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mythology [Greek,=the telling of stories], the entire body of myths in a given tradition, and the study of myths. Students of anthropology, folklore, and religion study myths in different ways, distinguishing them from various other forms of popular, often orally transmitted, literature. Much of that literature is classified according to its presumed function: fables, which instruct; etiological tales, which explain; and folktales, which entertain.

Myths may perform any one or all three of these functions, but in addition play a critical role in how a culture constructs its sense of time. In this sense myths are contrasted to history, which concerns recent, well-documented events, and to poetic epics and narrative legends, which concern an historical person, place, or incident from the distant past; an example is the story of Lady Godiva's naked ride through Coventry. (The legends of Norwegian and Icelandic kings, recorded from the 12th to the 15th cent., are called sagas.) A myth, however, is generally a story that takes place in an imagined, remote, timeless past and tells of the origins of humans, animals, and the supernatural.

While ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish mythologies are the best known, other important mythologies are the Norse, which is less anthropomorphic than the Greek (see Germanic religion); the Indian, or Vedic, which tends to be more abstract and otherworldly than the Greek (see Veda); the Egyptian, which is closely related to religious ritual (see Egyptian religion); and the Mesopotamian, which shares with the Greek mythology a strong concern for the relationship between life and death (see Middle Eastern religions).

Myth has been employed for the enrichment of literature since the time of Aeschylus and has been used by some of the major English poets (e.g., Milton, Shelley, Keats). Some great literary figures, notably William Blake, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens have consciously constructed personal myths using the old materials and newly constructed symbols.

Recurrent Themes

Studies of the myths of North and South American natives, Australian aborigines, the peoples of S Africa, and others have revealed how widespread are many mythological elements and motifs. Although there is no specific universal myth, there are many themes and motifs that recur in the myths of various cultures and ages. Some cultures have myths of the creation of the world; these range from a god fashioning the earth from abstract chaos to a specific animal creating it from a handful of mud. Other myths of cyclical destruction and creation are paralleled by myths of seasonal death and rebirth. In Greece the concern with renewed fertility was seasonal. Certain other cultures (e.g., Mesopotamia) were concerned with longer periods of vegetative death through prolonged drought. The idea of a golden age in which humanity is viewed as having degenerated from an earlier perfection is another common theme (e.g., Hesiod's Golden Age and the Garden of Eden in Jewish and Christian thought). The flood motif is extremely widespread and is one element of a group of myths that concern the destruction and re-creation of the world or a particular society. Myths treating the origin of fire, or its retrieval from some being who has stolen it or refuses to share it; the millennium to come; and the dead or the relation between the living and the dead, are common.

Older Interpretations of Myths

There have been many theories as to the reasons for similarities among myths. Many have viewed myths merely as poor versions of history, and have attempted to analyze and explicate them in nonsacred ways to account for their apparent absurdity. Some ancient Greeks explained myths as allegories, and looked for a reality concealed in poetic images. Theagenes of Rhegium was an early proponent (6th cent. B.C.) of this method of interpretation; it was most fully developed by the Stoics, who reduced the Greek gods to moral principles and natural elements (see Stoicism). Euhemerus considered the gods to have been renowned historical figures who became deified through the passage of time. Another interpretation sees myths as developing from an improper separation between the human and nonhuman; animals, rocks, and stars are considered to be on a level of intelligence with people, and the dead are thought to inhabit the world of the living in spiritual form (see animism).

A later allegorical interpretation states that at one time myths were invented by wise men to point out a truth, but that after a time myths were taken literally. For example, Kronos, who devoured his children, is identified with the Greek word for time, which may be said to destroy whatever it brings into existence. This approach was refined in philological studies of myth by Max Müller, who saw myths evolving out of corruptions of language: what seems absurd in myth, he suggested, is the result of people forgetting or distorting the meanings of words, e.g., the phrase “sunrise follows the dawn,” spoken in Greek could be interpreted as meaning Apollo pursues Daphne, the maiden of the Dawn. A similar theory is that myths, including Scripture, are corruptions of history; thus Deucalion is another name for Noah. The diffusionist theory postulates a very early, Paleolithic origin of mythology, and then diffusion of various motifs through travel, migration, and other forms of transcontinental communication. Through comparison with other mythologies, many Greek myths are now interpreted as products of literary codification and in terms of their formal reorganization as epic poems. Homer's epics are, thus, an elaborate combination of mythical elements with legend and folktale.

