views updated May 23 2018



Stories of a Culture. In all cultures, myths are important sources of philosophical thought. Myths are not false stories. They are, however, stories whose meanings may not be construed literally. Their truths, like those derived from novels or short stories, need to be extracted through interpretation. Mythology illuminates the human condition, sometimes at a particular place and time and sometimes for all time. Many myths, for example, are about the founding of a particular village, town, or nation, but there are others that aim to provide answers about questions such as the origins of life and death, why the earth is round, why time exists, or why there are different sexes. Philosophers in all cultures have imagined nonexistent entities and assigned motives and activities to them in order to explain why natural or social realities exist. Myths educate a people about the various meanings their society has assigned to their existence. Myths also legitimize cultural practices in regard to key experiences such as circumcision, marriage, and burial rights, and they provide moral and ethical guidance by articulating and promoting virtue and discouraging vice. The stories myths tell are enjoyable in themselves, helping to ensure that they are passed on from one generation to another. When myths present themselves as fairy tales, however, they are meant to educate. The following are examples of different kinds of myths.

A Causal-Explanatory Myth. As recounted by Oyekan Owomoyela, the Yoruba sky god once had his abode close to the world of men. During these days, the sky was almost in arm’s reach, and fruits and other delicacies were available in abundance to be plucked by humans. But in their greed humans gathered more than they could eat, causing the sky god considerable pain over all the waste. Moreover, when humans pounded yams in their mortars, they deliberately raised their pestles so high that they kept hitting the sky, his sacred abode. Thus doubly alienated, the sky god retaliated. Instead of expelling humans from the abundance on earth, the sky god removed himself from humans, making his new abode far away from human waste, insensitivity, and thoughtlessness.

A Myth of Ethnic Origin. The Yoruba believe that they are direct descendants of Oduduwa, the god who created the Earth and once ruled it from Ile-Ife. Many historians hypothesize that Oduduwa may have been an Eastern prince who migrated to West Africa to found a kingdom. Yoruba mythology, however, explains that the Yoruba have always lived in Nigeria, because God made their ancestor Oduduwa and deposited him there.


The Efik and Ibibio peoples of present-day Nigeria tell a story that explains “Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky”:

MANY YEARS ago the sun and the water were great friends, and both lived on the earth together. The sun very often used to visit the water, but the water never returned his visits. At last the sun asked the water why it was that he never came to see him in his house. The water replied that the sun’s house was not big enough, and that if he came with his people he would drive the sun out.

The water then said, “If you wish me to visit you, you must build a very large compound; but I warn you that it will have to be a tremendous place, as my people are very numerous and take up a lot of room.”

The sun promised to build a very large compound, and soon afterward he returned home to his wife, the moon, who greeted him with a broad smile when he opened the door. The sun told the moon what he had promised the water and the next day he commenced building a large compound in which to entertain his friend.

When it was completed, he asked the water to come and visit him the next day.

When the water arrived, he called out to the sun and asked him whether it would be safe for him to enter, and the sun answered, “Yes, come in, my friend.”

The water then began to flow in, accompanied by the fish and all the water animals.

Very soon the water was knee-deep, so he asked the sun if it was still safe, and the sun again said, “Yes,” so more water came in.

When the water was level with the top of a man’s head, the water said to the sun, “Do you want more of my people to come?”

The sun and the moon both answered, “Yes,” not knowing any better, so the water flowed in, until the sun and moon had to perch themselves on the top of the roof.

Again the water addressed the sun, but, receiving the same answer, and more of his people rushing in, the water very soon overflowed the top of the roof, and the sun and the moon were forced to go up into the sky, where they have remained ever since.

source : Paul Radin, ed., “Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky,” in African Folktales & Sculpture (NewYork: Pantheon, 1952), p. 41.

The Origin of All Things. The Yoruba believe that in the beginning there was the god Orisa-nla. As in other cultures, he is God as the Uncaused Cause who enables all else to exist.

Origins of Life and Death. The Vai of Sierra Leone believe that Death once lived with God, continually pleading to be allowed to go to Earth and live among humans. God had promised humankind that although he had allowed Death to exist, humans would not die. Thus, God had a dilemma: How could he let Death go wherever it pleased and still give humans the protection he had promised? God decided to send humans new skins that would protect them from natural elements and therefore save them from Death. Unfortunately, the messenger carrying the new skins was waylaid by a snake who stole the skins. From that day humans have always had a grudge against snakes and tried to kill them whenever possible. In turn snakes avoid humans and live alone. Because the snake still has the basket of skins, he is able to shed one skin and wear a new one. In addition to offering explanations for why humans dread snakes, and why snakes shed their skins and stay away from humans, this story accounts for how death came to be and why humans cannot protect themselves from dying.

Creation of the World. The Fulani of northern Nigeria believe that the world came into existence by the power of the Word. In the beginning, they recount:

the sky was large, white, and very clear. It was empty; there were no stars and no moon; only a tree stood in the air and there was wind. This tree fed on the atmosphere and ants lived on it. Wind, tree, ants, and atmosphere were controlled by the power of the Word. But the Word was not something that could be seen. It was a force that enabled one thing to create another.


Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah (London: Heinemann, 1987).

Achebe, Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays (London: Heinemann, 1975).

Ulli Beier, ed., The Origin of Life and Death: African Creation Myths (London: Heinemann, 1966).

Harold Courlander, ed., A Treasury of African Folklore (New York: Crown, 1975).

J. B. Danquah, The Akan Doctrine of God: A Fragment of Gold Coast Ethics and Religion, second edition (London: Cass, 1968).

Basil Davidson, West Africa Before the Colonial Era: A History to 1850 (London & New York: Longman, 1998).

Cheikh Anta Diop, The African Origins of Civilization: Myth or Reality, translated by Mercer Cook (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1974).

Jacob U. Egharevba, The City of Benin, Benin Law and Custom, Some Stories of Ancient Benin, [and] Some Tribal Gods of Southern Nigeria (Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprints, 1971).

Emmanuel Eze, ed., African Philosophy: An Anthology (Malden, Mass. & Oxford: Blackwell, 1998).

Leo Frobenius and Douglas C. Fox, African Genesis (Berkeley, Cal.: Turtle Island Foundation, 1983).

Segun Gbadegesin, African Philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities (New York: Peter Lang, 1991).

Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen, Le Mythe Cosmogonique (Paris: Institut d’Ethnologie, 1965).

Constance B. Hilliard, Intellectual Traditions of Pre-Colonial Africa (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998).

E. Bolaji Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, revised and enlarged edition (Plainview: Original Publications, 1995).

A. H. M. Kirk-Greene, trans., Hausa ba dabo ba ne: 500 Hausa Proverbs (Ibadan, Nigeria: Oxford University Press, 1966).

John Mbiti, Introduction to African Religion (London: Heinemann, 1975).

Oyekan Owomoyela, Yoruba Thickster Tales (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997).

Paul Radin and Elinore Marvel, eds., African Folktales & Sculpture, revised and enlarged edition (New York: Pantheon, 1964).

Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature and the African World (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976).

P. Amaury Talbot, Life in Southern Nigeria: The Magic, Beliefs, and Customs of the ibibio Tribe (London: Macmillan, 1923).

Robert Farris Thompson, The Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1984).


views updated May 21 2018


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

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

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


views updated May 18 2018

286. Mythology

See also 183. GOD and GODS .

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


views updated May 23 2018

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


views updated May 23 2018

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