Mythology is very difficult to define; in part, because it is so familiar and intimate to the human mind. This intimacy makes for an illusion of understanding. I myself have always thought of myth as the portion of story telling that explores the human soul. It delves into our creation, our relationship with nature and the aspects of humanity that make us human. Having read several definitions of myth, I find that they all struggle to put mythology into a much too small of a box. It is expansive and we are easily led into the trap of simplifying it when trying to offer a useful definition. I myself don’t think that a useful definition that fully covers mythology’s convoluted nature is really possible.
A myth is about something that is true. It is a story or a tale embedded in a cultural tradition, about a universal, recognizable truth. The story as it unfolds may not be factually true, but that is not the point; it may be set in a no-time, a “dream-time”(as Australian Aborigines call it), or the “creative-era” (as Mircea Eliade calls it) of the world. There is nothing in a myth that we can “prove” objectively, nor do we want to. We find ourselves moved, gripped, and enlightened by the story. Subjectively, we, as individuals, and we in society, or as a people, find ourselves transformed with a new understanding. We may learn what is expected of us in a new stage of life, how to express our identity, how to understand and face the inevitability and mysteries of life. Myths are so important to every culture in every stage of its development that we have continued, in every age, to try to explain them.
There is an offered theory that mythology is an exploration of nature. That all mythology are allegories: myths were about the personification (called “anthropomorphism”) of weather, seasons, or astronomical phenomena. A story about a young hero who fights and kills a monster, for instance, is really about daylight conquering darkness, or spring overpowering the winter. Of course, there are nature myths, but they hardly make up the majority of “traditional tales” (G.S. Kirk’s term) in any culture. Yet, it is true that in all mythologies the whole natural world appears to be infused with countless anthropomorphic powers. While I believe this defines and helps us understand one kind of myth, I don’t believe that all myth can fit beneath this theory. Many Native American myths are directly tied to nature, but there are many hero myths that really have no connection to nature. Hence, I find this definition to be too narrow.
By the end of the nineteenth century educated people had come to believe in the triumph of science: all things could and would be explained scientifically. Therefore, it made sense that myths were simply primitive (or proto-) science. They were etiological–they gave people a cause-and-effect explanation of something in the real world, usually something profound or disturbing, as well as important physical aspects of the world. Why is there death, or evil? Or, where did we as a people come from? Why is there sea, and then land? Why animals and also humans? Well, clearly, today we have “science” and we still need myth. We also now recognize that “primitive man” is neither as credulous or as ignorant of the actual processes of nature, as scholars previously supposed. Yet, if one explores a myth using this key one can often discover a deep and subtle philosophical interpretation of the human problem. We as humans are haunted by the question “why?”. Mythology, in part, does attempt to explore and delve into the “why” of our universe. However, I think this approach can be quite shallow and condescending. It gives credit only of very superficial questions of “why”. But, if pushed further and if one allows the myths to fully ask their questions, it is hard to deny that many myths have deep explorations into the nature of humanity. What makes us human rather than smart animals? And even an exploration of our mortality and fear of death.
Modern anthropologists, however, insisted that the study of myth belonged only to the actual study of primitive cultures and of the function of society. Mythology was not infantile science but instead a society’s way to establish and legitimate its social institutions and conventions. This is called the charter theory. It depends on several academic disciplines, including psychology and comparative religion. Yes, in many important ways, a society’s mythology tells much about how it works. Also, this concept is crucial to an informed understanding of primitive cultures, how they explain their customs, and the logic informing their underlying societal structures. At the same time, though, many scholars of the nature of religion maintain that myths serve the very special purpose of bringing us, the hearer or participant in a rite, into an intentional relationship with, or an experience of, the creative era, the moment when all that is was made, and when the Makers and Powers themselves were reachable. This is why some myths go with certain “rites of passages;” their telling puts the initiate in contact with the generative and transforming power of creation, and the essentially sacred.
An earlier concept that was important, and is so even today, is the Myth and Ritual School that was made popular by the publication of J.G. Frazer’s lengthy The Golden Bough (1890-1915). Myths, these scholars said, are vestiges of important rituals–most of them forgotten or radically changed. Any story that cannot be related to an actual cultic act or ritual cannot, therefore, be classed as a proper myth. Clearly, we can connect many myths to cults and rites. But did the action and rite come first, and then give us the tale? Some questions about the origin of religion can never be answered; furthermore, this view leaves us with a massive body of clear-cut mythologies that cannot fit the mold.
