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Session 05: Myth in History: Or, How Myth Defines Reality

Session FIVE: Dr. John Phillip Lomax - Myth in History: Or, How Myth Defines Reality
Date: November 10, 2010
Location: Dicke Forum
Time: 7:00PM

Summary: Dr. Lomax explored the difference between a mythological construction of the world and a philosophical construction, arguing that while philosophy explores the world that exists in nature, myth exists outside of nature.  He argued that myth was a powerful tool for early societies to define reality.  The Philosophical Revolution of the Enlightenment gave us a new way of looking at reality that often pushed myth to the sidelines.  He posited a divide between myth and philosophy that saw myth as subjective causality - someone caused an event, and philosophy as presenting an objective causality, or things happening because of their nature.

Lomax gave examples of several mythologies, which included the 23rd Psalm, that hailed the God that protected the writer from a dangerous world.  He told the audience that myth does not mean that what was written about was false, but rather myth was simply an alternative explination for an event.  He also referenced the popular Harry Potter series to illustrate his point that something outside of objective criteria (Lord Voltemort) caused Potter's scar to burn, rather than some objective reason.  A philosopher would reject any causality outside of the nature of objective reality (Potter might suffer from an incipient aneurism). 

Myth at its base, is a story about what we experience that argues someone is causing events to happen, as opposed to philosophy that seeks to describe what things are and how they work, outside of external agency, or someone causing them to happen.  At the conclusion of the talk, Lomax read the children's version of the graphic and violent story of Demeter and Persephone.  Persephone was the daughter of Demeter and Zeus, and she was taken captive by Hades, god of the underworld.  Demeter's grief at the loss of her daughter was such that she could not be consoled.  The other gods, who knew what had happened, would not tell her where her daughter had gone.  Demeter finally found a measure of respite by becoming the caretaker of a human, but when the child was taken from her, she caused crops and the abundance of the earth to stop.  Finally, Zeus forced Hades to give Persephone back to Demeter, but he tricked the maiden by giving her pomegranate seeds, which meant that she could not leave permanently.  Demeter realized his design, and knew that Persephone must live part of the year in the underworld, but while her daughter was with her, the earth would blossom, dying when Persephone had to return to Hades' realm.  That was how the ancient Greeks made sense of the changing of the seasons, absent any objective causes. 

That, then, is the purpose of myth: to explain the unexplainable.  To access Lomax's talk, click on the following link.