Comparative mythology is the comparison of myths from different cultures in an attempt to identify shared themes and characteristics. Comparative mythology has served a variety of academic purposes. For example, scholars have used the relationships between different myths to trace the development of religions and cultures, to propose common origins for myths from different cultures, and to support various psychological theories.
Anthropologist C. Scott Littleton defines comparative mythology as “the systematic comparison of myths and mythic themes drawn from a wide variety of cultures”. By comparing different cultures’ mythologies, scholars try to identify underlying similarities and/or to reconstruct a “protomythology” from which those mythologies developed. To an extent, all theories about mythology follow a comparative approach—as scholar of religion Robert Segal notes, “by definition, all theorists seek similarities among myths”. However, scholars of mythology can be roughly divided into particularists, who emphasize the differences between myths, and comparativists, who emphasize the similarities. Particularists tend to “maintain that the similarities deciphered by comparativists are vague and superficial”, while comparativists tend to “contend that the differences etched by particularists are trivial and incidental”.
Comparative approaches to mythology held great popularity among eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholars. Many of these scholars believed that all myths showed signs of having evolved from a thought which interpreted nearly all myths as poetic descriptions of the sun’s behavior. According to this theory, these poetic descriptions had become distorted over time into seemingly diverse stories about gods and heroes. However, modern-day scholars lean more toward particularism, feeling suspicious of broad statements about myths. A recent exception is the historical approach followed in E.J. Michael Witzel’s reconstruction of many subsequent layers of older myths.
Comparative mythologists come from various fields, including folklore, anthropology, history, linguistics, and religious studies, and they have used a variety of methods to compare myths.
Some scholars look at the linguistic relationships between the myths of different cultures. For example, the similarities between the names of gods in different cultures. One particularly successful example of this approach is the study of Indo-European mythology. Scholars have found striking similarities between the mythological and religious terms used in different cultures of Europe and India. For example, the Greek sky-god Zeus Pater, the Roman sky-god Jupiter, and the Indian (Vedic) sky-god Dyauṣ Pitṛ have linguistically identical names.
This suggests that the Greeks, Romans, and Indians originated from a common ancestral culture, and that the names Zeus, Jupiter, Dyaus and the Germanic Tiu (cf. English Tues-day) evolved from an older name, *Dyēus ph2ter, which referred to the sky-god or, to give a perfect English cognate, the day-father in a Proto-Indo-European religion.
Some scholars look for underlying structures shared by different myths. The folklorist Vladimir Propp proposed that many Russian fairy tales have a common plot structure, in which certain events happen in a predictable order. In contrast, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss examined the structure of a myth in terms of the abstract relationships between its elements, rather than their order in the plot. In particular, Lévi-Strauss believed that the elements of a myth could be organized into binary oppositions (raw vs. cooked, nature vs. culture, etc.). He thought that the myth’s purpose was to “mediate” these oppositions, thereby resolving basic tensions or contradictions found in human life or culture.
Some scholars propose that myths from different cultures reveal the same, or similar, psychological forces at work in those cultures. Some Freudian thinkers have identified stories similar to the Greek story of Oedipus in many different cultures. They argue that these stories reflect the different expressions of the Oedipus complex in those cultures. Likewise, Jungians have identified images, themes, and patterns that appear in the myths of many different cultures. They believe that these similarities result from archetypes present in the unconscious levels of every person’s mind.
Michael Witzel’s approach
An approach which is both historical and comparative has recently been proposed by E.J. Michael Witzel. He compares collections of mythologies and reconstructs increasingly older levels, parallel to but not necessarily dependent on language families. The most prominent common feature is a story line that extends from the creation of the world and of humans to their end. This feature is found in the northern mythologies of Eurasia and the Americas (“Laurasia”) while it is missing in the southern mythologies of Subsaharan Africa, New Guinea and Australia (“Gondwanaland”)—the latter being the older, going back to the dispersal of homo sapiens out of Africa, some 65,000 years ago. Based on these two reconstructions Witzel offers some suggestions about the tales of the “African Eve”. Close attention is paid to the largely parallel developments in archaeology, paleontology, genetics and linguistics. He also makes some suggestions about the persistence of these Stone Age myths in current religions.
