Myth is a folklore genre consisting of narratives or stories that play a fundamental role in a society, such as foundational tales or origin myths. The main characters in myths are usually gods, demigods or supernatural humans. Stories of everyday human beings, although often of leaders of some type, are usually contained in legends, as opposed to myths.
Myths are often endorsed by rulers and priests or priestesses, and are closely linked to religion or spirituality. In fact, many societies group their myths, legends and history together, considering myths and legends to be true accounts of their remote past. In particular, creation myths take place in a primordial age when the world had not achieved its later form. Other myths explain how a society’s customs, institutions and taboos were established and sanctified. There is a complex relationship between recital of myths and enactment of rituals.
The study of myth began in ancient history. Rival classes of the Greek myths by Euhemerus, Plato and Sallustius were developed by the Neoplatonists and later revived by Renaissance mythographers. Today, the study of myth continues in a wide variety of academic fields, including folklore studies, philology, psychology, and anthropology. The term mythology may either refer to the study of myths in general, or a body of myths regarding a particular subject. The academic comparisons of bodies of myth is known as comparative mythology.
Since the term myth is widely used to imply that a story is not objectively true, the identification of a narrative as a myth can be highly political: many adherents of religions view their religion’s stories as true and therefore object to the stories being characterised as myths. Nevertheless, scholars now routinely speak of Christian mythology, Jewish mythology, Islamic mythology, Hindu mythology, and so forth. Traditionally, Western scholarship, with its Judaeo-Christian heritage, has viewed narratives in the Abrahamic religions as being the province of theology rather than mythology; meanwhile, identifying religious stories of colonised cultures, such as stories in Hinduism, as myths enabled Western scholars to imply that they were of lower truth-value than the stories of Christianity. Labelling all religious narratives as myths can be thought of as treating different traditions with parity. See also: Chinese Mythology
Main article: Religion and Mythology
Definitions of myth to some extent vary by scholar. Finnish folklorist Lauri Honko offers a widely cited definition:
Myth, a story of the gods, a religious account of the beginning of the world, the creation, fundamental events, the exemplary deeds of the gods as a result of which the world, nature and culture were created together with all parts thereof and given their order, which still obtains. A myth expresses and confirms society’s religious values and norms, it provides a pattern of behavior to be imitated, testifies to the efficacy of ritual with its practical ends and establishes the sanctity of cult.
Scholars in other fields use the term myth in varied ways. In a broad sense, the word can refer to any traditional story, popular misconception or imaginary entity.
However, while myth and other folklore genres may overlap, myth is often thought to differ from genres such as legend and folktale in that neither are considered to be sacred narratives. Some kinds of folktales, such as fairy stories, are not considered true by anyone, and may be seen as distinct from myths for this reason. Main characters in myths are usually gods, demigods or supernatural humans, while legends generally feature humans as their main characters. However, many exceptions or combinations exist, as in the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid. Moreover, as stories spread between cultures or as faiths change, myths can come to be considered folktales, their divine characters recast as either as humans or demihumans such as giants, elves and faeries. Conversely, historical and literary material may acquire mythological qualities over time. For example, the Matter of Britain (the legendary history of Great Britain, especially those focused on King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table) and the Matter of France, seem distantly to originate in historical events of the fifth and eighth-centuries respectively, and became mythologised over the following centuries.
In colloquial use, the word myth can also be used of a collectively held belief that has no basis in fact, or any false story.This usage, which is often pejorative, arose from labeling the religious myths and beliefs of other cultures as incorrect, but it has spread to cover non-religious beliefs as well. However, as commonly used by folklorists and academics in other relevant fields, such as anthropology, the term myth has no implication whether the narrative may be understood as true or otherwise.
In present use, mythology usually refers to the collected myths of a group of people, but may also mean the study of such myths. For example, Greek mythology, Roman mythology and Hittite mythology all describe the body of myths retold among those cultures. Folklorist Alan Dundes defines myth as a sacred narrative that explains how the world and humanity evolved into their present form. Dundes classified a sacred narrative as “a story that serves to define the fundamental worldview of a culture by explaining aspects of the natural world and delineating the psychological and social practices and ideals of a society”. Anthropologist Bruce Lincoln defines myth as “ideology in narrative form.”
