The Value of Myth

December 26, 2014
Greg Bowdish

One question that has popped up time and time again in our Mythological RoundTables is what role myth has in our modern civilization. While this can be a highly subjective topic, there are times when deep cultural beliefs clearly slam up against our modern world. One such case happened just lately when a number of Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo tribal artifacts went up for sale in Paris auction house.

Used in sacred religious ceremonies, the possession and sale of the masks and dolls caused the tribes great distress. The U.S. Embassy in Paris even requested the auction house suspend sale of the items until tribal representatives could determine if they had been stolen from the tribes, but the auction house refused saying it was acting in accordance with French law.

In the end, a Navajo delegation had no recourse but to go to Paris to bid on the items, competing with French art collector, Armand Hui. Hui, realizing the meaning of the objects to the tribe stopped bidding and the Navajo won back their sacred tribal artifacts with winning bids totaling more than $9000. The Hopi refused to take part in the sale, seeing it as sacrilege.

Throughout history one group’s sacred holy objects have commonly been appropriated as another group’s art treasures, so little historical precedence has been set here. But the situation perfectly illustrates the many different viewpoints, both cultural and personal, that surround such situations. The big question here is not only how we value our own mythos, but also how we value the mythos of another culture.

In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell suggests that there is a deep lack of effective mythology and ritual in modern society, primarily due to our disconnection with our mythological traditions and growing interest in materialism. It is interesting to ponder why even another culture’s sacred objects, dating only back to the late 19th century and made only of bone, wood, and other natural materials, even have such value in a modern auction house. Is the value derived from their beauty or rarity? Or, as Armand Hui must have determined, is their true value only realized when they are in the hands of those whose mythos they serve?

These are the very types of questions we grapple with at the JCF Mythological RoundTable® Group of Sarasota. Please join us for our next MRT and take part in the conversation.