By James Harvey Stout
What is mythology? It
is an organized collection of stories (i.e., "myths") by which we
explain our beliefs and our history. Beneath the story-lines, myths
usually confront major issues such as the origin of humanity and its
traditions, and the way in which the natural and human worlds function
on a profound, universal level.
Other myths, however, seem merely to narrate
the deities' daily activities -- their love affairs and pleasures, their
jealousies and rages, their ambitions and schemes, and their quarrels
Myths, legends, folktales, and
We commonly use the word "myth" interchangeably with the
following terms, but some authorities have made distinctions (which,
like many definitions, might not be valid in all cases):
1.Legends. Unlike many myths, legends generally do not
have religious or supernatural content. Legends emphasize the story more
than the significance of the story; we might still gain a philosophical
and moral meaning from a legend, but we probably will not feel the
archetypal intensity which permeates myths. An example of a legend is
the tale of Atlantis.
2.Folklore. While legends and myths might be embraced
as true stories, folktales are generally known to be fictitious. They
are often told only within a limited geographical area -- one town, one
mountain range, or one country. Examples include the stories of Paul
Bunyan and Rip Van Winkle from early American history.
3.Fables. Even more so than folktales, fables are
acknowledged to be fictional -- certainly when the characters include
talking animals. A fable's emphasis is on a "moral." Examples include
Aesop's fables, such as the stories of the tortoise and the hare, and
the fox who complained about "sour grapes."
Mythology Serves Many Purposes
1.Myths grant continuity and stability to a
culture. They foster a shared set of perspectives, values,
history -- and literature, in the stories themselves. Through these
communal tales, we are connected to one another, to our ancestors, to
the natural world surrounding us, and to society; and, in the myths
which have universal (i.e., archetypal) themes, we are connected to
2.Myths present guidelines for living. When myths tell
about the activities and attitudes of deities, the moral tone implies
society's expectations for our own behaviors and standards. In myths, we
see archetypal situations and some of the options which can be selected
in those situations; we also perceive the rewards and other consequences
which resulted from those selections.
3.Myths justify a culture's activities. Through their
authoritativeness and the respected characters within them, myths
establish a culture's customs, rituals, religious tenets, laws, social
structures, power hierarchies, territorial claims, arts and crafts,
holidays and other recurring events, and technical tips for hunting,
warfare, and other endeavors.
4.Myths give meaning to life. We transcend our common
life into a world in which deities interact with humans, and we can
believe that our daily actions are part of the deities' grand schemes.
In our difficulties, the pain is more bearable because we believe that
the trials have meaning; we are suffering for a bigger cause rather than
being battered randomly. And when we read that a particular deity
experienced something which we are now enduring -- perhaps a struggle
against "evil forces" -- we can feel that our own struggle might have a
similar cosmic or archetypal significance, though on a smaller scale.
5.Myths explain the unexplainable. They
reveal our fate after death, and the reasons for crises or miracles, and
other puzzles -- and yet they retain and even encourage an aura of
mystery. Myths also satisfy our need to understand the natural world;
for example, they might state that a drought is caused by an angry
This purpose of mythology was especially important before the advent of
modern science, which offered the Big Bang theory to replace creation
myths, and it gave us the theory of evolution to supplant myths
regarding the genesis of humanity. And yet, science creates its own
mythology, even as its occasional secular barrenness threatens to strip
us of the healthful awe which other types of mythology engender.
6.Myths offer role models. In
particular, children pattern themselves after heroes; comic books and
Saturday-morning cartoons depict many archetypal characters, such as
Superman and Wonder Woman. Adults, too, can find role models, in the
stories of deities' strength, persistence, and courage.
There Are Various Types of Myths
In The Global Myths, Alexander Eliot defined four
types of myth:
Primitive myths (which were generally stories about
nature, as told by shamans).
Pagan myths (which were mostly from the Greek and Roman
tales of the interplay between deities and humans).
Sacred myths (as in the stories from current eastern
and western religions such as Christianity and Hinduism).
Scientific myths (i.e., "the most solemn and revered
creeds of science -- from Lucretius on Nature through Darwin's The
Origin of Species").
David Adams Leeming, in The World of Myth, listed four other types:
Cosmic myths (including narratives of the creation and
end of the world).
Theistic myths (which portray the deities). Hero
myths (with accounts of individuals such as Achilles and Jesus).
"Place and object" myths (describing places such as
Camelot, and objects such as the Golden Fleece).