The compilation or description of myths is sometimes known as mythography, a term which can also be used of a scholarly anthology of myths (or, confusingly, of the study of myths generally). Key mythographers in the Classical tradition include Ovid (43 BCE–17/18 CE), whose tellings of myths have been profoundingly influential; Fabius Planciades Fulgentius, a Latin writer of the late fifth to early sixth centuries, whose Mythologies (Mitologiarum libri III) gathered and gave moralistic interpretations of a wide range of myths; the anonymous medieval Vatican Mythographers, who developed anthologies of Classical myths that remained influential to the end of the Middle Ages; and the Renaissance scholar Natalis Comes, whose ten-book Mythologiae became a standard source for classical mythology in later Renaissance Europe. Other prominent mythographies include the thirteenth-century Prose Edda attributed to the Icelander Snorri Sturluson, which is the main surviving survey of Norse Mythology from the Middle Ages.
Because myth is sometimes used in a pejorative sense, some scholars have opted to use the term mythos instead. However, mythos now more commonly refers to its Aristotelian sense as a “plot point” or to a body of interconnected myths or stories, especially those belonging to a particular religious or cultural tradition. It is sometimes used specifically for modern, fictional mythologies, such as the world building of H.P. Lovecraft.
“Conscious generation” of mythology was termed mythopoeia by, amongst others, J.R.R. Tolkien. It was notoriously also suggested, separately, by Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg.
The word myth comes from Ancient Greek μῦθος [mȳthos], meaning ‘speech, narrative, fiction, myth, plot’. In Anglicised form, this Greek word began to be used in English (and was likewise adapted into other European languages) in the early nineteenth century, in a much narrower sense, as a scholarly term for ‘a traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, 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’.
In turn, Ancient Greek μυθολογία [mythología] (“story,” “lore,” “legends,” “the telling of stories”) combines the word mȳthos with the suffix –λογία [-logia] (“study”), and meant ‘romance, fiction, story-telling’. Accordingly, Plato used mythología as a general term for “fiction” or “story-telling” of any kind.
The Greek term mythología was then borrowed into Latin. Late Latin mythologia, which occurs in the title of Latin author Fulgentius’ fifth-century Mythologiæ, denoted the explication of Greek and Roman stories about their gods, which we now call classical mythology. Fulgentius’s Mythologiæ explicitly treated its subject matter as allegories requiring interpretation and not as true events.
The Latin term was then adopted in Middle French as mythologie. Whether from French or Latin usage, English adopted the word “mythology” in the fifteenth century, at first in the sense ‘the exposition of a myth or myths; the interpretation of fables; a book of such expositions’. The word is first attested in John Lydgate’s Troy Book of c. 1425.
From Lydgate until the seventeenth or eighteenth century, mythology was used to mean a moral, fable, allegory or a parable, or collection of traditional stories, understood to be false. It came eventually to be applied to similar bodies of traditional stories among other polytheistic cultures around the world.
Thus the word mythology entered the English language before the word “myth”; Johnson’s Dictionary, for example, has an entry for mythology, but not for myth. Indeed, the Greek loanword mythos (pl. mythoi) and Latinate mythus (pl. mythi) both appeared in English before the first example of myth in 1830.
Meanings in Ancient Greece
The term μῦθος (mythos) appears in the works of Homer and other poets of Homer’s era. In these works, the term had several meanings: conversation, narrative, speech, story, tale, and word.
Like the related term λόγος (logos), mythos expresses whatever can be delivered in the form of words; these can be contrasted with ἔργον (ergon), a Greek term for action, deed, and work. The term mythos lacks an explicit distinction between true or false narratives.
In the context of the theatre of ancient Greece, the term mythos referred to the myth, the narrative, the plot, and the story of a play. According to David Wiles, the Greek term mythos in this era covered an entire spectrum of different meanings, from undeniable falsehoods to stories with religious and symbolic significance.
