Myth and Religion: Nietzsche (Part 2)

This is the second post for my two part series on myth. This post focuses on Nietzsche’s understanding of myth and its necessary role in religion.

Like Merleau-Ponty and Tolkien, Nietzsche situates myth in the human condition. He sees myth as a kind of narrative, which has themes, characters, and events that relate to the human. A culture can take a hold of these elements, make them part of its identity, and become unified as a community. But unlike Tolkien, myth, for Nietzsche, is only human. It is not something ‘bigger than ourselves’ but something part of ourselves and yet renews our spirits.

Our modern age, however, has given up its belief in myth and instead looks to establish religion on systematic and historical grounds. Nietzsche explains in The Birth of Tragedy:

For this is usually how religions die. It happens when the mythical presuppositions of a religion become systematized as a finished sum of historical events under the severe, intellectual gaze of orthodox dogmatism, and people begin to defend anxiously the credibility of the myths while resisting every natural tendency within them to go on living and to throw out new shoots – in other words, when the feeling for myth dies and is replaced by the claim of religion to have historical foundations.[1]

When the feeling for myth dies, people turn to systems and facts in an attempt to carry on their religion. But a religion without myth, according to Nietzsche, is doomed, for it is the spirit of myth that breathes life into religion. In fact, myth is necessary for religion; it is “the necessary precondition of every religion.”[2]

Nietzsche laments this loss of myth and believes that it causes the destruction of true human community. He writes, “Without myth . . . all cultures lose their healthy, creative, natural energy; only a horizon surrounded by myths encloses and unifies a cultural movement.”[3] Cultures lack creativity and vitality when myth has vanished, and it is only through myth that a culture can be united through the common themes and miracles of that myth. This loss leads to homelessness where people can no longer identify with a place of belonging. Nietzsche asks, “The enormous historical need of dissatisfied modern culture, the accumulation of countless other cultures, the consuming desire for knowledge – what does all this point to, if not to the loss of myth, loss of a mythical home, a mythical maternal womb?”[4]

Not only does Nietzsche affirm the need for myth through his philosophical writings, but also he creates a new myth, Thus Spake Zarathustra. In this philosophical novel, the character Zarathustra wanders about giving speeches to those that he meets. By spreading his message, Zarathustra hopes to encourage these creatures to accept both the pleasurable as well as the painful parts to life – to affirm life no matter what.

A crucial part of myth, both old and new, is the notion of miracle (German:Wunder). Surprisingly, Nietzsche discusses “miracle” often in his writings and the majority of those discussions are positive. He argues that miracle is indispensable to myth. In speaking of the miracle in myth as seen in art, he writes, “This will enable [the art participant] to estimate the extent to which he is at all equipped to understand myth, the contracted image of the world, which, as abbreviation of appearances, cannot dispense with miracle.”[5]

What kind of miracles is Nietzsche talking about? Rejecting the so-called miracles of morality, where someone “miraculously” goes from a bad person to a good person, Nietzsche is talking about the miracle of self-affirmation. Through the experience of myth, one is able to both see and perform the miracle of accepting one’s self and the events of one’s life. “Love fate!” Nietzsche says, “Love the events of your life and be willing to live them over and over again!” The ability to love one’s life in this way is the true miracle. Myth provides the medium through which we can miraculously love our lives – no matter what has happened or will happen.

  1. [1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy in The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writing, ed. Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs, trans. Ronald Speirs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), Section 10, pp. 53-54.
  2. [2] Ibid., Section 18, p. 87.
  3. [3] Ibid., Section 23, p. 108.
  4. [4] Ibid., Section 23, p. 109.
  5. [5] Ibid., Section 23, p. 108, italics mine and his.