The Meaning of Myth
Myth comes via mythos from the Greek root μ (mu) meaning to make a sound with the mouth and is thus basic to human existence as we know it: "In the beginning was the Word." To the orthodox believer what we call myth is the word of God -- the metaphorical, symbolical, or direct expression of the "unknown": "and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
If we put aside the commonplace definition of myth as story with no basis in fact, we will have made a necessary first step toward a meaningful definition of our subject. The next step involves the choice of a path. Individual temperament and inclination will be the major factors in this choice. No longer is mythology approached primarily in conjunction with the study of classical or other literatures. Mythologists are now anthropologists, philologists, etiologists, ethnologists, and perhaps most of all, psychologists. And crossing these disciplines are ritualists, diffusionists, structuralists, Jungians, Freudians, and culturalists, who, in turn, are not always mutually exclusive. The modern student of mythology might be helped in the choice of an approach by seeming aware of some of the major theorists and their theories. A brief review here will serve as a beginning.
E. B. Tylor (Primitive Culture), Sir James Frazer (The Golden Bough), and Adolf Bastian with his theory of "elementary ideas" common to all mankind were major pioneers in the modern study of myth. Each believed that the comparing of myths from various cultures would reveal certain laws of human life. Few mythologists now would disagree with this general assumption, but just as few would agree on what to do with the assumption. There are the culturalists -- Emile Durkheim, Franz Boas, and Bronislaw Malinowski, for example -- who see society as the shaping force behind the mythology of a given culture. Diffusionism is more popular today. Its father is Leo Frobenius, and its essential tenet is that certain vast areas of the world are united by cultural affinities and that the explanation for this fact lies in the diffusion of cultures, including myths, from certain "mythogenetic zones." Others -- perhaps they should be called parallelists or in some cases Jungians, after C. G. Jung -- have stressed cultural similarities which appear to be the result of neither society nor diffusion. The argument here is that just as certain physical traits are common to humans wherever they live, so are certain psychological ones. Humans eat because they have to; they have myths of survival after death for the same reason.
There are those who would say that as far as mythology is concerned, all