The term mythology can refer either to the study of myths, or to a body or collection of myths. As examples, comparative mythology is the study of connections between myths from different cultures, whereas Greek mythology is the body of myths from ancient Greece. In the field of folkloristics, a myth is defined as a sacred narrative explaining how the world and humankind came to be in their present form. Many scholars in other fields use the term “myth” in somewhat different ways. In a very broad sense, the word can refer to any story originating within traditions.
Nature of myths
The main characters in myths are usually gods, supernatural heroes and humans. As sacred stories, myths are often endorsed by rulers and priests and closely linked to religion or spirituality. In the society in which it is told, a myth is usually regarded as a true account of the remote past. In fact, many societies have two categories of traditional narrative, “true stories” or myths, and “false stories” or fables. Creation myths generally take place in a primordial age, when the world had not yet achieved its current form, and explain how the world gained its current form and how customs, institutions and taboos were established.
Closely related to myth are legend and folktale. Myths, legends, and folktales are different types of traditional story. Unlike myths, folktales can be set in any time and any place, and they are not considered true or sacred by the societies that tell them. Like myths, legends are stories that are traditionally considered true, but are set in a more recent time, when the world was much as it is today. Legends generally feature humans as their main characters, whereas myths generally focus on superhuman characters.
The distinction between myth, legend, and folktale is meant simply as a useful tool for grouping traditional stories. In many cultures, it is hard to draw a sharp line between myths and legends. Instead of dividing their traditional stories into myths, legends, and folktales, some cultures divide them into two categories, one that roughly corresponds to folktales, and one that combines myths and legends. Even myths and folktales are not completely distinct. A story may be considered true (and therefore a myth) in one society, but considered fictional (and therefore a folktale) in another society. In fact, when a myth loses its status as part of a religious system, it often takes on traits more typical of folktales, with its formerly divine characters reinterpreted as human heroes, giants, or fairies.
Myth, legend, and folktale are only a few of the categories of traditional stories. Other categories include anecdotes and some kinds of jokes. Traditional stories, in turn, are only one category within folklore, which also includes items such as gestures, costumes, and music.
Origins of myth
Euhemerism (Historical interpretation)
One theory claims that myths are distorted accounts of real historical events. According to this theory, storytellers repeatedly elaborated upon historical accounts until the figures in those accounts gained the status of gods. For example, one might argue that the myth of the wind-god Aeolus evolved from a historical account of a king who taught his people to use sails and interpret the winds. Herodotus (5th century BC) and Prodicus made claims of this kind. This theory is named “euhemerism” after the mythologist Euhemerus (c.320 BC), who suggested that the Greek gods developed from legends about human beings.
Some theories propose that myths began as allegories. According to one theory, myths began as allegories for natural phenomena: Apollo represents fire, Poseidon represents water, and so on. According to another theory, myths began as allegories for philosophical or spiritual concepts: Athena represents wise judgment, Aphrodite represents desire, etc. The 19th century Sanskritist Max Müller supported an allegorical theory of myth. He believed that myths began as allegorical descriptions of nature, but 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 believe that myths resulted from the personification of inanimate objects and forces. According to these thinkers, the ancients worshipped natural phenomena such as fire and air, gradually coming to describe them as gods. For example, according to the theory of mythopoeic thought, the ancients tended to view things as persons, not as mere objects; thus, they described natural events as acts of personal gods, thus giving rise to myths.
The myth-ritual theory
According to the myth-ritual theory, the existence of myth is tied to ritual. In its most extreme form, this theory claims that myths arose to explain rituals. This claim was first put forward by the biblical scholar William Robertson Smith. According to Smith, people begin performing rituals for some reason that is not related to myth; later, after they have forgotten the original reason for a ritual, they try to account for the ritual by inventing a myth and claiming that the ritual commemorates the events described in that myth. The anthropologist James Frazer had a similar theory. Frazer believed that primitive man starts out with a belief in magical laws; later, when man begins to lose faith in magic, he invents myths about gods and claims that his formerly magical rituals are religious rituals intended to appease the gods.
