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Explore Mythology
The Myths of Reality

What are myths?

Bob Trubshaw

We all know what we mean when we use the word 'myth'. The problem is, different people use the word in many different ways. In everyday speech a 'myth' is something that is imaginary and untrue. Indeed, this pejorative sense was exactly what brought the word back into use in the mid-nineteenth century. Early folklorists defined folklore as survivals from 'primitive' stages of culture into more advanced stages. However this meant that 'primitive' societies, such as native American Indians, could not have folklore in the technical sense. So 'mythology' was adopted to characterise these living systems of tales and beliefs of 'primitive' people, and 'folklore' was reserved for the survival of these systems in civilised societies.

The origins of the word 'myth' reveal yet another different meaning. The earliest uses of the Greek word mythos are somewhat difficult to assess but in the Illiad this word and its compounds are used 167 times, almost always to describe a powerful male giving orders or making boasts. Mythos are performed at length, in public, by a male in a position of authority. Nowhere are they considered untrue, symbolic, sacred or such like (Lincoln 1999: 17–18). But later prose writers such as Herodotus (c.484–424 BCE) begin to tinge mythos with notions of tall tales and legend. For Plato (c.428–347 BCE) mythos acquires the sense of things he could not believe, in contrast to more rational and philosophical concepts, and this is the way the word was used by later Greeks. (Puhvel 1987: 1)

Early mythologists were not sympathetic to the richness of 'primitive' cultures, and their ideas seemed to them merely fanciful and 'savage' – they followed Plato in terming them 'myths'. However before long such myths were recognised as being of considerable interest, mythology – the study of myths – took root.

When the whole notion of 'savages', 'primitive cultures' and 'survivals' was demolished in the twentieth century, mythologists reinvented the meaning of 'myth'. Myths became stories in some way 'sacred' to a society, metaphorical means of conveying 'truths' (or perceived truths within that society). So myths gave a 'structure' to the society or group – they explained such matters as the origin and organisation of the cosmos, social organisation such as gender and kingship, and told of deities and heroes.

In the minds of key mythologists, myth became synonymous with religion. In the formative years of mythology it could be said that 'primitive societies had myths whereas civilised societies had religion'. However only a small amount of comparative mythology revealed that Genesis was one among many similar 'mythical' accounts of creation. The Bible was as much myth as, say, the Australian Aborigines' Dreamtime.

Many of the leading mythologists of the twentieth century considered that all myths are religious myths, and myths have a religious structure and fulfil a religious function. This is the sense in which myth is commonly used by mythologists today:

    Myth ... is now recognised as a serious expression of some sacred truth. (Cooper 1992: iv)

    Myth operates by bringing a sacred ... past to bear preemptively on the present and inferentially on the future ... (Puhvel 1987: 2)

    So we may say that a myth is typically a sacred story ... (Cupitt 1982: 29)

    A myth is a story that is sacred to a group of people ... (Tarzia 1999: 39)

However defining myth by reference to a term – 'sacred' – that has considerable complexities of its own is less than helpful. 'Myth' is widely used with these religious and sacred connotations, and as a consequence this usage will recur throughout this book too. Nevertheless, this book also explores myths where the epithet 'sacred' seems inappropriate. Myths do not necessarily recount tales of the origins of the cosmos, gods, rituals, or sacred events. A great many traditional ones do. A great many modern day myths do not.

If myths provide a 'structure' to how societies think about the world they often do so by contrasting perceived 'opposites' – the king with his servants, the rich with the poor, heroes with monsters, gods with humans, the socially approved with 'outcasts', order with chaos, constructive with destructive agents and forces, young with old, male with female, light with dark, and so on.

These 'structures' – a better term for the more complex ones might be 'ideologies' – are elaborated into narratives, that is stories recounting a sequence of events. A single mythical idea can be expressed in many different ways, and can be interwoven with other mythic motifs. Societies evolve one or more 'families' of myths, which change over time and probably have counterparts in other societies. Myths have a tendency to degenerate into epic legends, ballads, or to survive only in the attenuated form of 'superstitions', folk customs and other 'nostalgic' notions.

The origins of myths are invariably with pre-literary or 'oral' societies which, as Walter Ong has discussed in detail (Ong 1982), differ greatly from the way thinking evolved after the advent of writing. Philosophy and science work by inductive or deductive arguments. In contrast, myth uses narrative to explore such 'abstract' notions as origins, causes, goals and changes (Hatab 1990; Flood 1996: 27). Modern-day myths differ greatly from those of oral societies (although mythic motifs are every bit as prevalent in modern-day society, as will be explored in articles such as the politics of culture).