It is speculated that like genes, myths evolve by a process of descent with modification. The striking parallels between biological and mythological evolution allow the use of computational statistics to infer evolutionary relatedness and to build the most likely phylogenetic tree for a mythological family. Mythological phylogenies constructed with mythemes clearly support low horizontal transmissions (borrowings), historical (sometimes pre-historic) diffusions and punctuated evolution. Additionally, the protoversion could be statistically reconstructed. Mythological phylogenies also are a potentially powerful way to test hypotheses about cross-cultural relationships among folktales
Creation of mankind from clay
Main article: Creation of man from clay
The creation of man from clay is a theme that recurs throughout numerous world religions and mythologies.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu is created by the goddess Aruru out of clay. In Greek mythology, Prometheus molded men out of water and earth. Per the Hebrew Bible, (Genesis 2:7) “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul”. In Hindu mythology the mother of Ganesh, Parvati, made Ganesh from clay and turned the clay into flesh and blood. And lastly, in Chinese mythology, Nüwa molded figures from the yellow earth, giving them life and the ability to bear children.
Acquisition of fire for the benefit of humanity
Main article: Theft of fire
The theft of fire for the benefit of humanity is a theme that recurs in many world mythologies. A few examples include: In Greek mythology, according to Hesiod, the Titan Prometheus steals the heavenly fire for humanity, enabling the progress of civilization. In the Book of Enoch, the fallen angels and Azazel teach early humanity to use tools and fire. Per the ancient Indian collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns, the Rigveda (3:9.5), speaks of a hero Mātariśvan who recovered fire which had been hidden from humanity.
Main article: Flood myth
Cultures around the world tell stories about a great flood. In many cases, the flood leaves only one survivor or group of survivors. For example, both the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh and the Hebrew Bible tell of a global flood that wiped out humanity and of a man who saved the Earth’s species by taking them aboard a boat. Similar stories of a single flood survivor appear in Hindu mythology as well as Greek, Norse mythology and Aztec mythology.
Many myths feature a god who dies and often returns to life. Such myths are particularly common in Near Eastern mythologies. The anthropologist Sir James Frazer compared these dying god myths in his multi-volume work The Golden Bough. The Egyptian god Osiris and the Mesopotamian god Tammuz are examples of the dying god, while the Greek myths of Adonis (though a mortal) has often been compared to Osiris and the myth of Dionysos also features death and rebirth. Some scholars have noted similarities between polytheistic stories of dying gods and the Christian story of Jesus of Nazareth.
Many cultures have stories about divine figures whose death creates an essential part of reality. These myths seem especially common among cultures that grow crops, particularly tubers. One such myth from the Wemale people of Seram Island, Indonesia, tells of a miraculously-conceived girl named Hainuwele, whose murdered corpse sprouts into the people’s staple food crops. The Chinese myth of Pangu, the Indian Vedic myth of Purusha, and the Norse myth of Ymir all tell of a cosmic giant who is killed to create the world.
Many mythologies mention a place that sits at the center of the world and acts as a point of contact between different levels of the universe. This axis mundi is often marked by a sacred tree or other mythical object. For example, many myths describe a great tree or pillar joining heaven, earth, and the underworld. Vedic India, ancient China, Mayans, Incas and the Germanic peoples all had myths featuring a Cosmic Tree whose branches reach heaven and whose roots reach hell.
Many cultures believe in a celestial supreme being who has cut off contact with humanity. Historian Mircea Eliade calls this supreme being a deus otiosus (an “idle god”), although this term is also used more broadly, to refer to any god who doesn’t interact regularly with humans. In many myths, the Supreme Being withdraws into the heavens after the creation of the world. Baluba mythology features such a story, in which the supreme god withdraws from the earth, leaving man to search for him. Similarly, the mythology of the Hereros tells of a sky god who has abandoned mankind to lesser divinities. In the mythologies of highly complex cultures, the supreme being tends to disappear completely, replaced by a strong polytheistic belief system.
