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mythology [Greek,=the telling of stories], the entire body of myths in a given tradition, and the study of myths. Students of anthropology, folklore, and religion study myths in different ways, distinguishing them from various other forms of popular, often orally transmitted, literature. Much of that literature is classified according to its presumed function: fables, which instruct; etiological tales, which explain; and folktales, which entertain.

Myths may perform any one or all three of these functions, but in addition play a critical role in how a culture constructs its sense of time. In this sense myths are contrasted to history, which concerns recent, well-documented events, and to poetic epics and narrative legends, which concern an historical person, place, or incident from the distant past; an example is the story of Lady Godiva's naked ride through Coventry. (The legends of Norwegian and Icelandic kings, recorded from the 12th to the 15th cent., are called sagas.) A myth, however, is generally a story that takes place in an imagined, remote, timeless past and tells of the origins of humans, animals, and the supernatural.

While ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish mythologies are the best known, other important mythologies are the Norse, which is less anthropomorphic than the Greek (see Germanic religion); the Indian, or Vedic, which tends to be more abstract and otherworldly than the Greek (see Veda); the Egyptian, which is closely related to religious ritual (see Egyptian religion); and the Mesopotamian, which shares with the Greek mythology a strong concern for the relationship between life and death (see Middle Eastern religions).

Myth has been employed for the enrichment of literature since the time of Aeschylus and has been used by some of the major English poets (e.g., Milton, Shelley, Keats). Some great literary figures, notably William Blake, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens have consciously constructed personal myths using the old materials and newly constructed symbols.

Recurrent Themes

Studies of the myths of North and South American natives, Australian aborigines, the peoples of S Africa, and others have revealed how widespread are many mythological elements and motifs. Although there is no specific universal myth, there are many themes and motifs that recur in the myths of various cultures and ages. Some cultures have myths of the creation of the world; these range from a god fashioning the earth from abstract chaos to a specific animal creating it from a handful of mud. Other myths of cyclical destruction and creation are paralleled by myths of seasonal death and rebirth. In Greece the concern with renewed fertility was seasonal. Certain other cultures (e.g., Mesopotamia) were concerned with longer periods of vegetative death through prolonged drought. The idea of a golden age in which humanity is viewed as having degenerated from an earlier perfection is another common theme (e.g., Hesiod's Golden Age and the Garden of Eden in Jewish and Christian thought). The flood motif is extremely widespread and is one element of a group of myths that concern the destruction and re-creation of the world or a particular society. Myths treating the origin of fire, or its retrieval from some being who has stolen it or refuses to share it; the millennium to come; and the dead or the relation between the living and the dead, are common.

Older Interpretations of Myths

There have been many theories as to the reasons for similarities among myths. Many have viewed myths merely as poor versions of history, and have attempted to analyze and explicate them in nonsacred ways to account for their apparent absurdity. Some ancient Greeks explained myths as allegories, and looked for a reality concealed in poetic images. Theagenes of Rhegium was an early proponent (6th cent. BC) of this method of interpretation; it was most fully developed by the Stoics, who reduced the Greek gods to moral principles and natural elements (see Stoicism). Euhemerus considered the gods to have been renowned historical figures who became deified through the passage of time. Another interpretation sees myths as developing from an improper separation between the human and nonhuman; animals, rocks, and stars are considered to be on a level of intelligence with people, and the dead are thought to inhabit the world of the living in spiritual form (see animism).

A later allegorical interpretation states that at one time myths were invented by wise men to point out a truth, but that after a time myths were taken literally. For example, Kronos, who devoured his children, is identified with the Greek word for time, which may be said to destroy whatever it brings into existence. This approach was refined in philological studies of myth by Max Müller, who saw myths evolving out of corruptions of language: what seems absurd in myth, he suggested, is the result of people forgetting or distorting the meanings of words, e.g., the phrase "sunrise follows the dawn," spoken in Greek could be interpreted as meaning Apollo pursues Daphne, the maiden of the Dawn. A similar theory is that myths, including Scripture, are corruptions of history; thus Deucalion is another name for Noah. The diffusionist theory postulates a very early, Paleolithic origin of mythology, and then diffusion of various motifs through travel, migration, and other forms of transcontinental communication. Through comparison with other mythologies, many Greek myths are now interpreted as products of literary codification and in terms of their formal reorganization as epic poems. Homer's epics are, thus, an elaborate combination of mythical elements with legend and folktale.

