mythology [Greek,=the telling of stories], the entire body of myths in a given tradition, and the study of myths. Students of anthropology, folklore, and religion study myths in different ways, distinguishing them from various other forms of popular, often orally transmitted, literature. Much of that literature is classified according to its presumed function: fables, which instruct; etiological tales, which explain; and folktales, which entertain.

Myths may perform any one or all three of these functions, but in addition play a critical role in how a culture constructs its sense of time. In this sense myths are contrasted to history, which concerns recent, well-documented events, and to poetic epics and narrative legends, which concern an historical person, place, or incident from the distant past; an example is the story of Lady Godiva's naked ride through Coventry. (The legends of Norwegian and Icelandic kings, recorded from the 12th to the 15th cent., are called sagas.) A myth, however, is generally a story that takes place in an imagined, remote, timeless past and tells of the origins of humans, animals, and the supernatural.

While ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish mythologies are the best known, other important mythologies are the Norse, which is less anthropomorphic than the Greek (see Germanic religion); the Indian, or Vedic, which tends to be more abstract and otherworldly than the Greek (see Veda); the Egyptian, which is closely related to religious ritual (see Egyptian religion); and the Mesopotamian, which shares with the Greek mythology a strong concern for the relationship between life and death (see Middle Eastern religions).

Myth has been employed for the enrichment of literature since the time of Aeschylus and has been used by some of the major English poets (e.g., Milton, Shelley, Keats). Some great literary figures, notably William Blake, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens have consciously constructed personal myths using the old materials and newly constructed symbols.

Recurrent Themes

Studies of the myths of North and South American natives, Australian aborigines, the peoples of S Africa, and others have revealed how widespread are many mythological elements and motifs. Although there is no specific universal myth, there are many themes and motifs that recur in the myths of various cultures and ages. Some cultures have myths of the creation of the world; these range from a god fashioning the earth from abstract chaos to a specific animal creating it from a handful of mud. Other myths of cyclical destruction and creation are paralleled by myths of seasonal death and rebirth. In Greece the concern with renewed fertility was seasonal. Certain other cultures (e.g., Mesopotamia) were concerned with longer periods of vegetative death through prolonged drought. The idea of a golden age in which humanity is viewed as having degenerated from an earlier perfection is another common theme (e.g., Hesiod's Golden Age and the Garden of Eden in Jewish and Christian thought). The flood motif is extremely widespread and is one element of a group of myths that concern the destruction and re-creation of the world or a particular society. Myths treating the origin of fire, or its retrieval from some being who has stolen it or refuses to share it; the millennium to come; and the dead or the relation between the living and the dead, are common.

Older Interpretations of Myths

There have been many theories as to the reasons for similarities among myths. Many have viewed myths merely as poor versions of history, and have attempted to analyze and explicate them in nonsacred ways to account for their apparent absurdity. Some ancient Greeks explained myths as allegories, and looked for a reality concealed in poetic images. Theagenes of Rhegium was an early proponent (6th cent. BC) of this method of interpretation; it was most fully developed by the Stoics, who reduced the Greek gods to moral principles and natural elements (see Stoicism). Euhemerus considered the gods to have been renowned historical figures who became deified through the passage of time. Another interpretation sees myths as developing from an improper separation between the human and nonhuman; animals, rocks, and stars are considered to be on a level of intelligence with people, and the dead are thought to inhabit the world of the living in spiritual form (see animism).

A later allegorical interpretation states that at one time myths were invented by wise men to point out a truth, but that after a time myths were taken literally. For example, Kronos, who devoured his children, is identified with the Greek word for time, which may be said to destroy whatever it brings into existence. This approach was refined in philological studies of myth by Max Müller, who saw myths evolving out of corruptions of language: what seems absurd in myth, he suggested, is the result of people forgetting or distorting the meanings of words, e.g., the phrase "sunrise follows the dawn," spoken in Greek could be interpreted as meaning Apollo pursues Daphne, the maiden of the Dawn. A similar theory is that myths, including Scripture, are corruptions of history; thus Deucalion is another name for Noah. The diffusionist theory postulates a very early, Paleolithic origin of mythology, and then diffusion of various motifs through travel, migration, and other forms of transcontinental communication. Through comparison with other mythologies, many Greek myths are now interpreted as products of literary codification and in terms of their formal reorganization as epic poems. Homer's epics are, thus, an elaborate combination of mythical elements with legend and folktale.

