From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
- 20th century mythology, founding myths, art as an excuse for depicting prurient interests, Greco-Roman mythology
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.
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. .
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.
- Folk hero
- Legendary creature
- Cultural icon
- Modern understanding of Greek mythology
- Myth and ritual
- 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