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The study of myth across the disciplines is united by the questions asked. The main questions are those of origin, function, and subject matter. Origin in this context means why and how myth arises; function, why and how myth persists. The answer to the why of origin and function is usually a need, which myth arises to fulfill and persists by continuing to fulfill. What that need is varies from theory to theory. Subject matter here means the referent of myth. Some theories read myth literally, so that the referent is the apparent one, such as gods. Other theories read myth symbolically, and the symbolized referent can be anything.

For example, a myth told by the Trobriand Islanders of Melanesia, as described by Polish-born anthropologist Bronis-law Malinowski (18841942) in Myth in Primitive Society (1926), says that the world "was originally peopled from underground. Humanity had there led an existence similar in all respects to the present life on earth. Underground, men were organized in villages, clans, districts; they had distinctions of rank, they knew privileges and had claims, they owned property, and were versed in magic lore. One day humans came to the surface and established themselves, bringing with them all their culture to continue it upon this earth."

According to Malinowski, whose theory will be considered in detail below, this myth was devised to secure support for the social divisions, ranks, and rights that were still to be found among the Trobrianders. Because no people will readily tolerate impositions, this myth was intended to provide a limited kind of justification. It does not assert that the impositions are deserved, but rather that they are traditional and go back even to the time before the proto-Trobrianders emerged from underground. The need being fulfilled is on the part of society itself, not on the part of individuals. Malinowski reads the myth literally: the subject matter is the social life of the Trobriand Islanders, both while underground and once above ground.

It is commonly said that theories of the nineteenth century focused on the question of origin and that theories of the twentieth century have focused on the questions of function and subject matter. But this characterization confuses historical origin with recurrent origin. Theories that profess to provide the origin of myth claim to know not where and when myth first arose but why and how myth arises wherever and whenever it does. The issue of recurrent origin was as popular with twentieth-century theorists as with nineteenth-century ones, and interest in function and subject matter was as common to nineteenth-century theorists as to twentieth-century ones.

Disciplines differ in their definitions of myth. Not all even assume that myth is a story. For political scientists, for example, myth can be a credo or an ideology, which may be illustrated by stories but is not rooted in them. Even when myth is assumed to be a story, disciplines differ over the contents. For folklorists, myth is about the creation of the world. In the Bible, only the two creation stories (Genesis 1 and 2), the Garden of Eden story (Genesis 3), and the Noah story (Genesis 69) would thereby qualify as myths. All other stories would instead constitute either legends or folktales. For theories drawn from religious studies, the main characters in myth must be gods or near-gods, such as heroes. Theories from anthropology, psychology, and sociology tend to allow for secular as well as religious myths.

Myth and Science

In the West, the ancient challenge to myth was on ethical grounds: Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.) bemoaned Homeric myths for presenting the gods as practitioners of immoral behavior. The chief modern challenge to myth has come from science.

One form of the modern challenge to myth has been to the scientific credibility of myth. Did creation really occur in a mere six days, as the first of two creation stories in Genesis (1:12:4a) claims? Was there really a worldwide flood? The most unrepentant defense against this challenge has been to claim that the biblical account is correct, for, after all, the Pentateuch was revealed to Moses by God. This position, known as creationism, assumes varying forms, ranging, for example, from taking the days of creation to mean exactly six days to taking them to mean "ages." At the same time, creationists of all stripes tout their views as scientific as well as religious, and they enlist scientific evidence to refute "pseudoscientific" rivals such as evolution.

A much tamer defense against the challenge of modern science has been to reconcile myth with that science. Here elements at odds with modern science are either removed or, more cleverly, reinterpreted as in fact scientific. There might not have been a Noah who was single-handedly able to gather up all living species and to keep them alive in a wooden boat sturdy enough to withstand the strongest seas that ever arose, but a worldwide flood did occur. What thus remains in myth is true because it is scientificmodern scientific.

By far the most common response to the challenge of science has been to abandon myth for science. Here myth is taken as an explanation of its own kind, not a scientific explanation in mythic guise. The issue is therefore not the scientific credibility of myth but the compatibility of myth with science. Myth, here a part of religion, is considered to be the "primitive" counterpart to science, which is assumed to be exclusively modern. Because moderns by definition accept science, they cannot also have myth, and the phrase modern myth is self-contradictory. Myth is a victim of the process of secularization that constitutes modernity.

The pioneering English anthropologist E. B. Tylor (18321917) remains the classic exponent of the view that myth and science are at odds. Tylor subsumes myth under religion and in turn subsumes both religion and science under philosophy. Primitive philosophy is identical with primitive religion. There is no primitive science. Modern philosophy, by contrast, is divided into religion and science. Primitive religion is the primitive counterpart to science because both are explanations of the physical world. The religious explanation is personalistic, the scientific one impersonal. The explanations are incompatible because both are direct explanations of the same events. Gods operate not behind or through impersonal forces but in place of them. One cannot, then, stack the religious account atop the scientific account.

Modern religion has surrendered the explanation of the world to science and has instead become a combination of metaphysics and ethics, neither of which is present in primitive religion. One now reads the Bible for not for the story of creation but for the Ten Commandments, just as for Plato a bowdlerized Homer (fl. 9th or 8th century b.c.e.) would enable one to do. This irenic position is like that of the American evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (19412002). Yet for Tylor, myths are too closely tied to gods as agents in the world to permit any transformation like that of the rest of religion. Where, then, there is "modern religion," albeit religion shorn of its prime role as explanation, there are no modern myths.

In pitting myth against science, as in pitting religion qua explanation against science, Tylor epitomizes the nineteenth-century view of myth. In the twentieth century, the trend was to reconcile myth as well as religion with science, so that moderns can retain myth as well as religion.

Closest to Tylor stands J. G. Frazer (18541941), the Scottish classicist and fellow pioneering anthropologist. For Frazer, as for Tylor, myth is part of primitive religion; primitive religion is part of philosophy, itself universal; and primitive religion is the counterpart to natural science, itself entirely modern. Primitive religion and science are, as for Tylor, mutually exclusive. But where for Tylor primitive religion, including myth, functions as the counterpart to scientific theory, for Frazer it functions even more as the counterpart to applied science, or technology. Where for Tylor primitive religion, including myth, serves to explain events in the physical world, for Frazer it serves even more to effect events, above all the growth of crops. Where Tylor treats myth as an autonomous text, Frazer ties myth to ritual, which enacts it.

The biggest difficulty for Tylor's and Frazer's view of myth as the primitive counterpart to science is that it conspicuously fails to account for the retention of myth in the wake of science. If myth functions to do no more than science, why is it still around?

Reacting against the views of Tylor and Frazer and other members of what he imprecisely calls "the English school of anthropology," the French philosopher and armchair anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (18571939) insisted on a much wider divide between myth and science. Where for Tylor and Frazer "primitives" think like moderns, just less rigorously, for Lévy-Bruhl primitives think differently from moderns. Where for Tylor and Frazer primitive thinking is logical, just erroneous, for Lévy-Bruhl primitive thinking is plainly nonlogical.

According to Lévy-Bruhl, primitives believe that all phenomena are part of a sacred, or "mystic," realm pervading the natural one. Phenomena become one another yet remain what they are. The Bororo of Brazil deem themselves red araras, or parakeets, yet still human beings. Lévy-Bruhl calls this belief "prelogical" because it violates the law of noncontradiction: the notion that something can simultaneously be both itself and something else.

For Lévy-Bruhl, as for Tylor and Frazer, myth is part of religion, religion is primitive, and moderns have science rather than religion. But where Tylor and Frazer subsume both religion and science under philosophy, Lévy-Bruhl associates philosophy with thinking freed from mystical identification with the world. Primitive thinking is nonphilosophical because it is not detached from the world. Primitives have a whole mentality of their own, one evinced in their myths.

One reaction to Lévy-Bruhl was to accept his separation of myth from philosophy but not his characterization of myth as pre-philosophical or pre-scientific. The key figure here was Malinowski. Invoking Frazer, Malinowski argues that primitives are too busy scurrying to survive in the world to have the luxury of reflecting on it. Where for Frazer primitives use myth in place of science, for Malinowski primitives use myth as a fallback to science. Primitives possess not just the counterpart to science but science itself. Where science stops, they turn to magic. Where magic stops, they turn to mythnot to secure further control over the world, as Frazer would assume, but to reconcile themselves to aspects of the world that cannot be controlled, such as natural catastrophes, illness, aging, and death. Myth explains how, say, illness arosea god or a human brought it aboutbut primitive science and magic try to do something about it. By contrast, myth says that nothing can be done about it.

Reacting both against Malinowski's view of primitives as practical rather than intellectual and against Lévy-Bruhl's view of primitives as mystical rather than intellectual, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908) has boldly sought to revive an intellectualist view of primitives and of myth. At first glance, Lévi-Strauss seems a sheer throwback to Tylor. Yet in fact Lévi-Strauss is severely critical of Tylor, for whom primitives concoct myth rather than science because they think less critically than moderns. For Lévi-Strauss, primitives create myth because they think differently from modernsbut, contrary to Lévy-Bruhl, still think and still think rigorously. For both, myth is the epitome of primitive thinking.

Where for Tylor primitive thinking is personalistic and modern thinking impersonal, for Lévi-Strauss primitive thinking is concrete and modern thinking abstract. Primitive thinking focuses on the observable, sensible aspects of phenomena rather than, like modern thinking, on the unobservable, insensible ones. Yet antithetically to Tylor, Lévi-Strauss considers myth no less scientific than modern science. Where for Tylor myth is the primitive counterpart to science per se, for Lévi-Strauss myth is the primitive counterpart to modern science. Myth is primitive science, but not thereby inferior science.

If myth is an instance of primitive thinking because it deals with concrete, tangible phenomena, it is an instance of thinking itself because it classifies phenomena. Lévi-Strauss maintains that all humans think in the form of classifications, specifically pairs of oppositions, and project them onto the world. Many cultural phenomena express these oppositions. Myth is distinctive in resolving or, more accurately, tempering the oppositions it expresses. Those contradictions are to be found not in the plot but in what Lévi-Strauss famously calls the "structure."

Karl Popper (19021994), the Viennese-born philosopher of science who eventually settled in England, breaks radically with Tylor. Where for Tylor science simply replaces it, for Popper science emerges out of mythnot, however, out of the acceptance of myth but out of the criticism of it. By "criticism" Popper means not rejection but assessment, which becomes scientific when it takes the form of attempts to falsify the truth claims made.

Myth and Philosophy

The relationship between myth and science overlaps with that between myth and philosophy. Yet there is an even greater array of positions held on the relationship between myth and philosophy: that myth is part of philosophy, that myth is philosophy, that philosophy is myth, that myth grows out of philosophy, that philosophy grows out of myth, that myth and philosophy are independent of each other but serve the same function, and that myth and philosophy are independent of each other and serve different functions.

