The Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth?
This was originally published in a modified form in the short-lived Pagan Tides in 1995.
There is an hidden issue that keeps cropping up within communications and dialogs within the Pagan community. So many words, so much breath, paper and bandwidth has been wasted and so much ill will created because the participants in a conversation or argument have been unaware that this issue underlies the statements they make and the perceptions they have of each other’s arguments. That issue is that “truth” can have differing characters. This is a brief exploration of two of the types, or modes, of truth and how our misunderstanding or confusion of their various natures often cause us to attack the ideas of each other unnecessarily.
In their writings, both Joseph Campbell and Robert Graves have made or alluded to the premise of there being at least two types of truth: mythological, metaphorical or poetic truth, and factual or literal truth. Literal truth is that which can be supported by independent and disinterested observation; poetic truth is a more subjective kind of truth that may “ring your inner bell” or be something that a person “knows” in his/her heart to be true, but it cannot be “proved” objectively. That I was born in Hampton, Virginia is a literal truth. That I receive spiritual teachings from the Lady of the Lake is a mythological truth. I could never demonstrate the latter by any objective standards, but I “know” it to be true. Both forms or modes of “truth” are equally valid, although one mode may be more practical in a given situation.
One cannot “prove” a mythological statement nor is mythological truth necessarily universally applicable. To be “true,” a mythological statement need only apply to one individual. A purpose of mythological truth is to aid us in understanding, to give meaning to, and/or to connect one with concepts, ideas, a sense of the Divine, that which cannot be expressed by the concrete, observed “objectively,” or otherwise “proved” independently. I could venture that factual truths do have universal application in a limited sense. That two items added to two items total four items should be evident and “true” to everyone. Yet the “truth” or “falseness” of a mythological statement can only be determined by the individual perceiver. The set of images and stories from Welsh tradition serves to deeply connect me to the Divine but the images and stories from the Graeco-Roman traditions leave me cold. At the same time, that Graeco-Roman metaphor set may inspire ecstasy in someone else who couldn’t care less about the Welsh imagery. Since both metaphor sets serve to connect, inspire, re-link their respective “users,” they are both “true.” Neither is “true” in an objective sense, yet, both are “true” in a subjective sense.
Many of you may be saying, “Isn’t that kind of obvious?” Alas, many Pagans present mythological truths as factual truths. Sometimes a person may really believe that s/he is stating a factual truth. Other times a person has intended to convey a mythological truth, but has not made it obvious that the statement is mythological rather than factual. For many reasons, it is easy to confuse the two types of truth, and we would do well to consider which type may be presented when trying to understand what is being said or written.
I have heard or read many pointless arguments between people discussing some issue in the Pagan media (especially on the Internet) when either the originator or the later commenters has mixed up the two types of truth. Usually Person A has made a pronouncement that is probably true in a mythological mode, but appears to be true in a factual mode. Person B perceives that statement as a factual truth and challenges the first person to defend the statement as such. Often Person A will then fail to see that two different modes are being employed, and the discussion deteriorates from there. The purpose of this essay is to get people to question which mode is being used when a statement is being made. If a mythological statement is presented as literally true, we should challenge the statement as such, at the same time suggesting that the statement may be true from a different standpoint. We should also ask the originator of the statement to make its nature clear. I think this may help us all to understand each other more clearly and cut down a lot of needless bickering among ourselves.
A classic example of this confusion occurs when many Pagans say they are continuing or reviving an “ancient religion” while others argue that our religions or spiritual paths are wholly new to the latter half of the 20th century. The first position is often purported to be literally true, but factually speaking, it cannot be supported with solid evidence. But if you consider that the first statement as a mythological statement and the second as a factual statement, both are “true.” We are at once, in a metaphorical way, continuing traditions rooted in the ancient past and literally inventing new religions that are unique to this time and our current circumstances. If person advocates a technique or spiritual path based on ancient images and metaphor and claims that it is a factual reconstruction or re-enactment of an ancient spiritual path, we can, and should, challenge the truth or falseness of the claim itself and ask that the person present solid evidence to defend that claim. However, the technique or spiritual path may itself be valid and metaphorically true if it works and is relevant here and now. Often when people make such statements, they are simultaneously making factual and metaphorical statements, and that the factual statements they are making may be false does not automatically mean that the metaphorical statements they make are also false. We must evaluate the two different kinds of statements independently.
Our language structure does not help us to make these distinctions easily. We seem to have lost or to have not developed the ability to convey both types of truths as being separate modes, so statements of mythological truth are linguistically indistinguishable from those of factual truth. When we write poetry or ritual, it can be obvious that we are making mythological statements. When we write or speak in prose, we may need to carefully make the mythological or metaphorical nature of our expressions clear to all.
Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God. 4 vols. New York: Penguin Books, 1968.
________. Myths to Live By.
Campbell Joseph and Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988.
Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. Amended and enlarged edition. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966 (original imprint, 1948).