Mythology: the study and interpretation of myth and the body of myths of a particular
Myth is a complex cultural phenomenon that can be approached from a number of
viewpoints. In general, myth is a narrative that describes and portrays in symbolic
language the origin of the basic elements and assumptions of a culture. Mythic narrative
relates, for example, how the world began, how humans and animals were created, and
how certain customs, gestures, or forms of human activities originated. Almost all cultures
possess or at one time possessed and lived in terms of myths.
Myths differ from fairy tales in that they refer to a time that is different from ordinary time.
The time sequence of myth is extraordinary—an “other” time—the time before the
conventional world came into being. Because myths refer to an extraordinary time and
place and to gods and other supernatural beings and processes, they have usually been
seen as aspects of religion. Because of the all-encompassing nature of myth, however, it
can illuminate many aspects of individual and cultural life.
Meaning and Interpretation
From the beginnings of Western culture, myth has presented a problem of meaning and
interpretation, and a history of controversy has accumulated about both the value and the
status of mythology.
Myth, History, and Reason
In the Greek heritage of the West, myth or mythos has always been in tension with reason
or logos, which signified the rational and analytic mode of arriving at a true account of
reality. The Greek philosophers Xenophanes, Plato, and Aristotle, for example, exalted
reason and made trenchant criticisms of myth as a proper way of knowing reality.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition the notion of history has been opposed to myth.
Complicating this opposition was the concept that the God of the Hebrews and Christians,
although existing outside of ordinary time and space, was revealed to humanity within
human history and society. Thus, God was revealed to Moses in the Egypt of the
The distinctions between reason and myth and between myth and history, although
fundamental, were never quite absolute. Aristotle concluded that in some of the early
Greek creation myths, logos and mythos overlapped. Plato used myths as allegory and also
as literary devices in developing an argument. Mythos, logos, and history overlap in the
prologue to the Gospel of John in the New Testament; there, Jesus, the Christ, is
portrayed as the Logos, who came from eternity into historical time. Early Christian
theologians, attempting to understand the Christian revelation, argued about the roles of
myth and history in the biblical account.
Western Mythical Traditions
The debate over whether myth, reason, or history best expresses the meaning of the reality
of the gods, humans, and nature has continued in Western culture as a legacy from its
earliest traditions. Among these traditions were the myths of the Greeks. Adopted and
assimilated by the Romans, they furnished literary, philosophical, and artistic inspiration to
such later periods as the Renaissance and the romantic era. The pagan tribes of Europe
furnished another body of tradition. After these tribes became part of Christendom,
elements of their mythologies persisted as the folkloric substratum of various European
Modern Concern with Mythology
The Enlightenment and the romantic movement of modern European culture stimulated
interest in myth, both through theories about myth and through new academic disciplines.
Although the Enlightenment emphasized the rationality of human beings, it directed
attention to all human expressions, including religion and mythology. Enlightenment
scholars tried to make sense of the seemingly irrational and fantastic mythic stories. Their
explanations included historical evolutionary theories—that human culture evolved from
an early state of ignorance and irrationality to the modern culture of rationality—with
myths seen as products of the early ages of ignorance and irrationality. Myths were also
thought to result from euhemerism, that is, the divinizing of the heroic virtues of a human
being. More important than any one theory of mythology, however, was the development
of systematic disciplines devoted to the study of mythology. In new fields such as social
and cultural anthropology and the history of religions, scholars were forced to come to
terms with myths from earlier historical periods outside the Western tradition, and they
began to relate the study of myth to a broader understanding of culture and history.
The romantic movement turned to the older Indo-European myths as intellectual and
cultural resources. Romantic scholars tended to view myth as an irreducible form of
human expression: For them, myth, as a mode of thinking and perception, possessed
prestige equal to or sometimes greater than the rational grasp of reality.
Myth had always been part of classical and theological studies in the West, but during and
after the Enlightenment, the concern for myth, revived with new intensity, could be
detected in almost all the newer university disciplines—anthropology, history, psychology,
history of religions, political science, structural linguistics. Most current theories of myth
emerged from one or more of these disciplines.
Types of Myth
Myths may be classified according to the dominant theme they portray.
Usually the most important myth in a culture, one that becomes the exemplary model for
all other myths, is the cosmogonic myth. It relates how the entire world came into being.
In some narratives, as in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, the creation of the world
proceeds from nothing (creatio ex nihilo). Egyptian, Australian, Greek, and Mayan myths
also speak of creation from nothing. In most cases the deity in these myths is all-powerful.