According to philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE), the spirit of a theatrical play was its mythos. The term mythos was also used for the source material of Greek tragedy. The tragedians of the era could draw inspiration from Greek mythology, a body of “traditional storylines” which concerned gods and heroes. David Wiles observes that modern conceptions about Greek tragedy can be misleading. It is commonly thought that the ancient audience members were already familiar with the mythos behind a play, and could predict the outcome of the play. However, the Greek dramatists were not expected to faithfully reproduce traditional myths when adapting them for the stage. They were instead recreating the myths and producing new versions. Storytellers like Euripides (c. 480–406 BCE) relied on suspense to excite their audiences. In one of his works, Merope attempts to kill her son’s murderer with an axe, unaware that the man in question is actually her son. According to an ancient description of audience reactions to this work, the audience members were genuinely unsure of whether she would commit filicide or she will be stopped in time. They rose to their feet in terror and caused an uproar.
David Wiles points that the traditional mythos of Ancient Greece, was primarily a part of its oral tradition. The Greeks of this era were a literate culture, but produced no sacred texts. There were no definitive or authoritative versions of myths recorded in texts and preserved forever in an unchanging form. Instead multiple variants of myths were in circulation. These variants were adapted into songs, dances, poetry, and visual art. Performers of myths could freely reshape their source material for a new work, adapting it to the needs of a new audience or in response to a new situation.
Children in Ancient Greece were familiar with traditional myths from an early age. According to the philosopher Plato (c. 428–347 BCE), mothers and nursemaids narrated myths and stories to the children in their charge: David Wiles describes them as a repository of mythological lore.
Bruce Lincoln has called attention to the apparent meaning of the terms mythos and logos in the works of Hesiod. In Theogony, Hesiod attributes to the Muses the ability to both proclaim truths and narrate plausible falsehoods (falsehoods which seem like real things). The verb used for narrating the falsehoods in the text is legein, which is etymologically associated with logos. There are two variants in the manuscript tradition for the verb used to proclaim truths. One variant uses gerusasthai, the other mythesasthai. The latter is a form of the verb mytheomai (to speak, to tell), which is etymologically associated with mythos. In the Works and Days, Hesiod describes his dispute with his brother Perses. He also announces to his readers his intention to tell true things to his brother. The verb he uses for telling the truth is mythesaimen, another form of mytheomai.
Lincoln draws the conclusion that Hesiod associated the “speech of mythos” (as Lincoln calls it) with telling the truth. While he associated the “speech of logos” with telling lies, and hiding one’s true thoughts (dissimulation). This conclusion is strengthened by the use of the plural term logoi (the plural form of logos) elsewhere in Hesiod’s works. Three times the term is associated with the term “seductive” and three times with the term “falsehoods”. In his genealogy of the gods, Hesiod lists logoi among the children of Eris, the goddess personifying strife. Eris’ children are ominous figures, which personify various physical and verbal forms of conflict.
Comparative mythology is the systematic comparison of myths from different cultures. It seeks to discover underlying themes that are common to the myths of multiple cultures. In some cases, comparative mythologists use the similarities between separate mythologies to argue that those mythologies have a common source. This source may inspire myths or provide a common “protomythology” that diverged into the mythologies of each culture.
A number of commentators have argued that myths function to form and shape society and social behaviour. Eliade argued that one of the foremost functions of myth is to establish models for behavior and that myths may provide a religious experience. By telling or reenacting myths, members of traditional societies detach themselves from the present, returning to the mythical age, thereby coming closer to the divine.
Honko asserted that, in some cases, a society reenacts a myth in an attempt to reproduce the conditions of the mythical age. For example, it might reenact the healing performed by a god at the beginning of time in order to heal someone in the present. Similarly, Barthes argued that modern culture explores religious experience. Since it is not the job of science to define human morality, a religious experience is an attempt to connect with a perceived moral past, which is in contrast with the technological present.
Pattanaik defines mythology as “a subjective truth of people that is communicated through stories, symbols and rituals”. He adds, “unlike fantasy that is nobody’s truth, and history that seeks to be everybody’s truth, mythology is somebody’s truth.”
