Myth and Mythology

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The myth is a narrative that portrays an event. What marks the narrative as a myth are both the characters appearing in it and the influence of the event on the structure and order of the existence or life assumed. The time in which the mythical event takes place is therefore of basic meaning for every other time.

Precise Definition

If attention is concentrated on the characters appearing in myth, there is a tendency to define myth simply as a narrative or story concerned with gods. However, such a definition needs certain qualifications. Myth, it is true, usually deals with gods or divine beings (daemons, angels, and others), but a story about gods in itself is by no means necessarily a myth. The territory of genuine mythical literature is abandoned as soon as a people has reached the cultural stage in which, through its love of stories, it creates ever new and more exciting tales about its favorite gods, ascribing unusual traits or features to them and furnishing details concerning their complicated adventures or escapades. Such stories about gods lead to creative literary art and serve merely for entertainment.

The genuine myth deals with incidents and actions, with struggles and afflictions, with death and resurrection, with defeat and victory, in which the god endures his lot and reveals his nature. The myth, therefore, is not a divine biography. While in biography the essential and the unessential are combined, the myth is concerned in its narrative exclusively with the character and range of activity of the god, focusing attention on his relation to the cosmos and to man. If the myth, for example, tells of a divine child, this is not to be understood as the beginning of a continuing story, which later covers his full growth and development. The divine child is identical with the god himself, and his activity corresponds to the activity that the god carries out according to his nature.

The nature of the myth is revealed in Kerényi's definition of it as the "story of beginnings." The myth tells about a god and, in so doing, gives an account of origins. In the mythical event a condition or an order is introduced and is realized in a foundation. The myth as such adduces in etiological fashion the reason that the condition or order exhibits the precise form that it has and not another. Yet it should be emphasized that the reason intended is to be regarded first as ρχή (beginnings) and then as ατιον (cause). The relation between the mythical event and the consequent order connected with it has not occurred by chance or in any external way, but order itself has sprung from the content of the event in the process of its happening.


There is a correspondence between the original character of the myth and the kind of time in which the mythical event takes place. The myth is thought of as true insofar as no doubt is present that the mythical event actually took place. However, it did not happen in the real time in which the history of the given people has developed. The time of the myth transcends historical time. Its time is not prehistoric time, but primeval time, and, in respect to eschatological myths, not the future but the last days, the end of time.

Primeval time comes before all other time; although the time of origins, it has the peculiarity that it can never be actual past. In a certain measure it is constantly present, since the organization and form of existence is rooted in it. If one lives as a hunter or as a farmer in harmony with the changing rhythm of nature or lives within the given social order and condition, he is firmly moored in the primitiveness that the mythical events of the primeval time have established. If one wishes to understand the conditions of existence, he must, consequently, put himself back directly; he cannot proceed to understanding solely through analysis. Explanation is always found in what is behind, in the primeval time that is immediately accessible through myth.


The dialectic inherent in the circumstance that the mythical happening is always found before every time, and yet is likewise present in every time, forms the background for the proper function of myth, namely, its participation as λεγόμενα (things said) in cult. There can be myths without connection with cult, having become completely detached from cult and given a continued life as stories only. Nevertheless myth, not only in most cases, but also by virtue of its nature as the narrative or history of origins, is so closely connected with cult that its function in cult belongs to its definition. In the cultic action the original event becomes present, and primeval time becomes the now or lives again through repetition. The god performs anew his order-founding act, he fulfills anew his destiny, or takes on anew his sphere of existence.

There is much to justify the view that cult is earlier than myth and that therefore, ordinarily, cult does not form around myth; conversely, myth derives its origin from cult. However, in that case it is impossible to know how the thought, without which the whole cult action is connected, originated. In any event, this special kind of cultural form goes far back in human history, and it may be assumed that it belongs to a time in which man was able to express himself better by other means than language, namely, by dance, gestures, attitudes, and primitive types of music. Therefore, the basic events and experiences that created society were not preserved through linguistic formulations or in memory, but were passed on through a repeatedly new enactment in the institution of cult. When man then attained a cultural level that enabled him, with the help of language, to construct connected formulations of his thought, spoken elements received a constantly increasing role in cultic action. A ερς λόγος was created. While it participates in a sense in the cult action, the function of the ερς λόγος is not to inform or to explain, but rather to put an action into operation. It is only at this stage that a meaningful narrative is composed, which, in etiological fashion, explains the individual parts in the cultic action. As the λεγόμενα(things said), it is a parallel structure that accompanies and harmonizes with the δρώμενα (things done) in cult.