The deity may remain at the forefront and become the center of religious life, as with the
Hebrews, or may withdraw and become a distant or peripheral deity, as in the myths of the
Australian aborigines, Greeks, and Mayans.
Other cosmogonic myths describe creation as an emergence from the lower worlds.
Among the Navajo and Hopi, for example, creation is the result of a progression upward
from lower worlds, and the emergence from the last world is the final progression into the
world of humanity. A Polynesian myth places the various layers of emergence in a coconut
shell. Similar in form to such myths are myths of the world egg, known in Africa, China,
India, the South Pacific, Greece, and Japan. In these myths, creation is symbolized as
breaking forth from the fertile egg. The egg is the potential for all life, and sometimes, as
in the myth of the Dogon people of West Africa, it is referred to as the “placenta of the
Another kind of cosmogonic myth is the world-parent myth. In the Babylonian creation
story Enuma elish, the world parents, Apsu and Tiamat, bear offspring who later find
themselves opposed to the parents. The offspring defeat the parents in a battle, and from
the immolated body of Tiamat the world is created. In other world-parent myths from the
Egyptians, Zuñi, and Polynesians, the parents beget offspring but remain in close embrace;
the offspring live in darkness, and in the desire for light they push the parents apart,
creating a space for the deities to make a human world.
In myths widespread among Siberian-Altaic peoples, in Romania, and in India, creation
comes about through the agency of an earth diver, an animal (a turtle or a bird) who dives
into the primordial waters to bring up a small piece of earth that later expands into the
A motif of several cosmogonic myths is the act of sacrifice. In the Babylonian myth
Tiamat's sacrificed body is the earth, and in the Hindu myth that is recounted in the Rig-
Veda, the entire world is the result of a sacrifice by the gods.
Related to cosmogonic myths, but at the other extreme, are myths describing the end of
the world (eschatological myths) or the coming of death into the world. Myths of the end
of the world are usually products of urban traditions. They presuppose the creation of the
world by a moral divine being, who in the end destroys the world. At this time human
beings are judged and prepared for a paradisiacal existence or one of eternal torments.
Such myths are present among Hebrews, Christians, Muslims, and Zoroastrians.
A universal conflagration and a final battle of the gods are part of Indo-European
mythology and are most fully described in Germanic branches of this mythology. In Aztec
mythology several worlds are created and destroyed by the gods before the creation of the
Myths of the origin of death describe how death entered the world. In these myths death is
not present in the world for a long period of time, but enters it through an accident or
because someone simply forgets the message of the gods concerning human life. In
Genesis, death enters when human beings overstep the proper limits of their knowledge.
Myths of Culture Heroes
Other myths describe the actions and character of beings who are responsible for the
discovery of a particular cultural artifact or technological process. These are the myths of
the culture hero. In Greek mythology Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, is a
prototype of this kind of figure. In the Dogon culture, the blacksmith who steals seeds for
the human community from the granary of the gods is similar to Prometheus. In Ceram, in
Indonesia, Hainuwele is also such a figure; from the orifices of her body she provides the
community with a host of necessary and luxury goods.
Myths of Birth and Rebirth
Usually related to initiation rituals, myths of birth and rebirth tell how life can be renewed,
time reversed, or humans transmuted into new beings.
In myths about the coming of an ideal society (millenarian myths) or of a savior (messianic
myths), eschatological themes are combined with themes of rebirth and renewal .
Millenarian and messianic myths are found in tribal cultures in Africa, South America, and
Melanesia, as well as in the world religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Mythologies of cargo cults (religious movements found in modern technologically poor
cultures such as those of Melanesia) also invariably have millenarian and messianic
Since the beginnings of cities sometime in the 4th and 3rd millennia BC, some creation
myths have recounted the founding of cities. Cities developed out of ceremonial centers;
the centers were seen as extraordinary manifestations of sacred power. This manifestation
allowed for the expression of power in a specific place, emphasizing the value of sedentary
human life. The myth of Gilgamesh in Babylon and that of Romulus and Remus in Rome
are foundation myths.
Studies of Myth
Mythology has attracted scholars in many fields. Some have studied myths with the aid of
materials from history, archaeology, anthropology, and other disciplines. Others have
found in myths materials of use in their respective fields—linguistics and psychology, for
Myth and Language
Because myth is a narrative, many attempts to understand it have focused on its linguistic
structure. In one approach, the meaning of myth is sought in the history and structure of
the language itself.
The most famous proponent of myth as an example of the historical development of
language is Friedrich Max Müller, a German scholar who spent most of his academic life
in England, and whose major studies dealt with the religion and myths of India. Müller
believed that in the Vedic texts of ancient India the gods and their actions do not represent
real beings or events; rather, they are products of a confusion of human language, of an
attempt, through sensual and visual images, to give expression to natural phenomena (such
as thunder or the sea).
