We may ask what role do myths, rituals and heroes have to play in today’s world? Joseph Campbell, the author of the classic, The Power of Myth, tells us they provide us with a cultural framework by which we can define ourselves, and know who we are. This cultural framework is helpful for our young people, in so far as it provides them with a blueprint for life. What our modern society needs are some new myths, heroes, legends, stories and rituals that we can all identify with in our more cosmopolitan world. Without such identification we could end up like a rudderless ship in the ocean, not knowing who we are, or where we are going. Isn’t that something that our leaders, whether in business or politics, should be concerned with?
Let’s look at the term myth for a moment before going on to heroes. For some people today, the term ‘myth’ simply means that something isn’t true or doesn’t exist. Myth, for them, is a widely held but false belief, an exaggerated or idealised conception of a thing or a person. Indeed, Joseph Campbell tells us that those of a scientific or purely rational bent look at myth as denoting something false or lacking realism. Indeed, today, with the disappearance of classical education from our schools’ syllabuses our appreciation of the power of mythology and ritual has declined. Or is it completely dead?
Joseph Campbell answers this by telling us that, “Every myth is psychologically symbolic. Its narratives and images are to be read, therefore, not literally, but as metaphors.” The key idea here is that to understand myths we have to see them as metaphors. This is the key to helping those of us who want a rational explanation for everything to appreciate all these other aspects of life that fall outside a scientific explanation or rationality. This is important for the stability of our society as one could say that each society requires its own myths and rituals.
Alongside this theme of myth are, of course, our heroes. A hero is a person whose actions have been in the service of the greater good. The Greek gods and goddesses were associated with specific aspects of life. Athena, for example, was associated with wisdom and courage. So they called their capital city after her.
So this brings me to a recent newspaper heading, “Ice-cream pioneer Thatcher makes shortlist as face of new British £50 note”. I could understand Margaret Thatcher’s face on the new £50 note as the first female prime minister; but as a famous female British scientist, the concept was completely outside my understanding. After leaving Oxford, where she studied chemistry, she spent a brief time before marrying and studying law working for J. Lyons & Co, the famous tea shop group in London. While there she was part of a team developing emulsifiers for ice-cream, which incidentally had been developed in the United States some decades earlier. So why pick her out as a candidate over such eminent British female scientists as Ada Lovelace, Rosalind Franklin or Dorothy Hodgkin? Dorothy Hodgkin actually won a Nobel Prize for chemistry. Extraordinary, that they are considering Thatcher, don’t you think!
Yes, every society needs their heroes, their myths, their rituals and their stories. But is this an effort by a group of Thatcher admirers now that she is dead to mystify the person of Margaret Thatcher as a famous scientist and politician? Is it an effort by this group to create a mystique of a lady with fascinating qualities for future generations of Tory politicians to revere?
Myths and heroes are seen, as one commentator put it, as “specific accounts of gods or superhuman beings involved in extraordinary events or circumstances … as existing apart from ordinary human experience” with no attempt to justify the accounts or even to render them plausible. Can we really put the scientist Margaret Thatcher, late of J. Lyons & Co, on the £50 note to commemorate British female scientists?