One theory claims that myths are distorted accounts of historical events. According to this theory, storytellers repeatedly elaborate upon historical accounts until the figures in those accounts gain the status of gods. For example, the myth of the wind-god Aeolus may have evolved from a historical account of a king who taught his people to use sails and interpret the winds. Herodotus (fifth-century BCE) and Prodicus made claims of this kind. This theory is named euhemerism after mythologist Euhemerus (c. 320 BCE), who suggested that Greek gods developed from legends about human beings.
Some theories propose that myths began as allegories for natural phenomena: Apollo represents the sun, Poseidon represents water, and so on. According to another theory, myths began as allegories for philosophical or spiritual concepts: Athenare presents wise judgment, Aphrodite desire, and so on. Müller supported an allegorical theory of myth. He believed myths began as allegorical descriptions of nature and gradually came to be interpreted literally. For example, a poetic description of the sea as “raging” was eventually taken literally and the sea was then thought of as a raging god.
Some thinkers claimed that myths result from the personification of objects and forces. According to these thinkers, the ancients worshiped natural phenomena, such as fire and air, gradually deifying them. For example, according to this theory, ancients tended to view things as gods, not as mere objects. Thus, they described natural events as acts of personal gods, giving rise to myths.
According to the myth-ritual theory, myth is tied to ritual. In its most extreme form, this theory claims myths arose to explain rituals. This claim was first put forward by Smith, who argued that people begin performing rituals for reasons not related to myth. Forgetting the original reason for a ritual, they account for it by inventing a myth and claiming the ritual commemorates the events described in that myth. Frazer claimed that humans started out with a belief in magical rituals; later, they began to lose faith in magic and invented myths about gods, reinterpreting their rituals as religious rituals intended to appease the gods.
History of the academic discipline
Historically, important approaches to the study of mythology have included those of Vico, Schelling, Schiller, Jung, Freud, Lévy-Bruhl, Lévi-Strauss, Frye, the Soviet school, and the Myth and Ritual School.
The critical interpretation of myth began with the Presocratics. Euhemerus was one of the most important pre-modern mythologists. He interpreted myths as accounts of actual historical events – distorted over many retellings. Sallustius divided myths into five categories – theological, physical (or concerning natural laws), animistic (or concerning soul), material, and mixed. Mixed concerns myths that show the interaction between two or more of the previous categories and are particularly used in initiations.
Plato famously condemned poetic myth when discussing education in the Republic. His critique was primarily on the grounds that the uneducated might take the stories of gods and heroes literally. Nevertheless, he constantly referred to myths throughout his writings. As Platonism developed in the phases commonly called Middle Platonism and neoplatonism, writers such as Plutarch, Porphyry, Proclus, Olympiodorus, and Damascius wrote explicitly about the symbolic interpretation of traditional and Orphic myths.
Mythological themes were consciously employed in literature, beginning with Homer. The resulting work may expressly refer to a mythological background without itself becoming part of a body of myths (Cupid and Psyche). Medieval romance in particular plays with this process of turning myth into literature. Euhemerism, as stated earlier, refers to the rationalization of myths, putting themes formerly imbued with mythological qualities into pragmatic contexts. An example of this would be following a cultural or religious paradigm shift (notably the re-interpretation of pagan mythology following Christianization).
Interest in polytheistic mythology revived during the Renaissance, with early works of mythography appearing in the sixteenth century, among them the Theologia Mythologica (1532).
The first modern, Western scholarly theories of myth appeared during the second half of the nineteenth century — at the same time as the word myth was adopted as a scholarly term in European languages. They were driven partly by a new interest in Europe’s ancient past and vernacular culture, associated with Romantic Nationalism and epitomised by the research of Jacob Grimm (1785–1863). This movement drew European scholars’ attention not only to Classical myths, but also material now associated with Norse mythology, Finnish mythology, and so forth. Western theories were also partly driven by Europeans’ efforts to comprehend and control the cultures, stories and religions they were encountering through colonialism. These encounters included both extremely old texts such as the Sanskrit Rigveda and the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, and current oral narratives such as mythologies of the indigenous peoples of the Americas or stories told in traditional African religions.
