From Nordan Symposia
(Redirected from Mythological)
Jump to navigationJump to search


The Lady of Shallot Looking at Lancelot.jpg

The word mythology (from Greek μυθολογία From the Ancient Greek μυθολογία mythología, meaning "a story-telling, a legendary lore", from μυθολογείν mythologein "to relate myths", from μύθος mythos, meaning "narrative, speech, word, fact, story" λόγος logos, meaning "speech, oration, discourse, quote, story, study, reason, argument". Refers to a body of myths that a particular culture believes to be true and that use the supernatural to interpret natural events and to explain the nature of the universe and humanity. Mythology also refers to the branch of knowledge dealing with the collection, study and interpretation of myths, also known as mythography.

For lessons on the topic of Myth, follow this link.


The term mythology has been in use since at least the 15th century, and means "the study or exposition of myths". The additional meaning of "body of myths" itself dates to 1781. (In extended use, the word can also refer to collective or personal ideology or received wisdom, as in "At least since Tocqueville compared American society to 'a vast lottery', our mythology of business has celebrated risk-taking." The adjective mythical dates to 1678.

Myth in general use is often interchangeable with legend or allegory, but some scholars strictly distinguish the terms. The term has been used in English since the 19th century. The newest edition of the OED distinguishes the meanings

1a. "A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces or creatures, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon", citing the Westminster Review of 1830 as the first English attestation. Earlier editions of the OED also present this quote as the earliest attestation of myth, but consider it an example of the definition corresponding to definition
1b. "As a mass noun: such stories collectively or as a genre." (1840)
2a. "A widespread but untrue or erroneous story or belief". (1849)
2b. "A person or thing held in awe or generally referred to with near reverential admiration on the basis of popularly repeated stories (whether real or fictitious)." (1853)
2c. "A popular conception of a person or thing which exaggerates or idealizes the truth." (1928)

In contrast to the OED's definition of a myth as a "traditional story", most folklorists apply the term to only one group of traditional stories. By this system, traditional stories can be arranged into three groups:

  • myths - sacred stories concerning the distant past, particularly the creation of the world; generally focussed on the gods
  • legends - stories about the (usually more recent) past, which generally include, or are based on, some historical events; generally focussed on human heroes
  • folktales/fairytales (or Märchen, the German word for such tales) - stories which lack any definite historical setting; often include fairies, witches, a fairy guide, animal characters

Religious-studies scholars often limit the term "myth" to stories whose main characters "must be gods or near-gods".

Some scholars disagree with such attempts to restrict the definition of the word "myth". The classicist G. S. Kirk thinks the distinction between myths and folktales may be useful, but he argues that "the categorizing of tales as folktales, legends, and proper myths, simple and appealing as it seems, can be seriously confusing". In particular, he rejects the idea "that all myths are associated with religious beliefs, feelings or practices". The religious scholar Robert A. Segal goes even farther, defining myths simply as stories whose main characters are "personalitiesdivine, human, or even animal".

By the Christian era, the Greco-Roman world had started to use the term "myth" (Greek μῦθος, muthos) to mean "fable, fiction, lie"; as a result, early Christian writers used "myth" with this meaning. (Eliade, Myth and Reality, 1968, p. 162.) This use of the term "myth" passed into popular usage.(Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, 1967, p. 23.)

In this article, the term "myth" is used in a scholarly sense, detached from popular associations with falsehood.

Myths were told to explain the creation and organization of the universe, fashion of man, and establishment of civilization. It teaches people lessons and it had to do with history & culture, the characters and the temper which produced them.


Historically, the important approaches to the study of mythological thinking have been those of Giambattista Vico, Schelling, Schiller, Carl Jung, Freud, Lévy-Bruhl, Levi-Strauss, Northrop Frye, the Soviet schoo], and the Myth and Ritual School.(Guy Lanoue, Foreword to Meletinsky, p.viii)

Myths are narratives about divine or heroic beings, arranged in a coherent system, passed down traditionally, and linked to the spiritual or religious life of a community, endorsed by rulers or priests. Once this link to the spiritual leadership of society is broken, they lose their mythological qualities and become folklore or fairy tales. In folkloristics, which is concerned with the study of both secular and sacred narratives, a myth also derives some of its power from being more than a simple "tale", by comprising an archetypal quality of "truth". Writer, philologist, and religious thinker J.R.R. Tolkien expressed a similar opinion: "I believe that legends and myths are largely made of 'truth', and indeed present aspects of truth that can only be received in this mode."

