I have heard this from 3 people (myths in ancient cultures)

I have heard from 3 intelligent people, one of which was a University professor, that the way myths worked in ancient cultures was that the ordinary person would be given the mythical stories which would be taken literally by them but that the priests and the educated classes would know that the stories were not meant to be taken literally and would understand the symbolic truths they were trying to put forward. Is this true historically, and can anyone point me to a scholarly source that shows this?

There is probably some truth to that generalization. At least in the eye of the modern beholder who likes to keep religion next to psychology on his lab bench.

There is probably some unfair stereotype (especially on the part of the modern intellectual) that less educated peoples think more literally, and thus don’t attend to symbolism as much (or perhaps deny it completely). And while it is true that modern intellectuals do trip over their own feet to make sure everyone knows that they at least have peered ‘behind the curtain’ (and in fact want to be seen as living there), I think it’s probably less true that the ‘people-of-the-street’ are all quite so naive about everything as the generalization implies. Some or many will be, to be sure, but those busy living life outside of the ivory towers will have, in their own turn, been divested of some sorts of naivete that still clings to the intellectuals.


I don’t think it’s something that can be proven. Religious views and atheism has probably always been hand in hand to various degrees.

Myths is a type of story. Myths can be created from facts and fiction. Myth itself it not even really a clearly defined term. I presume with only the evidence of the way it happens now, that some ancient Jewish people took genesis literally, some took it non literally,‘and some believed it was supposed to be literal but did not believe it. Same with Roman and Greek faiths. For example, Norse religions were real religions held by real people. These real people with their real faiths still created myths. Stories that the creator pro did not mean to be real.

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One thing to remember was that the worldview of ancient people was totally different than our modern worldview. Acts of gods or spirits were seen everywhere in nature, in sicknesses, in deaths. Thunder, rains, storms were acts of gods.

With this kind of worldview, almost anything could be true as gods could do things beyond ‘normal’ life. Myths could be seen as possible and even rational stories. I would guess that the ‘elite’ who understood myths in a more symbolic way was quite small. I am not an expert so this is just my guess.

An interesting topic. It would be an interesting research project to look at populations who follow other religious traditions such as Navaho, other Native Americans and others around the world who have alternative origin stories and look at those populations to see if they see their stories as literal symbolic or somewhere in between, and compare that with various Christian groups, perhaps also looking at Jewish and Islamic beliefs as well.
My guess is that many ordinary people tend not to think about it too much as it causes cognitive dissonance, which is uncomfortable, so they may well claim literalism even if they actually accept the symbolic nature of the stories on some level.

It is true that the literary narratives concerning religion in the ancient world often contradict the material (and literary) evidence. Consider how we know that Mesopotamians believed in ghosts that left the underworld, and offered food to the dead, despite the fact that the literary narratives describe the dead as unable to leave the underworld, and living on a diet of dirt.

I guess it is Halloween.

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That is actually how it works today in a lot of cases. The pew warmers lag behind in proper doctrine. For ancient people it was probably different. At some point, these stories became conventional wisdom or background knowledge and there was little reason to deny the core of them for most people who couldn’t read and didn’t have access to study them (they just heard them told or read). I think a lot of people, when discussing inspiration or hermeneutics do it from the modern perspective and fail to understand the life setting the Bible was written in, how each individual work was expected to be disseminated and accessed by most illiterate people pre-printing press and how each individual book was used for hundreds or thousands of years.

The intelligentsia have always included those who know they are making it up to stay behind the politicians. Always.

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