What is Mythology?

In the first place, are stories. In every culture and every country, during every period of time from Ancient Egypt to the modern United States, people have told stories. Of these, perhaps the most captivating have been the sacred stories handed down as part of , as well as the narratives that explain and define the great acts of nations and peoples: mythology in the strict sense refers to these. Usually these accounts are so old that their origins are shrouded in mystery. For us modern readers, part of their appeal is in their evocation of a long-gone era in which members of communities shared the same values and guided their lives by the stories they told. Rooted as we are in the ever-shifting, diverse, multifaceted world of the twenty-first century, we turn to mythology first for the entertainment value of a good story. Our impulse is sound: in the treasure house of mythological stories, we readily find the entertainment we are seeking.

And yet, the term “mythology” is usually applied to a body of stories whose purpose is not limited to entertainment. As Northrop Frye puts it, the stories of mythology are often “charged with a special seriousness and importance.” Some stories are associated with a living still being practiced at the time the is told; others are more secular in nature, but still include values and perspectives that inform the society and culture of the storytellers.

Many people believe that myths are false stories that primitive people used to tell to explain the nature of the universe before a better, more “scientific” explanation for the world was available. This view is related to the popular use of “myth” to mean “false story.” For instance, you may have heard people say that it is a myth that the sun travels around the earth, or that thunder is really the sound of two clouds colliding.

In common parlance, a myth is an “old wives’ tale,” a generally accepted belief unsubstantiated by fact. Thus, it is a myth that professors are absent-minded or that women are intuitive rather than rational. We also classify as myths the stories of and heroes of cults in which we do not believe, tales that once had religious significance (like Ancient Greek gods and goddesses for instance).

Collections of the myths of particular cultures are called mythologies. We also use the word “mythology” to refer to the academic field concerned with the study of myths and mythologies. We can also speak of myth as an abstract reality, like religion or science.

In the world, the terms “mythology” and “myth” have been generally associated with pagan ideology (ie: non-Judeo-Christian) – religious thought we generally do not believe in. If “myth” implies this falsehood, we certainly have accepted these tales in terms of cultural value – as somehow important to and worthy of teaching and learning. The English word “myth” is derived from the Greek mythos, meaning word or story. Human beings have traditionally used stories to describe or explain things they could not explain otherwise. Ancient myths were stories by means of which our forebears were able to assimilate the mysteries that occurred around and within them. In this sense, myth is related to , in which an object or event is compared to an apparently dissimilar object or event in such a way as to make its otherwise inexplicable essence clear.

Myths are many things in culture. As extended , they are a direct ancestor to what we think of today as literature. They are also forms of history, philosophy, theology, and even science – as they help us understand the phenomena of the world around us and before us. They serve as basis for a variety of cultural – many of which are still practiced to this day. In modern society, myths are still being created. Myths like the American Dream perhaps consider something intangible (maybe not even literally real), but never the less true in some higher sense – something to strive to obtain. Myths are also used as ways to justify positions of power and authority of to implement specific ideologies and political acts. This is never more important that when we look at the 20th century, particularly leading up to World War II, where Hitler’s Nazi ideology of Aryan racial superiority and the symbol are directly stemmed from old Germanic and Norse mythological concepts (although I should say that these were deeply warped interpretations of these myths). So, in other words, myth matters. Mythologies cannot be disregarded as nonsense or false ideologies when they certainly can resurface and have such great impact on contemporary society.

In essence, then, mythology is the study of that creative force which is beyond human knowledge, but which humans try to express in symbols, in words, in rituals, in stories, and sometimes in real life. If these stories are examined carefully and critically they may help humans to approach the unapproachable, express the inexpressible, go beyond the limits of the rational mind and head toward the ineffable unknown. Each culture responds to events and circumstances beyond their understanding by composing stories that make sense within their tradition.

Mythologist , a professor of comparative religions and mythology until his death in 1987, set forth the basic concepts allowing us to interpret mythologies beyond their apparent surface story line. He called mythology the “Face of ” – it is a metaphor for what lies beyond. There’s something beyond our tangible world and myths help us to tap into it. We should remember that myths are not a maze of falsehood, but that through the use of metaphor, myths breathe life into the essential human story – the story between the known and the unknown, order and chaos – a story that belongs to all of us.