Myth, Saga, Legend, and Märchen

Myth, as a special kind of primitive narrative, must be distinguished from other similar narrative forms. However, the distinction can be made only in a general way, for it must be emphasized that the boundary lines cannot always be sharply drawn. The narrative can slip over easily from one form into another, and the same motifs can be found in the different forms. Nevertheless, distinction contributes to better understanding.


While the myth is primitive history and is concerned with establishing order in the structure of existence, saga is more closely bound to a locale and is connected with definite historical events and places. The time in which the saga events take place is in the past of the given people, and the persons portrayed are for the most part heroic figures who ostensibly have played a decisive role in great events. Often, but by no means always, an actual historical event underlies the saga, but it is then so embellished or forced to fit such fixed schemata that the separation of what is strictly historical in the content is hardly possible.

If a cult develops around the hero of the saga, he becomes the object of religious worship or his actions are magnified into the deeds of a savior. Saga is thus transformed into myth. In another respect also the creative possibilities of saga are freer than those of myth. Thus, without losing its character as saga, it can be enriched with new features and expanded into a whole saga cycle. It is not connected with cult, but in general serves rather as a form of entertainment; and in this respect it admits additional elements and alterations.

Like myth, saga often has etiological meaning, but the explanation that it gives, in contrast to that of myth, is actually an ατιον (cause), and its object is usually a local phenomenon: the giving of a name, a custom connected with a place, a geographical feature, and similar things. The etiological factor, however, is rarely the main concern of saga; it is introduced rather as a supplementary observation of an explanatory addition.


The term legend comes from the period of the early Church when it was customary, especially in monastic communities, to read accounts of the saints or martyrs at divine service or on their feast days. Hence it is clear that legend, as well as saga, is a narrative that is based on historical events and persons, but that enriches and embellishes its material through the free play of the imagination. Hence the special tone of the legend is also clear of itself. Legend is religious in character and is intended in a special way to have an edifying effect. Its characters, accordingly, are always figures ideal in piety, models worthy of reverence, who inspire admiration and imitation.

Accordingly, it is not strange that the various legends have common traits. The similar kind of piety, the same examples of god-fearing actions, holy renunciation, and martyrlike pathos recur in legend after legend. Legend as a kind of narrative is not restricted to Christianity in antiquity and the Middle Ages. A legendary literature was created universally around great religious personalities, and their image was transmitted to later times in the form of the legendary biography (cf. the legendary life of Buddha). Finally, given the religious character of a legend, it can appear also in forms that approach the myth. Furthermore, terminology in this respect is not sharply fixed, and one can employ the expression cult-legend as a synonymous designation for the word myth.


The root of Märchen is entirely different. In contrast to all other kinds of narratives it is not concerned with real persons or events, but establishes its own world and its own time. The Märchen ' setting is an indefinite place"east of the sun and west of the moon"and its events occur at an indefinite time"there was once." It has no relation to the world or time in which actuality is the characteristic feature.

Consequently, it operates under other laws than those of the real world. Everything is quite different, yet the Märchen does not abandon itself to confusion and caprice. On the contrary, its happenings are subject to inflexible laws. This fixity finds expression also in its style. The structure of the Märchen is strict, and it is dominated throughout by schematic features, as, for example, repetition, triple groupings, suspense, and similar devices. However, the Märchen and the myth are closely related in their origin. In both forms of narrative the same primitive view of the world and of life is clearly present. But what in the myth takes place in the sphere of reality is, in the Märchen, consciously elevated into the realm of fantasy and its regulated play. Accordingly, the Märchen of its nature is fundamentally harmless, although the most horrible things can transpire in it.

At the risk of oversimplification, it may be said that, while all four narrative forms operate with the same motifs, each operates in a wholly different manner, and in one peculiar to itself in each case. In the saga, the theme is handled usually in tragic fashion; in the legend, to serve the purpose of edification, and in the Märchen, primarily to give pleasure. The myth alone understands its theme to be origin and foundation.