There Are Countless Deities
We have had deities for many aspects of life....The
Egyptians had more than 2,000 deities; the Hindus have 333 million.
Deities have governed virtually every possible activity, object, and
emotion. In addition to the broad categories (e.g., war or the sea), we
have had deities for individual items; for example, the Irish honored
both the goddess of rivers (Boann) and the goddess of the Lagan River
There have been deities for individual cities (Athena for Athens),
mountains (Gauri-Sankar for Mount Everest), lakes, tribes, plant
species, temples, constellations, parts of the body, etc. In some
cultures, each home possessed its own deity, to supplement the culture's
"goddess of the home" (who was named Hestia in the Greek religion).
Deities governed not only major phenomena such as agriculture or love or
the sun, but also such common matters as leisure, reptiles, the kitchen
stove, guitars, jeering, the nose, politics, prostitution, singing,
burlesque, doors, virginity, willpower, firecrackers, gambling, face
cream, drunkenness, and the toilet.
"God" is different from mythological gods and goddesses. In mythology,
the deities are not like the monotheistic deity of western religion.
(Hinduism has its quasi-monotheistic deity -- Brahman -- but it also has
millions of lesser deities.)
Mythological deities were not omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent.
Like people, they were viewed as limited, flawed, and driven by emotions
and ambitions; their main difference from humans was that they had more
knowledge and power.
Ancient myths live in our culture. We
find references to those myths in many contemporary words and
expressions, such as Pandora's box, Oedipus complex, nymph, and
Other words derived from mythology include adonis (from Adonis), aurora
(from Aurora), chlorophyll (from Chloris), chronology (from Kronos),
discipline (from Disciplina), discord (from Discordia), eros (from
Eros), fate (from Fate), fauna (from Faunus), fidelity (from Fides),
flora (from Flora), fortune (from Fortuna), fraud (from Fraus), Hades
(from Hades), Hell (from Hel), hygiene (from Hygieia), jovial (from
Jove), liberty (from Libertas), lunar (from Luna), morphine (from
Morpheus), mortality (from Mors), mute (from Muta), narcissism (from
Narcissus), nemesis (from Nemesis), ocean (from Oceanus), -- and the
names of the planets, and some of the months (including Janus for
January), etc. Mars (the Roman war god) is remembered in words such as
Mars (the planet), March (the month), and martial (as in martial arts).
Our modern society has its own myths.
Some authors say that our society lacks a vigorous mythology; they
believe that this lack can cause a sense of meaninglessness,
estrangement, rootlessness, and the cold brittleness of a life devoid of
reverence and awe.
Other authors assert that we do have a mythology -- in certain concepts
(such as "progress") and in our larger-than-life celebrities (e.g.,
Mother Teresa as the goddess of compassion, Albert Einstein as the god
of the intellect and the imagination, and Bill Gates as the god of
"Screen goddesses Marilyn Monroe and Madonna incarnate the alluring
qualities of Aphrodite. Aristotle Onassis expressed the
wheeling-and-dealing Zeus qualities that built a shipping empire, while
Muhammad Ali called on the aggressive instinct of Ares, the god of war,
every time he stepped into the boxing ring." (As Above So Below,
copyright 1992 by New Age Journal.)
The media enlarges certain people to mythical proportions, and we each
do the same (often by projecting the "Hero" archetype onto other
Corporations have a mythology, in their "corporate culture." There is a
mythology in every group -- our social club, our family, our profession,
our subculture, our ethnic group, our religion and denomination, our
city, our neighborhood, our friendships, etc
Our mythology changes as our culture changes -- from one generation to the
next, from one presidential administration to the next, from one decade
to the next.
We each have our own mythology. Consciously
or unconsciously, we create our own myths. We have our deities -- the
things which are important and valued and vibrant to us personally.
We are heroes in "mythic journeys" by which we romanticize our various
passages through life. Although we generally accept cultural myths to
the extent to which we are a part of our culture, the truly satisfying
and exciting myths are those which arise from our own passions, our own
dreams, and our own visions.
Similar myths exist in every culture. The
myths have different characters and different plot-lines, but we do find
some common themes.
Some of the recurring themes include a Golden Age, a fall from a
heavenly state, resurrections from death, virgin births, worldwide
floods, creation stories in which "one becomes two," and a future
When Carl Jung examined the commonalities of myths, he developed his
theory of archetypes, which are universal forces which influence us to
manifest their particular trait.
