Mythology (from the Greek μῦθος (mythos), meaning a narrative, and logos, meaning speech or argument) refers to a body of stories that attempt to explain the origins and fundamental values of a given culture and the nature of the universe and humanity. In modern usage, the term can also mean stories that a particular culture believes to be true and that use the supernatural to interpret natural events. Ancient myths are generally founded by imagination and intuition rather than objective evidence. Myths identify and help explain human propensities and natural phenomena with the actions and attributes of gods in a primordial past.
The truths inherent in myths thus are not reducible to their historical veracity; rather, like imaginative literature, myths present abstract, often archetypical insights into human experience. In modern usage, myth is often used pejoratively to dismiss a belief or opinion as false or unsupported by any evidence. Nevertheless, myths may tap into dimensions of human experience, often religious, that science cannot access.
Mythology reflects humankind’s quest for meaning. Most myths are in narrative form, and stories such as Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, or Enkidu and Shiva reveal deep spiritual insights that endure for millenniums and speak to different ages through the filter of different cultures. Anthropologists also speak of the myths of modern society, enduring beliefs that re-present traditional myth in modern dress.
Evolution of the Term
The term mythology, meaning “the study of myths,” has been in use since at least the fifteenth century. The additional meaning of “body of myths” dates to 1781 Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The latest edition of the OED defines myth as “A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces or creatures , which embodies and provides an explanation, etiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.” Myth in general use is often interchangeable with legend or allegory, but scholars strictly distinguish the terms.
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 focused on the gods
- legends–stories about the (usually more recent) past, which generally include, or are based on, some historical events and are generally focused on human heroes
- folktales/fairytales–stories which lack any definite historical setting; often include animal characters
Some religious studies scholars limit the term “myth” to stories whose main characters “must be gods or near-gods.” Other scholars disagree with such attempts to restrict the definition of the term “myth.” 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.”
In extended use, the word “myth” can also refer to collective or personal ideological or socially constructed received wisdom.
By the Christian era, the Greco-Roman world had started to use the term “myth” to mean “fable, fiction, lie” and early Christian writers used “myth” in this way. Now this use of the term “myth” has been passed into popular usage.
In this article, the term “myth” is used in a scholarly sense, detached from popular associations with erroneous beliefs.
Religious mythology and folklore
Main article: Folklore
Myths, as generally understood, 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, becoming folktales or fairy tales. Examples of religious myths are too numerous for an exhaustive list, but include religious practices both great and small:
- the Hebrew creation account in Genesis
- 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
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 archetypical 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.” 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.
Myths are often intended to explain the universal and local beginnings (“creation myths” which includes, “founding myths”), natural phenomena, the origin of cultural conventions or rituals, and what lies outside a given society’s boundaries of explanation. 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.”
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 F. W. J. 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.
- Cult myths are often seen as explanations for elaborate festivals that magnify the power of the deity.
- Prestige myths are usually associated with a divinely chosen king, hero, city, or people.
- 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 concerns itself with the pranks or tricks played by gods or heroes. Heroes do not have to be in a story to be considered a myth.
Mythology and literature
Myths are not the same as fables, legends, folktales, fairy tales, anecdotes, or fiction, but the concepts may overlap. Notably, during the nineteenth century period of 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 referring to the legendary history of Great Britain, especially those focused on King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, and the Matter of France, based on historical events of the fifth and eighth centuries, respectively, were first made into epic poetry and became partly mythological over the following centuries. “Conscious generation” of mythology has been termed mythopoeia by J. R. R. Tolkien, and was notoriously also suggested, very separately, by Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg.
Formation of myths
Numerous approaches to the study of myth exist. 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.” (The Greek Myths, Introduction). 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, in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1948) outlined the concept of the “Monomyth,” the archetypal pattern of the hero that is held in common throughout the world in all cultures. This term was developed based on a concept from James Joyce. The monomyth is a type of bildungsroman that narrates the life cycle of the hero, especially on the psychological aspects of heroism. In a well-known quote from the introduction to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell wrote:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
The classic examples of the monomyth relied upon by Campbell and other scholars include the Buddha, Moses, and Christ stories, although Campbell cites many other classic myths from many cultures which also rely upon this basic structure.
In the structuralist approach of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the content of the myth is irrelevant, as their primary function is structuring the nature of the universe. “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.”
Myths as depictions of historical events
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 B.C.E.) 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, the origins of which have become arcane with the passing of time.
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.”
Once the historical event becomes firmly ensconced in mythology, the mythology becomes the basis for understanding and interpreting even contemporary historical events. Descriptions of recent events are re-emphasized to make them seem to be analogous with the commonly known story. This technique is used by some adherents to Judaism and Christianity, who read books of prophecy in the Bible, notably the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation, as “historical” accounts of future events. It was also used in Russian Communist-era propaganda to interpret the direction of history and guide decisions about political decisions. Until World War II the fitness of the Emperor of Japan was linked to his mythical descent from the Shinto sun goddess, Amaterasu.
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—mental ideas charged with emotional potency that all humans can feel, share, and experience. He and his adherents believe archetypes directly affect our subconscious perceptions and way of understanding.
American films and television repeat in numerous fictional settings a few archetypal myths, such as the lone hero myth—a variant of the Christ myth—in Superman and The Lone Ranger; or the myth of romantic love as rebellion against parental authority—the story of Tristan and Isolde and Romeo and Juliet updated—in films such as West Side Story and the film Titanic. Through such fictional accounts, these myths have entered deeply into the American psyche and culture.
Some films and series like Star Wars and Tarzan have mythological aspects that are self-consciously developed into deep and intricate philosophical systems. These examples 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.
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- Cardona, Dwardu. God Star. Victoria, BC: Trafford Pub., 2006. ISBN 1412083087 (scholar on interdisciplinary studies merging mythology and cosmogony seeks to explain that Saturn was formerly the “sun” seen by inhabitants on Earth, and why the ancients depict Saturn as a god.)
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Adapted from New World Encyclopedia