What comes to mind when you hear the word “myth?” A misconception or outright lie? A fanciful story that has no bearing on reality? A grandiose tale from a worldview that our modern age has left behind, whether for better or for worse?
Such definitions belong to the hubris of our own age. When we approach the topic of myth from the perspective of the ancient Norse and other animistic peoples – when we make a genuine attempt to understand what myth meant to them, the role it played in their lives and worldviews – we arrive at a radically different view of what a myth is. In fact, we arrive at the view that myth 1) can be most aptly defined as the meaning or context that one perceives in the phenomena one encounters, and 2) is an inescapable part of all perception and all thought – yours, mine, and everyone else’s.
That’s a bold statement. To truly understand it, we must begin our investigation with an exploration of the process of perception itself, particularly as animistic peoples understand it.
Perception (The Intertwining of Observation and Intuition)
Perception is the process by which we come to know the world around us, and by which the world discloses itself to us. It includes both sensory observation and intuition. Observation is the perception of the visible and tangible, and intuition is the perception of the invisible and intangible. Observation and intuition are two sides of the same coin; as the twentieth-century French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes,
[Ideas] could not be given to us as ideas except in a carnal experience. It is not only that we would find in that carnal experience the occasion to think them; it is that they owe their authority, their fascinating, indestructible power, precisely to the fact that they are in transparency behind the sensible, or in its heart.
In other words, the invisible qualities that we perceive in the things around us – the way they make us feel, their relation to other things, the way they’re classified, the meaning or significance they hold – aren’t merely things that we project onto them from our own minds. Rather, in an important sense, these qualities are inherent in the perceived things and indissolubly bound up with their physical characteristics.
Of course, we should be wary of going to the opposite extreme and asserting that all of the qualities we perceive in something are inherent in it. In the last analysis, however, the perceived thing and the perceiver’s impressions of it cannot be cleanly separated. One’s impressions of a thing are part of the perceptual interchange between oneself and the thing, not a “subjective” gloss that arises after the fact.
From the animistic perspective we’re considering here, the visible and the invisible do not belong to separate realms of existence, as many people implicitly claim when they divide the world into inert matter and conscious “souls” or essentially disembodied minds. Instead, the visible and the invisible, the sensory and the intuitive, the material and the spiritual, are inextricably intertwined. What Merleau-Ponty is articulating in the above passage is one of the core aspects of the animist’s mode of engagement with the world. The invisible qualities that we perceive intuitively – consciousness, spirit, meaning, etc. – are properties of the entire universe, rather than the exclusive possession of the human mind.
A Definition of Myth and Examples
Now, at last, we are in a position to understand the animist’s definition of myth. To say it again: a myth is the meaning or context that one perceives in the phenomena one encounters. It’s the basic structuring element of the invisible component of perception. As such, it’s an inescapable part of all perception and all thought, and is the foundation of any worldview. Images, narratives, and, yes, even concepts are all forms that myths can and do take.
Thus, for example, the view that everything is conscious is a myth. So is the view that only the human mind is conscious. So is the view that Odin and his companions gave the world its initial shape using the various parts of the corpse of the slain giant Ymir as raw materials. So is the view that the world was created in six days by a lone male god. So is the view that the universe began with a mechanical “Big Bang.” So is labeling something an “oak tree” rather than pure, riotous chaos.
Myth is pretty pervasive, isn’t it?
Beyond Objectivity and Subjectivity
As a product of the relationship between perceiver and perceived, a myth can never be objectively true or objectively false. But – and this is crucial – from this perspective, there is no truly objective standard by which anything can be evaluated. To quote Merleau-Ponty again, “The certainty of ideas is not the foundation for the certainty of perception but is, rather, based on it… In this sense all consciousness is perceptual, even the consciousness of ourselves.” In other words, how do we know anything at all? Why, through our perception of it, of course. How do you know that Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492? You saw it printed in a book, or heard it spoken by an elementary school teacher. How do you know your friends care about you? You perceive them acting in ways that signal their fondness for you. And so on. Perception, therefore, is the basis of all knowledge. Without perception, it would be impossible to know anything at all.
Nothing stands aloof from perception. Everything is bound up with and dependent upon perception in some way. Thus there’s no such thing as an objective position, because such a position would have to be located outside of the process of perception.
This should not, of course, be taken as an argument for pure subjectivism (as in the solipsism of René Descartes, for example). Since, as we’ve said, the perceiver’s impressions of a thing are to some degree inherent in the perceived thing itself, they are not mere illusions. Animism transcends the subject-object dichotomy that burdens so much modern thought. In this view, an idea – a myth – is never objective, absolute, or universal. Nor is it subjective and delusional.
Instead, a myth is personal; it’s a knowledge of someone or something in particular by someone in particular, complete with all of the volatility and ambiguity that such an interpersonal exchange inevitably includes.
As the foregoing has shown, a myth is not simply a childish story that can be easily swatted away, nor a subjective misconception that can be refuted by an appeal to objectivity. Rather, myth is an inescapable structuring element of consciousness. To get rid of one myth is necessarily to replace it with another myth.
Our modern worldview is different from that of the ancient northern Europeans not because we understand the world better than they do, but because we understand it differently. Our worldview follows from a different set of assumptions – different myths. They saw the world as swarming with other conscious, spiritual beings much like themselves, beings who must be dealt with in much the same way as one would deal with a human friend or enemy. We see the world as an inert machine that operates according to fixed “mechanisms” and laws, which must be dealt with by a combination of logic and brute force. Neither view is more objectively verifiable than the other; being mythical, both views are the product of an essentially irrational engagement with the world, albeit on very, very different terms.
This article ends with an open question: are there ways in which the myths of the ancient Norse or other animistic societies might even compare favorably with the myths of our own society?
Looking for more great information on Norse mythology and religion? While this site provides the ultimate online introduction to the topic, my book The Viking Spirit provides the ultimate introduction to Norse mythology and religion period. I’ve also written a popular list of The 10 Best Norse Mythology Books, which you’ll probably find helpful in your pursuit.
 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1968. The Visible and the Invisible. Edited by John Wild, translated by Alphonso Lingis. p. 150.
 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1964. The Primacy of Perception: And Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics. Edited by James M. Edie, translated by William S. Cobb. p. 13.