Modern Theories

The great modern advances in the study of mythology began in the 19th cent., when scholars like Sir James Frazer and Sir Edward Burnett Tylor argued for the study of mythology not as bad history but as a social institution, and called attention to the myths of contemporary simple societies. The evolutionary theories of Tylor and Andrew Lang, since discredited as simplistic and ethnocentric, postulate a certain stage of savage mentality that tends to produce similar myths. Some current theories instead posit a common psychological or emotional basis and relate myth to universal religious impulses. Frazer, whose epoch-making book The Golden Bough (1890) is a standard work on mythology, believed that all myths were originally connected with the idea of fertility in nature, with the birth, death, and resurrection of vegetation as a constantly recurring motif. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed that there is an inherent tendency in all people to form certain of the same mythic symbols. Religious scholar Mircea Eliade contended that myths are recited for the purpose of ritually recreating the beginning of time when all things were initiated so one can return to the original, successful creative act. Those who characterize the ordinary as profane and secular view myths as a form of sacred speech and thus as particular manifestations of a universal religious sensibility. Friedrich Schleiermacher thus characterized myth as a "historical representation of the supra-historical" divine.

Most contemporary students of mythology, however, have turned away from attempts to explain similarities in content in all myths by calling attention to the different contexts in which myths occur. They believe that myths function in a variety of ways within a single culture as well as differing in function from culture to culture. Sigmund Freud believed that the seeming irrationality of myth arises from the same source as the disconnectedness of dream; they are both symbolic reflections of unconscious and repressed fears and anxieties. Such fears and anxieties may be universal aspects of the human condition, or particular to distinct societies. The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski considered all myths to be validations of established practices and institutions. Similarly, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown examined how myths emphasize and reiterate the beliefs, behaviors, and feelings of people about their society.

Claude Lévi-Strauss returned to the study of all myths, not by examining common motifs and elements of the stories, but rather by focusing on their formal properties. He has called attention to the recurrence of certain kinds of structures in widely different traditions of folk literature and has reduced them to particular binary oppositions such as nature/culture and self/other. He contended that the human brain organizes all perceptions in terms of contrasts and concluded that certain oppositions are universal. He advocates the interpretation of myths as culturally specific transformations of these universal structures.


See L. H. Gray and G. F. Moore, ed., The Mythology of All Races (13 vol., 1916–33); B. Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion (1948); J. Campbell, The Masks of God (4 vol., 1959–68); M. Eliade, Myth and Reality (1963); A. Dundes, ed., The Study of Folklore (1965) and Sacred Narrative (1984); C. Lévi-Strauss, Mythology (4 vol., 1969–81); P. Maranda, Mythology (1972); S. Thompson, The Folktale (1977); M. S. Day, The Many Meanings of Myth (1984); K. Armstrong, A Short History of Myth (2005).

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The mythology of the classical world entered the mainstream of Renaissance art and thought through the work of scholars, as well as the poetic works of medieval writers who adopted the themes of ancient writers such as the Roman poet Ovid. In Italy, translators and commentators on writers such as Plato and Virgil spread the knowledge of classical mythology to students and university scholars. The trend began in the works of Petrarch, who rendered ancient myths in his collection of poems entitled Canzoniere, and Giovanni Boccaccio, whose Genealogy of the Gods was the first serious study of the pagan deities and the myths associated with them. With the invention of printing in the middle of the fifteenth century, the works of Ovid were presented in new editions, in Latin and in vernacular languages, gradually spreading throughout the continent and to newly literate social classes. The study of pagan myths made them common knowledge, and with the religious significance long stripped away, the gods became symbols of purely human qualities, adopted by many poets and painters in their works.

Renaissance sculptors, woodworkers, jewelers, and painters depicted these deities, who replaced the biblical events and themes that dominated the art of the Middle Ages. At first, classical mythology served as diversion, entertainment, and simple decoration in the form of garden sculptures and ceiling frescoes for private salons and public halls. Serious art was Christian art in the early Renaissance until Sandro Botticelliin works including Primavera and The Birth of Venus put pagan gods at the center of his canvas, making paganism a visual reflection of the emerging humanism in literature. Mythology allowed artists freer reign in their choice of subject matterthey could treat lust, pride, avarice, and other sins by adopting an ancient myth and giving it a personal interpretation, and not one controlled by medieval pictorial traditions. Eventually, political leaders took up mythology as well, identifying themselves with the ancient gods and taking on their attributes (Emperor Charles V, for example, was often shown as the Roman god Jupiter, and the Tudor dynasty of England modeled itself on the ancient Trojans).

Eventually pagan mythology became popular subject matter for the most renowned of Renaissance artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Michelangelo da Caravaggio, and Titian, whose mythological paintings, including Venus of Urbino, The Rape of Europea, Diana and Actaeon, and Bacchus and Ariadne, are considered his masterpieces. Writers, including Francois Rabelais, Ludovico Ariosto, William Shakespeare, and Pierre de Ronsard, drew heavily on mythology, while Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of the French King Henri II, became the subject herself of a pagan cult, in poetry and art, in which she was given the attributes of Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt. In the meantime, the use of classical mythology had a subversive effect on Christianity and its institutions. Giving a prominent place in poetry and sculpture to the Greek gods, for example, implied that religious faithwhether that of the pagans or the Christianswas simply a reflection of the human imagination. At the end of the Renaissance, ancient myths began to prevail in public art and in serious poetry, accompanying an age of skepticism that eventually resulted in the Enlightenment, a movement that cast doubt on religious faith of any kind.

