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The word mythology (from Greek([μυθολογία] mythologia = mythos + logos)) refers to a body of folklore/myths/ legends that a particular culture believes to be true and that often 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. The study of myths from multiple cultures is called comparative mythology.
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 ideological or socially constructed 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.
- 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 "personalities — divine, 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. This use of the term "myth" passed into popular usage.
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 Vico, Schelling, Schiller, Jung, Freud, Lévy-Bruhl, Levi-Strauss, Frye, the Soviet school, and the Myth and Ritual School.
Myths are often linked to the spiritual or religious life of a community, and endorsed by rulers or priests. Once this link to the spiritual leadership of society is broken, they often acquire traits that are characteristic of fairy tales. However, as noted above, some scholars may consider legend and fairy tale themselves to be subcategories of myth distinct from sacred myth. 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."
Myths are often intended to explain the universal and local beginnings (" creation myths" and " founding 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 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.
- 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 gods 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."
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 mythopoeia by J. R. R. Tolkien, and was notoriously also suggested, very separately, by Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg.
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, which claims that all hero myths follow the same underlying pattern. This theory of a " monomyth" is out of favour with the mainstream study of mythology.
Religion and mythology
Significantly, none of the scholarly definitions of "myth" (see above) 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 Abrahamic 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:
- 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.
- The Mesopotamian Enuma Elish, a creation account around which the Babylonians' religious New Year festival revolved
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." ( 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.
Interpretations of mythology
This section describes trends in the interpretation of mythology in general. For interpretations of specific similarities and parallels between the myths of different cultures, see Comparative mythology.
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. Although skeptical and rationalizing, such pre-modern theories were not scientific in a strict sense, for they did not rest on the foundation of the social sciences.
The first "scientific" theories of myth appeared during the second half of the nineteenth century. In general, these nineteenth-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.
Max Muller 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 favour 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 [or myth] to science”.
By pitting mythical thought against modern scientific thought, such theories implied that modern man must abandon myth.
Many twentieth-century theories of myth rejected the nineteenth-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.”
Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung used their theories of analytic psychology to understand myths in a way not done before. They believed that both myths and dreams reveal unconscious psychological forces within people. For them, the literal truth or falsity of myths was not as important as the use of myths to evaluate mental health. Following Jung, Joseph Campbell believed that insights about one’s psychology, gained from reading myths, can be beneficially applied to one’s own life.
Like the psychoanalysts, Claude Levi-Strauss believed that myths reflect patterns in the mind. However, he saw those patterns more as fixed mental structures—specifically, pairs of oppositions (e.g., raw vs cooked, nature vs culture)—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 sacredness.
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 (see historicity of the Iliad).
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.
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.
In the 1950s, Roland Barthes published a series of essays examining modern myths and the process of their creation in his book Mythologies.