Mythological School

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Mythological School


a trend in 19th-century folklore and literary studies that arose during the romantic period. Its philosophical basis was the aesthetics of F. W. von Schelling and the brothers A. and F. von Schlegel, who perceived mythology as “natural religion.” The mythological school characteristically conceived of mythology as “the necessary condition and primary material for all art” (Schelling) and as “the kernel and center of poetry” (F. Schlegel). Schelling’s and F. Schlegel’s belief that a renaissance in national art is possible only if artists turn to mythology was propagated by A. Schlegel and was applied to folklore by the Heidelberg romantics (L. J. von Arnim, C. Brentano, and J. von Görres). The mythological school received definitive treatment in the works of the brothers W. and J. Grimm (German Mythology, 1835). According to their theory, folk poetry had a divine origin; the evolution of myth gave rise to the fairy tale, epic song, legend, and other genres; folklore was the unconscious and impersonal creation of the “national soul.” Using the comparative method, the brothers Grimm attributed analogous phenomena in the folklore of different peoples to a more ancient, universal mythology.

The mythological school gained acceptance in many European countries, including Germany (A. Kuhn, W. Schwartz, W. Mannhardt), England (M. Müller, G. Cox), Italy (A. de Gubernatis), France (M. Breal), Switzerland (A. Pictet), and Russia (A. N. Afanas’ev, F. I. Buslaev, and O. F. Miller). There were two principal trends: the etymological (linguistic reconstruction of the primary meaning of myth) and the analogical (comparison of myths with similar content). The etymological trend was represented by the works of Kuhn (The Descent of Fire and the Drink of the Gods, 1859; On the Stages of Myth-formation, 1873) and Miiller (Essay on Comparative Mythology, 1856; and Lectures on the Science of Language, 1862–64). Using the palaeolinguistic method, Kuhn and Müller tried to reconstruct ancient mythology, explaining myths as the deification of natural phenomena, such as heavenly bodies (Müller’s solar theory) and thunderstorms (Kuhn’s meteorological theory).

In Russia, the etymological study of myths was treated in an original way by Buslaev (Historical Essays on Russian Folk Literature and Art, 1861). He derived the heroes of the byliny (epic folk songs) from myths about the origin of rivers (Dunai, the Danube) and about giants living in the mountains (Sviatogor). The Russian scholar Miller was an extreme proponent of the solar-meteorological theory, as in his II’ia Muromets and the Bogatyri of Kiev (1869).

The demonological, or naturalistic, theory of Schwartz (The Origin of Mythology, 1860) and Mannhardt (Demons of the Rye, 1868; Forest and Field Cultures, 1875–77; Mythological Studies, 1884) arose within the analogical trend. The demonological theory saw the origin of myths in the worship of “lower” demonic beings.

In The Slavs’ Poetical Views of Nature (1866–69), Afanas’ev provided an original synthesis of the various theories of the mythological school. The influence of the mythological school is also evident in the early works of A. N. Pypin (On Russian Folktales, 1856) and A. N. Veselovskii (Comparative Mythology and Its Methodology, 1873).

The methodology and many of the theoretical conclusions of the mythological school were refuted by subsequent scholarship, which included the proponents of the migration theory and the former “mythologists” Buslaev and Veselovskii. However, the school played an important role in the development of mythological studies: it expanded the concept of mythology by turning to the myths of the ancient Indians, Iranians, Germans, Celts, and Slavs, as well as to the classical myths; it furthered the collection of the folklore of different peoples; it posed a series of important theoretical questions (including the question of the national character of art); and it laid the foundations for the comparative study of mythology, folklore, and literature. While critically evaluating the mythological school’s exaggeration of the role of mythology in the history of art, the trends that replaced the school continued to study the problem of the “mythologism” of folklore and literature, using the voluminous materials gathered by the earlier trend.


Sokolov, Iu. M. Russkii fol’klor. Moscow, 1941.
Azadovskii, M. K. Istoriia russkoi fol’kloristiki, vol. 2. Moscow, 1963.
Gusev, V. E. Problemy fol’klora v istorii estetiki. Moscow-Leningrad, 1963.
Meletinskii, E. M. Proiskhozhdenie geroicheskogo eposa. Moscow, 1963. (Introduction.)


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