The most abrupt reaction to Lévy-Bruhl's opposing of myth to both science and philosophy came from the Polish-born anthropologist Paul Radin (18831959), who was brought to the United States as an infant. Radin grants that most primitives are far from philosophical but observes that so are most persons in any culture. Both the average "man of action" and the exceptional "thinker" types of temperament are to be found in all cultures, and in the same proportion. If Lévy-Bruhl is therefore wrong to deny that any primitives are reflective, Tylor is equally wrong to assume that all are. But those primitives who are get credited by Radin with a philosophical prowess keener than that granted even myth makers by Tylor. Contrary to Tylor, primitives, furthermore, are capable of rigorous criticism. Likely for Radin, as definitely for Popper, the capacity for criticism is the hallmark of thinking.

A far less dismissive reaction to Lévy-Bruhl came from the German-born philosopher Ernst Cassirer (18741945). For Cassirer, wholly following Lévy-Bruhl, mythic, or "mythopoeic," thinking is primitive, is part of religion, and is the projection of mystical oneness onto the world. But Cassirer claims to be breaking sharply with Lévy-Bruhl in asserting that mythic thinking has its own brand of logic. In actuality, Lévy-Bruhl says the same and invents the term prelogical exactly to avoid labeling mythic thinking "illogical" or "nonlogical." Cassirer also claims to be breaking with Lévy-Bruhl in stressing the autonomy of myth as a form of knowledgelanguage, art, and science being the other main forms. Yet Cassirer simultaneously maintains, no differently from Lévy-Bruhl, that myth is incompatible with science and that science succeeds it. For both Cassirer and Lévy-Bruhl, myth is exclusively primitive and science exclusively modern. Still, Cassirer's characterization of myth as a form of knowledge puts myth in the same genus as sciencenot quite where Lévy-Bruhl puts it.

As philosophical as Cassirer's approach to myth is, he never contends that myth is philosophy. The theorists who do so are the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann (18841976) and the German-born philosopher Hans Jonas (19031993), who eventually settled in the United States. They apply to their specialties, Christianity and Gnosticism, a theory from the early, existentialist work of Martin Heidegger (18891976).

Myth and Religion

Myth approached from the field of religious studies naturally subsumes myth under religion and thereby directly exposes myth to the challenge to religion from science. Twentieth-century theories from religious studies sought to reconcile myth with science by reconciling religion with science.

There have been two main strategies for doing so. One tactic has been the recharacterization of the subject matter of religion and therefore of myth. Here religion is not about the physical world, in which case it is safe from any encroachment by science. The myths considered under this approach to religion are traditional myths such as biblical and classical ones, but they are now read symbolically rather than literally. Myth, it is claimed, has been taken to be at odds with science because it has been misreadby those who, like Tylor, read myth literally.

The other tactic for retaining myth in the wake of science has been the elevation of seemingly secular phenomena to religious ones. Here myth is no longer confined to explicitly religious ancient tales. There are now overtly secular modern myths as well. For example, stories about heroes are at face value about mere human beings, but the humans are raised so high above ordinary mortals as to become virtual gods. This approach retains a literal reading of myth but recategorizes the literal status of the agents in myth.

The grandest exponents of a symbolic rendition of traditional religious myths were Bultmann and Jonas. Taken literally, myth for Bultmann is exactly what it is for Tylor and should be rejected as uncompromisingly as Tylor rejects it. But unlike Tylor, Bultmann reads myth symbolically. In his celebrated, if excruciatingly confusing, phrase, he "demythologizes" myth, which means not eliminating, or "demythicizing," the mythology but instead extricating its true, symbolic meaning. To seek evidence of an actual worldwide flood, while dismissing the miraculous notion of an ark containing all species, would be to demythicize the Noah myth. To interpret the flood as a symbolic statement about the precariousness of human life would be to demythologize the myth.

Demythologized, myth ceases to be about the world and turns out to be about the human experience of the world. Demythologized, myth ceases to be an explanation at all and becomes an expression, an expression of what it feels like to live in the world. The New Testament, when demythologized, contrasts the alienation from the world felt by those who have not yet found God to the at-home-ness in the world felt by those who have found God. Myth ceases to be merely primitive and becomes universal. It ceases to be false and becomes true. It depicts the human condition.

Taken literally, myth, as a personalistic explanation of the physical world, is incompatible with science and is therefore unacceptable to moderns. Once demythologized, however, myth is compatible with science because it now refers at once to the transcendent, nonphysical world and, even more, to humans' experience of the physical one. But to say that myth is acceptable to scientifically minded moderns is not to say why it should be accepted. In providing a modern subject matter of myth, Bultmann provides no modern function.

Jonas argues that ancient Gnosticism presents the same fundamental view of the human condition as modern existentialismbut of atheistic rather than, as for Bultmann, of religious existentialism. Both Gnosticism and existentialism stress the radical alienation of human beings from the world. Unlike Bultmann, who strives to bridge the gap between Christianity and modernity, Jonas acknowledges the divide between Gnosticism and modernity. Yet for Jonas, Gnostic mythology can still speak to moderns, and not to modern believers, as for Bultmann, but to modern skeptics. Like Bultmann, Jonas seeks to reconcile myth with science by recharacterizing the subject matter of myth. Yet no more than Bultmann does he offer any function of myth for moderns.

Hagiographical biographies of celebrated figures transform them into near-gods and their sagas into myths. For example, immediately after the First Gulf War, biographies of the American commander-in-chief, "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf (b. 1934), touted him as the smartest and bravest soldier in the worldso much smarter and braver than anyone else as to make him almost more than human.

The chief theorist here is the Romanian-born historian of religions Mircea Eliade (19071986), who spent the last three decades of his life in the United States. Unlike Bultmann and Jonas, Eliade does not seek to reconcile myth with science by interpreting myth symbolically. He reads myth as literally as Tylor does. Unlike Bultmann and Jonas, Eliade does not try to update traditional myths. But rather than, like Tylor, sticking to traditional, explicitly religious myths, he turns to modern, seemingly nonreligious ones. Yet instead of trying to reconcile those myths with science, as Bultmann and Jonas would, he appeals to the sheer presence of them to argue for their compatibility with science: if moderns, who for Eliade no less than for the others have science, also have myth, then myth simply must be compatible with science. Where Bultmann and Jonas argue meekly that moderns can have myth, Eliade argues boldly that they do. Where Tylor and Frazer assume that myth is the victim of the process of secularization, Eliade argues that only a superficial secularization has occurred.

Myth and Ritual

Myth is commonly taken to be words, often in the form of a story. A myth is read or heard. It says something. Yet there is an approach to myth that finds this view of myth artificial. According to the myth and ritual, or myth-ritualist, theory, myth does not stand by itself but is tied to ritual. Myth is not just a statement but also an action.

The myth-ritualist theory was pioneered by the Scottish biblicist and Arabist William Robertson Smith (18461894). Smith argues that belief is central to modern religion but not to ancient religion, where instead ritual was central. He grants that ancients doubtless performed rituals only for some reason. But the reason was secondary and could even fluctuate. The reason was a story, or a myth, which simply described the origin of the ritual. In claiming that myth is an explanation of ritual, Smith was denying Tylor's conception of myth as an explanation of the world.

Yet Smith is like Tylor in one key respect. For both, myth is wholly ancient. Modern religion is without mythand without ritual as well. Myth and ritual are not merely ancient but "primitive." In fact, for both Tylor and Smith, ancient religion is but a case of primitive religion, which is the fundamental foil to modern religion.

J. G. Frazer developed the myth-ritualist theory far beyond Smith. Frazer, rarely consistent, actually presents two distinct versions of myth-ritualism. In the first version myth describes the life of the god of vegetation, and ritual enacts the myth describing his death and rebirth. The ritual operates on the basis of the voodoo-like Law of Similarity, according to which the imitation of an action causes it to happen. The ritual directly manipulates the god of vegetation, but as the god goes, so automatically goes vegetation. The ritual is performed when one wants winter to end, presumably when stored-up provisions are running low. A human being, often the king, plays the role of the god and acts out what he magically induces the god to do.

In Frazer's second version of myth-ritualism, the king is central. Here the king does not merely act the part of the god but is himself divine, by which Frazer means that the god resides in him. Just as the health of vegetation depends on the health of its god, so now the health of the god depends on the health of the king: as the king goes, so goes the god of vegetation, and so in turn goes vegetation itself. To ensure a steady supply of food, the community kills its king while he is still in his prime and thereby safely transfers the soul of the god to his successor. As in the first version, the aim is to end winter, which now is attributed to the weakening of the king.

While this second version of myth-ritualism has proved the more influential by far, it actually provides only a tenuous link between myth and ritual. Instead of enacting the myth of the god of vegetation, the ritual simply changes the residence of the god. The king dies not in imitation of the death of the god but as a sacrifice to preserve the health of the god. What part myth plays here, it is not easy to see. Instead of reviving the god by magical imitation, the ritual revives the god by a transplant.

Outside of religion, the most notable application of the myth-ritualist theory has been to literature. The English classicist Jane Harrison (18501928) daringly derived all art, not just literature, from ritual. Using Frazer's first version of mythritualism, she speculates that gradually people ceased believing that the imitation of an action caused that action to occur. Yet rather than abandoning ritual, they now practiced it as an end in itself. Ritual for its own sake became art, her clearest example of which is drama. More modestly than she, fellow classicists Gilbert Murray (18661957) and Francis Macdonald Cornford (18741943) rooted specifically Greek epic, tragedy, and comedy in myth-ritualism. Murray then extended the theory to the works of William Shakespeare (15641616).

Other standard-bearers of the theory have included Jessie Weston on the Grail legend, E. M. Butler on the Faust legend, C. L. Barber on Shakespearean comedy, Herbert Weisinger on Shakespearean tragedy and on tragedy per se, Francis Fergusson on tragedy, Lord Raglan on hero myths and on literature as a whole, and Northrop Frye and Stanley Edgar Hyman on literature generally. As literary critics, these myth-ritualists have understandably been concerned less with myth itself than with the mythic origin of literature. Works of literature are interpreted as the outgrowth of myths once tied to rituals. For those literary critics indebted to Frazer, as the majority are, literature harks back to Frazer's second myth-ritualist scenario. "The king must die" becomes the familiar summary line.

For literary myth-ritualists, myth becomes literature when myth is severed from ritual. Myth tied to ritual is religious literature; myth cut off from ritual is secular literature, or plain literature. Bereft of ritual, myth can no longer change the world and is demoted to mere commentary.

Perhaps the first to temper the dogma that myths and rituals are inseparable was the American anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn (19051960). The German classicist Walter Burkert (b. 1931) has gone well beyond Kluckhohn in not merely permitting but assuming the original independence of myth and ritual. He maintains that when the two do come together, they do not just serve a common function, as Kluckhohn assumes, but reinforce each other. Myth bolsters ritual by giving mere human behavior a real, not to mention divine, origin: do this because the gods did or do it. Conversely, ritual bolsters myth by turning a mere story into prescribed behavior of the most dutiful kind: do this on pain of anxiety, if not punishment. Where for Smith myth serves ritual, for Burkert ritual equally serves myth.