What has not changed is that myths are essentially verbal. Mythical entities may be depicted in pictures, carvings, masks and other iconic forms. Myths may be alluded to or re-enacted in ceremonial, ritual, drama, dance, magic and other forms of symbolic activities. But these images and activities are not, in themselves, myths. Modern myths find their most fluent expression in the 'non-written' media of cinema, TV and computer games but, despite the importance of visual images in these media, the narratives rely greatly on the verbal aspects of the script and on mythic motifs that are essentially verbal distinctions rather than purely iconographic.

Myths are deadly serious

Modern mythologists use the term 'myth' without any pejorative overtones. Indeed, as Jaan Puhvel states:

    Myth in the technical sense is a serious object of study, because true myth is by definition deadly serious to its originating environment. In myth are expressed the thought patterns by which a group formulates self-cognition and self-realization, attains self-knowledge and self-confidence, explains its own source and being and that of its surroundings, and sometimes tries to chart its destinies. By myth man has lived, died and – all too often – killed.
    (Puhvel 1987: 2)

Although Puhvel's wording is rather stilted, this is a definition that suffices to unite the senses in which 'myth' is used in foamy custard (although Puhvel continues with the statement that myth operates by bringing a sacred past to bear on the present, which I am less comfortable with as some of the most powerful modern day myths are secular).

I fully concur with the profundity of the final sentence of the quotation from Puhvel. Myths are not the preserve of primitive societies but predominate in all cultures. At the time of writing, in 2003, one economically- and militarily-dominant culture is currently inflicting its simplistic myths on the rest of the world. These myths are killing and ruining the lives of people in Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, south Asia and numerous other places. Political and economical myths sharing the same ideologies are being inflicted on every nation.

Mythology is often considered to be the study of narratives from people who are well-separated from 'us' in space and/or time. Indeed, most mythology has been the study of such myths. But we are missing out on the real importance of mythology if we do not also consider the myths that are alive and well in modern day 'Western' cultures. The underlying emphasis of this book is to show that 'old school' mythology – which associates myths with 'others', distant in place and/or time – needs to be augmented by approaches that fully engage with myths as they manifest in almost every aspect of modern life, secular as well as religious.

Lance Bennett has argued that myths are not so much the contents of consciousness as deep structures that shape the contents of consciousness (Bennett 1980). Repeated exposure to myths – or merely mythic motifs – rather than conscious learning is responsible for embedding myths into the structure of our consciousnesses. The consequence of these 'deep structures' is that myths manifest in the modern world as 'fragmentary references, indirect allusions, watchwords, slogans, visual symbols, echoes in literature, film, songs, public ceremonies, and other forms of everyday situations, often highly condensed and emotionally charged.' (Flood 1996: 84); see introductory guide to cosmologies as 'deep structures'.

In modern society such myths are as likely to be intermeshed with political ideologies as they are with the notions of the sacred. Indeed, in today's secular world political myth has almost as much authority as sacred myths once had. 'Political myths' and 'sacred myths' have a close affinity, in that they are essentially narrative forms of ideology. Despite the close similarities of political myths and sacred myths, academics still consider that the two cannot be equated; see separate article on politics of culture.

Mythology, mythography and other definitions

These introductory attempts to 'define' myth are intended only to set the stage for the more detailed discussions elsewhere in the foamy custard site. However, two further definitions and distinctions are necessary before continuing.

'Mythology' is widely-used as a term for a collection of myths from a common culture. However the origin of the word means the 'study of myths' and, to avoid undue confusion, it is in that sense that will be used exclusively in my contributions (except in quotations). This also implicitly recognises that 'mythology' is usually inappropriate for describing the myths of a culture, as cultures actually have mythologies, rather than merely 'one' mythology.

In recognition of this confusion, American mythologists have begun to refer to the study of myths as 'mythography'. At one level this makes good sense, as the Concise Oxford English Dictionary states that a mythographer is a 'compiler of myths'. But the same dictionary defines mythography as 'the representation of myths in plastic art' (making mythography a direct counterpart to iconography, the representation in drawing or paint). So using 'mythography' to mean the study of myths simply adds confusion for those not previously familiar with the term.

bibliographical references

BENNETT, W. Lance, 1980, 'Myth, ritual and political control', Journal of Communication, 30, 166–79.
COOPER, J.C. (ed), 1992, Brewer's Book of Myth and Legend, Cassell.
CUPITT, Don, 1982, The World to Come, SCM Press.
FLOOD, Christopher G., 1996, Political myth: A theoretical introduction, Garland.
HATAB, Lawrence J., 1990, Myth and Philosophy: A contest of truths, Open Court.
ONG, Walter J., 1982, Orality and literacy; reprinted Routledge 2002.
PUHVEL, Jaan, 1987, Comparative Mythology, John Hopkins UP.
TARZIA, Wade, 1999, 'A glance into mythography', 3rd Stone, 36, 39–44.

Based on a chapter of Explore Mythology.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003


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