Functions of myth
Mircea Eliade argued that one of the foremost functions of myth is to establish models for behavior and that myths may also provide a religious experience. By telling or reenacting myths, members of traditional societies detach themselves from the present and return to the mythical age, thereby bringing themselves closer to the divine.
Lauri Honko asserts that, in some cases, a society will reenact a myth in an attempt to reproduce the conditions of the mythical age. For example, it will reenact the healing performed by a god at the beginning of time in order to heal someone in the present. Similarly, Roland Barthes argues that modern culture explores religious experience. Because 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.
Joseph Campbell defined myths as having four basic functions: the Mystical Function—experiencing the awe of the universe; the Cosmological Function—explaining the shape of the universe; the Sociological Function—supporting and validating a certain social order; and the Pedagogical Function—how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.
The study of mythology: a historical overview
Historically, the important approaches to the study of mythology have been 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 goes back as far as 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. This view of myths and their origin is criticised by Plato in the Phaedrus (229d), in which Socrates says that this approach is the province of one who is “vehemently curious and laborious, and not entirely happy . . .” The Platonists generally had a more profound and comprehensive view of the subject. Sallustius, for example, divides myths into five categories – theological, physical (or concerning natural laws), animastic (or concerning soul), material and mixed. This last being those myths which show the interaction between two or more of the previous categories and which, he says, are particularly used in initiations.
Although Plato famously condemned poetic myth when discussing the education of the young in the Republic, primarily on the grounds that there was a danger that the young and uneducated might take the stories of Gods and heroes literally, nevertheless he constantly refers to myths of all kinds throughout his writings. As Platonism developed in the phases commonly called ‘middle Platonism’ and neoplatonism, such writers as Plutarch, Porphyry, Proclus, Olympiodorus and Damascius wrote explicitly about the symbolic interpretation of traditional and Orphic myths.
Interest in polytheistic mythology revived in the Renaissance, with early works on mythography appearing in the 16th century, such as the Theologia mythologica (1532).
The first scholarly theories of myth appeared during the second half of the 19th century. In general, these 19th-century theories framed myth as a failed or obsolete mode of thought, often by interpreting myth as the primitive counterpart of modern science.
For example, E. B. Tylor interpreted myth as an attempt at a literal explanation for natural phenomena: unable to conceive of impersonal natural laws, early man tried to explain natural phenomena by attributing souls to inanimate objects, giving rise to animism. According to Tylor, human thought evolves through various stages, starting with mythological ideas and gradually progressing to scientific ideas. Not all scholars — not even all 19th century scholars — have agreed with this view. For example, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl claimed that “the primitive mentality is a condition of the human mind, and not a stage in its historical development.”
Max Müller called 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 conscious beings, gods.
The anthropologist James Frazer saw myths as a misinterpretation of magical rituals; which were themselves based on a mistaken idea of natural law. According to Frazer, man begins with an unfounded belief in impersonal magical laws. When he realizes that his applications of these laws don’t work, he gives up his belief in natural law, in favor of a belief in personal gods controlling nature — thus giving rise to religious myths. Meanwhile, man continues practicing formerly magical rituals through force of habit, reinterpreting them as reenactments of mythical events. Finally, Frazer contends, man realizes that nature does follow natural laws, but now he discovers their true nature through science. Here, again, science makes myth obsolete: as Frazer puts it, man progresses “from magic through religion to science”.
Robert Segal asserts that by pitting mythical thought against modern scientific thought, such theories implied that modern man must abandon myth.
20th century theories
Many 20th century theories of myth rejected the 19th-century theories’ opposition of myth and science. In general, “twentieth-century theories have tended to see myth as almost anything but an outdated counterpart to science […] Consequently, moderns are not obliged to abandon myth for science.”
Swiss psychologist Carl Jung (1873–1961) tried to understand the psychology behind world myths. Jung asserted that all humans share certain innate unconscious psychological forces, which he called archetypes. Jung believed that the similarities between the myths from different cultures reveals the existence of these universal archetypes.
Joseph Campbell believed that there were two different orders of mythology: myths that “are metaphorical of spiritual potentiality in the human being,” and myths “that have to do with specific societies”.