Classification of Myths

The classification of myths can be attempted only in broad lines, and the assignment of specific myths to specific categories is often open to question. Nevertheless, the setting up of a scheme of classification is indispensable if one wishes to get a concrete and clear understanding of myth.


By definition, this type of myth deals with origins, and by its nature it is always cosmic in scope. The cosmogonic category of myths is the basic group with which the remaining groups are combined in various ways. The cosmogonic myth tells of the origin of the cosmos either through a direct act on the part of the creator or through emanation from a primeval being or nature. The act of creation can be carried out by the High God alone or in cooperation with other mythical beingsor sometimes with the primeval man or with an evil adversary. However, the High God can also withdraw into the background, either because he is outside the myth or because, after his primitive act of creation, he leaves the further work of creation to be accomplished by other powers.

The process of creation can be represented as an intellectual act whereby God alone, through his thought, word, or will calls the world into existence, or it can be conceived also as a craftsman's shaping of preexistent matter. If, on the other hand, the origin of the world is thought of as an emanation process, the cosmogonic myth then speaks usually of a long and highly imaginative development in which a primeval being is divided or split up to constitute a multiform world.


The creation of the gods is the theme of special myths. These describe how the polytheistic world of the gods originated as a creation of a High God, or how a first divine pair became the ancestors of the subsequent world of the gods. Accordingly, the theogonic myths can be regarded also as a part of a cosmogony, the Theogony of Hesiod being the best known example. The appearance of the gods is itself a part of the general development of the cosmos, and generations of gods can arise that replace each otheroften in dramatic ways. The relation of the High God to the world of gods that he has created is never a hostile one. On the contrary, the High God has withdrawn into his heavenly realms, in which he has an untroubled existence, while other divinities, who may be characterized in some respects as intermediate beings, must preserve and guard the created cosmos.


The origin of men frequently plays an important role in mythology. The cosmogonic and theogonic myths then form only the prologue to an anthropogony. But the opposite type of myth is also found, in which the entrance of men into the world does not play even the slightest role and is therefore insignificant. Again, in many other myths, man is portrayed as a special or unique being, either in the form of a powerful primeval man who helped the creator god in his further work, or as a central figure of divine origin who was created to rule over the cosmos. Anthropogony can be emphasized also in a more naturalistic fashion: man, like the plants, has grown out of the earth or has been born of stone, or formed as a figure from clay. In the Orphic myths man sprang from the ashes of the Titans as a dualistic unity of soul and body. Universally, anthropogonic myth, with inventive imagination, depicts the contemporary view of the nature and function of man.


Myths dealing with this theme not only describe the original state of the cosmos, but are intended especially to furnish information on the processes that led to subsequent and present conditions. Many myths tell how death came into the world. This happened through a chance event, through disobedience, through some clumsiness or carelessness, or because a command was not observed. With death, evil also came into the world. Man must suffer and work hard; he has fallen from his primitive happy state into evil snares and has become subject to stern conditions. The various cultural spheres have their origin also in events of the mythical primeval time. The structure of society is to be traced back to primeval happenings, the present laws are of divine origin, and the great bearers of civilization founded the patterns and regulations of the various professions, even when they often had to overcome in decisive battles powers threatening them.


The myth of the savior-god is closely connected especially with the mystery cults and is often a further development of earlier agricultural myths. Underlying all differentiating details, there is an extraordinarily widespread and strikingly uniform schema. The god is the object of an evil attack on the part of evil powers and is put to death in tragic circumstances. The good powers, however, inaugurate countermeasures and the god is restored to new life, often in connection with his conquest or dominion over the kingdom of the dead.


Eschatological myths have a much less extensive distribution. They postulate a definite conception of the nature of history and occupy themselves with speculations on its end. They usually portray the final time as a period of dramatic cosmic events that point to the coming of the hero-god and in which judgment will be rendered on good and evil. The events of the final time lead to a new creation and to the establishment of a state of bliss, which is often conceived as the restoration of the happy condition lost in primeval time.


In origin, myths are short, limited narratives that, according to the occasion, relate an appropriate mythical event. However, if the myth-forming period of a people is approaching its end and the store of myths has become so rich that even contradictory traits or elements are present, theological speculation begins to operate. An effort is made to combine the myths into a system of homogeneous character, and to remove aberrations or disharmonies, in order to give the total myth complex the appearance of a theologically consistent whole. This development is often accompanied by a somewhat depreciatory attitude to the original "naive" form, and the mythological system subjects the content of the individual myths to thorough allegorical interpretation.

