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The word mythology (from the Greek μυθολογία mythología, from μυθολογειν mythologein to relate myths, from μυθος mythos, meaning a narrative, and λογος logos, meaning speech or argument) literally means the (oral) retelling of myths – stories that a particular culture believes to be true and that use supernatural events or characters 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, Egyptian mythology or Norse mythology) or the branch of knowledge dealing with the collection, study and interpretation of myths.In common usage, myth means a falsehood — a story which many believe but which is not true. The field of mythology does not use this definition.

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Religion and mythology
Related concepts
Formation of myths
Myths as depictions of historical events
Modern mythology
Books on mythology

Definition - Contents

Myths are generally narratives passed down traditionally intended to explain the universal and local beginnings (" creation myths" and " founding myths"), natural phenomena, inexplicable cultural conventions, and anything else for which no simple explanation presents itself. Not all myths need have this explicatory purpose, however. Myths are by definition sacred and usually involve a supernatural force or deity. There is some overlap with legends — stories containing heroes and historical trappings — depending on the level of supernatural content.In folkloristics, which is concerned with the study of both secular and sacred narratives, a myth also derives some of its power from being believed and deeply held as true. In the study of folklore, all sacred traditions have myths, and there is nothing pejorative or dismissive intended in the use of the term, as there often is in common usage.This broader truth runs deeper than the advent of critical history which 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 become "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." (Mâche 1992, p.8) Most often the term refers specifically to ancient tales from very old 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 the eighth chapter of F. W. J. Schelling's 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."

Religion and mythology - Contents

Mythology figures prominently in most religions, and most mythology is tied to at least one religion. Some use the words myth and mythology to portray the stories of one or more religions as false, or dubious at best. While nearly all dictionaries include this definition, "myth" does not always imply that a story is either false or true. The term is most often used in this sense to describe religions founded by ancient societies whose belief systems are nearly extinct. By extension, many people do not regard the tales surrounding the origin and development of modern dominant religions as literal accounts of events, but instead regard them as figurative representations of their belief systems. Many modern day rabbis and priests within the more liberal Jewish and Christian movements, as well as most Neopagans, have no problem viewing their religious texts as containing myth. They see their sacred texts as indeed containing religious truths, divinely inspired but delivered in the language of mankind. Others separate their beliefs out from the similar stories of other cultures and refer to them as history. These people object to the use of the word myth to describe what they believe.For the purposes of this article, therefore, the word mythology is used to refer to stories that, while they may or may not be strictly factual, reveal fundamental truths and insights about human nature, often through the use of archetypes. Also, the stories discussed express the viewpoints and beliefs of the country, time period, culture, and/or religion which gave birth to them. One can speak of a Jewish mythology, a Christian mythology, or an Islamic mythology, in which one describes the mythic elements within these faiths without speaking to the veracity of the faith's tenets or claims about its history.

Classifications - Contents

Ritual myths explain the performance of a certain religious practices or patterns and associated with temples or centers of worship. Origin myths describe the beginnings of a custom, name or object. 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 hero, city, or people. Eschatological myths are 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. Some myths fit in more than one category. Apocalyptic literature such as The Revelation of St. John the Divine is an example of a set of eschatological myths.

Related concepts - Contents

Myths are not the same as fables, legends, folktales, fairy tales, anecdotes or fiction, but sloppy usage has blurred the distinctions in many people's minds.Other examples of stories that are not mythology but are frequently confused with myth:
  • Philosophical allegory
  • Sentimental or moral fable, parable or anecdote
    • Cupid and Psyche
    • Prodigal Son
    • Cornelia's jewels
  • Romance
  • Cultural propaganda
    • Betsy Ross
  • "Rationalized" explications of myths that are no longer understood
    • This is an approach attributed to Euhemerus
  • Heroic saga
  • Narrative drama
  • Enriched history
    • Song of Roland

Formation of myths - Contents

What forces create 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, perhaps too strongly, by Sir James George Frazer's mythography The Golden Bough, and he would have agreed that myths are generated by many cultural needs (more on the forces that generate myth is needed).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 (1992, p.20) 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.A collection of myths is called a mythos, e.g. 'the Roman mythos.' A collection of those is called a mythoi, e.g. 'the Greek and Roman mythoi.' One notable type is the creation myth, which describes how that culture believes the universe was created. Another is the Trickster myth, which concerns itself with the pranks or tricks played by gods or heroes. Joseph Campbell is the most famous modern author on myths and the history of spirituality. His book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1948) outlined the basic ideas he would continue to elaborate on until his death in 1987. His theories, popularized in a series of books and videos, are more inspirational than scholarly, being more accepted among the general public than in academic circles. Roger Caillois (1972) contrasts myths of situations determined from outside by historical events with myths of heroes determined from inside by their psychic life. However Mâche (1992, p.10) argues that, "on this level he [Caillois] refers only to the presentation of images in the form of stories, which in themselves are more ancient than stories, not yet submitted to this kind of distinction."

Myths as depictions of historical events - Contents

Although myths are often considered to be accounts of events that have not happened, many historians consider that myths can also be accounts of actual events that have become highly imbued with symbolic meaning, or that have been 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.This method or technique of interpreting myths as accounts of actual events, euhemerist exegesis, dates from antiguity 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" (Mâche 1992, p.20).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 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 (1992, p.10) 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 (quote above) Mâche (1992) argues that, "myth therefore seems to choose history, rather than be chosen by it" (p.21), "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." (p.20)

Other theories
"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." (Middleton 1990, p.222)A modern interpretation of myths, primarily as indicators of astrononomical events, has been put forward in such works as Hamlet's Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge And It's Transmission Through Myth by Giorgio De Santillana, Hertha Von Dechend (ISBN: 0879232153), and serves as a counterpoint to numerous Jungian (often psychological or mystical) interpretations as put forward by Joseph Campbell. Catastrophists such as Immanuel Velikovsky believe that myths are derived from the oral histories of ancient cultures that witnessed cosmic catastrophes. For example, Velikovsky believes the dragon represented a fiery cosmic object such as a comet. Believers in catastrophism are only a small minority within the field of mythology.

Modern mythology - Contents

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. An excellent example is that developed by J. R. R. Tolkien in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.Fiction, however, does not reach the level of actual mythology until people believe that it really happened. For example, some people believe that fiction author Clive Barker's Candyman was based upon a true story, and new stories have grown up around the figure. The same can be said for the Blair Witch and many other stories.Mythology is alive and well in the modern age through urban legends, New Age beliefs, certain aspects of religion and so forth. 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.

Books on mythology - Contents

  • Bulfinch's Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch
  • The Golden Bough by James George Frazer
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces and other titles by Joseph Campbell
  • Mythology by Edith Hamilton
  • Mythology by Anne Birrell
  • Don't Know Much About Mythology by Kenneth C. Davis
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