Mythos and Logos


Karen Armstrong


Symbolism came more naturally to people in the premodern world than it does to us today.


Š      Mass seen as symbolic reenactment of Jesus’s life and death, and resurrection.

Š      Mental space of congregation different from today.

Š      Relationship to scripture – listened, recited, often in foreign language.  Instructed not to understand in literal way bur figurative.  “Mystery plays” – medieval free to change the stories, add new characters, transpose them into a modern setting.  More than history.


Greeks: mythos and logos.  Both essential, neither superior to the other.  Not conflicting but complementary.  Each had its own sphere of competence; unwise to mix the two.


1.    Logos (reason) was the pragmatic mode of thought enabling people to function effectively in the world.  Corresponded to external reality.

a.    Forward looking, continually on the lookout for new ways of controlling the environment, improving old insights, inventing something fresh.Essential to the survival of our species.Limitations: could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meanings in life’s struggles.  People turned to mythos for that.


2.    Mythos: Popular parlance: “myth” means something that isn’t true.

a.    But in the past, myth was not self-indulgent fantasy; rather, like logos, it helped people to live effectively in out confusing world, though in a different way.

b.    May have told stories about gods but really focused on the more elusive, puzzling, and tragic aspects of the human predicament that lay outside the remit of logos.

3.    A primitive form of psychology.  Stories of heroes, monsters, etc., not understood as primarily factual stories.  Designed to help people negotiate the obscure regions of the psyche, which are difficult to access but profoundly influence our thought and behavior.

4.    A myth was never intended as an accurate account of an historical event; it was something that had in a sense happened once but that also happens all the time.

a.    Not effective if people simply “believed” in it.  Essentially a program of action.  Could put you in the correct spiritual or psychological posture. 

b.    Put into practice, a myth could tell us something profoundly true about our humanity.  Showed us how to live more richly and intensely, how to cope with our mortality, and how creatively to endure the suffering that flesh is heir to.  Not applied to our situation, myth remained abstract and incredible.

c.    Reenacting their myths in stylized ceremonies that worked aesthetically on participants – introduce them to a deeper dimension of existence.  Myth and ritual were thus inseparable.  Without ritual, myths made no sense.