Oh, this has been a pet peeve for a long time: the misuse of the word “myth.” When people call a misunderstanding – or worse, an outright lie – a “myth,” it makes me cringe. But I guess it’s no longer considered a misuse to say that an untruth is a myth, as newer dictionaries have accepted the common use as a secondary definition.
And why am I yammering at you about this? Forgive me; I’m trying to get around to why I think myths and legends and lore are important, and I tend to get caught up in the definitions. Here’s Merriam-Webster on myth, first the “simple” definition and then the full:
“an idea or story that is believed by many people but that is not true”
“a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon“
So, in essence, a myth is a tale that helps people understand something that may not be empirically evident. Until we knew the science behind the roar of thunder, we had Thor. It makes sense, doesn’t it? You hear a frightening roar emanating from the sky, and it just seems logical that some bombastic tyrant is mad about something, and so he’s stomping around upstairs making his anger known to all. At least that’s what I heard when I was growing up – that, or God was bowling. (Scary storm or fun storm? You choose.)
Lore, that collection of stories and explanations that helps us to understand the world around us, is closely related. And legends are closely tied, too. In this age of science, many myths and legends haven’t been given their due. But if we’re willing to listen to them and to share their wisdom, they help to enrich the world as we know it.
I love the science behind thunder, just as I love the myths. Somehow, embracing both makes my experience that much deeper, that much richer. I’m no scientist, but I’ve expressed on this page before my fascination with science and its many truths. But I hold just as much reverence for the wisdom of myth. Not all is knowable.
Okay, if you don’t believe me, listen to Albert Einstein:
“The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”
It’s hard to argue with that.
So how do we enrich our experience, and the experience of our customers and clients, in the world of plants? Share the science, to be sure, and share the beauty. But share the myths and legends, too.
Probably the most well-known plant legend is that of the dogwood, whose wood was said to have been used to build Jesus’ cross. The simple, delicate beauty of its four-petaled flower also has been a symbol of the cross. Another myth? The tiny flowers of Heuchera, whose common name is coral bells, can be heard to peal softly to accompany singing fairies.
My favorite flower, among the simplest around, is lily of the valley. It has bell-shaped flowers (again with the bells!), but the story behind these tiny white bells is not that they ring, but that they represent the tears Eve shed as she was expelled from the Garden of Eden. They also are said to symbolize Mary’s tears upon witnessing the Crucifixion.
These little nuggets don’t quantifiably increase the value of individual plants, but they make us take another look. They give us another reason to pay attention, another reason to find plants fascinating.
When the public asks, “What can plants do for us?”, let’s give them the science and the lore. They’ll feel good about doing good, and they’ll just feel good.
Read more: Guide to Plant Myths and Legends