THE MEANING OF MYTH: With 12 Greek Myths Retold and Interpreted by a Psychiatrist

Not just the stories, but what they mean.

What is myth, and why does it have such a hold on the human mind? How does myth relate to near forms such as legend and fairy tale, and to other modes of understanding such as religion and science? What is a hero, what is a monster, and what function does magic serve? How has our relationship with myth and mythology changed over the centuries? And are there any modern myths?

These are a few of the fascinating questions that psychiatrist and philosopher Neel Burton explores in the first part of this book. In the second part, he puts theory into practice to unravel 12 of the most captivating Greek myths, including Echo and Narcissus, Eros and Psyche, and Prometheus and Pandora.

These myths have been haunting us for millennia, but are they really, as has been claimed, the repositories of deep wisdom and mystical secrets?

Staggeringly exquisite… The Meaning of Myth by Neel Burton is teaching and writing at its most superb and is as entertaining as you could ever wish for. —Readers’ Favorite ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Get your copy now:

The Meaning of Myth is out in just two weeks!

I’m especially pleased that the book naturally came to what I think is a very satisfying conclusion about what it means to be a hero. I admit I celebrated this serendipity with a bottle of champagne.

For me, writing a book requires intense and almost exclusive focus. So now I’m catching up with the thousands of little things that I wasn’t able to do—which, as you can imagine, is a huge comedown after Perseus, Theseus, and Dionysus. But on the plus side, I have much more time to enjoy my favourite month of May.

Bacchus meets Ariadne on Naxos, by Titian (1520). If you want to talk about the book, you can share this image on your social media.

You can pre-order the book here.

And if you can’t wait two weeks, here are the first two chapters to get you going:

The Education of Achilles, by Bénigne Gagneraux (1785).

In the Iliad, Homer calls Chiron the ‘wisest and justest of all the centaurs’.

Fated to be overthrown by one of his children, Cronus, the godhead of the Titans, devoured them all upon their birth. In desperation, his wife Rhea hid their sixth child, Zeus, on the island of Crete. As Cronus searched earth and sky for Zeus, he came upon the Oceanid Philyra, after whom he lusted. To hide from Rhea, he took the form of a stallion and mounted Philyra. In due course, Philyra gave birth, with great pain, to a child named Chiron, with the upper body of a man and lower body of a horse. Seized with shame and disgust at the sight of this monster, she abandoned him on Mount Pelion in Thessaly.

Fortunately, Chiron was found and reared by Apollo, who taught him the healing arts, music, and prophecy, while Apollo’s twin sister Artemis taught him archery and hunting. Chiron excelled in every field. It is sometimes said that he invented pharmacy, medicine, and surgery. Indeed, the name ‘Chiron’ means ‘hand’ [Greek, kheir] or ‘skilled with the hands’, and is related to our ‘surgeon’ [kheir + ergon, ‘handworker’].

For his learning and temperament, Chiron was highly sought after as a tutor. His pupils included many of the greatest heroes, including Perseus, Theseus, Jason, the Telamonian Ajax (Ajax the Great), Patroclus, and, of course, Achilles. Chiron had a special bond with Achilles, having advised Peleus, his father, how to win over his mother Thetis.

Wounded in the thigh by one of Paris’ arrows, Eurypylus, leader of the Thessalians in the Trojan War, cried out to Patroclus:

I want you to cut out this arrow from my thigh, wash off the blood with warm water and spread soothing ointment on the wound. They say you have some excellent prescriptions that you learnt from Achilles, who was taught by Chiron…

While pregnant by Apollo, the Thessalian princess Coronis let herself be seduced by the mortal Ischys. For this, Artemis killed Coronis and her family with her arrows. But, by performing the first caesarean section, Apollo rescued their unborn child from the funeral pyre and gave it to Chiron to be raised. That child was Asclepius, god of medicine.

Whereas the centaurs were notorious for being violent and lustful, Chiron, the foster child of Apollo, was all culture and civilization. Unlike the other centaurs, he was often depicted clothed rather than naked, and with human rather than equine legs. As half-brother to Zeus, he came from a completely different line from the other centaurs, who were born of Ixion and Nephele.