Last, we have the school of thought popularized today which is derived from the studies of the human psyche made by Sigmund Freud and C.G. Jung. The late twentieth century is assuredly the age of the individual. Our age is manifestly concerned with how one becomes an individual, and the well-being and wholeness of that individual. And we expect psychology to explain and to determine that well-being. At the same time, it is a tenet of modern belief that traditional society is falling apart, so we experience concern for the structures and beliefs that used to hold that society together. In addition we recognize an organic integrity between an individual and his or her society. A current school of understanding the meaning of myth, therefore, rests on the work of Freud, Jung, Ernest Cassirer, and its popularizer, the late Joseph Campbell.
Myths, this explanation goes, can be determined to have their ultimate reality in the human psyche. As each person tries to understand and internalize his or her own individual experience, these myths, depending usually on symbols (which are revealed in dreams and in all mythologies), express crucial ideas and emotions repressed deep within his or her self. We often come across significant “archetypes” like the all-important “earth mother” or mother-goddess, or perhaps the developmental process reflected in the common “quest” story. This interpretation describes how society and each person needs ritual, mystery, transcendence, awe, and myth in order to fulfill the whole self, and to achieve well-being and inner integrity. All cultures up until our day understood these things, and we must recover them.
While myths may be like dreams and may have developed to meet the unconscious needs of those who told them–much as Freud’s “dream work” of the individual does– myth’s role as an inchoate clue to some vaguely-defined “dream-thinking” of a people depends on erroneous assumptions about the evolution of any given human culture. Myths do indeed plainly deal with common and basic human ideas, but they are only one expression of the unconscious human mind or any given human culture. Furthermore, some cultures do not seem to use the conventional “archetypes.” Also, we are left with questions of definition such as, what does “symbol” or “archetype” actually mean? Anyone who is well-read finds himself uncomfortable with Campbell’s attempts to stretch out obscure legends and etiologies to put them on a par with obviously highly significant, central, and complex cosmic stories.
Still, the contributions of Freud, Jung and Cassirer, that myth is one of the primary facets of cultural expression, has illuminated the entire study of mythology. G.S. Kirk, in The Nature of Greek Myths, maintains that myths are a unique form of expression; they make us respond imaginatively and emotionally. They are most clearly psychologically satisfying” on their own, and in some way they evoke in us a particular feeling, “a visceral thing, like a response to great music or poetry.”
What then is it about a particular story that creates this response? What is it that is the mythic quality? Some say that the story must be about sacred events or about deities, but this would exclude many powerful stories–stories that contain important messages about life, in general, and our place in the world, in particular.
Every absolute and exclusive theory ends up dismissing or marginalizing some stories, and sometimes even an entire culture’s body of traditional tales. Certainly we have to apply, in order to understand the full import of any given story, several methods of analysis — and even then some tales will defy analysis. If you should successfully explain a myth to your satisfaction, you want to still keep exploring and examining that story. Myths are subtle, and may surprise you if you keep applying different keys. Myths are changeable things–a traditional tale may have evolved, have re-located in time and place, and have developed new ambiguities. True myths will always work on several different levels and respond to several kinds of examination and there is not always a “right” key to every story.
Useful readings, which I myself have drawn on and strongly recommend:
- Joseph Campbell, Hero With a Thousand Faces. New York, 1949.
- Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth. New York, 1988.
- H.R. Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Harmondsworth, 1958.
- Mircea Eliade, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries. New York, 1961.
- Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion. London, 1958.
- T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland.” London, 1922.
- Sir James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough. New York (one-volume edition), 1922.
- G.S. Kirk, The Nature of Greek Myths. Harmondsworth, 1974.
- S.N. Kramer (ed.), Mythologies of the Ancient World. Garden City, New York, 1961.
- Bronislaw Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion. New York, 1948.
- Martin P. Nilsson, Greek Piety. New York, 1948 (1969).
- J.B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Third Edition), Princeton, 1969.