The Wisdom of Myth and Folklore

Why We Need Stories to Keep us Alive as a Society

When you think of myths and folklore tales, what comes to mind first is probably some kind of a fairytale. Stories our logic-thinking adult minds commonly regard as best as entertaining and at worst as untrue, illogical and childish. Or we might think about old grandmothers, wise and wrinkled, sitting down to share their knowledge with the younger generations. 

Myths, folklore tales and legends get more and more forgotten in our digital, technological advanced culture. But there is great wisdom found in the old tales of our ancestors, in the storytelling of dark mysteries, romantic adventures and brave heroes fighting inner and outer demons. 

But why is it important to we keep these ancient stories alive in our modern day and age? What can these stories still teach us? And what can archetypes derived from old myths and fairytales tell us about how to behave in current society? To answer these questions, let’s first have a look what defines myths and folklore tales. 

What are myths?

A myth is defined as a traditional story that aims at answering life’s overarching questions, such as the creation of the world, the mysteries of life, death and the day and night seasons. Before humanity found logical explanations for these important questions, myths and other tales commonly served as a means for explanation of the state of the world and supernatural events. Myths are present in every ancient culture. Every culture has their own explanation of how the world came to be. Often, heroes and gods were used in adventures to demonstrate right and wrong behaviour. 

But there is much more to mythology than just the legend of a heroic exploiter. Myths explore archetypal images and themes. An archetype is a recurring motif, model or symbol that gives a sort of idealistic behaviour, one that people could look up and refer to. Myth serves as explanation accepted by the people who share the myth. For our ancestors, these myth were truth, they represented a way of living and constituted the basic foundation that live was build upon. 

What are folklore tales?

Contrary to myths, which are often sacred and have the origins of a people or the world as their core, folktales are a collection of fictional tales about people or animals. Superstitious beliefs make up a big portion of folklore. Different than myths, which are more concerned with the big questions of life, folktales describe how the main character copes with the events of everyday life. The tale may involve crisis or conflict, which has to be overcome in order to restore balance again. In every folklore tale there is an important moral or core message, mostly circling around how to cope with life and death.

Both myths and folktales were originally circulated orally. Whereas every ancient culture and society possesses their own share of myth and folklore tales to explain the world, their are similar topics and stories present among cultures worldwide. A popular myth that spans over different cultures and societies is the one of the Great Flood. This narrative is told in many different cultures all over the world, from the biblical Old Testament, to Native American tribes and Chinese people. This shows the universal fear of apocalyptic circumstances and a way of preparing for a ‘worst-case-scenario’.

Why are these ancient stories still important in our society today?

With the rise of digital media, television and the internet, myths and folklore tales have become less and less popular and have been suppressed in many societies, and at its best have been seen in the form of Disney movies in the cinema. 

One might ask itself what the importance of these old stories is nowadays, when science has the answer to (most) important questions about life. We certainly do not need myths anymore to tell us how the world came to be about, and most people do not assume that a hurricane or earthquake is the rage of the gods. So why should we preserve myths and stories from dying out? Well, there are a few important reasons for that.

Cultural preservation and collective identity 

The most common and logical explanation why we should preserve myths, folktales, legends and fairytales is because they belong to our history, they are part of our culture and thus should be preserved in order to understand our past properly. But myths are not only important when understanding our past, they also play a part in our present. 

Myths and stories connect us deeply on a personal level to our ancestors, spanning time and space. Through reading or listening to these stories, we get a glimpse of how our ancestors thought, behaved and acted in everyday life. We can see that they indeed had the same fears, wishes and needs as we do today. Stories of unrequited love, jealous husbands and females going out in the world to find themselves illustrate that we are in fact not very different than our ancestors. Tales make us understand them better, making history more tangible. Humanity might have come a long way in the past 2000 years to advance science, technology and medicine, but in our core, we are still the same as we were back then, with all of our human emotions and problems.

The lost art of storytelling: Creating community through tales

On top of that, these stories make us remember our connection to the collective energy and the deeper soul of the world. They bring us back to our core and connect us to our heart and our innermost essence. By listening, sharing and remembering these old stories, a deep, primal and ancient part of us is activated within us. Whereas facts talk to our mind, stories talk to our heart. We identify with them and realize that we all share a common ground. In times of climate change and major political disputes, this is now more important than ever.

We need stories to keep us alive, to show that we are more than just the woman working in a soul-sucking 9-5 job or the man struggling to make a living. Stories and old tales create a sense of awe and mysticism in a rational world, where there is a data analysis and an algorithm for everything. They open our hearts to curiosity and deeper feelings, making us rethink our own behaviour systems and limited belief patterns. 

As Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of the book Women Who Run With The Wolves puts it: “Stories that rise from deep suffering can provide the most potent remedies for past, present, and even future ills”. By tapping into the wisdom of these ancient tales, we can heal, process and free ourselves from deep seated emotions and ancestral trauma that has been possibly been there since ancient times.

The lost art of storytelling: Creating community through tales

Already in 1936, the German-Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin claimed that the art of storytelling is dying out. He gave reasons like a lack of experience of the stories, a rapid changing society and an overflow of provided information for the disappearing of stories in present cultures. And what held true 80 years ago proves to be just as valid today. In our society, we claim to be more connected than ever before through smartphones and FaceTime, yet real, face-to-face human connection has become a scarcity. 

An important characteristic of storytelling in ancient times was the creation of community, facilitated through  the telling of a myth, folktale or legend. These stories were passed on from the elders to their offspring, told sitting at bonfires or while gathering in circles for a ritual. Already in hunter-gatherer times, our female Stone Age ancestors told stories around the fire when the men were out hunting prey. 

With the lost art of storytelling, we are also denying an essential part of our basic human needs: the longing for community. Through storytelling, we create a sense of belonging, a sense of personal and communal identification, which is important for healthy social structures. Therefore it is important to keep the old myths alive today, stories that have stood the test of time. Retell and remember them, to honor your ancestors, to discover deeper parts about yourself, to create unification with your community and to give you guidance when you need it most. 

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