Ritual for Burkert is "as if" behavior. The "ritual" is not the customs and formalities involved in actual hunting but dramatized hunting. The function is no longer that of securing food, as for Frazer, for the ritual proper arises only after farming has supplanted hunting as the prime source of food. The communal nature of actual hunting, and of ritualized hunting thereafter, functioned to assuage anxiety over one's own aggression and one's own mortality, and at the same time functioned to cement a bond among participants. This shift of focus from the physical world to the human world typifies the shift of focus from nineteenth-century theories of myth to twentieth-century ones.

Myth and Psychology

In the field of psychology, the theories of the Viennese physician Sigmund Freud (18561939) and of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (18751961) have almost monopolized the study of myth. Freud's key discussion of his key myth, that of Oedipus, fittingly occurs in The Interpretation of Dreams (1913), for he, and Jung as well, compare myths with dreams.

On the surface, or manifest, level, the story of Oedipus describes that figure's vain effort to elude the fate that has been imposed on him. Latently, however, Oedipus most wants to do what manifestly he least wants to do. He wants to act out his "Oedipus complex." The manifest, or literal, level of the myth hides the latent, symbolic meaning. On the manifest level Oedipus is the innocent victim of Fate. On the latent level he is the culprit. Rightly understood, the myth depicts not Oedipus's failure to circumvent his ineluctable destiny but his success in fulfilling his fondest desires.

Yet the latent meaning scarcely stops here. For the myth is not ultimately about Oedipus at all. Just as the manifest level, on which Oedipus is the victim, masks a latent one, on which Oedipus is the victimizer, so that level in turn masks an even more latent one, on which the ultimate victimizer is the myth maker and any reader of the myth smitten with it. Either is a neurotic adult male stuck, or fixated, at his Oedipal stage of development. He identifies himself with Oedipus and through him fulfills his own Oedipus complex. At heart, the myth is not biography but autobiography.

The Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank (18841939), who was Freud's protégé at the time but who later broke irrevocably with the master, works out a common plot, or pattern, for one key category of myths: those of male heroes. The heart of the pattern is the decision by the parents to kill their son at birth to avert the prophecy that the son, if born, will one day kill his father. Unbeknownst to the parents, the infant is rescued and raised by others, grows up to discover who he is, returns home to kill his father, and succeeds him as king or noble. Interpreted psychologically, the pattern is the enactment of the Oedipus complex: the son kills his father to gain sexual access to his mother.

Mainstream psychoanalysis has changed mightily since Freud's day. Contemporary psychoanalysts like the American Jacob Arlow (19122004) see myth as contributing to normal development rather than to the perpetuation of neurosis. Myth abets adjustment to the social and the physical worlds rather than childish flight from them. Furthermore, myth now serves everyone, not merely neurotics.

The classical Freudian goal is the establishment of oneself in the external world, largely free of domination by parents and instincts. Success is expressed concretely in the form of a job and a mate. Jungians accept that goal, but as that of only the "first half" of life, or from infancy to young adulthood. The goal of the uniquely Jungian second half of lifeof adulthoodis consciousnessnot, however, of the external world, as summed up by the Freudian term reality principle, but of the distinctively Jungian, or collective, unconscious. One must return to that unconscious, from which one has unavoidably become severed in the first half of life, but not to sever one's ties to the external world. On the contrary, the aim is return in turn to the external world. The ideal is a balance between consciousness of the external world and consciousness of the unconscious. The aim of the second half of life is to supplement, not abandon, the achievements of the first half.

The American mythologist Joseph Campbell (19041987) provides the classical Jungian counterpart to Rank on hero myths. Where Rank's pattern, limited to males, centers on the hero's toppling of his father, Campbell's centers on a journey, undertaken by an adult female or a male hero, from the known, human world to the heretofore unknown world of gods. Interpreted psychologically, that journey is an inner, not outer, trek from the known portion of the mindordinary, or ego, consciousness, the object of which is the external worldto the unknown portion of the mindthe Jungian unconscious. The successful hero must not only reach the strange, new world but also return. In psychological terms, success means the completion of the goal of the second half of life.

The most influential Jungian theorists of myth after Jung himself have been Erich Neumann (19051960) and James Hillman (b. 1926). Neumann systematizes the developmental, or evolutionary, aspect of Jungian theory. Jung himself certainly correlates myths with stages of psychological development, but Neumann works out the stages, beginning with the "uroboric" stage of sheer unconsciousness and proceeding to the incipient emergence of the ego out of the unconscious, the development of an independent ego consciousness, and the eventual return of the ego to the unconscious to create the self. Neumann's emphasis on heroism in the first half of life complements Campbell's devotion to heroism in the second half.

By far the most radical development in the Jungian theory of myth has been the emergence of archetypal psychology, which in fact considers itself post-Jungian. The chief figure in this movement is Hillman. Another important figure is David Miller. Archetypal psychology faults classical Jungian psychology on multiple grounds. By emphasizing the compensatory, therapeutic message of mythology, classical Jungian psychology purportedly reduces mythology to psychology and gods to concepts. In espousing a unified self (or "Self") as the ideal psychological authority, Jungian psychology supposedly projects onto psychology a Western, specifically monotheistic, more specifically Christian, even more specifically Protestant outlook. The Western emphasis on progress is purportedly reflected in the primacy Jungian psychology accords hero myths and the primacy it accords the ego, even in the ego's encounter with the unconscious: the encounter is intended to abet development. Finally, Jungian psychology is berated for placing archetypes in an unknowable realm distinct from the known realm of symbols.

As a corrective, Hillman and his followers advocate that psychology be viewed as irreducibly mythological. Myth is still to be interpreted psychologically, but psychology is itself to be interpreted mythologically. One grasps the psychological meaning of the myth of Saturn by imagining oneself to be the figure Saturn, not by translating Saturn's plight into clinical terms like depression. Moreover, the depressed Saturn represents a legitimate aspect of one's personality. Each god deserves its due. The psychological ideal should be pluralistic rather than monolithicin mythological terms, polytheistic rather than monotheistic, or Greek rather than biblical. Insisting that archetypes are to be found in symbols rather than outside them, Hillman espouses a relation to the gods in themselves and not to something beyond them. The ego becomes but one more archetype with its attendant kind of god, and it is the soul rather than the ego that experiences the archetypes through myths. Myth serves to open one up to the soul's own depths.

Myth and Structure

Lévi-Strauss calls his approach to myth "structuralist" to distinguish it from "narrative" interpretations, or those that adhere to the plot of myth. Nonstructuralists deem myth a story, progressing from beginning to end, be the story interpreted literally or symbolically. Where the plot of a myth is that, say, event A leads to event B, which leads to event C, which leads to event D, the structure, which is identical with the expression and resolution of contradictions, is either that events A and B constitute an opposition mediated by event C or, as in the Oedipus myth, that events A and B, which constitute the same opposition, are to each other as events C and D, an analogous opposition, are to each other. Apparently, all oppositions for Lévi-Strauss symbolize the tension between humans as part of nature and humans as part of culture.

Lévi-Strauss is not the only or even the earliest theorist of myth labeled a structuralist. Notably, the Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp (18951970) and the French Indo-Europeanist Georges Dumézil (18981986) wrote both before Lévi-Strauss and independently of him. The French literary critic Roland Barthes (19151980) was a contemporary of Lévi-Strauss but was his own person.

The common plot that Propp deciphers in Russian fairy tales is his structure, which thus remains on the narrative level and is no different from the kind of structure found by Rank and Campbell. By contrast, the structure that Dumézil unravels lies as much beneath the surface level as Lévi-Strauss's. But it reflects the order of society rather than, as for Lévi-Strauss, that of the mind, and is three-part rather than two-part.

Barthes is concerned with myth as ideology. In Lévi-Straussian terms, he writes to expose the way that French bourgeois culture creates myths to make itself seem naturala fusion of culture with nature rather than the mere alleviation of the opposition between them. For Barthes, the function of myth is social rather than, as for Lévi-Strauss, intellectual. For Barthes, the structure of myth is its cultural context. By "myths" he means artifacts and activities more than stories. His clearest example is of professional wrestling, which, much more than a sport, is an attempt to alleviate lingering misgivings over the behavior of some French citizens during the Occupation by presenting clear-cut Good (the wrestler) as triumphing over clear-cut Evil (his opponent).

A group of French classicists headed by Jean-Pierre Vernant (b. 1914) have proved the most faithful followers of Lévi-Strauss's brand of structuralism, though even they have adapted it. Lévi-Strauss has regularly been lambasted for isolating myth from its various contextssocial, cultural, political, economic, even sexual. In his essay on the American Indian myth of Asdiwal, he does provide a detailed ethnographic analysis of a myth. But he does so almost nowhere else. Vernant and his fellow classicistsnotably, Marcel Detienne, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, and Nicole Lorauxhave taken the analysis of Asdiwal as their model. As the heirs of Lévi-Strauss, these classicists have sought to decipher underlying, often latent patterns in myths, but they have then sought to link those patterns to ones in the culture at large.

Myth and Society

Where for Tylor and Frazer myth deals exclusively, or nearly exclusively, with physical phenomenaflooding, disease, deathfor Malinowski myth deals even more with social phenomenaclasses, taxes, rituals. Myth still serves to reconcile humans to the unpleasantries of life, but now to unpleasantries that, far from unalterable, can be cast off. Here, too, myths spur resigned acceptance by tracing these unpleasantries, or at least impositions, back to a hoary past, thereby conferring on them the clout of tradition. Myth persuades denizens to defer to, say, ranks in society by pronouncing those ranks long-standing and in that sense deserved. Here the beneficiary of myth is society, not the individual. The modern counterpart to myths of social phenomenaif for Malinowski moderns lack mythswould be ideology.

As the Frazerian counterpart to Rank and Campbell, Lord Raglan extends Frazer's second myth-ritualist scenario by turning the king who dies for the community into a hero. The function of myth is now as much social as agricultural: inspiring present kings to sacrifice themselves so that their communities will not starve. The French-born, American-resident literary critic René Girard (b. 1923) offers an ironic twist to Raglan. Where Raglan's hero is willing to die for the community, Girard's hero is killed or exiled by the community for having caused the present woes of the community. Indeed, the "hero" is initially considered a criminal who deserves to die. Only subsequently is the villain turned into a hero, who, as for Raglan, dies selflessly for the community. Both Raglan and Girard cite Oedipus as their fullest example, though both scorn Freud. For Girard, the transformation of Oedipus from reviled exile in Sophocles' Oedipus the King to revered benefactor in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus typifies the transformation from criminal to hero.