Myths are often intended to explain the universal and local beginnings ("creation myths", natural phenomena, otherwise inexplicable cultural conventions or rituals, and anything else for which no simple explanation presents itself. This broader truth runs deeper than the advent of critical history, and it may or may not exist as in an authoritative written form which becomes "the story" (preliterate oral traditions may vanish as the written word becomes "the story" and the literate class becomes "the authority"). However, as Lucien Lévy-Bruhl puts it, "The primitive mentality is a condition of the human mind, and not a stage in its historical development."

Most often the term refers specifically to ancient tales of historical cultures, such as Greek mythology or Roman mythology. Some myths descended originally as part of an oral tradition and were only later written down, and many of them exist in multiple versions. According to Schelling in the eighth chapter of Introduction to Philosophy and Mythology, "Mythological representations have been neither invented nor freely accepted. The products of a process independent of thought and will, they were, for the consciousness which underwent them, of an irrefutable and incontestable reality. Peoples and individuals are only the instruments of this process, which goes beyond their horizon and which they serve without understanding." Individual myths or mythemes may be classified in various categories:

  • Ritual myths explain the performance of certain religious practices or patterns and associated with temples or centers of worship.
  • Origin myths (aetiologies) describe the beginnings of a custom, name or object.
  • Creation myths, which describes how the world or universe came into being.
  • Eschatological myths are all stories which describe catastrophic ends to the present world order of the writers. These extend beyond any potential historical scope, and thus can only be described in mythic terms. Apocalyptic literature such as the New Testament Book of Revelation is an example of a set of eschatological myths.
  • Social myths reinforce or defend current social values or practices.
  • the Trickster myth, which concerns itself with the pranks or tricks played by deities or heroes. Heroes do not have to be in a story to be considered a myth.

Middleton argues that, "For Lévi-Strauss, myth is a structured system of signifiers, whose internal networks of relationships are used to 'map' the structure of other sets of relationships; the 'content' is infinitely variable and relatively unimportant."

Religion and mythology

Significantly, none of the scholarly definitions of "myth" imply that myths are necessarily false. In a scholarly context, the word "myth" may mean "sacred story", "traditional story", or "story about gods", but it does not mean "false story". Therefore, scholars may speak of "religious mythology" without meaning to insult religion. (For instance, a scholar may call Christian and Muslim scriptures "myths" without meaning to insult Christianity and Islam. The Christian apologist C. S. Lewis made a clear distinction between myth and falsehood when he referred to the life of Christ as a myth "which is also a fact". However, this scholarly use of the word "myth" may cause confusion and offense, because of the popular use of "myth" to mean "falsehood".

Many myths, such as ritual myths, are clearly part of religion. However, unless we simply define myths as "sacred stories" (instead defining them as "traditional stories", for instance), not all myths are necessarily religious. As the classicist G. S. Kirk notes, "many myths embody a belief in the supernatural [...] but many other myths, or what seem like myths, do not". As an example, Kirk cites the myth of Oedipus, which is "only superficially associated [...] with religion or the supernatural", and is therefore not a sacred story. (Note that folklorists would not classify the Oedipus story as a myth, precisely because it is not a sacred story.)

Examples of religious myths include:

  • the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish, a creation account around which the Babylonians' religious New Year festival revolved
  • an Australian myth describing the first sacred bora ritual
  • The creation story found in Gnosticism of how God forgets himself and becomes man, and through knowing that story we arrive back to our Fullness.

Related concepts

Myths are not the same as fables, legends, folktales, fairy tales, anecdotes or fiction, but the concepts may overlap. Notably, during Romanticism, folktales and fairy tales were perceived as eroded fragments of earlier mythology (famously by the Brothers Grimm and Elias Lönnrot). Mythological themes are also very often consciously employed in literature, beginning with Homer. The resulting work may expressly refer to a mythological background without itself being part of a body of myths (Cupid and Psyche). The medieval romance in particular plays with this process of turning myth into literature. Euhemerism refers to the process of rationalization of myths, putting themes formerly imbued with mythological qualities into pragmatic contexts, for example following a cultural or religious paradigm shift (notably the re-interpretation of pagan mythology following Christianization).