During his fourth labour to capture the Erymanthian boar, Herakles [Hercules] visited the centaur Pholus in his cave. When Pholus opened a bottle of wine given by Dionysus, the fragrant nose attracted the other centaurs and drove them into a frenzy. Herakles defended the cave by raining arrows dipped in the blood of the Lernaean hydra, which he had killed on his second labour. One of the arrows hit Chiron, who, although friends with Herakles, got caught in the mêlée.

For all his knowledge and skill Chiron could not heal his festering wound, which became unbearably painful. But being the immortal son of Cronus, neither could he die. In the end, he or Herakles struck a bargain with Zeus, whereby he would exchange his immortality for the freedom of Prometheus, who had been bound for all eternity to a rock for stealing fire from the gods and delivering it to humankind. Every day, an eagle pecked out Prometheus’ immortal liver, only for it to grow back overnight.

After Chiron’s death, Zeus at long last freed Prometheus, and fixed Chiron in the firmament as the constellation Sagittarius or Centaurus.

Interpretation of the myth

Chiron is twice-wounded, once at birth, and again towards the end of his life.

The first wound is a deep emotional wound that comes from being a child of rape who is rejected by both of his parents. He is quite literally a monster, and now also an orphan and an outcast.

Being half-man, half-animal, Chiron embodies the conflict in all of us between the animal instincts and reason or divinity, between the Dionysian wildness of the other centaurs and the Apollonian light and order of his foster father. Yet, he falls firmly on the Apollonian side, and in many respects outshines even the god of light, mastering and even furthering knowledge and the arts [Greek, episteme and techne] in an attempt to compensate for his early rejection and prove, both to himself and to others, that he is worthy of love and acceptance.

A similar pattern can be discerned in that other rejected god, Hephaestus, cast out of Olympus by his mother Hera on account of his deformity. Despite this, or, rather, because of this, Hephaestus as the blacksmith of the gods spends his life creating objects of great beauty and utility, such as Helios’ chariot, Hermes’ winged helmet and sandals, and Achilles’ armour. Hephaestus even gets the girl, marrying Aphrodite, goddess of love.

Chiron turns in particular to the healing arts as a means of healing himself, and not only himself but others too. He spreads the light, giving to others that which he himself most needs or needed. Rather than allowing the original wound to fester, he finds within it a source of motivation, even of inspiration, that leads him to great insight and achievement. This in turn invites, or rather imposes, a sense of purpose and service or duty that ennobles and enriches his life in ways that the other centaurs could not even begin to imagine.

In the words of the Persian poet and mystic Rumi (d. 1273):

Your doctor must have a broken leg to doctor
Your defects are the ways that glory gets manifested.
Whoever sees clearly what's diseased in himself
Begins to gallop on the Way
Don't turn your head. Keep looking at the bandaged place.
That's where the light enters you.

In The Meaning of Madness, I argue that mental disorders in particular are not just problems. If successfully navigated, they can also present opportunities. Simple awareness of this can empower people to heal themselves and, much more than that, to grow, and live, through their experiences.

Chiron’s second wound is caused by the superego, represented by Herakles, battling against the id, represented by the centaurs riled up by the Dionysian wine. Instead of reconciling himself with the dark side, Herakles desperately fights against it, potentially hurting himself and others in the process—as he does his friend Chiron.

Chiron’s stoical decision to die in the face of unbearable and incurable pain, especially in light of his immortality, raises profound, and surprisingly modern, ethical questions about euthanasia and the desirability of immortality, questions that have never been more pertinent than today.

Chiron is a rare if not unique instance of a god who dies, and, more than that, chooses to die (unlike, say, Jesus). But even in dying, he gives himself up to another. Just like he sublimed his life into wisdom, art, and love, so he sublimed his death into an act of service and sacrifice.

And it is fitting that Chiron’s sacrifice is to a god so similar to himself: a great friend of humankind, and wounded for it, wounded, like we all are, for bridging the divide between the mortal and the divine. This is the second wound, the wound in our mortal body, the wound that will not heal.

And so the story of Chiron is the story of how we might be able to cope with the psychological distress and ineluctable physical defeat that is part and parcel of the human condition.

Here is how Rumi ended his poem:

Don't turn your head. Keep looking at the bandaged place.
That's where the light enters you.
And don’t believe for a moment that you’re healing yourself.

According to Forbes, horror movies gross around $1 billion a year, to say nothing of video games and other media. Not everyone pays for pure, undiluted horror, but many more people are able to enjoy horror hiding in other genres such as myths, fairy tales, fantasy fiction, and the news. The love of horror [Latin, ‘a trembling, a shaking’] is most common in male adolescents and is correlated with personality traits such as thrill-seeking and aggression.

The meat of horror is the monster [Latin, ‘bad omen’], from the great white shark in Jaws to the White Walkers in Game of Thrones, or any powerful, menacing character that would, if it could, threaten us or people like us—which is why the cannibalistic witch in Hansel and Gretel, who seeks to lure children, is far more frightening to children than to their parents, and why, in Ancient Greece, Scylla and Charybdis and the sirens would have been far more frightening to seafarers than to farmers.

An archetypal monster is not only terrifying but also revolting. Adapting the insights on impurity of the anthropologist Mary Douglas, the philosopher Noël Carroll, author of The Philosophy of Horror, argues that monsters often display one or more of four sometimes overlapping forms of impurity: categorical interstitiality, categorical contradictoriness, incompleteness, and formlessness.

Categorical interstitiality is when something is more than one thing. Greek myth is full of interstitial monsters such as the minotaur, the griffin, the chimera, the harpies, and the Gorgon Medusa.

Categorical contradictoriness is when something violates binary classes of existence, in particular, something that is both dead and alive, like the Night King, or something that is both animate and inanimate, like a haunted house or even, at a stretch, the Temple of Doom in Indiana Jones, with all its ancient and elaborate booby traps.

The ability to distinguish between animate and inanimate is acquired at just six months of age and is so basic as to be programmed into language. For example, English restricts the use of the present perfect tense (‘has been’, ‘has seen’) to subjects who are still alive, marking a sharp grammatical divide between the living and the dead.

Incompleteness is when something is missing parts, like limbs or an eye. In antiquity and later, people believed distant lands to be inhabited by headless men called Blemmyes (or akephaloi) with their facial features in their chest, and monopods (or skipods) with a single, central leg ending in a very large foot. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus, the man of many twists and turns, blinds the cyclops Polyphemus, a one-eyed man-eating giant. 

Finally, formlessness is when something lacks clear boundaries and therefore, as with interstitiality and contradictoriness, eludes simple categorization. Examples include werewolves, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and the Blob.

Carroll adds that, for extra horrific effect, a monster may be magnified or massified, that is, made larger like Godzilla, or multiplied in number like the army of the dead in Lord of the Rings.

Many monsters also have a trait that Freud called ‘the uncanny’. In 1970, the professor of robotics Masahiro Mori posited the theory of the uncanny valley. He observed that, for the most part, our emotional response towards machines is fairly neutral, while our emotional response towards human beings and objects such as teddy bears is fairly positive. But if something looks almost but not quite human, it arouses negative feelings of eeriness and revulsion: the so-called uncanny valley.

How to explain this phenomenon? It could be that humanoids such as the Joker evoke death or illness. Or that they ‘mess with the mind’ in some way—perhaps by violating norms and expectations, or by being deceptive and difficult to read. The Joker sometimes wears a flower that can shoot deadly venom: that a flower is normally harmless, even delightful, underscores his deeply deceptive nature.

Although they are the main meat, there is more to horror than monsters. Horror also gets to us in other ways, among others, by creating confusion, anguish, paranoia, and a general sense of mental breakdown or psychosis. But if the attempt is too blatant or clumsy, the horror can quickly turn to humour or even ridicule. Indeed, the horror writer R. L. Stine claims that horror always makes him laugh: ‘I always just wanted to be funny. I never really planned to be scary.’

So far, so horrific. But other than incidental humor, what possible appeal could horror hold? Horror excites our imagination and curiosity, notably through the exploration of taboos and the creation of suspense. It also gives us permission to unleash our darker side, that is, our Freudian id or Jungian shadow. Shapeshifters such as werewolves and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde are commonly interpreted, in their different aspects, as the psychic layers of one, same person. Other monsters, often supervillains such as the Joker, are so overrun by their shadow as to be nothing but sheer darkness. These two factors, exploration and expression, are part of the appeal of horror, especially to younger audiences.

Another appeal of horror is that it can have a kind of aphrodisiacal effect, and horror movies have long been a popular choice for early dates. Young people are seeking to establish their identity, and, under the cover of a horror movie, are able to act out gender stereotypes and make the most of the bonding and ‘coziness’ to which fear gives rise. One American study found that males enjoyed horror movies most in the company of a distressed female, while females enjoyed them most in the company of a ‘mastering male’, and that mastery significantly increased the appeal of an initially low-appeal male.

But for most of its devotees, the overwhelming attraction of horror is, of course, the fear to which it gives rise. Fear and disgust are among the six basic emotions identified by the psychologist Paul Ekman, the other four being happiness, sadness, anger, and surprise. As I discuss in Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, basic emotions evolved in response to the ecological challenges faced by our remote ancestors and are so primal as to be ‘hardwired’, with each basic emotion corresponding to a more or less distinct and dedicated neurological circuit.

Still today, specific phobias are generally for the natural dangers that commonly threatened our ancestors, such as spiders (arachnophobia), snakes (ophidiophobia), and blood (hematophobia), even though in the modern world man-made hazards such as motor cars and electric cables are far more likely to strike us down. For most of our evolutionary history, our greatest fear was to fall prey to a predator, to become someone else’s dinner. So when I swim in the sea in Mauritius, I am far more concerned about theoretical sharks than about the very real speedboats, even though I know that a speedboat is far more likely to kill me.

Horror taps into and reawakens that primal fear of falling prey to a predator, and this can serve a number of functions. First, it can help us rehearse for danger, like children do when they chase one another and break our ears with their screams. Second, it can help us confront and process past traumatic experiences by, in some sense, replaying them. Third, and most important of all, it can give us pleasure, if not quite in itself, then at least through the relief and release that follows in its train—and that is sometimes accompanied by laughter.

When I visited the remote Cederberg winery in South Africa, more than 20 miles down a gravel track off the Cape-Namibia Route, I was given the key to a nearby cave complex with Bushmen paintings, which I proceeded to explore on my own, without so much as a telephone signal. I still remember the intense ‘joy-safety’ that I felt upon returning to my car and shutting the door on all the deadly snakes and spiders that I had been imagining.

Negative emotions can become pleasant if their object is a mere simulacrum, which is why people turn not only to horror but also to things like rollercoasters and sadomasochism. And like horror, sadomasochism and rollercoasters can easily descend into laughter.

No one ever pays to learn the most important things.

We spend most of our time and energy chasing success, such that we have little left over for thinking and feeling, being and relating. As a result, we fail in the deepest possible way. We fail as human beings. This book explores what it means to be successful, and how, if at all, true success can be achieved.

An extraordinarily wide ranging mix of psychology and philosophy covering most of human behaviour from madness to happiness and the meaning of life, and encountering ghosts and death on the way … Brilliant. Neel Burton has already won several prizes … and this volume deserves another. —The British Medical Association Book Awards

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown everything up into the air, straining our coping mechanisms and forcing us to re-examine our assumptions, priorities, and whole way of living. But in crisis there is also great opportunity, and this very timely book lights us the way. —Dr Chris Chopdar, clinical psychiatrist

Burton guides the reader to unlearn, rediscover, and return to wholeness. It is a journey out of Plato’s cave… —The International Review of Books

Burton is never short of an interesting and sharp judgment. —Prof Peter Toohey, Psychology Today

I’ve read many Neel Burton books. He’s a wonderful writer and able to immerse you lightly in pretty heavy stuff. —Adrian Bailey, Vine Voice

Burton’s writing blends deep knowledge of his subject with lively anecdote and a genuine concern for how we might draw on the insights of psychology and philosophy to live a better life. Highly recommended! —Gareth Southwell, philosopher and writer

★★★★★ This book saved my life. — reviewer

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