Yet this change is for Girard only the second half of the process. The first half is the change from innocent victim to criminal. Originally, the community selects an innocent member to blame for the violence that has erupted. This scapegoat, who can be of any rank, is usually killed, though, as with Oedipus, sometimes exiled. The killing is the ritualistic sacrifice. Rather than directing the ritual, as for Frazer, myth for Girard is created after the killing to hide it. Myth comes from ritual, as for Smith, but it comes to mask rather than, as for Smith, to explain the ritual. Myth turns the scapegoat into a criminal who deserved to die and then turns the criminal into a hero, who has died voluntarily for the good of the community.

Like Burkert, Girard roots myth in sacrifice and roots sacrifice in aggression. Yet like Burkert, myth functions to secure peace and not, as for Frazer, food. Myth deals with the human world; science, with the physical world. This shift of focus again typifies the shift from nineteenth-century of theories of myth to twentieth-century ones.

See also Fundamentalism ; Literature: Overview ; Psychoanalysis ; Psychology and Psychiatry ; Religion ; Ritual: Religion ; Science: Overview ; Structuralism and Poststructuralism: Overview .


Arlow, Jacob A. "Ego Psychology and the Study of Mythology." Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 9 (1961): 371393.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.

Bultmann, Rudolf. "New Testament and Mythology." In Kerygma and Myth, edited by Hans-Werner Bartsch. Translated by Reginald H. Fuller. London: SPCK, 1953.

Burkert, Walter. Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: Pantheon, 1949.

Cassirer, Ernst. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Vol. 2: Mythical Thought. Translated by Ralph Manheim. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1955.

Dumézil, Georges. Archaic Roman Religion. 2 vols. Translated by Philip Krapp. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Translated by Willard R. Trask. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959.

Frazer, J. G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. 3rd ed. 12 vols. London: Macmillan, 19111915.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. In Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 24 vols. Edited and translated by James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press, 19531974.

Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Translated by Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Harrison, Jane Ellen. Ancient Art and Ritual. London: Williams and Norgate, 1913.

Hillman, James. Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.

Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. 2nd ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.

Jung, Carl Gustav. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. 2nd ed. Translated by R. F. C. Hull. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. "The Structural Study of Myth." In Myth, edited by Thomas A. Sebeok. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien. How Natives Think. Translated by Lilian A. Clare. London: Allen and Unwin, 1926. Reprint, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. Myth in Primitive Psychology. New York: Norton, 1926.

Popper, Karl. Conjectures and Refutations. 5th ed. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974.

Propp, Vladimir I.A. Morphology of the Folktale. 2nd ed. Translated by Laurence Scott. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968.

Radin, Paul. Primitive Man as Philosopher. 2nd ed. New York: Dover, 1957.

Raglan, Lord. The Hero. London: Methuen, 1936. Reprinted in In Quest of the Hero, edited by Otto Rank, et al. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Rank, Otto. The Myth of the Birth of the Hero. 1st ed. Translated by F. Robbins and Smith Ely Jelliffe. New York: Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing, 1914. Reprinted in In Quest of the Hero, edited by Otto Rank, et al. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Segal, Robert A. Myth: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

. Theorizing about Myth. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.

Smith, William Robertson. Lectures on the Religion of the Semites. Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1889.

Tylor, E. B. Primitive Culture. 2 vols. London: Murray, 1871.

Vernant, Jean-Pierre. Myth and Thought Among the Greeks. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983.

Robert A. Segal


views updated May 14 2018


The relation between philosophy and mythology can be usefully set out under three main headings. There is first the period in Greek philosophy when philosophers wanted to discard and to criticize mythological modes of thought but when they were still so close to those modes of thought that mythology recurred in philosophical contexts. Then in modern thought there is the period from Giambattista Vico to Auguste Comte, when mythology was taken seriously as a clue to the primitive history of thought, and from the nineteenth century on, when there was a variety of systematic attempts at a science of mythology. Finally, there is the role of myth in modern irrationalisms.

To this scheme three objections may be made. The first is that in discussing the Greeks what is said will inevitably be conditioned by the writer's beliefs about what modern scientific approaches to mythology have yielded. Thus, the second section should precede the first. To this objection everything can be conceded except the conclusion, for it would be equally difficult to discuss the growth of the science of mythology before anything had been said about mythology itself.

A second objection might be that no initial definition of mythology has been offered. But here the danger is that by delineating the field of mythology too sharply, one biases one's account in favor of one sort of theory. And any definition broad enough to escape this charge would be either vague or a mere catalog.

The third objection would be that the Christian era until the time of Vico appears to be neglected by this schematism. For this there is good reason, however. In that era mythologies were predominantly treated as false theological accounts, rivals to the one true theological account, the Christian.

Greek Philosophy

Greek myths, like those of other Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures, include cosmogonies and accounts of great discoveries and inventions, such as that of fire; of the founding of cities; and of the ancestry of kings, in which relationships between gods and men are codified. In different stages of the mythology, such as in the distinction between the Olympian gods and the dark, chthonic deities, one can distinguish different social origins. From the time of Émile Durkheim and Jane Harrison anthropologists have stressed the function of myths as explanations of rituals that express the social consciousness of a group. In Greek society the public ritual continued to express the life of the community long after belief in gods had become questionable.

Greek philosophy only gradually separated itself from mythology. Personification, for example, was common in pre-Socratic philosophy, but at the same time rationalist criticism of mythology originated with writers like Xenophanes, who attacked anthropomorphic representation of the gods, and Euhemerus, who argued that myths were to be explained as stories about men who had been deified. Heraclitus attacked Homer and Hesiod for their dependence on myth.


Plato used myths and allegories for a variety of purposes. Perceval Frutiger draws a distinction between myths properly so called and allegories, which, for example, lack the element of story; among allegories he would include the account of the Cave in the Republic or the noble lie about precious and base metals in the souls of different types of men. He divides myths in the full sense into those that function as allegories, those that function as genetic explanations, and those that function as other types of parascientific explanations. An example of allegorical myth is Diotima's account of the birth of Eros in the Symposium ; among genetic explanations is the account of the creation in the Timaeus ; and typical examples of what Frutiger calls parascientific are the accounts of a future life and of rewards and punishments for virtue and vice given in the Republic, Gorgias, Phaedo, and Phaedrus. Frutiger sees three features of Platonic myth as outstanding: the use of symbols, the freedom exhibited in the handling of the narrative, and what he pleasantly calls a prudent imprecision. The last is important. Plato uses myth where he wishes the precise extent of his own intellectual commitment to remain unclear. Thus, Plato's use of myth helps us to understand how the break with mythological thought forms involves the raising of sharp questions about truth and falsity which the mythological forms themselves are able to evade. This throws light on certain characteristics of mythology.

The subject matter of mythological narratives is no different from that of later philosophy and science; what differentiates myth from these is not merely its narrative form or its use of personification. It is, rather, that a myth is living or dead, not true or false. You cannot refute a myth because as soon as you treat it as refutable, you do not treat it as a myth but as a hypothesis or history. Myths that could not easily coexist if they were hypotheses or histories, as, for example, rival accounts of creation, can comfortably belong to the same body of mythology. There are often gradual processes of reconciliation and of integration into a single narrative, but the discrepancies that give so much pleasure to the anthropologist are not discrepancies at all from the standpoint of the narrator.

Thus Plato, by falling back into myth, may be deliberately avoiding too direct an encounter not only with certain philosophical difficulties but also with rival religious traditions. For myth is not theology any more than it is hypothesis or history. Indeed, the dominance of theology in later religious thought and the insistence in the mystery religions and in Christianity on treating myth as theology are as responsible for the death of mythology as is any philosophical rationalism bred by the pre-Socratics and Plato. Of course, it was not only Greek mythology that was treated by Christianity in this way. Both Norse and Celtic mythology met the same fate, although they both survived in medieval literature as beliefs and not just as a source for tale telling.

Modern Thought

The first serious modern treatment of mythology occurs in Vico's Scienza nuova. In Vico's theory of history each period has its own unity and character, and periods succeed one another in a determinate order. The beginnings of civilization occur in "the age of the gods," when men live in families and center their lives around religion, marriage, and the burial of the dead; this period is followed by the "age of heroes," in which aristocratic states arise. Only then comes the "age of men," the age of democratic republics. By the third stage rational inquiry is established, but in the early stages poetry and myth express the vulgar wisdom of a people. Only from mythology can we discover the religion, morals, law, and social life of early society. Myths are not false narratives, nor are they allegories. They express the collective mentality of a given age.

Vico's treatment of myth is far closer to that of modern anthropology than is that of his immediate successors. The Enlightenment's belief in progress and attack on superstition produced an unsympathetic climate for such interests. Even Johann Gottfried Herder, whose sympathy was awakened by seeing in primitive poetry and song the spirit of the folk, was inclined to treat myths as pardonably false beliefs. In the nineteenth century this assumption underlay the first systematic attempts at a science of mythology, but there was also a new consciousness of the widespread prevalence of mythology and a wish to apply comparative methods.

In 1856 F. Max Müller published his Comparative Mythology, in which he tried to interpret mythologies by means of principles derived from philology. All Aryan languages are derived from Sanskrit, in which originally there were certain words named sun, sky, clouds, rain, and dawn. But language became diseased, the original meanings were lost, the words became treated as the names of divine beings, and what had been accounts of the sun ushering in the dawn and ending the reign of night were transformed into myths about battles between gods, heroic quests for gold, and the like. To understand a myth, asserted Müller, discover the etymology of the names.

Andrew Lang pointed out that rival philologists would give different etymological explanations of the same myth with apparently equal plausibility. Lang himself regarded myths as survivals of earlier social norms. The classical Greeks recount myths in which cannibalism and human sacrifice occur, although they practiced neither; however, among Polynesian and African peoples, of whom Lang's contemporaries were newly aware, just such customs and accompanying myths are found. In classical Greece the custom had vanished, but the myth remained. Or a nature myth may be found with its meaning plain in its Maori form today, whereas in its Greek version the story has been so changed that the original meaning has been lost. The anthropology Lang and his school used was that of E. B. Tylor, who himself criticized Müller's theorizing by showing how convincingly the nursery rhyme "Sing a Song of Sixpence" could be explained as a solar myth in Müller's terms.

recurrent themes and comparative methods

Lang took it for granted that the "same" myth could turn up both in Greece and in New Zealand. The modern collection of mythologies has emphasized nothing so much as the strikingly similar themes and stories that recur in widely different places and times. Myths of the creation of the world are widespread; myths of the creation of humankind occur everywhere. But even in detail myths resemble one another. Clyde Kluckhohn has written that he knows of no culture lacking myths of witchcraft in which were-animals move about at night; poisons can be magically introduced into the victim, causing illness and death; and there is some connection between incest and witchcraft. Rank has discussed the common myth pattern of a hero, born of noble parents, against whose birth an oracle warns his father, so that the child is left to die of exposure; the child is saved by shepherds or animals, grows up to return, perform great deeds, avenge himself, and finally be recognized. In the Far East, among the Navajo, and in Greece, as well as in many other places, we find this pattern. What is the explanation of its recurrence? We can distinguish three main types of explanation.

