Personal thoughts on Logos and Mythos By Rhys Chisnall

There is an old maxim that knowledge is power and one possible way of understanding spirituality and religion is through the epistemological position suggested by the historian of religion Karen Armstrong.  Armstrong (2010) and (2005) argued that the ancient Greeks recognised two equally valued types of knowledge referred to as Logos and Mythos.

Logos is knowledge that describes the way the world is.  There are two types of logos knowledge; things that are necessarily true, e.g. 1 +1= 2, or ‘all bachelors are unmarried’ and things that are contingently true, such as elephants are grey or the theory of natural selection.  Logos knowledge operates in the domain of true or false; it is the knowledge of science, analytical philosophy, mathematics, history etc.  Logos knowledge is useful for manipulating the world but it does nothing to help people find meaning or assuage grief or despair (Armstrong, 2010).

Mythos on the other hand makes ‘sense of’ the world and in a culture that is use to thinking in terms of facts is much harder to understand (Armstrong, 2010).  It does not operate in the domain of true or false, but rather is evaluated by its aptness.  This knowledge brings meaning and tends to be highly allegorical and figurative in nature.  It is the experience of meaning found in the arts, mythology and music and so is engaged in at the subjective level.

The Oxford Philosopher Gilbert Ryle (2000) argued that we commit a category mistake, when we assign inappropriate properties to an object, or mistake something as belonging to one category when it rightly belongs to another.  So if we were to say that the colour purple is furious, we are inappropriately ascribing the property of being furious to something that does not have it (unless you have synaesthesia) .  Likewise if we take a piece of Mythos knowledge, say the creation myth of Genesis and ascribe to it the property of being true, we have made a category mistake.  The myth was never meant to be in the domain of true or false; it is about subjective meaning.  As such when fundamentalist Christians make that mistake, biologist, palaeontologists, archaeologists, historians and physicists can go out and look for the evidence, and of course the evidence shows that it is false.  The point is that it was not meant be taken literally in the first place.  The fundamentalist have mistaken myth for history.  No one in their right minds would describe a piece of music as being true; it is evaluated in a different way and so it is the same for myth.  Now what is true of Christian mythology is also true of Pagan mythology.  Its purpose is figurative and allegorical, it is about making ‘sense of’ and creating meaning rather than being either true or false.

Problems occur when mythos is reified meaning we mistake something abstract and figurative for something concrete and material.  When discussing the ‘non physical’ it is easy to imagine Gods, fairies, energy and spirits to be some kind of quasi-physical thing; as a ghostly presence.  However, ‘non-physical’ means it does not exist in time and space; it is not made of anything.  To my mind, these entities are about ‘making sense of’, they are a way of forming meaning from numinous experience; they are not physical but allegorical although they can still exert powerful influence.   The unreal can influence the real.  Just think of abstract concepts such as fairness or justice.  You won’t find a single atom of justice in the Universe as it is a convention, part of mythos, but it still exerts a powerful influence and informs societies.

Reification of mythos knowledge puts it into the domain of being subject to evidence.  So those who believe a myth is literally true, despite all evidence to the contrary, will have to rely on blind faith, or in extreme cases retreat into fundamentalism.  Likewise, neo-atheists make a similar category mistake where they enthusiastically demolish mythos, using evidence to prove it is false (Dawkins 2006).  Admittedly, in some respects they provide an important service, shattering our illusions, but they go too far in arguing that mythos knowledge has no value or power.  Taking mythos as being fact is what Armstrong (2010) would describe as unskilful religion.  To my mind it is better to walk a middle road as in a world of literal religionist and neo-atheists the middle ground is the home of the maverick and free thinker.

Category mistakes also occur when we conjoin two categories inappropriately.  Ryle (2000) gives the example of a foreign visitor watching a game of cricket.  The foreigner says I can see the batsmen, the bowler, the fielders, the umpire, but I can’t see the player responsible for the team spirit.  The foreigner has mistaken team spirit for another role in the game rather than the way the game is played.  It is a bit like saying; I have a left glove, a right glove and a pair of gloves.

To my mind it would be a category mistake to say I see animals, plants, mountains, lakes, oceans, space, stars and the Goddess.  This is because the Goddess is not another being in the world, but rather how we make ’sense of’ it; or perhaps how we experience its character.  The Lord and the Lady are not other beings that we can go out and literally find in the world.  As Gardner (1982) said they are not persons.

However language can sometimes lead us astray.  It seems perfectly reasonably to say,” I feel the wind, I feel the rain, I feel the standing stones and I feel the energy” but we mean something different when we use the word feel in the latter sense.  Another analogy might help clear things up.   When we say the tide is rising and the stocks are rising we mean different things by the word rising.  The tide literally rises, but do the stocks?  Rather we are using the word as a conceptual metaphor.  Stocks don’t literally rise.  It is the same with feeling the energy.  We literally feel the wind and the rain, but feeling the energy is our subjective experience of the place; it is the meaning and relationship we ascribe to (and have with) it.  It is mythos knowledge and not Logos and so it is no surprise that a scientist checking with an energy detecting device will find nothing.

