Originally this was the intro to a Bustle post about the symbolism of spring fashion, but I decided the intellectualism was too much for that venue.
In the days of yore, back when fire was a relatively recent tool in the human arsenal, back when the night sky was populated by constellated gods, humans constructed mythological systems to make our lives more meaningful. To give ourselves psychological safety. We didn’t understand nature and without advanced technology, our environment was terrifying. The world was vast, sometimes unpredictable, harsh — and yes, lovely.
During prehistory, up through the Middle Ages (depending on your continent), “science” didn’t exist in the way that we conceive of it now, as an ordered, logical process. People saw things and extrapolated from their observations, but magic was as valid an explanation for an unknown phenomenon as physics, if not more so. In some places, witchcraft is still a popular framing of power and knowledge, as demonstrated by Mischa Berlinski’s astonishing “Zombie Underworld” story.
Before math and chemistry, mythology saved us from the pain of uncertainty. We built systems of origin stories, hero stories, and human stories, to give our lives an explanatory context. Many of these stories mimicked the patterns of the natural world. The boom of a storm made sense because Thor, the Norse god of thunder, was hurling his warhammer. Every year the flowers bloomed again when Persephone emerged from Hades’ underworld kingdom. In ancient Egypt, the Nile flooded at the water god Hapi’s discretion.
Now we have a tradition of science, which purports to illuminate weather, diseases, and animal behavior without ritualistic romance. And yet we hold onto mythology. Urban legends flourish, as do mysterious horror stories, both exemplified by Reddit’s “No Sleep” community. There is something essentially human about magic. We refuse to give it up. Our reactions to fear and love feel like they supersede science, and we need another force to express them; gravity won’t suffice. We are drawn to allegory, to symbols. As esteemed scholar Joseph Campbell writes in The Masks of Gods: Primitive Mythology:
“The comparative study of the mythologies of the world compels us to view the cultural history of mankind as a unit; for we find that such themes as the firetheft, deluge, land of the dead, virgin birth, and resurrected hero have a worldwide distribution—appearing everywhere in new combinations while remaining, like the elements of a kaleidoscope, only a few and always the same.”
Basically, mythology has existed as long as human language, and it’s still around. Cyclical stories are an essential part of human culture. However, most modern people don’t consciously incorporate mythology into their lives. Maybe we should.