, we can become putty in the hands of that narrator until we put down the book, leave the theatre, or turn off the TV.

(pp. 193 f)

But what if you can’t turn off the TV because you don’t even think it’s there?

What if the materials that train the mind to think in certain ways and to accept alternative realities are not understood by the audience — and perhaps not by the authors, either — to be fictions, at least in the usual sense of that word? (p. 194)

When God Talks Back

Johnston discusses at this point the findings of T. H. Luhrmann in When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God, a study in how members of the Vineyard Church train themselves to feel the presence of God. I am reminded of how, when I came out of a religious cult, recognizing that I had been living all that time in a world just as much fantasy as any fairy tale. God becomes real; the mind is trained to suspend disbelief in much of the real world and stay in that imagined world; to set out an extra dinner plate and chair for God; and so forth. MRI studies have even shown that personal prayer to God (not the formalized ritual prayers in church) activate the same regions of the brain as does social interaction. We know how sometimes people can come to love or hate a character in a movie with such intensity that it can even irrationally extend to the same feeling (at least momentarily) for the actor or actress playing the part. I don’t mean “we” do that, of course. I mean “other people” do that, as we know. 🙂  Here Johnston’s discussion extends to “parasocial interaction” (PSI) and “parasocial relationships” (PSR). We all know how easy it is to become emotionally invested in a fictional character. Those wanting the more detailed discussion should read Johnston’s article.

Relevance to Religion

This is a very basic question that deserves much more research and discussion than it has been given by scholars (oddly, the similarities between PSRs and religious beliefs have barely been acknowledged by either psychologists or scholars of religion). I cannot entertain it adequately here, but I do want to emphasize the necessity of not allowing our own lack of belief in particular supra-human entities to prevent us from accepting that they can be vividly real to others, and from understanding the variety of means through which that reality might be constructed. This is particularly important for — but also a challenge to — scholars of antiquity . . . 

(p. 199)

Relevance to the ancient Greek’s relationship with their gods

There is, then, a widespread human capacity to form strong emotional and cognitive attachments to figures with whom there can be no social relationship in the normal sense of that term (that is, no relationship that is reciprocal in the eyes of outside observers). I am suggesting that we should extend this observation to figures of belief whom we usually call “gods,” “heroes,” “angels,” “saints,” etc., and that we try to use some of what researchers have learned about this capacity to understand how vivid narratives of myth, centering on vibrant characters, might have enhanced the ancient Greeks’ relationship with their gods. The more skillfully developed are the narratives through which such figures are presented, the higher are the chances of people experiencing PSIs and PSRs with them.

(p. 199)

Plato understood the power of myths to affect people lives and that’s why he forbade the traditional ones and sought the creation of new ones that he believed were more edifying.

The Power of the Serial Narrative

. . . the characters in serialized stories were objects of public discussion, as the stories about the death of Little Nell attest. Such group involvement heightens the effects of any single individual’s PSI with a character. If we are all “believing” in Little Nell together, our grief at her death is more intensely experienced (cf. O’Flaherty 1988.49).

Early novels were written serially in weekly or monthly papers. That gave scope for readers to imagine their characters all the more deeply, asking questions about what they might do next, thinking back on what had been told and considering alternative motives or characters, and so forth. In other words, characters of fiction took on a life of their own and independent of the written narrative. Parasocial interactions and relationships had more opportunity to deepen in between episodes because of public discussion and private musings.

The same applies to the way Greek myths were narrated. Bards would often perform a single of but a few scenes that audiences knew belonged to much larger narratives. New interpretations of characters and events were thus possible if the bards or playwrights put a new twist on the traditional accounts. Sometimes an author would even change the story dramatically.

Contradictions abound in the different versions of the Greek myths. Playwrights might choose to have heroes marry instead of die (e.g. Antigone and Haemon in Euripides’ play). Sometimes a god well known from one myth makes a bit-appearance in another and it is easy to wonder how that scene should fit the larger story of that god’s life. Puzzles fuel our curiosity and we want to know more, how to reconcile them, how to flesh out the larger story from the bits and pieces. Variants make us wonder and explore the characters more deeply.

Consuming episodes of a serialized novel or television show out of sequence is a good analogy for the way that Greek audiences experienced mythic narratives.

(p. 205)

. . . if the single episode is imaginatively composed, then it inevitably exists in a productive tension with the larger story arc as the audience knows it. Good narrators play with this fact: Pindar and the tragedians often presented the smaller story they were narrating in a way that contradicted the larger arc that had been provided by epic.

How New and Revised Versions of Characters Can Enhance “Historicity”

Johnston contrasts the Frankenstein of Mary Shelley’s novel (like a normal person) with Boris Karloff’s film version (a monster). Johnston also compares the Sherlock Holmes she read in expurgated children’s versions with the original, as well as the film version that played with some of the details of the original character. In Johnston’s view,

It is important to appreciate what such a plethora of representations means for the individual consumer: when experiencing plurimedial characters, each of us must repeatedly choose, even if unconsciously, to engage more deeply with some instantiations than with others, and each of us therefore ends up creating our own composite character, no two of which are likely to be exactly the same. . . . 

