When studying the gods, goddesses, heroes, and monsters of Greek Mythology with my students in 7th grade, a question inevitably comes up in all seriousness: are these stories real, or are they fake? The question is not, perhaps, as obvious or easy to answer as it first appears. In fact it invites us to ruminate on the very nature of truth and reality. For while we may consider the Greek Myths as "merely" fictional literature today, it was not always so. In ancient days when men and women believed the Greek gods and goddesses walked the earth, the myths composed a living, breathing reality, and far from being fictional, to the common person the tales consisted of many quite literal truths. It was a time, as Nietzsche relates in an essay on the nature of truth, "when every tree can suddenly speak as a nymph, when a god in the shape of a bull can drag away maidens, when even the goddess Athena herself is suddenly seen in the company of Peisastratus driving through the market place of Athens with a beautiful team of horses—and this is what the honest Athenian believed..."
Similarly, today many believe in the literal reality of various religions, which may one day be considered "mere" mythologies. The various forms of Christianity are the prime example, and many adherents believe winged angels and horned demons take an active part in the affairs of mortals, with the return of God in the form of Christ reborn an immanent future during Armageddon, to name a few examples.
Indeed, what is the difference between a mythology and a religion? The scholar Joseph Campbell defined a mythology as "someone else's religion," which hits near the mark. The stories and texts of a still living religion are considered by a certain number of people to be non-fictional, literal expositions on the true nature of reality. A mythology on the other hand is a religion that has ceased to be considered non-fiction, and is relegated to the position of fictional tales. One could define a mythology as a religion that has "died," as a public perception of the true nature of reality that has lost a critical mass of people who believe in it literally, and therefore has ossified as fictional text. There are many ways this transformation may happen; through the advent of a new prophet proclaiming the truth of a new doctrine and the falsity of previous idols, the cultural rebooting of a conquered nation, or a slow decay and forgetfulness through the passing of many years. The boundaries of perception between myth and religion, between the real and unreal, are blurred and exist on a constantly shifting spectrum.
When it comes to the veracity of a still living religion there exist two primary points of view diametrically opposed. The atheists on the one side maintain that myths and religious tales are categorically not true, fanciful lies existing to make us feel better about a godless world (an "opiate of the people" as Marx described them). At best they may illustrate petty morals, and at worst they reflect a poisonous ignorance that has caused great human suffering and bloodshed. On the other side are the zealots, or religious fundamentalists, who believe their own one version of religious myth is the absolute truth and that real and miraculous occurrences happened at a specified time and place. Jesus did truly die and rise from the cross, and will one day return in the End of Days. There are many people whose level of faith and doubt regarding religion and myth exist and shift between these two poles, with the middle being a not-knowing, or agnosticism.
There is, however, a third way of perceiving myth and religion outside this dualistic and linear spectrum, not simply as real vs. fake, fiction vs. non fiction, but as extended metaphor, as art forms that represents different kinds of truth. The many headed hydra of Greek Myth is not a historical species of lizard to be found in the fossil record, nor it is simply a meaningless figment of folk imagination; the hydra exists as a metaphor for any problem that cannot be solved through aggression and mindless violence, for to do so will exacerbate the problem exponentially. The "fiction" of the metaphor thus symbolizes and gives important information regarding a non-fictional reality. According to this perception all myths and religions are "true," not in any literal sense, but as symbolic of deeper spiritual or psychological realities. And the mythic and sacred texts of the world may be regarded as not merely "fiction" in an atheist's low regard, but as literature of the most sublime order, which teaches us of a deeper nature of reality, not through facts and figures, but through art. The great storehouse of the world's mythologies then become a tremendous source of useful knowledge applicable to our daily lives.
If mythic documents are defined and perceived as simply fictional fairy tales made purely for a child's entertainment, as tales removed from any tie to the "real world," their influence and importance as literature is limited, and can teach little of how to live a deeper, more fulfilling life. On the other hand, when religious text is regarded zealously as absolutely and literally true, a perception of reality often reaching the psychotic allows for acts of great cruelty in the name of a god. When the wide-eyed 7th graders ask, then, whether a mythological tale is true, the answer we provide them is all-important. As mandated teachers of mythology, a subject surely as important as any science, it is a great responsibility to answer that question well and not simply with an off hand, dualistic yes or no, but with a deeper inquiry.