Archive for the ‘Mythology’ Category

Myths

January 28, 2009

In the academic fields of mythology, mythography, or folkloristics, a myth is a sacred story involving symbols that are usually capable of multiple meanings. The body of myths in a given culture usually includes a cosmogonical or creation myth concerning the origins of the world or how the world and its creatures came into existence. The active beings in myths are generally gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, or animals. Most myths are set in a timeless past before recorded and critical history begins.

A myth is a sacred narrative in the sense that it holds religious or spiritual significance for those who tell it, and it contributes to and expresses systems of thought and values. Use of the term by scholars implies neither the truth nor the falseness of the narrative. To the source culture, however, a myth by definition is “true,” in that it embodies beliefs, concepts, and ways of questioning and making sense of the world.

Myths

Myth can be defined as “a narrative (story) concerning fundamental symbols which are constitutive of or paradigmatic for human existence. Myth is universal human phenomenon. It attempts to express through symbol ultimate reality, which ultimate reality transcends both the capacity of discursive reasoning and expression in ordinary human language. Myth points to a reality beyond itself which cannot be directly symbolized. Paul Ricoeur refers to this as “surplus of meaning”. Every society and tradition, whether ancient or modern, has its myths and is given to myth-making. Formally, myths are narratives (tales) about symbols; functionally they are vehicles of ultimate meaning. The narrative form is basic to myth and distinguishes it, on the one hand, from other symbolic expressions of reality (poetry and art) and, on the other hand, from discursive reasoning about ultimates (science, philosophy and theology). The principal function of myth is cosmicization (making the world livable). Myth “establishes” the cosmos and the fundamental symbols by which a society orders its existence. Its history is “timeless” and paradigmatic for the present.

Myths are not necessarily connected with religion or ritual, as the Nazi myth in our own century demonstrates. They need not be divine heroes but can be human protagonists. Many aspects of myth remain uncertain. Whether myth originates in the imagination or in the unconscious mind, or is the product of the fundamental structure of human thought processes remains moot.

Although the Renaissance brought a renewed interest in classical antiquity, including Greek and Roman mythology, the modern study of myth began in earnest with the Enlightenment, when new myths from various parts of the world became known in Europe. Voltaire and Hume held that religion ad myth developed as the awed but mistaken response of ignorant savages to natural phenomena which were beyond their comprehension and control. A more positive evaluation of myth was inaugurated by the early eighteenth century Italian philosopher Vico. With great insight Vico posited that myth came from within man’s own deepest inner nature; using the imagination rather than reason the first men gave true—even if non-rational and pre-scientific –answers to the original dilemmas. Vico’s views would have considerable influence in the following century upon the romantics like herder and Schelling, who enthusiastically affirmed myth as primal wisdom in poetic form. With Freud the study of myth entered a new period, as the source for the mythic impulse was now sought within the interior workings of the human mind or psyche rather than in external conditions. He interpreted myth as the collective dream of a people, an infantile manifestation of group unconscious. Jung rather developed the theory of the “collective unconscious” to include archetypes (inborn tendencies possessed by all humans to for certain general symbols) as an explanation of why certain symbols or images seem to be universally shared.

Levy-Buhl maintained that myth is the product of a prelogical “primitive mentality”. Perhaps most promising of all is the structuralist theory of Levi-Strauss. According to him, myth is a fundamental mode of human communication which derives, apparently, from the basic structure of the human mind. The phenomenological approach to the history of religions, popularized through the writings of van der Leeuw and Mircea Eliade especially, seeks to provide an objective description of religion through a comparative study of the actual religious experiences of humankind. Phenomenologists have tended to link myth and ritual as complementary aspects of religious experience.

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