The first is psychoanalytic. Otto Rank, a Freudian, explains the hero as the ego of the child who rebels against his parents. His father, on whom the child's hate is projected, is pictured as exposing the child in a box on water. The box symbolizes the womb; the water, birth. The order of the story follows a sequence analogous to that of dreams in which natural events and symbols are combined in a single fantasy. The myth is the expression of all paranoid characters who hate the father who ousted them from the maternal love and care. Because such a character is widespread, the myth that expresses it is widespread, too; in general, it is the common biological, and, consequently, psychological, inheritance of humankind that underlies the common stock of mythology.

By contrast, the Jungian approach to mythology rests upon belief in a common human access to the collective unconscious. The individual continually finds himself giving expression to an archetypal symbolism that dominates not only the mythology but also much of the sophisticated literature of the world. The same myths recur in different times and places because all mythology has a common source. Modern man, who has overdeveloped the rational side of his nature, encounters in his dreams the same figures that appear in ancient and primitive mythology.

The difficulties in the Jungian account of mythology are difficulties that confront all Jungian theory. If the existence of the collective unconscious is a hypothesis designed to explain the recurrence of certain themes and symbols in myths and dreams, then it must be formulable in a way that is testable. But if such a hypothesis is to be testable, we must be able to deduce from it predictable consequences over and above the data it was originally formulated to explain. Yet no such consequences seem to follow from the hypothesis of the collective unconscious. It seems to be untestable; it certainly remains untested. As an explanation of the recurrence of mythological themes and symbols, it is also unnecessary, for there are simpler and less incoherent explanations.

Joseph Campbell has used the Jungian theory of archetypes to interpret the story The Frog King, one of the myths collected by the brothers Grimm. He sees the frog as a small-scale dragon whose outward ugliness conceals the depths of the unconscious, in which unrecognized and unknown treasure is to be found. The frog king summons the child to attain maturity and self-knowledge by exploration of the unconscious. Fortunately, we also have a Freudian interpretation of The Frog King by Ernest Jones according to which the frog is a symbol for the penis and the myth represents the child's overcoming disgust in approaching the sexual act. Müller had, of course, long before interpreted The Frog King as one more solar myth.

In the face of these rival interpretations the need for a criterion of correct interpretation is clearly urgent, and with this need goes the need for a criterion for deciding when two myths are and are not versions of the "same" myth. The first step toward providing such criteria is the collection and tentative classification of as many bodies of mythology as possible. The most interesting work here has been done by Kluckhohn, who has systematically established not only the recurrence of plots and characters but also the existence of constant tendencies within this recurrence. For example, we can discover cases where a myth is reinterpreted to fit a new cultural or social situation. Clearly, where we can distinguish the original from the reinterpreted version, we are in a stronger position to compare a myth with similar myths for other cultures. We can study and compare not merely one version of a myth with another but the development of one myth through a series of versions with the development of another; from this it is clear that even if we wish to stress certain psychological functions of myth (Kluckhohn has thrown light on Navajo mythmaking by showing how it exemplifies mechanisms of ego defense), it is only when we put myth into a social context that we are likely to understand what the nature of mythmaking and recounting is.


The work of Claude Lévi-Strauss is important not only because its treatment of myth does not abstract myths from the social and economic relationships of those who tell and hear them but also because by invoking a wider context he has been able to pick out hitherto unnoticed features of mythology. In Totemism, for example, Lévi-Strauss shows how a myth of the North American Ojibwa and a myth from Polynesian Tikopia both express relationships between nature and culture, between the species that provide food and the kinship system. In each case the myth helps to express both continuity and discontinuity in these relationships; both myths also stress that no direct and simple connection between the one type of relationship and the other is possible. The myths, as it were, warn anthropologists not to oversimplify.

If one did not notice the connection of these myths with foodstuffs and with kinship but simply abstracted the "story," one would certainly not necessarily conclude that the Ojibwa myth and the Tikopia myth were the same myth. The resemblances between them appear fully only because Lévi-Strauss poses certain questions about the myths. These questions are formulated in the light of his general theory of kinship systems and invoke the notion of relationships that are specified in purely formal terms. Lévi-Strauss elsewhere has analyzed other myths with a view to showing that in their structure formal properties are both exhibited and implicitly commented upon. Perhaps not surprisingly, these formal properties parallel the formal properties exhibited by kinship systems and also parallel to some extent, much more surprisingly, the formal properties of certain linguistic structures.

What emerges from these studies is the thesis that myths incorporate and exhibit binary oppositions that are present in the structure of the society in which the myth was born. In the myth these oppositions are reconciled and overcome. The function of the myth is to render intellectually and socially tolerable what would otherwise be experienced as incoherence. The myth is a form in which society both understands and misunderstands its own structure. Thus, Lévi-Strauss gives a precise meaning to Vico's contention that "The fables of the gods are true histories of customs."

This judgment is perhaps inverted in the work of Lévi-Strauss's most important rival, Mircea Eliade. The customs of men, in Eliade's view, often turn out to be the expression of their beliefs about the gods. Thus, the behavior of shamans, who in a state of trance imitate animal sounds (birds' song, for example, among many peoples) is a reenactment and an attempt to restore man's primitive, paradisal, unfallen state in which he not only did not die or have to work but also communicated with the animals and lived in peace with them. Hence, Eliade concludes both that shamanism is part of the central religious tradition of humankind, stretching from primitive African myths to Christian theology, and that it is therefore not, as it first appears to be, an irrational phenomenon. Eliade distinguishes sharply between the particular cultural and social trappings that may surround a myth and what he calls the ideology behind the trappings that is exhibited in the myth itself. Thus, where Lévi-Strauss analyzes the content of a myth in terms of what is local and particular to a given society, Eliade wishes to relate the content to general human religious interests and as far as possible divorce it from the local and particular.


"Myths must be judged as a means of acting upon the present," said Georges Sorel in 1908. Sorel distinguishes those beliefs that it is appropriate to characterize in terms of truth and falsity and those it is appropriate to characterize in terms of effectiveness and ineffectiveness. A myth is essentially a belief about the future that embodies the deepest inclinations of some particular social group. The myth that Sorel himself wanted to propagate was the syndicalist project of a general strike. Other socialists treated their beliefs about the future as predictions; Sorel regards this as for the most part irrelevant. The only predicates in which he is interested are self-fulfilling ones.

Yet to regard beliefs about the future in this way is paradoxical. For example, when I try to propagate a myth, I am inviting people to believe. But insofar as I do this, I invite them to treat it as true rather than false and as susceptible to truth or falsity. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that anyone who holds a view like Sorel's will fall into a form of doublethink, treating the myth as true or false in certain situations but retreating into the assertion that questions of its truth or falsity are inappropriate in other situations. Certainly, just this kind of doublethink characterizes modern irrationalist mythmakers after Sorel. They wish to avoid hard questions that philosophers or social scientists might raise about their myths, but they also wish to claim some kind of truth for their utterances. Thus, we also get a concomitant doctrine of special kinds of truth or special criteria for truthfor example, in works as different as Alfred Rosenberg's Myth of the Twentieth Century and D. H. Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent. Rosenberg's version of Houston Stewart Chamberlain's amalgam of anti-Semitism, racism, and authoritarian German nationalism is, of course, utterly different in content and implications from Lawrence's appeal to "the dark gods" and his attempt to restore an imagination violated by the wrong kind of arid rationalism. However, the difficulty with all irrationalism is that the abandonment of the criteria of rationality leaves us defenseless before the most morally outrageous appeals to emotion. In such appeals the revival of myth has a key place.

See also Chamberlain, Houston Stewart; Comte, Auguste; Durkheim, Émile; Freud, Sigmund; Functionalism in Sociology; Heraclitus of Ephesus; Herder, Johann Gottfried; Homer; Irrationalism; Jung, Carl Gustav; Philosophical Anthropology; Plato; Pre-Socratic Philosophy; Sorel, Georges; Vico, Giambattista; Xenophanes of Colophon.


Eliade, Mircea. Aspects du mythe. Paris: Gallimard, 1963.

Frutiger, Perceval. Les mythes de Platon: Étude philosophique et littéraire. Paris: F. Alcan, 1930.

Hooke, S. H., ed. Myth, Ritual, and Kingship. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958.

Jones, Ernest. Essays in Applied Psychoanalysis, Vol. II, Essays in Folklore, Anthropology and Religion. London, 1951.

Jung, C. G., and Carl Kerényi. Essays on a Science of Mythology. Translated by R. F. C. Hull. New York: Pantheon, 1949.

Lang, Andrew. Custom and Myth. London, 1901.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Translated by Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest. New York: Basic, 1963.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Totemism. Translated by R. Needham. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.

Müller, F. Max. Chips from a German Workshop. New York: Scribners, 1871.

Murray, Henry A., ed. Myth and Mythmaking. New York: G. Braziller, 1960.

Rank, Otto. The Myth of the Birth of the Hero. Translated by F. Robbins and S. E. Jellife. New York: R. Brunner, 1952.

Sebeok, Thomas A., ed. Myth: A Symposium. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955.

Stewart, J. A. The Myths of Plato. London: Macmillan, 1905.

Vico, Giambattista. The New Science. Translated by T. G. Bergin and M. H. Fisch. New York, 1948; paperback ed., 1961.

Alasdair MacIntyre (1967)


views updated May 29 2018


Myths have attracted a great deal of interest among Americans since the 1960s. While many aspects of them may be fictive, myths often convey truths that stir people and compel their assent. Myths also command respect because of the close association they often have to religious rituals and other sacred events.

Myths vary from one culture to another and reflect the worldviews of particular peoples. But these world-views and the myths representing them often contain overlapping and coinciding themes that reflect more universal dimensions of human experience. For this reason, the myths of any particular culture may have wide appeal and, as in the case of Greek myths, long outlast the society that produced them.

Three basic approaches to the interpretation of myths have developed in Western thought. Since the 1960s, each of these approaches has been pursued in creative and influential ways.

Rationalist Approaches to Myth

Many scholars have tried to explain how myths come into being and how they work in the human mind. The ancient Greek philosophers understood myths as stories that provided inexact pictures of reality. Heraclitus criticized the accounts of historical events written by Hesiod and Homer for relying too much on myth. Plato resorted to myth to avoid direct answers to controversial philosophical questions. Euhemereus argued that myths embellished and elevated stories about the exploits of human beings by depicting the humans as gods.