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286. Mythology

See also 183. GOD and GODS .

battle between centaurs or between centaurs and men.
1. Greek Mythology. a horn of plenty, from the hom of the goat Amalthaea that dispensed an endless supply of food, drink, and other riches.
2. any copious or abundant supply or source. cornucopian , adj.
a wood nymph.
the belief that the mythological gods were merely legendary kings and heroes deified. euhemerist , n. euhemeristic , adj.
a dryad that is the spirit of a particular tree.
limniad, limoniad
Rare. a water nymph or naiad.
the attribution of supernatural events to mythological causes.
1. a student of myths.
2. an interpreter of myths.
an opponent of myths. mythoclastic , adj.
1. the establishment and development of myths.
2. the tendency to create myths or to give mythical status to a person or event. Also called mythogeny . mythogenetic , adj.
1. the collecting of myths.
2. the recording of myths in writing.
3. a critical collection of myths. mythographer, mythographist , n.
a recurrent pattern, event, or theme in myths, as an explanation of the change of seasons; folklore motifs.
a narrator of myths and legends.
1. a body of stories relating the traditional origins and causes of the world, natural forces and phenomena, and cultural developments, as that of a particular people or relating to a particular person.
2. a collection of myths.
3. the science of myths. mythologist , n. mythological , adj.
the creation of myths. mythopoeist , n. mythopoeic , adj.
mythos, mythus
1. myth.
2. mythology.
3. the interrelationship of value structures and historical experiences of a people, usually given expression through the arts.
a nymph or spirit of rivers and streams.
any of the daughters of Oceanus and Tethys; a sea nymph.
a mixture of theology and mythology. theomythologer , n.
according to Paracelsus, a water nymph or spirit, female in form and lacking a soul until married to a mortal and mother of his child.
1. the state or condition of being a vampire.
2. the actions or habits of vampires.
3. belief in the existence of vampires. vampiric , adj.

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my·thol·o·gy / məˈ[unvoicedth]äləjē/ • n. (pl. -gies) 1. a collection of myths, esp. one belonging to a particular religious or cultural tradition: Ganesa was the god of wisdom and success in Hindu mythology | a book discussing Jewish and Christian mythologies. ∎  a set of stories or beliefs about a particular person, institution, or situation, esp. when exaggerated or fictitious: in popular mythology, truckers are kings of the road. 2. the study of myths. DERIVATIVES: my·thol·o·ger / -jər/ n. myth·o·log·ic / ˌmi[unvoicedth]əˈläjik/ adj. myth·o·log·i·cal / ˌmi[unvoicedth]əˈläjikəl/ adj. myth·o·log·i·cal·ly / ˌmi[unvoicedth]əˈläjik(ə)lē/ adv. my·thol·o·gist / -jist/ n.

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mythology Literally, telling of stories, but usually collectively defined as the myths of a particular culture. A myth occurs in a timeless past, contains supernatural elements, and seeks to dramatize or explain such issues as the creation of the world (creation myth) and human beings, the institutions of political power, the cycle of seasons, birth, death and fate. Most mythologies have an established pantheon, or hierarchy, of gods who are more or less anthropomorphic. See also African mythology; Celtic mythology; Central and South American mythology; Chinese mythology; Egyptian mythology; Greek mythology; North American mythology; Oceanic mythology; Persian mythology; Teutonic mythology

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mythology •haji • algae • Angie •argy-bargy, Panaji •edgy, sedgy, solfeggi, veggie, wedgie •cagey, stagy •mangy, rangy •Fiji, gee-gee, squeegee •Murrumbidgee, ridgy, squidgy •dingy, fringy, mingy, stingy, whingy •cabbagy • prodigy • effigy • villagey •porridgy • strategy • cottagey •dodgy, podgy, splodgy, stodgy •pedagogy •Georgie, orgy •ogee • Fuji •bhaji, budgie, pudgy, sludgy, smudgy •bulgy •bungee, grungy, gungy, scungy, spongy •allergy, analogy, genealogy, hypallage, metallurgy, mineralogy, tetralogy •elegy •antilogy, trilogy •aetiology (US etiology), amphibology, anthology, anthropology, apology, archaeology (US archeology), astrology, biology, campanology, cardiology, chronology, climatology, cosmology, craniology, criminology, dermatology, ecology, embryology, entomology, epidemiology, etymology, geology, gynaecology (US gynecology), haematology (US hematology), hagiology, horology, hydrology, iconology, ideology, immunology, iridology, kidology, meteorology, methodology, musicology, mythology, necrology, neurology, numerology, oncology, ontology, ophthalmology, ornithology, parasitology, pathology, pharmacology, phraseology, phrenology, physiology, psychology, radiology, reflexology, scatology, Scientology, seismology, semiology, sociology, symbology, tautology, technology, terminology, theology, topology, toxicology, urology, zoology • eulogy • energy • synergy • apogee • liturgy • lethargy •burgee, clergy •zymurgy • dramaturgy

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