Of more recent vintage is the structural linguistic model, which builds on the work of the
linguists Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss, and Roman Jakobson, a Russian-American, and
the American folklorist Stith Thompson. Structural linguists concentrate on the total
meaning of language as an internal logical system. In particular they examine the relation
between two levels of language: the words and content that are actually spoken; and the
underlying systematic structure—the grammar, syntax, and other rules of the language.
The most important student of myth from this perspective has been the French
anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. For him myth represented a special case of linguistic
usage, a third level beyond surface narrative and underlying structure. In myth he
discovered certain clusters of relationships that, although expressed in the narrative and
dramatic content, obey the systematic order of the language's structure. He contended that
the same logical form is at work in all languages and cultures, in scientific works and tribal
Myth and Knowledge
Theories stating that myth constitutes a form and way of knowledge are as old as the
interpretation of myth itself. The overlapping of mythic and rational modes was confronted
by the classical Greek philosophers; it can also be observed in the insistence of Origen, a
3rd-century church father, that the Christian revelation of God in Jesus could best be
understood in mythic terms.
In formulations of the relationship between myth and knowledge, two major orientations
recur. In the first, myth is examined as an intellectual and logical concern. In the second,
myth is studied in its imaginative, intuitive meaning—either as a mode of perception
distinguishable from rational, logical kinds of knowledge, or as one that preceded rational
knowledge in human intellectual evolution.
One of the fathers of British anthropology, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, thought that myth
in archaic cultures was based on a psychological delusion and a mistaken logical
inference—on a confusion of subjective and objective reality, of the real and the ideal.
Tylor believed that myth, although illogical, had moral value. R. R. Marett, a later British
anthropologist, felt that myth arose from the emotional responses that people in archaic
cultures make to their environment. In his view, they respond in rhythmic gestures that
develop into dance and ritual, with narrative myth forming the oral part of the communal
The French linguist Maurice Leenhardt explained myth primarily as an expression of the
living experience of the community. Leenhardt, who spent a great part of his life among
the Melanesians, observed that the Melanesians responded passively to the nonhuman
realities of their environment. They did not seek to dominate the environment conceptually
or technologically, but attempted to adapt to and come to terms with its powers and
forces. He coined the term cosmographic for this attitude and traced the myths of the
Melanesians to their cosmographic experience of the world.
Marett referred to his theory as preanimism, to distinguish it from that of Tylor, who had
called his own theory animism. Marett located the meaning of myth at an intellectual stage
prior to the emergence of rational consciousness. The French philosopher Lucien Lévy-
Bruhl further developed the notion of prelogical mentality as an explanation of myth.
Lévy-Bruhl held that people in archaic cultures experience the world without benefit of
logical categories, that they gain their knowledge of the world through mystical
participation in reality, and that this knowledge is expressed in myths.
The 19th-century Scottish scholar Andrew Lang and the German anthropologist Wilhelm
Schmidt both noted in ethnographic literature the frequent presence of a “high god,” a
deity who created the world and then distanced himself from it. They saw a distinction in
the myths between this kind of deity and the other deities and spirits. They reasoned that
this concept of a creator came from metaphysical and intellectual contemplation and not
from an evolution of thought from prelogical to rational. In their formulation, myths
simultaneously encompass both the rational-logical and the intuitive.
A definitive, comprehensive view of myth as simultaneously rational-logical and intuitive-
imaginative was set forth by the Romanian-born historian of religions Mircea Eliade. In
Eliade's interpretation, the myth reveals a primitive ontology—an explanation of the nature
of being. The myth, by means of symbols, expresses knowledge that is complete and
coherent; although myths may over the centuries become trivialized and debased, people
can use them to return to the beginning of time and rediscover and reexperience their own
nature. To Paul Ricoeur, a French philosopher, myth, as expressed in symbols, is
necessary for serious appraisal of the origins, processes, and depths of human thought.