Conversely, historical and literary material may acquire mythological qualities over time, for example the Matter of Britain and the [[Matter of France, based on historical events of the 5th and 8th centuries, respectively, were first made into epic poetry and became partly mythological over the following centuries. "Conscious generation" of mythology has been termed Mythopoeic literature by J. R. R. Tolkien, ISBN 026110263X)and was notoriously also suggested, very separately, by Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg.

Formation of myths

Robert Graves said of Greek myth: "True myth may be defined as the reduction to narrative shorthand of ritual mime performed on public festivals, and in many cases recorded pictorially." Graves was deeply influenced by Sir James George Frazer's mythography The Golden Bough, and he would have agreed that myths are generated by many cultural needs. Myths authorize the cultural institutions of a tribe, a city, or a nation by connecting them with universal truths. Myths justify the current occupation of a territory by a people, for instance. All cultures have developed over time their own myths, consisting of narratives of their history, their religions, and their heroes. The great power of the symbolic meaning of these stories for the culture is a major reason why they survive as long as they do, sometimes for thousands of years. Mâche distinguishes between "myth, in the sense of this primary psychic image, with some kind of mytho-logy, or a system of words trying with varying success to ensure a certain coherence between these images. Joseph Campbell was one of the more famous modern authors on myths and the history of spirituality. His book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1948) outlined the basic ideas he would continue to elaborate on until his death in 1987.

Myths as depictions of historical events

As discussed above, the status of a story as myth is unrelated to whether it is based on historical events. Myths that are based on a historical events over time become imbued with symbolic meaning, transformed, shifted in time or place, or even reversed. One way of conceptualizing this process is to view 'myths' as lying at the far end of a continuum ranging from a 'dispassionate account' to 'legendary occurrence' to 'mythical status'. As an event progresses towards the mythical end of this continuum, what people think, feel and say about the event takes on progressively greater historical significance while the facts become less important. By the time one reaches the mythical end of the spectrum the story has taken on a life of its own and the facts of the original event have become almost irrelevant. A classical example of this process is the Trojan War, a topic firmly within the scope of Greek mythology; the extent of a historical basis in the Trojan cycle is regularly disputed.

This method or technique of interpreting myths as accounts of actual events, euhemerist exegesis, dates from antiquity and can be traced back (from Spencer) to Evhémère's Histoire sacrée (300 BCE) which describes the inhabitants of the island of Panchaia, Everything-Good, in the Indian Ocean as normal people deified by popular naivety. As Roland Barthes affirms, "Myth is a word chosen by history. It could not come from the nature of things".

This process occurs in part because the events described become detached from their original context and new context is substituted, often through analogy with current or recent events. Some Greek myths originated in Classical times to provide explanations for inexplicable features of local cult practices, to account for the local epithet of one of the Olympian gods, to interpret depictions of half-remembered figures, events, or to account for the deities' attributes or entheogens, even to make sense of ancient icons, much as myths are invented to "explain" heraldic charges, the origins of which has become arcane with the passing of time. Conversely, descriptions of recent events are re-emphasised to make them seem to be analogous with the commonly known story. This technique has been used by some religious conservatives in America with text from the Bible, notably referencing the many prophecies in the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation especially. It was also used during the Russian Communist-era in propaganda about political situations with misleading references to class struggles. Until World War II the fitness of the Emperor of Japan was linked to his mythical descent from the Shinto sun goddess, Amaterasu.

Mâche argues that euhemerist exegesis, "was applied to capture and seize by force of reason qualities of thought, which eluded it on every side." This process, he argues, often leads to interpretation of myths as "disguised propaganda in the service of powerful individuals," and that the purpose of myths in this view is to allow the "social order" to establish "its permanence on the illusion of a natural order." He argues against this interpretation, saying that "what puts an end to this caricature of certain speeches from May 1968 is, among other things, precisely the fact that roles are not distributed once and for all in myths, as would be the case if they were a variant of the idea of an 'opium of the people.'"

Contra Barthes, Mâche argues that, "myth therefore seems to choose history, rather than be chosen by it", "beyond words and stories, myth seems more like a psychic content from which words, gestures, and musics radiate. History only chooses for it more or less becoming clothes. And these contents surge forth all the more vigorously from the nature of things when reason tries to repress them. Whatever the roles and commentaries with which such and such a socio-historic movement decks out the mythic image, the latter lives a largely autonomous life which continually fascinates humanity. To denounce archaism only makes sense as a function of a 'progressive' ideology, which itself begins to show a certain archaism and an obvious naivety."