Modern Theories

The great modern advances in the study of mythology began in the 19th cent., when scholars like Sir James Frazer and Sir Edward Burnett Tylor argued for the study of mythology not as bad history but as a social institution, and called attention to the myths of contemporary simple societies. The evolutionary theories of Tylor and Andrew Lang, since discredited as simplistic and ethnocentric, postulate a certain stage of savage mentality that tends to produce similar myths. Some current theories instead posit a common psychological or emotional basis and relate myth to universal religious impulses. Frazer, whose epoch-making book The Golden Bough (1890) is a standard work on mythology, believed that all myths were originally connected with the idea of fertility in nature, with the birth, death, and resurrection of vegetation as a constantly recurring motif. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed that there is an inherent tendency in all people to form certain of the same mythic symbols. Religious scholar Mircea Eliade contended that myths are recited for the purpose of ritually recreating the beginning of time when all things were initiated so one can return to the original, successful creative act. Those who characterize the ordinary as profane and secular view myths as a form of sacred speech and thus as particular manifestations of a universal religious sensibility. Friedrich Schleiermacher thus characterized myth as a "historical representation of the supra-historical" divine.

Most contemporary students of mythology, however, have turned away from attempts to explain similarities in content in all myths by calling attention to the different contexts in which myths occur. They believe that myths function in a variety of ways within a single culture as well as differing in function from culture to culture. Sigmund Freud believed that the seeming irrationality of myth arises from the same source as the disconnectedness of dream; they are both symbolic reflections of unconscious and repressed fears and anxieties. Such fears and anxieties may be universal aspects of the human condition, or particular to distinct societies. The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski considered all myths to be validations of established practices and institutions. Similarly, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown examined how myths emphasize and reiterate the beliefs, behaviors, and feelings of people about their society.

Claude Lévi-Strauss returned to the study of all myths, not by examining common motifs and elements of the stories, but rather by focusing on their formal properties. He has called attention to the recurrence of certain kinds of structures in widely different traditions of folk literature and has reduced them to particular binary oppositions such as nature/culture and self/other. He contended that the human brain organizes all perceptions in terms of contrasts and concluded that certain oppositions are universal. He advocates the interpretation of myths as culturally specific transformations of these universal structures.


See L. H. Gray and G. F. Moore, ed., The Mythology of All Races (13 vol., 1916–33); B. Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion (1948); J. Campbell, The Masks of God (4 vol., 1959–68); M. Eliade, Myth and Reality (1963); A. Dundes, ed., The Study of Folklore (1965) and Sacred Narrative (1984); C. Lévi-Strauss, Mythology (4 vol., 1969–81); P. Maranda, Mythology (1972); S. Thompson, The Folktale (1977); M. S. Day, The Many Meanings of Myth (1984); K. Armstrong, A Short History of Myth (2005).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Myth: Selected full-text books and articles

The World of Myth By David Adams Leeming Oxford University Press, 1992
Meaning and Being in Myth By Norman Austin Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990
Myth and Philosophy By Frank Reynolds; David Tracy State University of New York Press, 1990
Metaphor and Symbol By L. C. Knights; Basil Cottle Butterworths Scientific, 1960
Librarian’s tip: "The Concept of Myth in Literature" begins on p. 120
Myth: A Symposium By Thomas A. Sebeok American Folklore Society, 1955
Myth and Mythmaking By Henry A. Murray George Braziller, 1960
Sex, Culture, and Myth By Bronislaw Malinowski Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962
The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art, and Cosmos in Early China By Sarah Allan State University of New York Press, 1991
Librarian’s tip: Chap. III "From Myth to History"
The Implied Spider: Politics & Theology in Myth By Wendy Doniger Columbia University Press, 1998
The Myths We Live By By Mary Midgley Routledge, 2003
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