Myth and Society
Philosophical and speculative understanding of myth, such as that of the Italian
philosopher Giovanni Battista Vico, raised the question of the interrelationship of myth
and society. In his Scienza nuova (New Science, 1725; final ed., 1744) Vico set forth a
four-stage theory of the development of myth and religion in Greece. The first stage
expressed the divinization of nature: Thunder and the heavens become Zeus, the sea
becomes Poseidon. In the second stage, gods related to the domestication and domination
of nature appear: Hephaestus, god of fire, Demeter, goddess of grain. In the third stage,
the gods embody civil institutions and parties: Hera, for example, is the institution of
marriage. The fourth stage is expressed by the total humanization of the gods, as found in
The French sociologist Émile Durkheim, in examining the relation of myth to society,
drew on data from Australian aboriginal cultures. Durkheim rejected the notion that myth
arises out of extraordinary manifestations of nature. Nature to him was a model of
regularity and thus is predictable and is the ordinary. He concluded that myths arise in the
human response to social existence. They express the way society represents humanity and
the world, and they constitute a moral system and a cosmology as well as a history. Myths
and the rituals stemming from them sustain and renew these moral and other beliefs,
keeping them from being forgotten, and they strengthen people in their social natures.
The Polish-born British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski refined this sociological
conception of myth. For Malinowski, myth fulfills in archaic and tribal societies an
indispensable function: It expresses, enhances, and codifies belief. It safeguards and
enforces morality and contains practical rules for the guidance of the individuals in these
The acceptance of the sociological meaning of myth is universal among anthropologists.
This acceptance does not imply, however, that myth is understood to be a function of
human society. Rather, myth and society coexist; the sociopolitical order can be seen as an
inexact reflection of the social or cosmic order found in myths, and the myths give
legitimacy to the order of society.
The British anthropologist Sir James Frazer, in The Golden Bough (1890), first suggested
the relation of myth to ritual. His theory was extended to explain the meaning of myth in
literate societies. The Dutch-born Henri Frankfort, the American Theodor Gaster, and the
Danish-American Thorkild Jacobsen applied anthropological insights to understand the
religion and society of the cultures of the ancient Middle East, the sites of some of the
earliest agricultural societies in human history. Jacobsen pointed out that the imaginative
mythical perception of plants was the practical and philosophical basis for the
domestication of plant life, and that agriculture itself became part of a perception both of
cosmic order and of the structure of society.
Gaster held that certain myths and rites have as their function the replenishment of life and
vitality. Such myths and rites in agricultural societies are so generalized in their relation to
the cosmic and societal order that religious and mythical meaning is given to the entire
The French linguist Georges Dumézil, who made extensive investigation of Indo-
European myth in Indian, Greek, Roman, German, Scandinavian, and other cultures,
discerned a common cosmosociological structure in these myths. He found in every form
of Indo-European myth a tripartite structure, with a priest or ruler at the top of a
hierarchy, warriors in the middle, and farmers, herdsmen, and craftsmen at the base. These
classes are correlated with cosmic deities; and in the narrative form of the epic the
interrelationships, antagonisms, and conflicts among these three classes are dramatized.
Dumézil does not claim that all Indo-European societies possess this social structure
empirically, but rather that this structure operates as an archetypal language for the
statement of ideal meanings within Indo-European cultures.
The German philosopher Ernst Cassirer refined the concepts of the intellectual-logical and
the intuitive-imaginative aspects of myth in his discussion of the meanings of myth and of
the social group. He allied himself with those who say that myth arises from the emotions.
He stressed, however, that myth is not identical with the emotion from which it arises, but
that it is the expression—the objectification—of the emotion. In this expression or
objectification, the identity and basic values of the group are given an absolute meaning.
Cassirer believed that myth and mythic modes of thinking form a deep substratum in the
scientific, technological cultures of the West.
Myth and Psychology
In myth, depth psychologists found material to delineate the structure, order, and
dynamics of both the psychic life of individuals and the collective unconscious of society.
Sigmund Freud utilized themes from older mythological structures to exemplify the
conflicts and dynamics of the unconscious psychic life (in, for example, his Oedipus and
Electra complexes). Carl Jung, in his psychological interpretations of the large body of
myths that have been collected from cultures throughout the world, saw evidence for the
existence of a collective unconscious shared by all. He developed a theory of
archetypes—patterns of great impact, at once emotions and ideas—that are expressed in
behavior and images. Both Jung and Freud viewed dreams as expressions of the structure
and dynamic of the life of the unconscious. The dream, they pointed out, in many of its
particulars resembles the narrative of myth in cultures in which myth still expresses the
totality of life.
Géza Róheim, a Hungarian anthropologist, applied Freudian theory in interpreting archaic
myths and religion and, more generally, in explaining the development of human culture.
The most comprehensive study of myths from the perspective of depth psychology,
however, was made by the American scholar Joseph Campbell. In The Masks of God (4
vol., 1959-67) he combined insights from depth psychology (primarily Jungian), theories
of historical diffusion, and linguistic analysis to formulate—from the perspective of the
dynamics that are found in mythical forms of expression—a general theory of the origin,
development, and unity of all human cultures.
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