Claude Lévi-Strauss believed that myths reflect patterns in the mind and interpreted those patterns more as fixed mental structures — specifically, pairs of opposites (i.e. good/evil, compassionate/callous) — than as unconscious feelings or urges.
In his appendix to Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, and in The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade attributed modern man’s anxieties to his rejection of myths and the sense of the sacred.
In the 1950s, Roland Barthes published a series of essays examining modern myths and the process of their creation in his book Mythologies.
Examples of myths
Creation of man by Prometheus (Greek)
Prometheus and Epimetheus were spared imprisonment in Tartarus because they had not fought with their fellow Titans during the war with the Olympians. They were given the task of creating man. Prometheus shaped man out of mud, and Athena breathed life into his clay figure.
Prometheus had assigned Epimetheus the task of giving the creatures of the earth their various qualities, such as swiftness, cunning, strength, fur, wings etc. Unfortunately, by the time he got to man Epimetheus had given all the good qualities out and there were none left for man. So Prometheus decided to make man stand upright as the gods did and to give them fire.
Prometheus loved man more than the Olympians, who had banished most of his family to Tartarus. So when Zeus decreed that man must present a portion of each animal they sacrificed to the gods Prometheus decided to trick Zeus. He created two piles, one with the bones wrapped in juicy fat, the other with the good meat hidden in the hide. He then bade Zeus to pick. Zeus chose the bones. Since he had given his word, Zeus had to accept that as his share for future sacrifices. In his anger over the trick, Zeus took fire away from man. However, Prometheus lit a torch from the sun and brought it back again to man. Zeus was enraged that man again had fire. He decided to inflict a terrible punishment on both man and Prometheus.
To punish man, Zeus had Hephaestus create a mortal of stunning beauty. The gods gave the mortal many gifts of wealth. Zeus then had Hermes give the mortal a deceptive heart and a lying tongue. This creation was Pandora, the first woman. A final gift was a jar which Pandora was forbidden to open. Thus completed, Zeus sent Pandora down to Epimetheus who was staying amongst the men.
Prometheus had warned Epimetheus not to accept gifts from Zeus but Pandora’s beauty was too great and he allowed her to stay. Eventually, Pandora’s curiosity about the jar she was forbidden to open became too great. She opened the jar and out flew all manner of evils, sorrows, plagues, and misfortunes. However, the bottom of the jar held one good thing – hope.
Zeus was angry at Prometheus for three things: being tricked on sacrifices, stealing fire for man, and for refusing to tell Zeus which of Zeus’s children would dethrone him. Zeus had his servants, Force and Violence, seize Prometheus, take him to the Caucasus Mountains, and chain him to a rock with unbreakable adamanite chains. Here he was tormented day and night by a giant eagle tearing at his liver. Zeus gave Prometheus two ways out of this torment. He could tell Zeus who the mother of the child that would dethrone him was or two conditions must be met: First, that an immortal must volunteer to die for Prometheus. Second, that a mortal must kill the eagle and unchain him. Eventually, Chiron the Centaur agreed to die for him and Heracles killed the eagle and unbound him.
Birth of Athena (Greek)
Zeus came to lust after Metis and chased her in his direct way. Metis tried to escape, going so far as to change her form many times by turning into various creatures, such as hawks, fish, and serpents. However, Zeus was both determined and equally proficient in changing form. He continued his pursuit until she relented.
An Oracle of Gaea then prophesied that Metis’ first child would be a girl, but her second child would be a boy that would overthrow Zeus as had happened to his father and grandfather. Zeus took this warning to heart. When he next saw Metis, he flattered her and put her at her ease. Then, with Metis off guard, Zeus suddenly opened his mouth and swallowed her. This was the end of Metis, but possibly the beginning of Zeus’ wisdom.
After a time Zeus developed the mother of all headaches. He howled so loudly it could be heard throughout the earth. The other gods came to see what the problem was. Hermes realized what needed to be done and directed Hephaestus to take a wedge and split open Zeus’s skull. Out of the skull sprang Athena, full grown and in a full set of armour. Due to her manner of birth, Athena has dominion over all things of the intellect.
