Myths are stories which provide multiple layers of metaphor about the human condition. It is easy to see the mythic nature of the stories of the Greek or the Norse gods. And fairy stories - particularly in their darker traditional versions - are mythic. Urban legends are also mythic.
Myths deal with what we fear the most, and we use them to gain distance on subjects that are too painful to look at directly. They perform much the same function in a society that dreams perform for individuals.
For example, in the story of Beauty and the Beast, the girl eventually discovers that the beast is a man she is able to love and she entrusts him with her future happiness. If we assume that he did not in fact change physically, we either have a romantic tale in which she discovers the kind and loving nature of the ugly man, or we have a much darker tale about the changes that take place in her during a sexual relationship which involves domination and submission. We may even have both together.
The potency of the myth comes from the tension between these equally valid subtexts lurking beneath the surface. There are at least four stories here.
The Power of Myth
We need myths to help us understand and process the darker complexities of our nature. They are a bridge between the subconscious and the conscious mind, as Freud acknowledged when he used the Oedipus myth to explain and explore human sexuality. He got stuck in the myth of the child who killed his father and married his mother. Jung took the power of myths, rather than just their content, further than Freud.
And we still need myths today to deal with the world we live in. Though these days we don't only look to fairy stories and legends; our myths are taken from films and urban legends.
Truth as Myth
However, some lives either are mythic or become mythic. Marilyn Monroe is a good example of someone whose life is mythic. She was Cinderella, rising from rags to riches and marrying America's prince, Joe di Maggio. There was much of Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love in her. There is something of Pandora, the girl who opened the box and released so much that was bad into her life, but who always had hope. Much of the fascination we have with Marilyn comes from the multi-stranded potency of her tale, from the sheer strength of its metaphors for the rest of us.
There are other lives with mythic elements. Princess Grace was also Cinderella, and this time Cinderella married a real live Prince. James Dean, the rebel without a cause lived fast and died young and was killed by a beautiful and dangerous machine.
Diana, Princess of Wales
Diana, Princess of Wales, was someone whose life was taken over and driven by our collective need for myth.
The newspapers eulogised her engagement as a fairytale but it had more in common with one of the darker parts of the Trojan War. Before the fleet could sail, in order to propitiate the gods so that they would change the wind, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia.
Much was made of Diana's youth and purity when she was engaged to Prince Charles. What was not widely publicised at the time was the fact that she was checked out by gynaecologists before she was allowed to marry the heir to the throne. A virgin was taken for the good of the nation.
Yes, the royal family probably decided that that particular Harley Street appointment was appropriate. But we should not forget the burden of expectation which was laid with those headlines calling her Cinderella either. It was not an accident that the bride chosen for the Prince of Wales was a beauty.
When Prince William was born, Diana progressed from Virgin to Madonna1. Much of this is explicit in the photographs of Diana with the baby William playing on a rug in Australia. This particular mythic image has less potency in Britain, which is a predominantly agnostic and Protestant county. But virtuous motherhood is a powerful image in any culture.
Diana's next forays into the collective consciousness were as a bulimic. The connection with specific myths is looser here, but we have the image of beauty, immured and suffering in a castle.
She identified very strongly with those who suffer, and was willing to let images of her with the victims of AIDS and of starvation reinforce that link in our collective minds. She did a lot of good, and helped to change the perception of AIDS. But we always have the image of the creature of almost divine beauty walking among us. There are multiple strands here to ensnare our imaginations.
There is a paradox here, too. Diana was a goddess walking in the grimmest parts of the world. But she was also one of us, a human in the royal world of gods. As Shakespeare warned, that is not a good position to be in 'As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.' Diana's death was an accident; but before she died she was thrust out of the royal pantheon. She was like Prometheus, who stole fire from heaven and took it down to mortal man, and who was punished by the gods because mankind loved him more than them for actually doing good in the world. And like Lucifer, the most beautiful of the angels, whose name means 'bearer of light', who was cast out for challenging the ultimate power. And Eve, cast out from Eden for tasting forbidden fruits. As with Beauty and the Beast, we have a tale which grips us because of the many different stories it contains.
And the forbidden fruits bring us onto another powerful myth driving Diana's life. It is well documented that both during and after her marriage she had several affairs. The Madonna fell from grace with a vengeance into quite a different role. Right up to her death the newspapers were probing into her sex life. She was demonised in the tabloids and broadsheets alike. The early editions of the papers on the day she died were printed before her death was announced and ran prurient stories about her relationship with Dodi Fayed. Their volte face from one print run to the next was the fastest and one of the most sickening turnarounds in media history.
The Mirror on the Wall
Before Diana died another myth was played out around her - that of Snow White. Camilla Parker Bowles2 may not have been a wicked step-mother, and Diana may have already married the Prince, but the two women look so alike and so different, that the mirror on the wall reflected them both to us in a way far more subliminally potent than if Charles's first love had been a stunning brunette.
The final myths of Diana surround her death. 'She shall grow not old as we who are left grow old.' She was beautiful in death, and hounded to it by hungry furies who were spurred on by our thirst for newsprint about her.
The wind changed. Iphigenia at last.
There are fewer strands here, but the suddenness, the finality and the reality of the event made it even more powerful in our minds than her life had been.
Diana's life and death compel us more than Marilyn's, and more than Princess Grace's, and more than James Dean's, because our need for myth snarled through her life in far more intricate complexity than it does in the lives of any other figure of modern times.
The Power of Irony
There is one more myth which Diana played out at our behest. She was someone who made a Faustian pact with the press; a pact which killed her as Faustian pacts do.
She was a woman who was desperate for love, and who found little love in her private life. Yet the one thing that the press gave her was the privilege of being the person in the world most loved by strangers after her death.