Catastrophists such as Immanuel Velikovsky believe that myths are derived from the oral histories of ancient cultures that witnessed "cosmic catastrophes". The catastrophic interpretation of myth, forms only a small minority within the field of mythology and often qualifies as pseudohistory. Similarly, in their book Hamlet's Mill, Giorgio De Santillana and Hertha Von Dechend suggest that myth is a "technical language" describing "cosmic events" pertaining to precession. In The Secret of the Incas: Myth, Astronomy and the War Against Time, William Sullivan applies the principles in Hamlet's Mill to an analysis of the mythology of the Incas. (The Secret of the Incas: Myth, Astronomy and the War Against Time. New York. ISBN 0517594684)

Modern mythology

Film and book series like Star Wars and Tarzan have strong mythological aspects that sometimes develop into deep and intricate philosophical systems. These items are not mythology, but contain mythic themes that, for some people, meet the same psychological needs. Mythopoeia is a term coined by J. R. R. Tolkien for the conscious attempt to create myths; his Silmarillion was to be an example of this, although he did not succeed in bringing it to publication during his lifetime.

Also, it is worth mentioning Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), a non-fiction book, and seminal work of comparative mythology. In this publication, Campbell discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero found in world mythologies. In the 1950s, Roland Barthes published a series of essays examining modern myths and the process of their creation in his book Mythologies . Swiss psychologist Carl Jung (1873-1961) and his followers also tried to understand the psychology behind world myths. Jung argued that the gods of mythology are not material beings, but archetypes or mental states and moods that all humans can feel, share, and experience. He and his adherents believe archetypes directly affect our subconscious perceptions and way of understanding.

Sources and further reading

  • "myth". Oxford English Dictionary. June 2003. Oxford UP. 12 March 2008.
  • "mythical". Oxford English Dictionary. December 2007. Oxford UP. 12 March 2008.
  • "mythology". Oxford English Dictionary. March 2008. Oxford UP. 12 March 2008.
  • Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957)
  • Kees W. Bolle, The Freedom of Man in Myth. Vanderbilt University Press, 1968.
  • Thomas Bulfinch, Bulfinch's Mythology (1880s).
  • Joseph Campbell
    • The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton University Press, 1949.
    • Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension: Select Essays 1944-1968 New World Library, 3rd ed. (2002), ISBN 978-1577312109.
  • Alan Dundes. "Binary Opposition in Myth: The Propp/Levi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect". Western Folklore 56 (Winter, 1997): pp. 39-50.
  • Mircea Eliade
    • Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. Princeton University Press, 1954.
    • The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Trans. Willard R. Trask. NY: Harper & Row, 1961.
  • James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (1890).
  • Louis Herbert Gray [ed.], The Mythology of All Races, in 12 vols., 1916.
  • Edith Hamilton, Mythology (1998)
  • Kirk, G. S. Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures. Berkeley: Cambridge UP, 1973
  • Lucien Lévy-Bruhl
    • Mental Functions in Primitive Societies (1910)
    • Primitive Mentality (1922)
    • The Soul of the Primitive (1928)
    • The Supernatural and the Nature of the Primitive Mind (1931)
    • Primitive Mythology (1935)
    • The Mystic Experience and Primitive Symbolism (1938)
  • Charles H. Long, Alpha: The Myths of Creation. George Braziller, 1963.
  • Meletinsky, Eleazar Moiseevich The Poetics of Myth (Translated by Guy Lanoue and Alexandre Sadetsky, foreword by Guy Lanoue) 2000 Routledge ISBN 0415928982
  • Barry B. Powell, "Classical Myth," 5th edition, Prentice-Hall.
  • Reed, A. W. Aboriginal Myths, Legends and Fables. Chatswood: Reed, 1982.
  • Santillana and Von Dechend (1969, 1992 re-issue). Hamlet's Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge And Its Transmission Through Myth, Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-87923-215-3.
  • Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling
    • Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, 1856.
    • Philosophy of Mythology, 1857.
    • Philosophy of Revelation, 1858.
  • Segal, Robert A. Myth: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004
  • Welker, Glenn. "Stories/Myths/Legends". 7 March 2008. Indigenous Peoples Literature. 14 August 2004 [1].

External links