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 different mythologies to argue that those mythologies have a common source. This common source may be a common source of inspiration (e.g. a certain natural phenomenon that inspired similar myths in different cultures) or a common “protomythology” that diverged into the various mythologies we see today.
Nineteenth-century interpretations of myth were often highly comparative, seeking a common origin for all myths. However, modern-day scholars tend to be more suspicious of comparative approaches, avoiding overly general or universal statements about mythology. One exception to this modern trend is Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), which claims that all hero myths follow the same underlying pattern. This theory of a “monomyth” is out of favor with the mainstream study of mythology.
Myths in the 21st century
In modern society, myth is often regarded as historical or obsolete. Many scholars in the cultural studies are now beginning to research the idea that myth has worked itself into modern discourses. Modern formats of communication allow for wide spread communication across the globe, thus enabling mythological discourse and exchange among greater audiences than ever before. Various elements of myth can now be found in television, cinema and video games.
Although myth was traditionally transmitted through the oral tradition on a small scale, the technology of the film industry has enabled filmmakers to transmit myths to large audiences via film dissemination (Singer, “Mythmaking: Philosophy in Film”, 3-6). In the psychology of Carl Jung, myths are the expression of a culture or society’s goals, fears, ambitions and dreams (Indick, “Classical Heroes in Modern Movies: Mythological Patterns of the Superhero”, 93-95). Film is ultimately an expression of the society in which it was credited, and reflects the norms and ideals of the time and location in which it is created. In this sense, film is simply the evolution of myth. The technological aspect of film changes the way the myth is distributed, but the core idea of the myth is the same.
The basis of modern storytelling in both cinema and television lies deeply rooted in the mythological tradition. Many contemporary and technologically advanced movies often rely on ancient myths to construct narratives. The Disney Corporation is notorious among cultural study scholars for “reinventing” traditional childhood myths (Koven, “Folklore Studies and Popular Film and Television: A Necessary Critical Survey”, 176-195). While many films are not as obvious as Disney fairy tales in respect to the employment of myth, the plot of many films are largely based on the rough structure of the myth. 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 movies, fantasy dramas, and apocalyptic tales. As heroes moved beyond the limiting constraints of the white heterosexual male in film and television, the narrative begins to reflect the archetypes of myth more accurately (Olson, “Great Expectations: the Role of Myth in 1980s Films with Child Heroes”). Although the range of narratives, as well as the medium in which it is being told is constantly increasing, it is clear that myth continues to be a pervasive and essential component of the collective imagination (Cormer, “Narrative.” Critical Ideas in Television Studies, 47-59.)
Recent films such as Clash of the Titans and Immortals continue the trend of mining traditional mythology in order to directly create a plot for modern consumption. Although these are generally considered inaccurate to the original mythologies on which they are based, it can be argued that as film itself has become a way transmitting myths, these films are no more inaccurate than the variants told by storytellers of the oral tradition. In fact, it is argued that these new contributions to traditional myths add value and meaning to the stories for new generations (Matira, “Children’s Oral Literature and Modern Mass Media”, 55-57).
With the invention of modern myths such as urban legends, the mythological traditional will carry on to the increasing variety of mediums available to the consumer in the 21st century and beyond. The crucial idea is that myth is not simply a collection of stories permanently fixed to a particular time and place in history, but an ongoing social practice within every society.
- Culture hero
- Death deity
- Earth Mother
- First man or woman
- Life-death-rebirth deity
- Lunar deity
- Sky father
- Solar deity
Myth and religion
- Classical Mythology
- Myth and Ritual
- Religion and Mythology
- Comparative Mythology
- Proto-Indo-European Mythology
- Christian Mythology
- Jewish Mythology
- Islamic Mythology
- Roman Mythology
- Greek Mythology
- Buddhist Mythology
- Vedic Mythology
- Hindu Mythology
- Chinese Mythology
- Japanese Mythology
- Celtic Mythology
- Egyptian Mythology
- Armenian Mythology
- Inca Mythology
- Mesopotamian Mythology
- Hittite Mythology and Religion
- Australian Aboriginal Religion and Mythology
- List of deities
- List of legendary creatures by type
- List of legendary creatures
- List of mythical objects
- List of mythologies
- List of women warriors in folklore