The systematization of myth, therefore, is an indication that the myth has lost its proper character. People no longer believe in the literal reality of the myth, but regard it as the expression of "eternal" truths. The myth is transformed into a philosophical theorem; its personal and active forces are now only the cloak for abstract, metaphysical concepts; and the views on the nature of existence and on the nature of man have actually become nonmythical. The realities of existence are no longer ascribed to primeval events. Accordingly, the appropriate form of expression, namely, the visualizing dramatic narrative of myth, is lost also, and its place is taken by metaphysical definition and philosophical argument. In other words, the mythological system is the transitional stage from true myth to metaphysical speculation.

The Origin and Development of Mythology

D. hume (17111766) made the study of myths a field of scientific investigation. As opposed to the Deistic ideas of a "natural religion," he maintained that mythological concepts are a kind of primitive explanation of nature and that their origin is to be sought in the sphere of the emotions. Hope and especially fear are the factors that impel people to formulate mythico-religious concepts.


German Idealism and Romanticism, as a reaction against the Enlightenment, rediscovered myths and evaluated them primarily from an aesthetic point of view as poetical or literary creations. The mythical composition was regarded as an independent product of intellectual life, an independent contribution of the creative imagination. On the speculative-philosophical plane, F. W. schelling (17751854), especially, raised myths to a position of central importance. The principles that are found in the mind of God as a unity penetrate human consciousness by a kind of metaphysical process. They split apart in opposition and tension, and at this stage they are best called myths.


The Religio-Historical School in the second half of the 19th century, under the leadership of H. Usener (18341905), went back to the ideas of Hume. W. Wundt (18321920), however, made a new advance in the investigation of myths. He regarded the emotions as the sources of myths. But the possibility of the emotions' leading to mythical ideas is to be ultimately ascribed to the imagination. Through the apperception of things as persons, it is possible for man to objectify his emotional states. Wundt, nevertheless, did not yet have clearly in view the specific elements in the feelings and imagination that produce myths.

In this regard R. otto (18691937) made a supplementary contribution. His description of the emotional states, by which man is affected in the presence of the numinous, is characterized especially by his view that religious feeling is something specific. The primary thing is the emotional state. The myths merely cluster about it as creations of the imagination. Moreover, at the same time, they are by-products that can harden into a shell, and the shell can prevent the development of a genuine religious attitude or disposition.

E. cassirer (18741945) investigated the phenomena of myths more from an epistemological than from a psychological point of view. According to his conception, the myth has its own nature; and beside art, language, and science it constitutes one of the symbolic forms of intellectual life. It builds its world according to its own laws and derives its specific value from the association of meaning inherent in itself. On the other hand, for Cassirer, the symbolism of the myth remained a kind of primitive understanding of life that gave rise to scientific knowledge and its development.

Here P. tillich opposed Cassirer. Myth, according to Tillich, falls in the category of the unconditioned or of the being other-worldly to which the religious act is directed. The myth chooses its own objects, which it sets up as symbols of the unconditioned. Insofar as the unconditioned is a reality, the myth in its symbolic orientation to the unconditioned is also real. Tillich emphasizes that the myth does not select its symbols arbitrarily. The creation of symbols is governed by the law that the symbol itself participates in what it is to symbolize.


Finally psychoanalysis made important contributions to the understanding of the myth. S. Freud (18361939) considered myths the expression of suppressed desires. He enunciated a psychological law according to which suppressions precipitate themselves in a symbolic expression, a discovery that has served as a basis for the psychoanalysis of the meaning of dreams. Of considerable influence also has been Freud's idea of the origin of civilization out of primeval events, and of primeval sin, the permanent consequence of which he called the Oedipus complex.

Symbol formations, understood and evaluated on a purely individual basis, are interpreted by C. G. jung (18751961) as an authentic expression of superindividual truths of life, the starting point for the life of the individual ego. With the help of his concept of the collective unconscious and of archetypes as the forms under which it makes its appearance, Jung attempted to break through the barriers of individual psychology and to make dreams and myths function as the symbols in which hidden transcendence as such manifests itself in the world of human consciousness. Jung's ideas have had fruitful influence on contemporary mythological research.

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[j. slØk]