From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"What, then, is a myth? The theory of Euhemeros, which was so fashionable a century ago, in the days of the Abbé Banier, has long since been so utterly abandoned that to refute it now is but to slay the slain. The peculiarity of this theory was that it cut away all the extraordinary features of a given myth, wherein dwelt its inmost significance, and to the dull and useless residuum accorded the dignity of primeval history."--Myths and Myth-Makers (1872) by John Fiske
"In his dialogue titled Protagoras, Plato asserts that the gods created humans and all the other animals, but it was left to Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus to give defining attributes to each. As no physical traits were left when the pair came to humans, Prometheus decided to give them fire and other civilizing arts." --Sholem Stein
"Before the ocean and the earth appeared— before the skies had overspread them all— the face of Nature in a vast expanse was naught but Chaos uniformly waste. It was a rude and undeveloped mass, that nothing made except a ponderous weight; and all discordant elements confused, were there congested in a shapeless heap."--Metamorphoses by Ovid
The word mythology (from the Greek mythología, from Greek mythologein to relate myths, from Greek mythos, meaning a narrative, and Greek logos, meaning speech or argument) literally means the (oral) retelling of myths – stories that a particular culture believes to be true and that use the supernatural to interpret natural events and to explain the nature of the universe and humanity. In modern usage, "mythology" is either the body of myths from a particular culture or religion as in Greek mythology.
From μῦθος|, "report”, “tale”, “story.
- A story or set of stories relevant to or having a significant truth or meaning for a particular culture, religion, society, or other group.
- Anything delivered by word of mouth: a word, speech, conversation, or similar; a story, tale, or legend, especially a poetic tale.
- A tale, story, or narrative, usually verbally transmitted, or otherwise recorded into the written form from an alleged secondary source.
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). 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.
- The collection of myths of a people, concerning the origin of the people, history, deities, ancestors and heroes.
- A similar body of myths concerning an event, person or institution.
- Pervasive elements of a fictional universe that resemble a mythological universe.
- The systematic collection and study of myths.
- A traditional story which embodies a belief regarding some fact or phenomenon of experience, and in which often the forces of nature and of the soul are personified; a sacred narrative regarding a god, a hero, the origin of the world or of a people, etc.
- Such stories as a genre.
- A commonly-held but false belief, a common misconception; a fictitious or imaginary person or thing; a popular conception about a real person or event which exaggerates or idealizes reality.
- A person or thing held in excessive or quasi-religious awe or admiration based on popular legend
- A person or thing existing only in imagination, or whose actual existence is not verifiable.
- An invented story, theory, or concept.
What is a myth?
Myth is a folklore genre consisting of narratives that are ostensibly historical, though often supernatural, explaining the origins of a cultural practice or natural phenomenon. The word "myth" is derived from the Greek word mythos (μῦθος), which simply means "story". Mythology can refer either to the study of myths, or to a body or collection of myths. Myth can mean 'sacred story', 'traditional narrative' or 'tale of the gods'. A myth can also be a story to explain why something exists.
Human cultures' mythologies usually include a cosmogonical or creation myth, concerning the origins of the world, or how the world came to exist. The active beings in myths are generally gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, or animals and plants. Most myths are set in a timeless past before recorded time or beginning of the critical history. A myth can be a story involving symbols that are capable of multiple meanings.
A myth is a sacred narrative because it holds religious or spiritual significance for those who tell it. Myths also contribute to and express a culture's systems of thought and values, such as the myth of gremlins invented by aircraft technicians during World War II to avoid apportioning blame. Myths are often therefore stories that are currently understood as being exaggerated or fictitious.
According to Albert A. Anderson, a professor of philosophy, the term 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 logos, mythos expresses whatever can be delivered in the form of words. Anderson contrasts the two terms with 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 theatrical 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 BC), 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 BC) 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. Based on the writings of philosopher Plato (c. 428–347 BC), mothers and nursemaids narrated myths and stories to the children in their charge. These women were tasked with rearing children. Apparently they had to find ways to stimulate the children's language skills and imaginations. They lacked access to children's literature or television, so the solution was to turn to storytelling. 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.
The term is common in the academic fields such as folkloristics. Use of the term by scholars has no implication for the truth or falsity of the myth.
A myth can be a collectively held belief that has no basis in fact. 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. Because of this popular and subjective word usage, many people take offense when the narratives they believe to be true are called myths.
To the source culture a myth by definition is "true", in that it embodies beliefs, concepts and ways of questioning to make sense of the world.
Already in the nineteenth century there was a tendency to produce large-scale myth theories, such as those of Max Müller with emphasis on solar myths (shared with Adalbert Kuhn the philologist), Andrew Lang, Wilhelm Mannhardt, and James Frazer. The work of Müller and Frazer, in particular, was seen by others as a contribution to comparative religion, and a myth theory was an implicit commentary on Christianity. This aspect of mythography was certainly controversial, and those who worked in the area tended to make the inclusion of Christian sacred narratives within the theory only tacitly. The scope of theories also expanded to cover myth from all parts of the world, where the initial field was mainly classical mythology and myths from areas adjacent to the Roman Empire. Mythography reached both into the past, for example with the background of all Indo-European languages, and wherever in the contemporary world anthropologists were working.
Scholars such as Carl Jung, Georges Dumezil, James Hillman and Claude Lévi-Strauss continued this tradition in the twentieth century. The direction of comparative religion is represented by Mircea Eliade, and also to some extent by the literary critic René Girard. The French sociological school has argued in terms of myths having social function.
There were numerous other mythographic 'schools' in the first half of the twentieth century. Ernst Cassirer's approach was through philosophy, specifically the so-called Marburg School of Kantian thought; it had a direct influence on Susanne Langer, and has been traced as an influence on Mikhail Bakhtin.
Mythography is the study of the study of myths (the study of myths itself being mythology), as well. In examining how mythology has been studied, one can see the differences and similarities readily, as evidenced by William Doty's Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals.
Study of 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. 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.
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.
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.
- 20th century mythology
- Founding myth
- Greco-Roman mythology
- Richard Payne Knight
- Allegory in the Middle Ages
- Folk hero
- Legendary creature
- Chaos (cosmogony)
- Cultural icon
- Modern understanding of Greek mythology
- Mythos (Aristotle)
- Myth and ritual
- Political myth
- Urban legend
- Comparative mythology, Archetypal literary criticism, Folklore, National myth, Artificial mythology, Legendary creature, Mytheme, Monomyth, Mythical place, Creation myth
- Mythological archetypes
- Culture hero, Death deity, Earth Mother, First man or woman, Hero, Life-death-rebirth deity, Lunar deity, Psychopomp, Sky father, Solar deity, Trickster, Underworld
- Myth and religion
- Religion and mythology, Magic and mythology, Hindu mythology, Christian mythology (Jesus Christ as myth), Jewish mythology, Islamic mythology
- List of mythologies, List of deities, List of mythical objects, List of species in folklore and mythology, List of species in folklore and mythology by type, List of women warriors in folklore