Beginning in the seventeenth century, Enlightenment scholars bent on discovering the rational nature of the world revitalized the ancient view that myth was an inexact form of expression inferior to pure philosophy or true history. This rationalist approach found its most famous expression in the Comparative Mythology (1865) authored by Friedrich Max Müller, a German linguist who lived and worked in Britain. On the basis of comparative analysis of Indo-European and Greco-Roman mythology, Müller argued that myths were allegories about nature. Myths sacralized natural phenomena, Müller believed, and typically focused on the sun and things related to the sun, such as sky and dawn.

Since the 1960s, when more appreciative approaches to the process of mythmaking became widely known and popular in the United States, the rational approach to myth exemplified by Müller has been harshly criticized. At the same time, there have been notable efforts to pursue the idea that myths represent things that actually happened. For example, in The Short Swift Time of Gods on Earth (1994), Donald Bahr argued that myths represent memories of important events in the distant past and, more specifically, that the origin myths of the Pima Indians of southwestern North America provide important clues about the more ancient Hohokam culture and its destruction.

Many Jews and Christians in the United States approach biblical narratives in much the same way, as important accounts of events actually occurring in the past, but accounts that are inexact as a result of embellishments that occurred in the telling or corruptions that crept in over time. After World War II, the German scholar Rudolph Bultmann prompted many Americans to "demythologize" the New Testament to separate out and lift up the essence of Jesus's teachings. In a recent variant of this approach, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza argued that the distinctive thrust of Jesus's life and message was his compassion for women and commitment to their equality. According to this analysis, later editors and interpreters of the gospel injected their patriarchal bias into the New Testament and corrupted its original, feminist message.

Of course, biblical literalists reject the whole enterprise of demythologization as well as use of the word "myth" to describe any part of the Bible. Nevertheless, their insistence on the historical and scientific exactitude of biblical narratives also reflects rationalist expectations of reality associated with an Enlightenment worldview.

Functionalist Approaches to Myth

A second, functionalist approach to myth is utilized by many social scientists, especially sociologists. This approach focuses on the role that myth plays in reinforcing social status, class and group difference, and other forms of social structure, convention, behavior. This approach can be traced to the work of the French founder of sociology, Émile Durkheim, whose Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1965; original French, 1912) viewed myths as explanations of rituals that maintained social cohesion in primitive societies. In Durkheim's view, the structure of religious rituals reflected and reinforced the structure of society. Moreover, people who gathered together for ritual events experienced an exhilarating awareness of the existence and power of their society. The myths that grew up around these rituals led people to conceptualize the existence and power of their society as God. As an idealization of society, God existed only in the minds of individuals. But as an entity much larger and stronger than anyone, God commanded religious devotion.

In American culture since the 1960s, social scientists have often utilized the general concept behind Durkheim's theory—namely, that myth is an idealized manifestation of social structure that explains, justifies, and reinforces that structure. Because this approach focuses on the socially conservative function of myth, liberal sociologists often emphasize the need to break through myths that perpetuate social inequality. At the same time, sociologists such as Robert Bellah and Peter Berger, who favor a return to the more cohesive kind of society that they believe was characteristic of the United States before the 1960s, regret the weakening of myths that once inculcated social cohesion and responsibility.

Transcendental Approaches to Myth

A third, transcendental approach sees myth as an expression of the very nature of human experience and essential to both personal and cultural development. This transcendental (or intersubjective) approach has become very popular in the United States since the 1960s, especially among people who conceptualize myth in terms of a larger interest in spirituality. The transcendental approach grows out of the work of the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, and especially out of his emphasis on the constructive nature of the mind and the mind's inability to know anything outside or independent of itself. Transcendental approaches to myth are also indebted to the nineteenth-century German idealist Friedrich von Schelling, who went beyond Kant to define myth as an imaginative effort to describe the Absolute, the larger reality beyond the grasp of reason. This romantic, post-Kantian approach led to subsequent efforts to analyze myth as one of the essential phenomena (or nonempirical categories) characteristic of human experience of the sacred. It also invited psychological interpretations in which myth represented deep-seated human fears and desires. Especially through the phenomenological theories of Mircea Eliade and the psychological theories of Carl Gustav Jung and Joseph Campbell, this transcendental approach to myth has profoundly influenced American religious thought since the 1960s.

In the view of the Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade, who taught at the University of Chicago from 1956 until his death in 1986, myth and history were opposite and antagonistic ways of understanding reality. While history represented a chronological sequencing of more or less distinct events, myth represented the underlying dynamics of human experience that human events always recapitulated. In a mythic view of the world, nothing was ever really new. Moreover, the stories told about the persisting dynamics of life were deeply tied to experiences of the sacred. Inspired by Rudolph Otto's The Idea of the Holy (1923; original German, 1917), Eliade believed that the sacred was awesome, subjective apprehension of the larger reality beyond human reason. The sacred was also a collectively shared experience, he believed, involving a transconscious plane of awareness that was part of the universal human capacity for nonrational experience.

After developing his phenomenology of the sacred through studies of Yoga and shamanism, Eliade went on to compare the role of myth in primitive societies with what he regarded as the decadent but still persisting role of myth in modern society. While primitive people were intrinsically religious by virtue of being centered and saturated in mythic reality, Eliade believed, modern people found themselves adrift in the flux of time. But the terrible sense of meaninglessness that modern people suffered could be remedied by imaginative experiences that awoke the transconscious and stimulated the archaic capacity for sacred, mythic experience.

Eliade's concept of myth exerted a shaping influence on the field of religious studies in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. As the field expanded rapidly during these years and established its independence from divinity school curricula and their predilection toward Christian thought, Eliade's theories offered a way to conceptualize religion as a universal phenomenon. Applying his phenomenology to a variety of different cultures, scholars not only produced new, interpretive accounts of various religions around the world but also argued for the existence of religious dimensions within various forms of popular American culture.

Eliade's theories were greeted with enthusiasm by many scholars in religious studies not only because they were applicable in many different contexts but also because they avoided bias toward Christianity, which the field was, in general, trying to overcome. Indeed, Eliade even blamed the Judeo-Christian tradition for originating the preoccupation with historical time that interfered with the immersion in myth that archaic people enjoyed. This anti–Judeo-Christian bias intrinsic to Eliade's work suited the counter-cultural sentiments prevalent among many academics during the 1960s and 1970s.

During the same decades, and for some of the same reasons, the psychological theories of the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung and the American mythographer Joseph Campbell became popular among an even wider American audience. A student of Sigmund Freud's, Jung came to disagree with Freud's view of religion as a form of illusion. Utilizing a transcendental approach similar to that of Eliade's, Jung argued for the existence of a collective unconscious, a realm of the mind common to all humanity that provided the underlying dynamic structure for the ordinary consciousness of each individual. Jung understood the collective unconscious to be populated by archetypes that surfaced within individual consciousness, most clearly in dreams, but also in waking consciousness through the expectations that the individual bestowed on people encountered in daily life. Myths were of paramount importance to Jung because he believed that they represented the archetypes of the collective unconscious in vivid and compelling forms.

This Jungian approach to myth stimulated a great deal of personalized, spiritual interest. Because of the connection believed to exist between the individual psyche and the myths of all the world's religions, many Americans interested in exploring the depths of their own psyches were inspired by Jungian psychology to look to the myths of various cultures for inspiration. This eclectic but highly personalized interest in myth contributed, in turn, to the strong interest in spirituality that began to sweep through many areas of American religious life in the 1970s. The Jungian approach to myth helped to fuel the tendency to distinguish spirituality, often perceived in terms of deep personal engagement, from religion, often perceived less positively in terms of institutional organizations and impersonal rules.

Similar to Jung's in many respects, Joseph Campbell's approach to myth played an even greater role in shaping American religious life after World War II. As a young man, Campbell renounced the Catholic Church for its repression of mythic play. A professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College for thirty-eight years, and a national celebrity at the time of his death in 1989, Campbell had a lifelong fascination with Native American myths and Arthurian romance. Building on Jung's theory of the collective unconscious and its archetypes, and also on the German psychologist Eduard Spranger's emphasis on the importance for myth in adolescent development, Campbell argued for the supreme importance of the myth of the hero's journey in both individual and cultural life. Although the hero had many faces and the journey took many forms, Campbell believed that all these variants resonated with one another as particular expressions of a monomyth that was universal and fundamental to the human psyche. Campbell's theory of the hero's journey contributed not only to the burgeoning interest in spirituality among Americans after the 1960s but also to renewed interest in Christian mythology, especially among Catholics, more than a few of whom returned to the church with a new appreciation of Christ inspired by Campbell's concept of the hero's journey. Campbell's approach to myth also influenced George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars film series, who based his ideas for Star Wars on Campbell's book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949).

See alsoAnthropology of Religion; Campbell, Joseph; Eliade, Mircea; Psychology of Religion; Religious Studies; Ritual; Sociology of Religion.


Bellah, Robert. The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial. 1975.

Berger, Peter. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. 1967.

Bultmann, Rudolph, et al. Kerygma and Myth, edited by Hans Werner Bartsch. 1953; orig. in German, 1948.

Dundes, Alan, ed. Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. 1984.

Eliade, Mircea. Myth and Reality, translated by Willard R. Trask. 1963.

Fiorenza, Elizabeth Schussler. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. 1986.

Jung, Carl Gustav, and Clark Kerenyi. Essays on a Science of Mythology, rev. ed. 1963; orig. in German, 1949.

Moyers, Bill, with Joseph Campbell. The Power of Myth. 1988.

Amanda Porterfield


views updated May 08 2018


Myths are tales of unknown origin handed down by tradition, sometimes orally and sometimes by written word. The stories are set in a primordial period during which the order of the present world is established. They tell the story of the origin of the world, of human beings and animal species, of death, and of the relationship between man and supernatural beings.

Until the fifth century BCE, the Greek word mythos was a synonym for logos (word). With Pindar and Herodotus, it came to mean words of illusion; rumor; the speech of others; irrational, barbarous, even scandalous speech (Détienne, 1979). For better or worse, Western mythology inherited this opposition between rational thought and mythical thought.

When ethnologists realized that the social organizations of the peoples they studied were significantly related to their mythologies, they helped move the study of myths from the impasse that nineteenth-century authors had become stuck in. Claude Lévi-Strauss saw myths as books without authors, their messages "coming, properly speaking, from nowhere" (1969-1981). Studying native American myths in their own terms, he demonstrated that they are transformations of each other and that their different codes express an underlying logical structure. In fact, myths are not only speculations about social organization but also, and above all, they reflect the structure of the human mind (Lévi-Strauss, 1969-1981). Georges Dumézil (1968-1973) laid bare the underlying principles of social organization in ancient Indo-European mythologies, particularly regarding the functions of sovereignty, war, and fecundity.