The intellectual context for nineteenth-century scholars was profoundly shaped by emerging ideas about evolution. These ideas included the recognition that many Eurasian languages—and therefore, conceivably, stories—were all descended from a lost common ancestor (the Indo-European language) which could rationally be reconstructed through the comparison of its descendant languages. They also included the idea that cultures might evolve in ways comparable to species. In general, nineteenth-century theories framed myth as a failed or obsolete mode of thought, often by interpreting myth as the primitive counterpart of modern science within a unilineal framework that imagined that human cultures are travelling, at different speeds, along a linear path of cultural development.
One of the dominant mythological theories of the later nineteenth century was “nature mythology”, whose foremost exponents included Max Müller and Edward Burnett Tylor. This theory posited that “primitive man” was primarily concerned with the natural world. It tended to interpret myths that seemed distasteful European Victorians—for example tales about sex, incest, or cannibalism—as being metaphors for natural phenomena like agricultural fertility. Unable to conceive impersonal natural laws, early humans tried to explain natural phenomena by attributing souls to inanimate objects, giving rise to animism. According to Tylor, human thought evolved through stages, starting with mythological ideas and gradually progressing to scientific ideas. Müller also saw myth arising from language, even calling myth a “disease of language”. He speculated that myths arose due to the lack of abstract nouns and neuter gender in ancient languages. Anthropomorphic figures of speech, necessary in such languages, were eventually taken literally, leading to the idea that natural phenomena were in actuality conscious beings or gods. Not all scholars, not even all nineteenth-century scholars, accepted this view. Lucien Lévy-Bruhl claimed “the primitive mentality is a condition of the human mind, and not a stage in its historical development.” Recent scholarship, noting the fundamental lack of evidence for “nature mythology” interpretations among people who actually circulated myths, has likewise abandoned the key ideas of “nature mythology”.
James George Frazer saw myths as a misinterpretation of magical rituals, which were themselves based on a mistaken idea of natural law: this idea was central to the “myth and ritual” school of thought. According to Frazer, humans begin with an unfounded belief in impersonal magical laws. When they realize applications of these laws do not work, they give up their belief in natural law in favor of a belief in personal gods controlling nature, thus giving rise to religious myths. Meanwhile, humans continue practicing formerly magical rituals through force of habit, reinterpreting them as reenactments of mythical events. Finally humans come to realize nature follows natural laws, and they discover their true nature through science. Here again, science makes myth obsolete as humans progress “from magic through religion to science.”
Segal asserted that by pitting mythical thought against modern scientific thought, such theories imply modern humans must abandon myth.
The earlier twentieth century saw major work developing psychoanalytical approaches to interpreting myth, led by Sigmund Freud, who, drawing inspiration from Classical myth, began developing the concept of the Oedipus complex in his 1899 The Interpretation of Dreams. Jung likwise tried to understand the psychology behind world myths. Jung asserted that all humans share certain innate unconscious psychological forces, which he called archetypes. He believed similarities between the myths of different cultures reveals the existence of these universal archetypes.
The mid-twentieth century saw the influential development of a structuralist theory of mythology, led by Lévi-Strauss. Strauss argued that myths reflect patterns in the mind and interpreted those patterns more as fixed mental structures, specifically pairs of opposites (good/evil, compassionate/callous), rather than unconscious feelings or urges. Meanwhile, Bronislaw Malinowski developed analyses of myths focusing on their social functions in the real world. He is associated with the idea that myths such as origin stories might provide a “mythic charter”—a legitimisation—for cultural norms and social institutions. Thus, following the Structuralist Era (roughly the 1960s to 1980s), the predominant anthropological and sociological approaches to myth increasingly treated myth as a form of narrative that can be studied, interpreted and analyzed like ideology, history and culture. In other words, myth is a form of understanding and telling stories that is connected to power, political structures, and political and economic interests. These approaches contrast with approaches such as those of Joseph Campbell and Eliade that hold that myth has some type of essential connection to ultimate sacred meanings that transcend cultural specifics. In particular, myth was studied in relation to history from diverse social sciences. Most of these studies share the assumption that history and myth are not distinct in the sense that history is factual, real, accurate, and truth, while myth is the opposite.
