by Ken Rolheiser
Let us compare mythologies
(title of Leonard Cohen’s first book of poetry)

Writers and artists continue to use myth and legend to inspire us with the wondrous effects of Christian salvation. We can easily picture icons of the Cross, Mary and the Child Jesus, St George and the dragon, St Patrick and the snakes, St Francis and the Christmas Creche, St Nicholas, Joan of Arc, St Valentine, St Christopher, and the list goes on.

“Myths are powerful things. They shape civilizations both past and current. Some stand as the bedrock for religious beliefs. They can be the basis on which the views of one society apply to another. Much of history as it is widely known is based on myths, which allows them [myths] to influence opinions on more recent events.” (The Most Epic Myths from Around the World, Larry Holzwarth).

Myth, as defined for this article, may include traditional stories, ancient stories and symbolic narratives. Holzwarth in his book highlights popular myths with which many of us are familiar. 

There is the tale of two brothers Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. They had a disagreement and decided to let the gods choose who would be king. The lot fell to Romulus, who killed Remus, thus offering some parallels to the story of Cain and Able.

Holzwarth shares myths including the Trojan Horse, in which Greek troops hid to deceive and eventually conquer the Trojans, as well as a myth from Japan in which two massive Mogul invasions were defeated largely due to typhoons which destroyed the Mogul fleets. This divinely ordained intervention was called kamikaze.

The Hebrew Old Testament contains the story of Noah and the Ark and the survival of humanity and the animal kingdom from the Great Flood. Other traditional stories include Jonah and the whale, Adam and Eve, and creation stories we commonly find in other cultures.

We could go on with many fascinating legends like King Arthur, and recent mythologies like C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, and twentieth century Star Trek tales, but for our purposes we will continue exploring Christian myth and its importance to us.

Myths help narrate sacred events that really occurred. Myth inter plays with reality as in Old and New Testament stories. Important mythological themes appear in the New Testament: Christ as the second Adam (Romans 5:12-14), the heavenly spheres (2 Corinthians 12:2-4), and the celestial battle between angels and demons.

Though Christian theology at first suppressed the role of myth: “Have nothing to do with godless and silly myths” (1 Timothy 4:7), apologists like St Clement of Alexandria used myth and legend as allegory – to reveal moral or hidden meanings. 

Joseph Cambell’s work on comparative mythologies showed how myth shows the truth through supernatural story, and that myth applies to ordinary life. He added that the Catholic Church was the only religion which still in any way kept this alive in the modern world. 

Though Cambell became disillusioned with Catholicism and broke from the church, the Catholic Church is still doing the job of keeping great myths alive, says Dwight Longnecker in The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty .

“When you explore the great myths of humanity,” Longnecker says, “the same themes come up again and again: the dying savior, death and resurrection, victory over hell and the underworld, virgins and gods, sacrifice and blood and death and birth and life.”

In Hebrew religion they all start to come alive within human history, says Longnecker. In the Old Testament the great myths become real until at last they become truth in the incarnation of the Son of God. 

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