Classical Mythology/What is a myth?

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Classical Mythology Course

Classical Mythology Course
Odysseus among the Sirens

Objectives[edit | edit source]

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • define myths and distinguish them from other narrative forms.
  • interpret a myth using Euhemerist or historicist theory
  • interpret a myth as an etiology or a nature allegory
  • interpret a myth using Freudian psychology
  • interpret a myth using Jungian psychology
  • interpret a myth as a charter myth using functionalist theory
  • interpret a myth using ritualist school theory

Defining Myths[edit | edit source]

Plato in Raphael's The School of Athens fresco. Plato viewed myths as so important that he banned the study of Homer and other myths from his utopian Republic.

In order to study myth, we have to have some grasp of what it is exactly. What are some of the common definitions of "myth"? Different theories of myth offer different and sometimes incompatible definitions of myths. Each of these theories offers a different view as to why myths are important. One theory may better explain certain myths better than others. Perhaps the most rewarding and intellectually useful benefit of the study of mythology is learning about these theories and applying them to all manner of stories, not just to myths.

The Greek word μῦθος originally meant a story, speech, or message. Later it came to be restricted to the stories of the gods, heroes, and men. Ancient authors freely adapted and interpreted myths, but they usually claimed that the stories were based on very old sources. Different Greek cities had their own legends, stories, gods, and heroes, so it was almost impossible to say that a story was not ancient. Even though the Greeks messed with their myths and creatively reinterpreted them, the sense one gets from Greek literature is that they considered them important.

Myth as Wisdom[edit source]

It is important to note that myths are not "religion". The gods and goddesses in the myth stories are worshiped in Greek and Roman religions, and myths offer some of the same explanations and comforts that religion offer, but mythology can be considered separate from the religious practices or as only a component of the practices. Note that the ritualist theory below is more focused on the religious aspects of myth.

Each of the theories below offer a different definition of myth. Consider them all and see if there are any commonalities. In this course on Classical Mythology, students will find all of these definitions useful for some myths. It is important to discuss each definition and the theory behind it, because each theory makes a different claim about what myths are and why they are important.

Here is an attempt to give a open definition that works with all of the theories. As a result, it may seem a little bland:

A myth is a type of traditional story applied towards some purpose.

The key parts of this definition note that a myth

  • is considered to be ancient ("traditional")
  • is considered important and valuable to society ("applied")
  • is passed down ("traditional")

Myth Theories[edit | edit source]

Euhemerism or Historicism[edit source]

Etiology or Nature Allegory[edit source]

Freudian Psychology[edit source]

Jungian Psychology[edit source]

Charter Myths[edit source]

The Ritualist School[edit source]

Structuralism[edit source]

Each of these theories is helpful for understanding and explaining some Greek myths. Very popular and central myths usually have popular appeal because they meet several theoretical definitions of myths. No course can cover every ancient Greek myth. A serious reader of these materials will come across links and references to myths that are not explained in the course. An important part of a good mythology course is providing students with the ability to apply these theories to myths from both ancient cultures and today.

Here is the list of different definitions of myth based upon the theories above:

  • Myths are distorted accounts of actual events in the distant past.
  • Myth are attempts to explain features of the world, usually natural phenomena, such as rain, a specific geographic feature, or animals and their behaviors.
  • Myths reflect strong fears and desires that are taboo and usually unable to be expressed in society.
  • Myths express characters and stories that are encoded into the human species in prehistory, and therefore express universal concerns.
  • Myths serve to justify the status quo in a society, proving why institutions must support those in power.
  • Myths are stories that developed to explain or accompany a ritual or series of rituals already in practice in a society.
  • Myths are the sum of all stories of a particular type within a cultural system; furthermore the meaning and interpretation of any one myth is only clear when one views how it relates to the other myths in the same system.

Further Reading[edit | edit source]

General works on Classical Mythology[edit | edit source]

  • Mark P. O. Morford, Classical Mythology, Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Barry B. Powell. Classical Myth, Pearson College Division, 2011.
  • William Hansen, William F. Hansen, Classical Mythology: A Guide to the Mythical World of the Greeks and Romans, Oxford University Press, 2005

Theories of Myth Interpretation[edit | edit source]

References[edit source]

  1. Hesiod, Theogony 133 ff.,
  2. Robert M. Price, "The Empty Tomb: Introduction; The Second Life of Jesus". In Price, Robert M.; Lowder, Jeffrey Jay, eds (2005). The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave. Amherst: Prometheus Books. pp. 14–15. ISBN 1-59102-286-X. 
  3. Segal, Robert A. "Introduction." Jung on Mythology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998, p. 4
  4. "Symbols in African Ritual (16 March 1973)". By AAAS (American Academy of Arts and Sciences). Retrieved May 17, 2013.

Classical Mythology Course

Classical Mythology Course
Odysseus among the Sirens