Freud related psychoanalytic theory to mythology in the broad sense of the term (myths, tales, sayings, jokes): "It is extremely probable that myths, for instance, are distorted vestiges of the wishful fantasies of whole nations, the secular dreams of youthful humanity," Freud wrote in 1908 (p. 152). In 1909 Karl Abraham developed this idea in Dreams and myths (1913) by showing that myths use the same mechanisms as dreams (figuration, condensation, displacement, and secondary revision), and that they are the realization of desires. They can therefore be interpreted in the same way as dreams (see Otto Rank, 1952, 1975).

While Abraham used the Greek myth of Prometheus for his demonstration, Géza Róheim, a psychoanalyst and field anthropologist, directly studied Australian aborigines. For them, mythical time, the time of the primordial ancestors, is "dream time." These aborigines' notion of "eternal dream beings" enabled him to show "how the typical mechanism of all dream construction operates at the heart of mythology and aboriginal rituals" (Róheim, 1952).

Jean-Paul Valabrega (1967, 1992, 2001) devotes considerable attention to the epistemological question of the relation between myths and the unconscious, between myths and fantasy. For Valabrega, myths, which are neither individual nor collective, tend to metamorphose (as shown by the many different versions available) yet remain eternal and perpetually regenerate, in both respects like the unconscious. Moreover, myths are related to fantasies in that they both represent. Myths are made from the stuff of fantasies, and fantasies are made from the stuff of myths: there is a circular relationship between them in which neither is primary. "Psychoanalysis was practically born entirely out of a mythOedipus . . . that Freud rediscovered by analyzing the dreams and fantasies of his first patients, as well as by analyzing his own dreams and fantasies" (Valabrega, 1994). There is also his use of mythical figures like Narcissus, Eros, and Thanatos.

The loose use of the term myth, encouraged if not created by Roland Barthes's work (1970), is more a matter of ideology. This usage, Valabrega (1994) claims, preserves the "function of myths" and the "structure of symptoms." In this usage, words without an author, productions that borrow the anonymity of myths and a few contemporary elements of content, bear witness to the persistence of a discourse that is both intimate and foreign to the self.

Nicole Belmont

See also: Anthropology and psychoanalysis; "Claims of psychoanalysis to scientific interest"; Death and psychoanalysis; Dream and myth; Drive/instinct; Group psychology and the analysis of the ego; History and psychoanalysis; Mythology and psychoanalysis; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis ; Partial drive; Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality ; Totem and Taboo ; "Why War?"


Abraham, Karl. (1913). Dreams and myths: A study in race psychology (William A. White, Trans.). New York: Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing Co. (Original work published 1909)

Barthes, Roland. (1970). Mythologies. Paris: Seuil.

Détienne, Marcel. (1979). Les mythologues de la cité. Revue française de psychanalyse, 43 (3), 355-374.

Dumézil, Georges. (1968-1973). Mythe et épopée (vols. 1-2). Paris: Gallimard.

Freud, Sigmund. (1908). Creative writers and day-dreaming. SE, 9: 141-153.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. (1969-1981). Introduction to a science of mythology (vols. 1-4). New York: Harper & Row.

Rank, Otto. (1952). The myth of the birth of the hero: A psychological interpretation of mythology (F. Robbins and Smith Ely Jelliffe, Trans.). New York: R. Brunner. (Original work published 1909)

. (1975). The Don Juan legend. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1922)

Róheim, Géza. (1952). The gates of the dream. New York: International Universities Press.

Valabrega, Jean-Paul. (1967). Le problème anthropologique du phantasme. In Aulagnier, Piera, et al. Le désir et la perversion (pp. 163-206). Paris: Seuil.

. (1980) Phantasme, mythe, corps et sens: Une théorie psychanalytique de connaissance. Paris: Payot.

. (1992). Le motif du jumeau: Identité-altérité. Topique, 50, 181-183.

. (1994). La formation du psychanalyste. Paris: Payot.

. (2001). Mythes, conteurs de l'inconscient: Questions d'origine et de fin. Paris: Payot et Rivages.

Further Reading

Hartocollis, Peter, and Graham, I. (Eds.). (1991). The Personal Myth in Psychoanalytic Theory. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

Kris, Ernst. (1956). The personal myth. Journal of the American Psychoanalysis Association, 4, 653-681.

Millar, David. (2001). A psychoanalytic view of biblical myth. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 82, 965-980.


views updated May 23 2018


Acentral feature of the Renaissance was the revival of interest in the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. This revival brought classical* mythology—the stories of ancient gods and goddesses—into the popular imagination. Renaissance scholars translated and interpreted classical myths, giving new meanings to these pagan* tales. Artists and writers also turned to myths as a rich source of subject matter and symbolism. By the late 1400s, pagan myths began to challenge the dominance of Christian subjects in literature and the arts.

Rediscovering Classical Myths. Scholars learned about classical mythology from four main sources. Two of these were Greek: the writings of the philosopher Plato and the epics* of the poet Homer. The third, the Aeneid, was a Latin epic by the Roman poet Virgil about the founding of Rome. The verses of the Roman poet Ovid—particularly the Metamorphoses, a collection of myths—made up the fourth source.

Scholars of the Middle Ages had known the works of Virgil and Ovid. Renaissance readers inherited their texts along with a large body of commentary on the works. Homer's epics, however, were unknown except for scattered quotations in the works of ancient Roman writers. A major feat of Renaissance scholarship was the translation of Homer and Plato into Latin and the widespread publication of ancient Latin works. Later, scholars translated these classical texts into vernacular* languages. As a result of their activities, educated people of the Renaissance had access to a wealth of classical myths.

The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio pioneered mythography, the systematic study of myths. He devoted the final 25 years of his life to an encyclopedic work called Genealogy* of the Gods. Boccaccio and other commentators claimed that myths contained multiple layers of meaning for readers. For example, one edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses presented four ways of reading the myth of Daedalus, the Greek inventor imprisoned by King Minos. Daedalus made wings to escape, but his son Icarus disobeyed him, flew too close to the sun, and died. The editor suggested that readers could view this story literally—as history—or as one of three allegories*. On the moral level, Daedalus could stand for a sinner imprisoned by the Devil. In religious terms, Daedalus might represent God and Icarus a Christian at risk of falling from grace. Finally, the story made a point about family life: that children should obey their fathers. A popular history of the classical gods also offered historical, natural, and moral interpretations of the ancient stories.

Renaissance mythographers operated from the principle that classical mythology, although older than Christianity, was in harmony with Christian beliefs and morality. This principle led them to look for Christian themes beneath the surfaces of the myths. They also identified classical figures, such as heroes and gods, with Christian virtues and vices.

Mythology and the Arts. Some Renaissance mythographers emphasized physical descriptions of the gods or discussed the ways the ancient Greeks and Romans had portrayed them. One popular account, called Images of the Gods, described statues of the deities and included 85 illustrations. It was a useful source for artists and poets seeking to use classical mythology in their works.

In the 1400s, the Italian writer and architect Leon Battista Alberti advised artists to look to classical poetry for their subject matter. Many followed his advice and began painting scenes and figures from Ovid's poems and other ancient works. The first large-scale paintings of pagan gods made since antiquity* were Sandro Botticelli's Primavera and The Birth of Venus, painted in the early 1480s. Both paintings focused on the nude figures of goddesses. Renaissance artists had a keen interest in human anatomy and sexuality. Classical myths, with their stories of the gods and their loves, offered many chances to explore these subjects.

The Italian artist Titian was the greatest mythological painter of the Renaissance. Early in his career he completed or added to mythological works by other artists, such as Giorgione da Castelfranco's Sleeping Venus. Between 1518 and 1523 Titian produced three large paintings on mythical subjects. He also made many paintings of Venus, the goddess of love, and he created a series of paintings that dramatized myths from Ovid for the Spanish king Philip II. However, Titian was not the only important artist inspired by classical myths. Scenes, images, and characters from myths appeared in countless works of art and decorations.

The influence of classical myths on Renaissance literature began with the Italian poet Petrarch. He wrote sonnets* that described his own love affair in terms of the mythical relationship between the god Apollo and the nymph* Daphne. Another Italian poet, Angelo Poliziano, celebrated the powers of Venus and of the love god Cupid. His Fable of Orpheus (1480), based on the myth of Orpheus the singer, was the first pastoral* drama written in Italian. Poet Ludovico Ariosto used images from classical myths in his epic Orlando Furioso, which influenced many other writers. For example, he shows one character chained to a rock like the mythical princess Andromeda.

The Italian enthusiasm for mythology spread to France in the 1500s. Diane de Poitiers, a powerful woman at the court of King Henry II, sparked many references to the Roman goddess Diana in art and poetry. One French poet who drew upon classical myth was Pierre de Ronsard, who used the gods Apollo and Bacchus as symbols of poetic inspiration.

The Renaissance arrived in England in full force in the late 1500s, introducing English writers to classical influences. Edmund Spenser's long poem The Faerie Queene, published in the 1550s, contains elements drawn from Ovid and Virgil as well as from the tradition of chivalry*. William Shakespeare drew characters and plots for several of his plays from Ovid. However, his most notable contribution to mythological literature was the poem Venus and Adonis (1593). It captures both the humor and the tragic tone of Ovid's poem about the doomed love of the goddess and a beautiful young man.

(See alsoClassical Antiquity; Classical Scholarship; Paganism. )

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* pagan

referring to ancient religions that worshiped many gods, or more generally, to any non-Christian religion

* epic

long poem about the adventures of a hero

* vernacular

native language or dialect of a region or country

* genealogy

study of family origins and relationships

* allegory

literary or artistic device in which characters, events, and settings represent abstract qualities, and in which the author intends a different meaning to be read beneath the surface

* antiquity

era of the ancient Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome, ending around a.d. 400

* sonnet

poem of 14 lines with a fixed pattern of meter and rhyme

* nymph

in ancient mythology, a nature spirit who takes the form of a beautiful young woman

* pastoral

relating to the countryside; often used to draw a contrast between the innocence and serenity of rural life and the corruption and extravagance of court life

* chivalry

rules and customs of medieval knighthood


views updated Jun 08 2018


Civilization cannot exist without stories. Every culture in recorded history has created its own narratives to cope with what was fearful, incomprehensible, or uncontrollable, from volcanic eruptions and comets to illnesses and death. These stories, called myths, are often, but not exclusively, deeply related to the religious beliefs of a given culture. Myths give order and meaning to the uncertainties of life, whether they are caused by physical or by emotional factors.

Humanity's first attempt to understand nature

Throughout history, different cultures have perceived nature as having a dual role: sometimes the giver of life, the provider of warmth and food, and sometimes the ruthless killer. This was as true to a hunter-gatherer tribe living ten thousand years ago as it is today. In order to appease the unpredictability of nature, it was necessary to somehow interact with it. This was originally achieved through the attribution of god-like status to nature and to the objects of the world that had some relevance to people's lives. In some cultures, Earth itself was a god, the mother goddess, and so were the sun and other celestial objects. Other cultures populated their forests, rivers, and mountains with gods and spirits. Through ritual and sacrifice it was possible to communicate with these gods, and, thus, to plead for their clemency and generosity. The existence and actions of these many gods, and their interactions with human figures, were told through myths. Thus, mythical narratives translated what was feared and unknown into a language that was readily understandable by people, establishing a bridge between human existence and that which was perceived to be beyond its realm.