Magic breaks down the dualism between logos and mythos.  When new logos discoveries are made corresponding new mythos is created to make sense of it.  Likewise mythos meaning influences logos.   People use mythos knowledge, such as the meaning associated with religion, or prayer, or crystals, etc. to recover from certain illness amenable to the placebo effect.  The mythos provides meaning which transfers through real scientifically attested robust phenomena, influencing belief and expectation through authority, to facilitate recovery.  Placebo does not work for all illnesses but mythos can always provide a way of creating meaning which helps people to cope with them. Mythos has a profound influence on peoples’ actions.  While it is a simplistic generalisation most religious wars are fought at least partially over differences in mythos.  As Campbell (1988) says, “people are dying for metaphors all over the place”.

Magic works through the interaction between mythos and logos.  It deals with symbolism, mythology and the manipulation of meaning (mythos) but produces tangible effects in the phenomenal world.  One kind of magic achieves this through belief.  The 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant reasoned that we could not know the noumenal world (the objective world as it really is).  Rather we take in information from our senses which is coloured by our beliefs, concepts and cognitive biases and so we have a subjective phenomenal experience (Kant as cited in Beaney 2007).  Witches argue that symbolism, mythology and meaning can be used to transform belief and so the phenomenal experience of reality.  Supposing someone comes to you for a love spell.  If you use authority, suggestibility, meaning and symbolism which hint at numinous experience to transform their belief to a confidence that they can find love the chances are they will.  Placebo works even when we know it is placebo, so this kind of magic will work on you as well, especially when backed up by the authority and numinosity of mythos.  In Terry Pratchett’s Disc World novels this is Headology.  It is claimed the difference between headology and psychology is that a psychologist will try to convince you the monster chasing you isn’t real, while the headologist on the other hand will give you stick to hit it with (Wikipedia, accessed 12th April, 2012).  It is important to remember that just because we have a rational explanation for this kind of low magic; it is still none the less magic.  Other kinds of magic may be more speculative in how they work, but they will still have an underlying mechanism.

Daniel Dennett (1991) and discursive psychologists, suggested that humans are the story telling ape; that we see the world in terms of narratives.  When you tell people what you did during the day or what you will do tomorrow, you tell it as a story.  Dennett (1991), Baggini (2011), Hollway (2007) argued that we construct our sense of self as a set of narratives.  Story is largely mythos, making sense of, hence the influence of mythology and the role of the psychology of Jung for some in the Craft to make sense of their personal narratives.  It you can control the story is experienced then you are the master of phenomenal reality.

Once we understand the distinction between Logos and Mythos we can start to speak meaningfully about Gods, myths, spirits, energy etc. not as facts but as ways of making sense of profound numinous experience.  The ancient mystery schools and renaissance esotericists accorded to humankind a special place within the cosmos in their Hermetic and Neo-Platonic mythology (Goodrick-Clarke, 2008).  They saw humans as a conduit between the logos material world and the mythos world of meaning and so it is for the Witch.  A talk by Derek Wood on Norse mythology at the East Anglian Leaping Hare Conference summed this up beautifully with a metaphor.  He said that there were two infinite universes.  There is the infinite material universe outside and the infinite universe of meaning and imagination existing within our minds.


References and Further Reading

Armstrong, K., (1999), A History of God, London, Vintage Books

Armstrong, K., (2010), The Case for God:  What Religion Really Means, London, Random House

Armstrong, K., (2005), A Short History of Myth, Edinburgh, Cannongate

Baggini, J., (2011), The Ego Trick, Granta Books

Beaney, M., (2007), Imagination and Creativity, Milton Keynes, The Open University

Campbell, J., (1988), The Power of Myth, New York, Anchor Books

Dawkins, R., (2007), The God Delusion, London, Transworld Publishers

Dennett, D., (1993), Consciousness Explained, London, Penguin

Gardner, G., (1982), Witchcraft Today, Magical Childe

Goldacre, B.,  (2008), Bad Science, Oxfordshire, Harper Collins

Goldacre, B., Accessed 5th April 2012

Goodrick-Clark, N., (2008), The Western Esoteric Tradition A Historical Introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Hollway, W., (2007).  Self.  In W. Hollway, H. Lucey, & A. Phoenix (Eds.), Social Psychology Matters (pp. 119-144).  Milton Keynes:  The Open University

Pratchett, T., (1988), Wyrd Sisters, Victor Gollancz

Ryle, G., (2000), Concept of Mind, Penguin


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    One Response to Personal thoughts on Logos and Mythos By Rhys Chisnall

    1. Rhys,

      What a wonderfully thoughtful and cogently argued analysis, thank you. So many aspects of your piece brush up against elements of my own (far more idle) speculations. Marvellous!

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