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See Inside December 2005

Likely Story

Myths persist in modern culture because of the brain's biological need to impose order on the world

What is the best way to seduce a virgin so that neither she--nor your wife--notices? The Greek god Zeus devised a crafty plan after he observed the lovely Princess Europa gathering flowers by the sea and was immediately overcome by desire. Zeus took the form of a bull and walked gently over to Europa and let her pet him. The bull seemed so peaceful to Europa that she trustingly climbed on his back--whereupon the animal plunged into the sea, absconding with the lady. After arriving at a far-off shore, Zeus transformed himself into a young man and appeared to Europa, promising to protect her forever in this new land, which he named in her honor. The ruse worked, and the couple had three sons together. It seems the Greek gods could not do without a little heartache and intrigue now and then. Cloud-shrouded Mount Olympus was a sort of soap opera world. Its deified inhabitants set all kinds of traps for one another. They showed weakness, particularly for the beauty of the opposite sex. They also formed ad hoc alliances and fought and even killed in pursuit of their own interests. The gods were anything but perfect. Their human qualities go a long way toward explaining why myths from ancient Greece and elsewhere satisfy us to this day: if gods had humanlike failings, then we humans can convince ourselves that we are capable of being godlike.

But there must be more to our attraction. Why is it so easy for us to buy into such mythology? In part, because certain functions of our brain insist on imposing order and purpose on our otherwise puzzling surroundings. No matter how rational and enlightened we attempt to be, our brains cannot resist the urge to embrace metaphysical relations.

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