In the 1950s, Barthes published a series of essays examining modern myths and the process of their creation in his book Mythologies, which stood as an early work in the emerging post-structuralist approach to mythology, which recognised myths’ existence in the modern world and in popular culture.
The twentieth century saw rapid secularisation in Western culture. This made Western scholars more willing to analyse narratives in the Abrahamic religions as myths; theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann argued that a modern Christianity needed to demythologize; and other religious scholars embraced the idea that the mythical status of Abrahamic narratives was a legitimate feature of their importance. This, in his appendix to Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, and in The Myth of the Eternal Return, Eliade attributed modern humans’ anxieties to their rejection of myths and the sense of the sacred. The Christian theologian Conrad Hyers wrote that
…myth today has come to have negative connotations which are the complete opposite of its meaning in a religious context… In a religious context, however, myths are storied vehicles of supreme truth, the most basic and important truths of all. By them people regulate and interpret their lives and find worth and purpose in their existence. Myths put one in touch with sacred realities, the fundamental sources of being, power, and truth. They are seen not only as being the opposite of error but also as being clearly distinguishable from stories told for entertainment and from the workaday, domestic, practical language of a people. They provide answers to the mysteries of being and becoming, mysteries which, as mysteries, are hidden, yet mysteries which are revealed through story and ritual. Myths deal not only with truth but with ultimate truth.
Both in nineteenth-century research that tended to see existing records of stories and folklore as imperfect fragments of partially lost myths, and in twentieth-century structuralist work that sought to identify underlying patterns and structures in often diverse versions of a given myth, there had been a tendency to synthesise sources to attempt to reconstruct what scholars supposed to be more perfect or underlying forms of myths. From the late twentieth century, however, researchers influenced by postmodernism tended instead to argue that each account of a given myth has its own cultural significance and meaning, and argued that rather than representing degradation from a once more perfect form, myths are inherently plastic and variable. There is, consequently, no such thing as the ‘original version’ or ‘original form’ of a myth. One prominent example of this movement was A.K. Ramanujan’s essay Three Hundred Ramayanas.
Correspondingly, scholars challenged the precedence that had once been given to texts as a medium for mythology, arguing that other media, such as the visual arts or even landscape and place-naming, could be as or more important.
In modern society, myth is often regarded as a collection of stories. Scholars in the field of cultural studies research how myth has worked itself into modern discourses. Mythological discourse can reach greater audiences than ever before via digital media. Various mythic elements appear in television, cinema and video games.
Although myth was traditionally transmitted through the oral tradition on a small scale, the film industry has enabled filmmakers to transmit myths to large audiences via film. In Jungian psychology myths are the expression of a culture or society’s goals, fears, ambitions and dreams.
The basis of modern visual storytelling is rooted in the mythological tradition. Many contemporary films rely on ancient myths to construct narratives. The Walt Disney Company is well-known among cultural study scholars for “reinventing” traditional childhood myths. While many films are not as obvious as Disney fairy tales, the plots of many films are based on the rough structure of myths. Mythological archetypes, such as the cautionary tale regarding the abuse of technology, battles between gods and creation stories, are often the subject of major film productions. These films are often created under the guise of cyberpunk action films, fantasy, dramas and apocalyptic tales.
21st-century films such as Clash of the Titans, Immortals and Thor continue the trend of mining traditional mythology to frame modern plots. Authors use mythology as a basis for their books, such as Rick Riordan, whose Percy Jackson and the Olympians series is situated in a modern-day world where the Greek deities are manifest.
- List of mythologies
- List of mythological objects
- List of mythology books and sources
- Magic and mythology
- Mythopoeia, artificially constructed mythology, mainly for the purpose of storytelling
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia