The Meaning of Myth

Not just the stories, but what they mean. Are myths really the repositories of deep wisdom and mystical secrets?

Readers’ Favorite Book Award Winner

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 (see the full contents list below).

These myths have been haunting us for millennia, but are they really, as has been claimed, the repositories of deep wisdom and mystical secrets? Get your copy now to find out.

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 ★★★★★

In this fascinating read, psychiatrist and philosopher Neel Burton unpacks 12 popular tales—from Eros and Psyche to Orpheus and Eurydice—to explore the meaning of myth in today’s society and its relation to life, science, and religion. —BookBub (Featured New Release)

Burton’s erudition is apparent throughout this highly readable construction, balanced by a personable style and subtle humor. —The US Review of Books (Recommended)

Accessible and entertaining… Burton expounds some of the most intriguing Greek myths to shed light on this fascinating expression of the human imagination. —Armand D’Angour, classical scholar and author of Socrates in Love

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

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! —Dr Gareth Southwell, philosopher and writer

About the author

Dr Neel Burton FRSA is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and wine-lover who lives and teaches in Oxford, England. He is a Fellow of Green-Templeton College in the University of Oxford, and the recipient of the Society of Authors’ Richard Asher Prize, the British Medical Association’s Young Authors’ Award, the Medical Journalists’ Association Open Book Award, and a Best in the World Gourmand Award. His work has featured in the likes of Aeon, the Spectator, and the Times, and been translated into several languages.


Part I: The Meaning of Myth

1. In the beginning was the word
2. Myth, legend, fable, and fairy tale
3. Myth, religion, and ritual
4. Myth and science
5. The history of myth and mythology
6. Myth, metaphor, and allegory
7. Plato’s myths
8. Magic
9. Heroes
10. Monsters
11. Misogyny
12. Myth in the modern world

Part II: 12 Myths Decoded

13. Echo and Narcissus
14. Eros and Psyche
15. Seers and oracles: Teiresias, Cassandra, and Laocoön
16. Chiron, the wounded healer
17. Pygmalion, the passionate artist
18. Prometheus, the fallen rebel
19. Orpheus and Eurydice
20. Mother goddesses: Demeter and Persephone
21. Perseus and Medusa
22. Theseus and the Minotaur
23. Dionysus, the twice-born liberator
24. Plato’s Myth of Er

Revel in the best, most beautiful, and most powerful ideas of the Classical World

I have long been fascinated by the myth of Echo and Narcissus, and may finally have cracked its meaning. 

First, let’s remind ourselves of the myth. In Ovid’s version, the nymph Echo falls in love with Narcissus, a youth of extraordinary beauty. As a child, Narcissus had been prophesied by Teiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, to ‘live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself’. 

One day, Echo followed Narcissus through the woods as he hunted for stags. She longed to speak to him but dared not utter the first word. Overhearing her footsteps, the youth cried out, ‘Who’s there?’—to which she responded, ‘Who’s there?’ When at last she revealed herself, she leapt to embrace Narcissus, but he scorned her and cast her off. Echo spent the rest of her days pining for Narcissus, and slowly withered away until there was nothing left of her but her voice. 

Some time after his encounter with Echo, Narcissus went to quench his thirst at a pool of water. Seeing his own image in the water, he fell in love with it. But each time he bent down to kiss it, it seemed to disappear. Narcissus grew ever more thirsty but would not leave or disturb the pool of water for fear of losing sight of his fine features. In the end, he died of thirst, and there, on that very spot, appeared the narcissus flower, with its bright face and bowed neck. 

So what could this myth mean? On one level, it is an admonition to treat others as we would ourself be treated—and in particular to be considerate in responding to the affections of others, which, as with Echo, are often so raw and visceral as to be existential. Poor Echo had no self and no being outside of Narcissus, and after being rejected by him ‘slowly withered away until there was nothing left of her but her voice’. Even her voice, the only thing that remained of her, was his rather than her own. 

On another level, the myth is a warning against vanity and self-love. Sometimes we get so caught up in our being, in our ego [Latin, ‘I am’], that we lose sight of the bigger picture and, as a result, pass over the beauty and bounty that is life. Paradoxically, by being too wrapped up in ourself, we actually restrict our range of perception and action and, ultimately, our potential as human beings. And so, in some sense, we kill ourself, like so many ambitious or self-centred people. Treating other people badly, as Narcissus did, is a sure sign of still being trapped in ourself. 

Teiresias prophesied that Narcissus would ‘live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself ’, because to truly know ourself is also to know that there is nothing to know. Our self, our ego, is nothing but an illusion, nothing more substantial than the unstable reflection that Narcissus tried in vain to kiss. Ultimately, Narcissus’s ego boundaries dissolved in death, and he merged back into creation in the form of a flower—the daffodil, which, like us, flowers too early and too briefly, and often too brashly, if it flowers at all. 

Echo had not enough ego, and Narcissus far too much. The key is to find the right and dynamic equilibrium, to be secure in ourself and yet to be able to dissociate from the envelope that we happen to have been born into. 

In Greek myth, the hero has to die and travel through the underworld before re-emerging as a hero. He has to conquer himself, to die to himself, to become more than merely human. For nothing is harder than to come back from hell.

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