The word myth is derived from the Greek mythos, meaning anything passed on orally.
Homer used mythos to signify stories and conversation based on fact instead of fiction. Later, Plato used mythos to refer to discourses containing shades of truth but which, for the most part, are fiction.
Among its contemporary meanings, myth often points back to a quasi-historical epoch or heroic character.
The term mythology may be used synonymously with myth or, more commonly, with a body of myths. ‘Mythology’ also involves a somewhat analytical (as in scholarly or philosophical) view of myths. A mythologist is someone who studies myths in this way, whereas a mythographer is more a compiler of myths.
Some mythologists trace historical conditions and archeological findings under the assumption that myths are just stories loosely based on historical events (as with the Hindu Ramayana).
In The Greek Myths Robert Graves says this about all myths—i.e. myth is something like a political cartoon.
Some rationalists contend that myth is an early protoscience that attempts to explain natural mysteries, not unlike contemporary science.
The functionalist theory sees myth as serving a positive social purpose. Emile Durkheim, for instance, argued that so-called primitive religion bonded community members and defined precise social classes and roles. The notion that social roles are defined and legitimized by mythology and sacred scripture seems to be partially supported by the Hindu caste system, by Greek and Nordic social stratification and by the Bible and the Koran.
Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory views myth as a folk tale that reveals more about psychological than historical truths. Freud sees myth mostly in terms of wish-fulfillment, denial and sublimation.
Despite Robert Graves’ attack on C. G. Jung for being too metaphysical, Jung himself says myths are “psychological truths” that are historical because they reveal the attitudes of a group at a particular juncture in history. Interestingly, Jung admits to creating his own modern myth through his psychological theories. He also admits to using scientific language to convince otherwise skeptical readers as to the relevance of his ideas.
In a sense, then, Jung’s approach to myth-making could be seen as somewhat postmodern in that he knows full well he’s creating a social truth, if not a permanent truth. While some third-rate thinkers may see this as some kind of moral threat, it’s not that at all. Jung’s goal in myth-making is to create a sense of meaning and purpose appropriate to his times.
Joseph Campbell notes that myth, in combination with rites and ceremonies, serves a pedagogical function. Campbell says myth provides a thread of sensibility running through various stages of life, teaching us how to belong and contribute to society, from birth to childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle age and eventually to the grave.
In the Tibetan Book of The Dead, the importance of myth extends beyond the grave.
The structuralist theory of Claude Levi-Strauss looks at myth as something arising out of pre-set, universal linguistic structures. For Levi-Strauss, meaning is not separate but explicit to the structure of myths, which apparently pose a series of binary oppositions (e.g. good-evil, male-female, hot-cold, helpful-harmful) that demonstrate how the human mind thinks.
Levi-Strauss’ views have been challenged by Sir Evans Pritchard who says not all mythic systems are constructed in simple binary oppositions. Other opponents say that meaning may exist on top of structure. The statement “the yellow laugh looked wet” for example, is grammatically correct but most would see it as meaningless.
The poststructuralist Michel Foucault sees practically all statements and related practices in terms of myth or ‘fictions.’ For Foucault, societal morals, scientific truths as well as economic, ideological and political imperatives are myths which, when invested with social power, exhibit tangible effects. Sometimes these very real effects of myth are pleasurable and other times not.
- Into the Mythic: A fresh look at some old ideas (earthpages.org)
- E2.0: Enabling Digital Realities, Embracing Myths (fastforwardblog.com)
- DVD Review: Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers (blogcritics.org)
- Review: A Short History Of Myth (runesoup.com)
- Vamsee Juluri: Writing Mythology in an Age of Reality Crisis (huffingtonpost.com)
- Mistletoe (earthpages.wordpress.com)
- DVD Review: Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers (writer.fitzhome.com)
- Joseph Campbell: The Power of Myth from Greyhawk Grognard (greyhawkgrognard.blogspot.com)
- Beyond belief: why Egyptian art outlives its myths | Jonathan Jones (guardian.co.uk)