The World of Myth

The World of Myth

The World of Myth

The World of Myth

Synopsis

Hercules, Zeus, Thor, Gilgamesh--these are the figures that leap to mind when we think of myth. But to David Leeming, myths are more than stories of deities and fantastic beings from non-Christian cultures. Myth is at once the most particular and the most universal feature of civilization, representing common concerns that each society voices in its own idiom. Whether an Egyptian story of creation or the big-bang theory of modern physics, myth is metaphor, mirroring our deepest sense of ourselves in relation to existence itself. Now, in The World of Myth, Leeming provides a sweeping anthology of myths, ranging from ancient Egypt and Greece to the Polynesian islands and modern science. We read stories of great floods from the ancient Babylonians, Hebrews, Chinese, and Mayans; tales of apocalypse from India, the Norse, Christianity, and modern science; myths of the mother goddess from Native American Hopi culture and James Lovelock's Gaia. Leeming has culled myths from Aztec, Greek, African, Australian Aboriginal, Japanese, Moslem, Hittite, Celtic, Chinese, and Persian cultures, offering one of the most wide-ranging collections of what he calls the collective dreams of humanity. More important, he has organized these myths according to a number of themes, comparing and contrasting how various societies have addressed similar concerns, or have told similar stories. In the section on dying gods, for example, both Odin and Jesus sacrifice themselves to renew the world, each dying on a tree. Such traditions, he proposes, may have their roots in societies of the distant past, which would ritually sacrifice their kings to renew the tribe. In The World of Myth, David Leeming takes us on a journey "not through a maze of falsehood but through a marvellous world of metaphor," metaphor for "the story of the relationship between the known and the unknown, both around us and within us." Fantastic, tragic, bizarre, sometimes funny, the myths he presents speak of the most fundamental human experience, a part of what Joseph Campbell called "the wonderful song of the soul's high adventure."

Excerpt

In common parlance, a myth is an "old wives' tale," a generally accepted belief unsubstantiated by fact. Thus, it is a myth that professors are absentminded or that women are intuitive rather than rational. We also classify as myths the stories of gods and heroes of cults in which we do not believe, tales that once had religious significance. The stories of the exploits of Zeus and Hera, Theseus, Perseus, and Odysseus are in this sense myths. Collections of the myths of particular cultures are called mythologies: the exploits of the characters just mentioned form parts of Greek mythology; the stories of Osiris and Isis are part of Egyptian mythology. We also use the word "mythology" to refer to the academic field concerned with the study of myths and mythologies. We can also speak of myth as an abstract reality, like religion or science.

In the Western world, myths have traditionally been tales of pagan (i.e., non-Judeo-Christian) religions. We speak of Egyptian and Greek myths and sometimes of Hindu and Buddhist myths, but until recently even atheists have rarely spoken of Jewish or Christian myths. Yet if "myth" has always implied falsehood, if we have not believed in Zeus or the Golden Fleece, we have accepted the mythical tales of cultures we value -- especially Greco-Roman culture -- as somehow important and worth teaching our children. One of the assumptions of this book is that Greco-Roman myths (and those of other cultures) are not only worth teaching but are essential to our education.

The English word "myth" is derived from the Greek mythos, meaning word or story. Human beings have traditionally used stories to describe or explain things they could not explain otherwise. Ancient myths were stories by means of which our forebears were able to assimilate the mysteries that occurred around and within them. In this sense, myth is related to metaphor, in which an object or event is compared to an apparently . . .

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