. . . Plurimedial characters continually compel audience members to make decisions such as the ones I sketched for Holmes, even if unconsciously, and thereby to create their own personalized versions of the character that draw on some or all of the instantiations they have experienced. The cognitive and emotional energy that each person invests in doing this forges an especially close bond between the two. . . . Plurimedial characters who appear in serial narratives experience a heightened version of this effect because, as I noted above, serializing a story encourages people to think about the story’s characters in between episodes. The two together guarantee the audience’s engagement with a character far more effectively than even the best single treatment or homogenous tradition can.

(p. 207)

The variety of narratives, the many different versions of the gods and heroes, the part stories and the longer stories, ensured a “dynamic view of characters’ development and personal engagement with characters”. Each person was obliged to imagine his or her own version of the god or hero, deepening their personal relationship with them. In cults, the gods and heroes were worshipped as if they were literally present before those delivering offerings and singing praises.

All of these variants, and the personal and group engagement of hearers of the narratives with those mythic characters and stories,

[A hero’s multiple versions/’plurimdiality’], and the intimate connection to [the hero] that this fostered in individuals, helped to create and sustain for some (perhaps all) the very assumption that he existed, which, in turn, sustained the practice of his cults.

I’m reminded of the historical person of Pilate. His reality according to Josephus stands in sharp contrast to his portrayal in the gospels. How such a conflict has generated so much discussion about what Pilate was actually like and what pressures he was feeling in the trial of Jesus! And how the different, sometimes conflicting, portrayals of Jesus across four different episodes have generated the same “cognitive and emotional energy” among believers (including/especially scholars).

There’s a lot covered above. In the next post I’ll look at Johnston’s follow-up article which zeroes in on what I think are more direct overlaps with the gospels and with the thesis presented by Litwa in How the Gospels Became History.


Johnston, Sarah Iles. 2015. “Narrating Myths: Story and Belief in Ancient Greece.” Arethusa 48 (2): 173–218. https://doi.org/10.1353/are.2015.0011.

The sequel, not discussed above but that will be addressed in the next post, is:

Johnston, Sarah Iles. 2015. “The Greek Mythic Story World.” Arethusa 48 (3): 283–311. https://doi.org/10.1353/are.2015.0008.


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6 thoughts on “Why Certain Kinds of Myths Are So Easy to Believe”

  1. You forgot The Myth That Tells Us We’re Better Than THEM So We Can Hate THEM, Kill THEM And Steal Their Land/Property/Culture also known as the Republican ideology.

  2. Thanks Neil for an interesting, discursive post. Johnston’s terms ‘overlap’ and ‘continuum’ point to the emotional charge of the myths in a shared culture. Callimachus describes a festival on Aegina supposedly commemorating the Argonauts landing there to obtain fresh water. By this time (C3 B.C.) the island was utterly insignificant – Athens had exiled the population in 431, a remnant returned three decades later. But by inserting themselves, even as a footnote, in an epic adventure, and celebrating the story annually, the islanders participated in a more vivid ‘reality’.

    This is of course evident on every page of Pausanias. As Lionel Casson puts it in his ‘Travel in the Ancient World’ : “At Salamis, the visitor was shown the stone where old Telamon sat and watched his sons, Ajax and Teucer, sail off to Troy; near Sparta, the point in the road where Penelope made up her mind to marry Odysseus; at Troezen, the spot where Phaedra used to spy on Hippolytus while he exercised in the nude…the plane tree in Phrygia where Apollo strung up Marsyas for flaying; the olive tree at Troezen where Hippolytus’ chariot crashed, and the one at Mycenae under which Argos sat as he guarded Io; the cave in Crete where Zeus was born, and the one on Pelion where Chiron lived”. The interest is not antiquarian; Pausanias repeatedly notes current ritual celebration (i.e. festivals of hymns, prayers, dance, art) which folds the present into a continuum with the glorious past, and thus includes the storied gods and heroes in present ‘observed’ reality.

    This ties in with your current thread on ‘epiphanies’. In his Life of Pyrrhus, Plutarch gives a ‘straight’ account of the general’s death, stunned by a tile thrown by an old woman on a rooftop. Compare Pausanias (1.13.8) : “The Argives however declare that it was not a woman who killed him but Demeter in the likeness of a woman. This is what the Argives themselves relate about his end, and Lyceas, the guide for the neighbourhood, has written a poem which confirms the story. They have a sanctuary of Demeter, built at the command of the oracle, on the spot where Pyrrhus died, and in it Pyrrhus is buried”.

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