Classical Mythology/Charter myths

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Classical Mythology Course

Classical Mythology Course
Odysseus among the Sirens

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What is a myth?



Oedipus proves he is a hero by ridding Thebes of a female monster that is destroying it, the Sphinx. Understood as a charter myth, this myth justifies keeping women in positions of little or no power in society.

Often myths are not used to explain phenomena but rather to justify social norms and institutions. Scholars owe this insight to the Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, who studied Pacific islanders in the early 20th century. Malinowski realized that myths tended to advance the agendas of the story-tellers and of the people in power. For example, many Greek myths took their form in Bronze Age Greece up into Archaic Greece, a time when many Greek cities were ruled by kings. Not surprisingly, the myths can be read as promoting the custom of kingship.

Similarly, Greek myths and all literature of the time was produced and consumed by the elite: wealthy, free, Greek, men. Their stories about women, such as Medea and Clytemnestra, portray them as dangerous monsters in need of control. In addition, Greek gods and heroes often have to conquer a strong female monster in order to gain status and power. Apollo defeats the female dragon Delphyne at Delphi; Oedipus defeats the Sphinx; Heracles, Theseus, and Achilles defeat Amazons as well as other female opponents; and Odysseus defeats Circe, Scylla, and the Sirens.

A charter myth definition of a myth would be:

A myth serves to justify the status quo in a society, proving why institutions must support those in power.

For a charter myth theorist, myths have to express the desires and prejudices of the ruling class. They will not feed storytellers who tell unflattering stories about them. They will not pass on stories that question their authority. The myths that survive for generations reinforce the social values that favor the storytelling and ruling classes.

Today, plenty of people tell stories to promote their agendas about how society should function. For example, a justification for the way American capitalism works might take the form of the Horatio Alger myth and promote the story of people who started big businesses in garages, such as Bill Gates. Similarly, people interested in tort reform or consumer protection promote competing versions of the McDonald's coffee case, in which a woman was severely burned by hot coffee. Charter myth theory offers a productive explanation of the types of stories that are viral and spread across people's Facebook feeds. The stories are framed to promote a particular agenda about society.

It is important to distinguish charter myth interpretations from etiological interpretations. An etiology explains universal features not determined by culture. For example, an etiological myth might explain why humans do not have tails. However, a myth that explains or justifies human behavior or values would not be an etiology and be more properly interpreted as a charter myth. For example Aristophanes's story in Plato's Symposium offering an origin story for heterosexual and homosexual humans might be considered an etiology for naturally occurring sexual preferences, but Aristophanes throws in value judgments about the best people being homosexual, so it may be considered a charter myth. In general stories tend to have value judgments, as any editor of Wikipedia or Wikiversity knows.

Another term for this theory is functionalism, since this theory draws attention to the function that a story or myth serves within a society.

How is the ancient portrayal of Clytemnestra, a woman who kills her husband Agamemnon a charter myth?


Theories of Myth Interpretation[edit]

References[edit]


Classical Mythology Course

Classical Mythology Course
Odysseus among the Sirens

Return to
What is a myth?