Myth and Math

By Robert Bringhurst

Myth. From the Greek mythos, “story, tale; report, explanation; speech.” Possibly related to mathema, “lesson; knowledge; mathematics,” from proto-Indo-European mendh-, “to learn.”

A mythology is an ecosystem of myths. It is in other words a functioning community of stories, striving to maintain its own coherence though its membership is constantly subject to change. So a mythology is similar to a literature, which is a constantly evolving intellectual ecology of works made out of words. Mythology and literature would, in fact, be synonyms if myth were just another name for a literary work. But a myth is not exactly a work of literature; it is instead a kind of story which a literary work can only partially embody or contain. A myth is a theorem about the nature of reality expressed not in algebraic symbols or inanimate abstractions but in animate narrative form.

A mythology normally permeates a culture and its literature, in much the way the circulatory and nervous systems permeate the body. These systems can be diagrammed or sketched, but they cannot be transplanted intact, nor can they be extracted for inspection and display and still be expected to function. In order to watch a mythology work, we have to study it in situ, in the flesh of its own literature and culture. You cannot summarize or analyze or count all the myths in a mythology any more than you can list all the sentences in a language or tag all the corpuscles in the body.

Myth is often misconstrued as something threatened by or threatening to science, or as a kind of misinformation for which science is the cure. Myth is actually, however, an alternative kind of science; that is, an alternative kind of investigation. It is a means of understanding and elucidating the nature of the world. It aims, like science, at perceiving and expressing ultimate truths. But the hypotheses of myth are framed as stories, not as equations, technical descriptions, or taxonomic rules. A myth, nonetheless, is a story so perceptive of reality that it might be rediscovered, like any law of nature, in almost any culture at almost any time. Such stories deal more often with the gods or other elemental powers than they do with human beings. Yet as soon as they are heard, they are seen to enrich human experience. That is why they are incessantly retold.

The scientist may begin an investigation by quantifying reality. The myth teller personifies it instead, and then proceeds by narrative interaction instead of computation. A myth begins with the assumption that all existents are alive: they have identities and appetites and wills, which necessarily reveal themselves in stories rather than equations. Experimental science very often gives the opposite impression, that all existents might as well be dead.

It would indeed appear that the language of myth builds on the very early linguistic practice of naming and identifying independent entities—wild animals and plants first of all, and then such things as storms and currents, winds and places. And it would appear that the language of science builds on the equally early practice of naming and identifying parts—the bark and leaves and buds and heart and bones and hide and teeth of dismembered plants and animals, and then such segregated elements as water, rock, air, and wood.

Because mythologies and sciences alike aspire to be true, they are perpetually under revision. Both lapse into dogma when this revision stops. A mythology that has suffered such a fate is often known as a religion. Where they are healthy, both mythology and science are as faithful to the real as their practitioners can make them, though evidently neither ever perfectly succeeds.

Myth, to repeat, is an alternative kind of science. Equally, of course, the sciences are alternative kinds of mythology. The eagerness with which nonscientists often insist that science is true and mythology false—despite the fact that the findings of science change much more quickly than the findings of mythology—is proof of how successful mythologies the sciences now are—and what successful religions they are too.

This article is part of a longer article (The Meaning of Mythology) from Robert Bringhurst’s Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking. He is famous for his manual Elements of Typographic Style that has been translated into ten languages and is one of the world’s most influential texts on typographic design.

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