More than Metaphor

More than Metaphor

In my last post about mythology, I said that myth isn't metaphor.

Metaphor is a popular way to look at myth these days, which is why it deserves some pushback. I maintain that myths are not allegories of the human psyche. Of course, any lens can be applied to any text; you can do a psychoanalytical critique of any given myth and find some worthwhile insights that way. But the genre of myth exists, was invented, toward a different end.

We humans, mythmakers, we tell and act out myths to express truths bigger than ourselves. Myths exist not just to tell us about our own minds, but to tell us about the world.

In my mind, it boils down to the word "is." This touches on a way of seeing that's quite different, I think, from how we as a society interact with the world, and it may be tricky to tease out the idea, but bear with me as I give it a try.

Probably best to start with what a metaphor is.

No, first, let's start with simile. If you recall from English class, a simile is descriptive language that compares one thing to another. The tip-off is the word "like" or "as." Each soldier was like a single droplet of water, which, when advancing, moved as a wave.

Metaphor doesn't rely on those words, like and as. It goes a step further, into the realm of "is." A wave of warriors crashed on the enemy line, receded and crashed again, until that wall broke apart, and apart, into many scattered grains that had been rock.

If only I had known that in seventh grade. I remember being told that you make a metaphor simply by saying one thing is another: the moon is a coin. This made no sense to me. The moon is not a coin. To say it's a coin when it's not, that felt off. I concluded at the time that metaphor was an awkward charade, best ignored: a clumsy kind of comparison that sounded more like misinformation than poetry.

Turns out, metaphor is much deeper and more beautiful than I knew, and it's everywhere. Any time you describe something in terms you'd normally associate with something else, you're probably using a metaphor. The daily grind. A blanket of snow. A broken heart. These are beautiful and powerful comparisons—but note, they are comparisons. No one's saying that a chain reaction is actually composed of steel links, or that a mean person's heart is physiologically cooler than that of someone else.

Myth, now. Myth isn't about comparisons.

When the ancient Egyptians said that their Pharaoh was the sun-god, they weren't saying that here, in this context, he had demonstrated certain sun-goddish qualities. They weren't suggesting that you could tap a deeper truth about the man by noticing some things he had in common with the god. They were saying, he was the god.

Such an assertion is difficult to a modern ear. We think in scientific terms. We see the world rationally (or we suppose we do). We think: but there is no god, or: but the sun-god wasn't God, or: but that guy was really just a human being, or: but you can't be a human and also a god.

I bring up ancient Egypt because I'm reading Before Philosophy by Henri and Henriette Frankfort, et al. This is one of my favorite books on mythology, and it's giving me reason to ruminate on the subject again for the first time in a while. There's a point in there where they bring up the idea of consubstantiation, which contains the notion of "is" that I've been circling around in this post. Whereas metaphor suggests an "is" to make a comparison, consubstantiation says "is" and means it, literally. It's consubstantiation to say that the sun-god is a distinct personage, and so is the Pharaoh, and yet they share in one another's substance.

It reminds me of the Trinity.

It reminds me, too, of the doctrine of transubstantiation: the moment in which the bread and wine of communion become the body and blood of Christ. I remember a Catholic friend of mine struggling to defend the idea that when the wafer was blessed and eaten, it became the flesh of the crucified Lord inside them. "You mean, you think that if you looked in your stomach, you'd find flesh with Jesus's DNA in it?" someone pressed. Irritably, my friend said yes.*

"But how could that be?" I thought.

It's a pretty strange and mysterious idea. Consubstantiation,** though, resonates with me. I don't know if it's the fact that I was raised in the church and tried at a young age to wrap my mind around the notion of the Trinity: three persons, one God. I never could really sort that out, but I did accept it—as a koan, I suppose. Something true and also inexplicable. A contradiction that somehow isn't.

* Despite my friend's answer, the Catholic position on transubstantiation is not that the wafer actually turns into meat.

** I'm using the word here in the broader context provided by Before Philosophy — not in the Christian theological sense where consubstantiation is a direct and specific counterpoint to the doctrine of transubstantiation.

In any case, these ideas go to the heart of what myths are, which makes them hard for most of us to know what to do with. It's easy for us moderns, or postmoderns if you like, to look down at the ancients as silly infantile little people who actually (ha! ha!) thought that the sky was a goddess whose body was supported by four pillars. Even if we're not presuming superiority, we balk at the notion that what the stories said was simply true. We don't believe that. We don't see the world that way. It's easier, then, to think of myths as metaphors. Comparisons only. Comparisons that tell us about the fascinating internal workings of our own minds.

I propose a less narcissistic, more difficult way to look at these stories. I propose that we take them at their word. To do so, one has to push against the boundaries of one's worldview. However, this is possible and fascinating work—more fascinating, to me, than trying to understand the clockwork of one's own mind.

2 Comments on “More than Metaphor

  1. These are really valuable thoughts, partly because they deal with some of the most fundamental ways of being human, and partly because they’re so rarely engaged by regular people now. As you point out, popular culture has no sense of what myth is, and instead relies on metaphor, comparison, reflections of our psyche, explanations for phenomena which people did not used to have scientific explanations for, etc. These all have their place and some usefulness, but I think they all pale in comparison to what myth and mystery does for us.

    Of course, right at the beginning of your post I began thinking of what I understand to be THE myth of something that is, in its essence, two things at once, in a way that is beyond understanding: the Eucharist. You got to it, but talked in a very Scholastic, counter-Reformation version of Catholic theology. The questions of when and how the bread and wine “become” the body and blood of Jesus, and therefore ridiculous minutiae such as whether the DNA of another human person could be found inside our body soon after we partake, are at best misleading, I think.

    In my understanding, it is simply a truth that we can recieve as part of Divine revelation, and admit that humans do not and cannot have the capacity for understanding the mechanism. But we can understand the meaning, which is also given as Divine revelation: that by partaking, we are afforded the opportunity to participate in the Divine nature of Jesus. And in the way He was both God and Man at once, in the way the Divine took a human body to Hell and broke its bonds, in the way that God-Man also took a human body into Heaven, we also are given the opportunity to be both human and divine, to have the bonds of death broken, and to live in perfect communion with God forever.

    Of course, any understanding of these things which relies on metaphor, or anything other than myth and mystery, will not allow us to accept the Divine truth of who we are and what our calling is. Instead, after trying to define the Divine in shallow human terms, we’ll be left casting about for a meaningful, loving existence, and trying to fill it with philanthropy, forgiveness, etc. Of course these are great things, but once divorced from the Divine essence which can fill them with real purpose, we have only ourselves to look to as gods. Much of what passes for Christianity now (and, in fact, throughout the ages) has been a version of this type of humanism draped in Christian trappings. Of course, that’s far preferable to most of the alternative ways of living – the 20th century is full of horrific examples of what happens when any one person or group decides they are more valuable than others. Still, the answer to the deep questions posed by such horrors cannot be to simply turn the coin over and point out that the other side of humanity is good. We must abandon that coin as the foundation of our existence, and instead accept the Divine mystery and allow it to become us.

    • The DNA question is certainly ridiculous. That’s part of why I tell the story: that frame of mind derails the whole idea. It misses the point because it approaches the myth from a paradigm that doesn’t value myth or allow for any mythological means of interacting with the world. At the time I couldn’t reconcile it, but I also couldn’t accept that transubstantiation was just some stupid idea. So I got stuck wondering, faced with another koan: not a bad place to tread water. My thoughts at the time are where I was at the time.

      The way you described Eucharist is exactly the type of thing I want to explore more deeply in these posts about myth. Thanks for commenting… it’s good to look at it through another person’s eyes.