The power of a myth is not in its reality but in its persuasiveness. A tragic example is the myth of Aryan supremacy espoused by Nazism, which led to the murdering of Jews, Gypsies, and others during the Second World War. It is a common mistake to interpret a given myth in the light of one's culture and not within its own. The belief system of a Yanonami Indian from the Amazon Basin is quite different from that of a Dutch Calvinist or a Chinese Buddhist. Religious entrenchment, based on specific mythic narratives, often leads to disastrous social and political consequences.

Myths can be understood as humanity's first attempt to interpret and understand natural phenomena. As such, they can legitimately be considered as science's ancestors. In particular, there is an all-pervasive, cross-cultural need to understand the origin of human beings and of the world. These myths, called creation myths, are part of every culture, past and present. In the West, the most familiar is that narrated in the biblical book of Genesis, which attributes the origin of the world and of its beings to God. The vast majority of creation myths follow similar lines, in that they credit the existence of the world to the action of a god, goddess, or several gods. These myths fall in a category where time had a specific start in the past, the moment of creation. Still within this category, there are myths that claim the universe originated spontaneously out of chaos, without divine intervention, while others, such as the Maoris of New Zealand, claim it appeared out of nothing. Other creation myths, such as those from the Jains of India, say the universe has always existed and will always exist, while others, like the Hindus, believe the universe is created and destroyed in an eternal succession of cycles.

The transition from myth to science

The same basic concerns with nature and its impact on human existence that are addressed by mythic narratives play a crucial role in the development of science. Questions that were once the exclusive province of religion, such as the origin of the world, the origin of life, and the origin of mind, are now subjects of intensive scientific research. It is possible to trace a gradual, albeit not continuous, transition from the mythic to the scientific discourse. The first rupture with a purely religious description of nature is attributed to the pre-Socratic philosophers, who flourished in Greece during the sixth and fifth centuries b.c.e. For the first time, it is possible to identify an effort to answer questions about nature through natural causation mechanisms, as opposed to supernatural ones.

This tendency continued with Plato and Aristotle, although both included supernatural elements in their schemes of the world. The Demiurge, for Plato, was a cosmic intelligence, responsible for the rational design of the world; the Unmoved Mover, for Aristotle, was the first cause of motion, the world's primal dynamic impulse. As we move on to the Renaissance and the development of modern science, influences from Greek thought, combined with Christian theology, are clearly present in the works of several natural philosophers, including Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton. Their task was to translate God's natural creations to humanity, using reason as the common language. The oral and verbal narratives of myths were increasingly substituted by mathematical descriptions of natural phenomena. The very success of the physical sciences served to distance the scientist from the theologian; as humanity learned more about nature through reason, a smaller role was attributed to God and the supernatural in the workings of the world.

Today, science is widely perceived as the antithesis of religion: In a world of reason, there is no place for God and the supernatural. This polarized view of science and religion leads to much confusion. Although it is often argued that there is no place for religion in the modern scientific discourse, it is also true that science cannot completely distance itself from its mythic roots. One of the strengths of science is its universality: A theory or explanation accepted by the scientific community will be correct for every scientist, irrespective of religious creed, nationality, or political stance. However, science comes from individuals who are often motivated by esthetic values. Concepts such as symmetry, harmony, simplicity, order, or mathematical elegance are a major driving force of the scientific creative process. Their origin can be traced back to the need to decode the workings of nature, as was first done through myths.

See also Aristotle; Creation; God of the Gaps; Hinduism; Newton, Isaac; Plato; Supernaturalism


freund, phillip. myths of creation. new york: washington square press, 1996.

gleiser, marcelo. the dancing universe: from creation myths to the big bang. new york: dutton, 1997.

gleiser, marcelo. the prophet and the astronomer: a scientific journey to the end of time. new york: norton, 2002.

greene, brian. the elegant universe: superstrings, hidden dimensions, and the quest for the ultimate theory. new york: norton, 1999.

munitz, milton k., ed. theories of the universe: from babylonian myth to modern science. glencoe, ill.: free press, 1957.

pagels, heinz r. perfect symmetry: the search of the beginning of time. new york: bantam books, 1986.

sproul, barbara c. primal myths. san francisco: harper, 1979.

zee, anthony. fearful symmetry: the search for beauty in modern physics. new york: collier, 1986.

marcelo gleiser


views updated Jun 27 2018

Myth (Gk., muthos, ‘story’). Narrations through which (amongst much else) religious affirmations and beliefs are expressed. In popular usage, especially in the media, myth has become synonymous with falsehood. Yet in religions, myths are simply the means whereby individual biographies are located in stories of a more extensive kind—e.g. concerning the nature of time, space, and place. Because many myths appear to be about putative matters of fact (e.g. about the origins of the cosmos, or of death) and are often aetiological (giving an account of the reasons why events or objects, etc., came into being), it has seemed obvious to the modern mind that, if the explanations are shown to be false, so also myths have been shown to be in error: myths are defective (category-mistaken) accounts of putative matters of fact which can now be improved upon.

The truth is far more complex. Myths are frequently distinguished from legends and folk-tales by the way in which they offer explanations. But while myths may be both intended and understood as factual, it is clear that more often they are stories which point to truths of a kind that cannot be told in other ways, and which are not disturbed if the apparent ‘facts’ of the supposed case are shown to be otherwise (so that the purported explanation strictly fails: but the value of the story does not fail with it). That is why a religion may, for example, have many myths of creation which are strictly incompatible with each other (see COSMOLOGY), without seeking to reconcile them. No matter how remote from history myths may be (though some are clearly rooted in historical events; and historical events can take on the heightened characteristics of mythology—e.g. the myth of the Kennedy era), they supply the means through which the meaning of experience can be affirmed, and through which history is converted from threat of unpredictable chaos and change to stability. In particular, myth places individual biographies and local events in a larger context which supplies them with meaning and significance. Myth endures because it engages human attention at the extremes of terror and delight; and also because it illuminates, and is illuminated by, ritual.

Myth is so pervasive and recurrent that it is clearly a human universal. In what way it is a universal and is thus able to bear, as it does, the weight of human biography, is open to widely different interpretations—of which only some examples can be given here. Perhaps most obviously, Jung was fascinated by the recurrence of stories, symbols, etc., in all ages and places. He concluded that myths arise from the universal and underlying collective unconscious, biologically inherited and born anew in each individual. These profound, brain-stored archetypes are dynamic, not passive, manifesting timeless patterns and dramas of human existence in individual experience.

Freud equally set myth in the formation of the psyche, but related it to the recapitulation of those primordial situations of conflict which made sexuality so dominant in his theory. Beyond that, he regarded myth as related to dream: in dreams, we can escape the constraints of hard reality, and become as poets or artists, for whom all things are possible. Art is a public dream, and myth is verbalized art.

Lévi-Strauss also maintained that the meaning of myth must be sought behind the level of surface-content in the universal structure of the human mind: while different circumstances may have evoked different developments and applications, everywhere particular motifs reappear in myth. To him this suggests that, although the contents of myth may seem to us to be absurd or fanciful or arbitrary, nevertheless they represent a quest for order and logic—the logic of the concrete, ‘which is constructed out of observed contrasts in the sensory qualities of concrete objects, e.g., the difference between the raw and the cooked, wet and dry, male and female’. Lévi-Strauss maintained that the elements of myth (mythemes) are chaotically meaningless if taken in isolation. They become meaningful only in relation to other elements. Structure reveals itself at many different levels, but Lévi-Strauss was particularly interested in the ways in which myths mediate the binary oppositions which arise in experience (as above).

Others, however, have felt that it is the content of myth, not some underlying structure, which reveals universal human preoccupations. For Eliade, myth places events illo tempore, ‘in that (great) time’ of primordial origins, a sacred and ideal time radically separated from the present. Myths make connection with this real and sacred time: myths are themselves sacred for that reason; they are exemplary, offering models of approved (and disapproved) behaviour; and they are significant, pointing out similarities in existential situations and exhibiting the meaning of otherwise random events. Joseph Campbell also emphasized the importance of content in understanding myth. He argued that myth serves four functions: mystical (evoking awe and gratitude), cosmological (providing models of the cosmos which are coherent with the sense of the numinous), sociological (supporting the existing social order), and psychological (initiating individuals into their own potentialities, especially in the domain of the spirit). Myth, far from returning to the past, transforms the present. Campbell also sought to discern a central ‘monomyth’ associated with the fortunes of the primordial hero which recurs in all mythologies and is available for recapitulation in subsequent lives.

In the 19th cent., the knowledge of mythology, especially Norse and Indian, was greatly extended (the term ‘myth’ was itself coined), and for some it offered a way of telling truth which lay outside the boundary and ambition of post-Newtonian science and technology. Myth was thus a positive term for Strauss; and, as the culmination of this process, Wagner sought to create (especially in Parsifal) a myth which would bear the weight of human questions beyond those which physics can answer, and beyond (though incorporating) the impoverished or inadequate myths of existing religions. Theologians can consequently talk of ‘the myth of God incarnate’ and imagine that they are giving a positive evaluation of Jesus; but to the popular mind, myth is now irredeemably associated with falsehood, so that such claims suggest a subversion of historical truth.


views updated Jun 08 2018

myth / mi[unvoicedth]/ • n. 1. a traditional story, esp. one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events. ∎  such stories collectively: the heroes of Greek myth.2. a widely held but false belief or idea: he wants to dispel the myth that sea kayaking is too risky or too strenuous | there is a popular myth that corporations are big people with lots of money. ∎  a misrepresentation of the truth: attacking the party's irresponsible myths about privatization. ∎  a fictitious or imaginary person or thing. ∎  an exaggerated or idealized conception of a person or thing: the book is a scholarly study of the Churchill myth.


views updated May 18 2018

myth XIX. Formerly also mythe (cf. F. mythe); — modL. mȳthus, used in Eng. context (XIX), beside mythos (from XVIII) — late L. mythos, f. Gr. mûthos.
So mythic(al) XVII. — late L. mȳthicus — Gr. mūthikós. mythology † exposition of myths or fables XV; † symbolical story, mythical meaning XVII; body of myths XVIII. — F. mythologie or late L. mȳthologia — Gr. mūthologíā.


views updated Jun 08 2018

myth A sacred or religious tale whose content is concerned with the origins or creation of natural, supernatural, or cultural phenomena. The anthropological meaning differs from that which implies an untruth. Myths have been studied as fractured sources of oral history, as clues to the society's dominant values, as a ‘social charter’, and (by Claude Lévi-Strauss) for their universal structures.