Further information: Giants
Associated with many mythological hero stories, giants (from Latin and Ancient Greek: gigas, cognate giga-) are beings of human appearance, but of prodigious size and strength common in the mythology and legends of many different cultures. In various Indo-European mythologies, gigantic peoples are featured as primeval creatures associated with chaos and the wild nature, and they are frequently in conflict with the gods, be they Olympian, Celtic, Hindu or Norse. Giants also often play similar roles in the mythologies and folklore of other, non Indo-European peoples, such as in the Nartian traditions. There are also accounts of giants in the Old Testament. Some of these are called Nephilim, a word often translated as giant although this translation is not universally accepted. They include Og King of Bashan, the Nephilim, the Anakim, and the giants of Egypt mentioned in 1 Chronicles 11:23. The first mention of the Nephilim is found in Genesis 6:4; attributed to them are extraordinary strength and physical proportions.
Dragons and serpents
Usually large to gigantic, serpent-like legendary creatures that appear in the folklore of many cultures around the world. Beliefs about dragons vary drastically by region, but dragons in western cultures since the High Middle Ages have often been depicted as winged, horned, four-legged, and capable of breathing fire. Whereas dragons in eastern cultures are usually depicted as wingless, four-legged, serpentine creatures with above-average intelligence.
Further information: Chaoskampf
One on one epic battles between these beasts are noted through out many cultures. Typically they consist of a hero or god battling a single to polycephalic dragon. The motif of Chaoskampf (German: [ˈkaːɔsˌkampf]; lit. struggle against chaos) is ubiquitous in myth and legend, depicting a battle of a culture hero deity with a chaos monster, often in the shape of a sea serpent or dragon. A few notable examples include: Zeus vs. Typhon and Hercules vs. the Lernaean Hydra, both of which are from Greek mythology, Thor vs. Jörmungandr of Norse mythology, Indra vs. Vritra, of Indian mythology, Ra vs. Apep of Egyptian mythology, and Yu the Great vs. Xiangliu. Many other examples exist worldwide.
Main article: Ouroboros
Originating in ancient Egyptian iconography, the Ouroboros or uroborus is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. The Ouroboros entered western tradition via Greek magical tradition.
In Norse mythology, the Ouroboros appears as the serpent Jörmungandr, one of the three children of Loki and Angrboda, which grew so large that it could encircle the world and grasp its tail in its teeth.
In the Aitareya Brahmana, a Vedic text of the early 1st millennium BCE, the nature of the Vedic rituals is compared to “a snake biting its own tail.”
It is a common belief among indigenous people of the tropical lowlands of South America that waters at the edge of the world-disc are encircled by a snake, often an anaconda, biting its own tail.
Many cultures have myths describing the origin of their customs, rituals, and identity. In fact, ancient and traditional societies have often justified their customs by claiming that their gods or mythical heroes established those customs. For example, according to the myths of the Australian Karajarri, the mythical Bagadjimbiri brothers established all of the Karadjeri’s customs, including the position in which they stand while urinating.
Structure of hero narratives
A number of scholars, including Fitzroy Somerset, 4th Baron Raglan and, more recently, Joseph Campbell, have suggested that hero stories from various cultures have the same underlying structure. Folklorists such as Antti Aarne (Aarne-Thompson classification systems) and Georges Polti (The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations) have created structured reference systems to identify connections between myths from different cultures and regions. Some comparative mythologists look for similarities only among hero stories within a specific geographical or ethnic range. For example, the Austrian scholar Johann Georg von Hahn tried to identify a common structure underlying Aryan hero stories. Others, such as Campbell, propose theories about hero stories in general. According to Campbell’s monomyth hypothesis, hero stories from around the world share a common plot structure. Because of its extremely comparative nature, the monomyth hypothesis is currently out of favor with some religious scholars such as Lesley Northup.
Further information: Human cannibalism in mythology
Human cannibalism features in the myths, folklore, and legends of many cultures and is most often attributed to evil characters or as extreme retribution for some wrongdoing. Examples include Lamia of Greek mythology, was a woman who became a child-eating monster after her children were destroyed by Hera, upon learning of her husband Zeus’ trysts. In Zuni mythology and religion, Átahsaia is a giant cannibalistic demon, feeding on fellow demons and humans alike. He is depicted as having unblinking bulging eyes, long talons, and yellow tusks that protruded past his lips. The myth of Baxbaxwalanuksiwe, in Hamatsa society of the Kwakwaka’wakw indigenous tribe, tells of a man-eating giant, who lives in a strange house with red smoke emanating from its roof.