Myths are metaphorical. Some people
regard myths as mere fabrications, to be discarded in our enlightened
age. Those people are repelled by the myths' preposterous elements (such
as centaurs) and contradictions (within an individual myth, or in its
revisions from one oral transmission to the next).
But mythology's enduring worth is not in its possible historical or
scientific accuracy; instead, myths are important because they are
metaphors. We learn about life and people and values in a way which
cannot be offered by dry historical or philosophical accounts; in
mythology, we learn through imagination, as we feel and visualize the
colorful adventures of the deities.
Although mythology is not a literal rendering of a culture's history, we
can still use myths to explore the culture -- its viewpoints,
activities, and beliefs.
Myths represent forces in the psyche and the
world. Joseph Campbell said, in An Open Life, "The imagery of
mythology is symbolic of spiritual powers within us." In this symbolism,
we see mythological characters who represent love, youth, death, wealth,
virility, fear, evil, and other archetypal facets of life -- and we also
see natural events such as rain and wind.
The deities are personifications of those facets, those "energies." As
we read about the interplay of deities, we are viewing a dream-like
fantasy which portrays the interaction of the elements of our own lives.
To say that the deities are symbolic is not to say that they might not
exist as actual beings; after all, some contemporary people believe in a
deity which is an individual "person" (portrayed in art as an old man),
so we might grant equal respect and open-mindedness toward those who
have believed in the literal reality of ancient deities.
Mythology is a valid way to look at the world. Even
if we respect the archetypal significance of mythology, we might
disregard myths as primitive, clumsy attempts to express those
But some authors have argued that mythology is actually a sophisticated
means of labeling and studying psychological dynamics -- a means which
is as cultured and insightful as that of modern psychology.
Surely some myths were concocted by soma-intoxicated shamans, but
perhaps others were devised by thoughtful scholars and mystics who
intentionally chose mythology as a vehicle for passing on their
revelations. These sages might have realized that myths are:
1. Easy to remember in an illiterate society in which ideas cannot be
written nor read.
2. Approachable and somewhat understandable by people of any level of
intelligence, including people for whom a philosophical discourse would
3. Stimulating to the imagination and feelings, where the effect can be
more profound and life-changing than that from intellectual
Can we use mythology in psychology? Although
we might include mythology within psychology, we would surely not
abandon psychology's scientific approach for the stories and practices
of traditional mythology. (I, for one, would feel silly burning incense
But the idea of a "mytho-psychology" is intriguing. We can envision the
advice given by a Roman priest in a counseling session with a person
who, for instance, was experiencing problems due to a lack of
1."Know the power of Disciplina, the Roman goddess of discipline."
Simply to accept the reality of this force (whether internally or
externally) is a primary step in resolving a condition which has been
exacerbated by denial, repression, and lack of development. (However,
the "acceptance" of the reality of Disciplina would be virtually
impossible in our culture; mythological characters seemed real in other
cultures, but that milieu of mythology is simply too alien to provide an
effective format for contemporary psychological therapy. But let us
continue anyway ...)
2."Honor Disciplina." To "honor" her, we would respect her importance as
a goddess. (In therapy, we might learn to respect ourselves, including
our natural drive to seek goals and fulfillment through
self-discipline.) 3."Fear the wrath of Disciplina, whom you have
angered; she has cursed you with poverty." Actually, the poverty is the
result of a lack of self-discipline, but at least the priest explains
that some type of cause-and-effect dynamic is occurring, so that we
might recognize our responsibility in the dilemma.
4."Seek guidance from Disciplina." If we try to contact Disciplina via a
type of receptive meditation, the meditation might arouse our intuition
to suggest ways to increase our self-discipline. This meditation might
even precipitate an experience of Jungian "active imagination," in which
we would "converse" with whatever parts of the psyche manage our
self-discipline; this part might assume the mind's-eye appearance of
5."Perform these rituals." The rituals could include actions in which we
exercise our self-discipline (as a tribute to Disciplina), and also
ceremonies in which we symbolically strengthen the self-discipline or
destroy whatever disrupts it. Perhaps we would chant incantations, which
are analogous to "affirmations." Rituals can indeed produce
psychological changes if we believe in their potency and we perform them
Why do we mythologize? We
do it to acquire the benefits which have been described throughout this
chapter. But, beyond the pragmatic reasons, we do it to satisfy our
natural, healthy craving to live in a world which is still filled with
mystery and wonder and archetypal grandeur.
With Gratitude to James Harvey Stout,
This essay is now in the public domain, as per Mr. Stout's request, to
be freely used by the readers
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