Comparative mythology  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Comparative mythology is the comparison of myths from different cultures in an attempt to identify common themes. Comparative mythology has served a variety of academic purposes. For example, scholars have used the relationships between different myths to trace the development of religions and cultures, to propose common origins for myths from different cultures, and to support various psychological theories.


Comparativists versus particularists

The anthropologist C. Scott Littleton defines comparative mythology as "the systematic comparison of myths and mythic themes drawn from a wide variety of cultures". By comparing different cultures' mythologies, scholars try to identify underlying similarities and/or to reconstruct a "protomythology" from which those mythologies developed. To an extent, all theories about mythology follow a comparative approach: as the scholar of religion Robert Segal notes, "by definition, all theorists [of myth] seek similarities among myths".

Comparative approaches to mythology held great popularity among eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholars. Many of these scholars believed that all myths showed signs of having evolved from a single myth or mythical theme. For example, the nineteenth-century philologist Friedrich Max Müller led a school of thought which interpreted nearly all myths as poetic descriptions of the sun's behavior. According to this theory, these poetic descriptions had become distorted over time into seemingly diverse stories about gods and heroes. However, modern-day scholars lean more toward particularism, feeling suspicious of broad statements about myths. One exception to this trend is Joseph Campbell's theory of the "monomyth", which is discussed below.

Approaches to comparative mythology

Comparative mythologists come from different fields, including folklore, anthropology, history, linguistics, and religious studies, and they have used different methods to compare myths. These are some important approaches to comparative mythology.


Some scholars look at the linguistic relationships between the myths of different cultures—for example, the similarities between the names of gods in different cultures. One particularly successful example of this approach is the study of Indo-European mythology. Scholars have found striking similarities between the mythological and religious terms used in different cultures of Europe and India. For example, the Greek sky-god Zeus Pater, the Roman sky-god Jupiter, and the Indian sky-god Dyaus Pita have similar names. This suggests that the Greeks, Romans, and Indians originated from a common ancestral culture, and that the names Zeus, Jupiter, and Dyaus evolved from an older name, *Dyēus ph2ter, which referred to the sky-god in a Proto-Indo-European religion.


Some scholars look for underlying structures shared by different myths. The folklorist Vladimir Propp proposed that many Russian fairy tales have a common plot structure, in which certain events happen in a predictable order. In contrast, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss examined the structure of myths in terms of the abstract relationships between its elements, rather than their order in the plot. In particular, Levi-Strauss believed that the elements of a myth could be organized into binary oppositions (raw vs. cooked, nature vs. culture, etc.). He thought that myth's purpose was to "mediate" these oppositions, thereby resolving basic tensions or contradictions found in human life or culture.


Some scholars propose that myths from different cultures reveal the same, or similar, psychological forces at work in those cultures. Some Freudian thinkers have identified stories similar to the Greek story of Oedipus in many different cultures. They argue that these stories reflect the different expressions of the Oedipus complex in those cultures. Likewise, Jungians have identified images, themes, and patterns that appear in the myths of many different cultures. They believe that these similarities result from archetypes present in the unconscious levels of every person's mind.

Some mythological parallels

Comparative mythology has uncovered a number of parallels between the myths of different cultures, including some very widespread recurring themes and plot elements. Here are some examples.

The Flood

Cultures around the world tell stories about a great flood. In many cases, the flood leaves only one survivor or group of survivors. For example, both the Hebrew Bible and the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh tell of a global flood that wiped out humanity and of a man who saved the earth's species by taking them aboard a boat. Similar stories of a single flood survivor appear in Hindu mythology, Aztec mythology, and the Greek myth of Deucalion.

The creative sacrifice

Many cultures have stories about divine figures whose death creates an essential part of reality. These myths seem especially common among cultures that grow crops, particularly tubers. One such myth from New Guinea tells of a miraculously-conceived girl named Hainuwele, whose murdered corpse sprouts into the people's staple food crops. The Chinese myth of Pangu, the Vedic myth of Purusha, and the Norse myth of Ymir all tell of a cosmic giant who is killed to create the world.

The dying god

Many myths feature a god who dies a tragic death and often returns to life. Such myths are particularly common in Near Eastern mythologies. The anthropologist Sir James Frazer compared these "dying god" myths in his multi-volume work The Golden Bough. The Egyptian god Osiris and the Mesopotamian god Tammuz are examples of the "dying god". Some scholars have noted similarities between polytheistic stories of "dying gods" and the Christian story of Jesus of Nazareth. Awareness of these similarities goes back to the early Christian era, when the church father Justin Martyr discussed them.

The structure of hero stories

A number of scholars have suggested that hero stories from various cultures have the same underlying structure. Otto Rank, a follower of Sigmund Freud, argued that the stories of heroes' births have a common Oedipal structure. Other scholars, including Lord Raglan and, more recently, Joseph Campbell, have also suggested that hero stories share a common structure. Some comparative mythologists look for similarites only among hero stories within a specific geographical or ethnic range. For example, the Austrian scholar Johann Georg van Hahn tried to identify a common structure underlying "Aryan" hero stories. Others, such as Campbell, propose theories about hero stories in general. According to Campbell's "monomyth" theory, hero stories from around the world share a common plot structure. Because of its extremely comparative nature, the monomyth theory is currently out of favor with the mainstream study of mythology.

Axis mundi

Many mythologies mention a place that sits at the center of the world and acts as a point of contact between different levels of the universe. This "axis mundi" is often marked by a sacred tree or other mythical object. For example, many myths describe a great tree or pillar joining heaven, earth, and the underworld. Vedic India, ancient China, and the ancient Germans all had myths featuring a "Cosmic Tree" whose branches reach heaven and whose roots reach hell.


Many cultures have a creation myth in which a group of younger, more civilized gods conquer and/or struggle against a group of older gods who represent the forces of chaos. In the Greek myth of the Titanomachy, the Olympian gods defeat the Titans, an older and more primitive divine race, and establish cosmic order. In Hindu mythology, the devas (gods) battle the asuras (demons). And the Celtic gods of life and light struggle against the Fomors, ancient gods of death and darkness.

This myth of the gods conquering demons of chaos is especially common in Indo-European mythologies. Some scholars suggest that the myth reflects the ancient Indo-Europeans' conquest of native peoples during their expansion over Europe and India.

However, non-Indo-European cultures also have such myths. For example, many Near Eastern mythologies include a "combat myth" in which a good god battles a demon of chaos. Examples include the Babylonian Enuma Elish and the Hebrew story of Yahweh battling Leviathan.

The deus otiosus

Many cultures believe in a celestial Supreme Being who has cut off contact with humanity. Historian Mircea Eliade calls this Supreme Being a deus otiosus (an "idle god"), although this term is also used more broadly, to refer to any god who doesn't interact regularly with humans. In many myths, the Supreme Being withdraws into the heavens after the creation of the world. Baluba mythology features such a story, in which the supreme God withdraws from the earth, leaving man to search for him. Similarly, the mythology of the Hereros tells of a Sky God who has abandoned mankind to lesser divinities. In the mythologies of highly complex cultures, the Supreme Being tends to disappear completely, replaced by a strongly polytheistic belief system.

Founding myths

Many cultures have myths describing the origin of their customs, rituals, and identity. In fact, ancient and traditional societies have often justified their customs by claiming that their gods or mythical heroes established those customs. For example, according to the myths of the Australian Karadjeri, the mythical Bagadjimbiri brothers established all of the Karadjeri's customs, including the position in which they stand while urinating.

See also

Fields of study

Specific comparisons:

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