Modern Theories

The great modern advances in the study of mythology began in the 19th cent., when scholars like Sir James Frazer and Sir Edward Burnett Tylor argued for the study of mythology not as bad history but as a social institution, and called attention to the myths of contemporary simple societies. The evolutionary theories of Tylor and Andrew Lang, since discredited as simplistic and ethnocentric, postulate a certain stage of savage mentality that tends to produce similar myths. Some current theories instead posit a common psychological or emotional basis and relate myth to universal religious impulses. Frazer, whose epoch-making book The Golden Bough (1890) is a standard work on mythology, believed that all myths were originally connected with the idea of fertility in nature, with the birth, death, and resurrection of vegetation as a constantly recurring motif. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed that there is an inherent tendency in all people to form certain of the same mythic symbols. Religious scholar Mircea Eliade contended that myths are recited for the purpose of ritually recreating the beginning of time when all things were initiated so one can return to the original, successful creative act. Those who characterize the ordinary as profane and secular view myths as a form of sacred speech and thus as particular manifestations of a universal religious sensibility. Friedrich Schleiermacher thus characterized myth as a “historical representation of the supra-historical” divine.

Most contemporary students of mythology, however, have turned away from attempts to explain similarities in content in all myths by calling attention to the different contexts in which myths occur. They believe that myths function in a variety of ways within a single culture as well as differing in function from culture to culture. Sigmund Freud believed that the seeming irrationality of myth arises from the same source as the disconnectedness of dream; they are both symbolic reflections of unconscious and repressed fears and anxieties. Such fears and anxieties may be universal aspects of the human condition, or particular to distinct societies. The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski considered all myths to be validations of established practices and institutions. Similarly, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown examined how myths emphasize and reiterate the beliefs, behaviors, and feelings of people about their society.

Claude Lévi-Strauss returned to the study of all myths, not by examining common motifs and elements of the stories, but rather by focusing on their formal properties. He has called attention to the recurrence of certain kinds of structures in widely different traditions of folk literature and has reduced them to particular binary oppositions such as nature/culture and self/other. He contended that the human brain organizes all perceptions in terms of contrasts and concluded that certain oppositions are universal. He advocates the interpretation of myths as culturally specific transformations of these universal structures.


See L. H. Gray and G. F. Moore, ed., The Mythology of All Races (13 vol., 1916–33); B. Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion (1948); J. Campbell, The Masks of God (4 vol., 1959–68); M. Eliade, Myth and Reality (1963); A. Dundes, ed., The Study of Folklore (1965) and Sacred Narrative (1984); C. Lévi-Strauss, Mythology (4 vol., 1969–81); P. Maranda, Mythology (1972); S. Thompson, The Folktale (1977); M. S. Day, The Many Meanings of Myth (1984); K. Armstrong, A Short History of Myth (2005).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a fantastic conception of the world characteristic of man on the primitive-communal level and usually expressed in oral narratives, or myths; also, the scholarly study of myths.

General survey. For human beings living in a primitive-communal social system based on the spontaneous collectivism of close relatives, only communal and tribal relationships were comprehensible and part of everyday experience. They therefore ascribed the same relationships to everything in their environment. Thus, the earth, the sky, and the plant and animal world appeared to be a universal tribal commune in which all objects were not only animate but also (in many instances) intelligent and related to each other. In mythology these concepts became generalizations. For example, a handicraft and all its characteristics, as well as its entire development and the vicissitudes of its history, was conceptualized as a living, intelligent being who controlled all aspects of production. This conceptualization engendered mythological images of gods who were artisans, farmers, herdsmen, and warriors. The Slavic god Veles (Volos) and the Celtic Damon represented herding, and the Greek goddess Pallas Athena and the Abkhaz goddess Eriïsh, weaving. The Aztecs, the tribes of New Zealand, the Nigerians, and many other peoples believed in gods of fertility and crops and in gods or demons who were protectors.

Abstract concepts developed gradually in mythology. The first primitive forms of mythology were fetishism and totemism. In fetishism, objects are believed to be animate—more precisely, the idea of a thing is considered completely inseparable from the thing itself. In totemism, man fetishizes his commune or tribe and expresses the fetish in the image of a founder. Animism, in which man begins to separate the idea of a thing from the thing itself, represents a higher stage of development.

As the capacity for generalization and abstract thought developed, another level of mythological abstraction was reached. Man progressed to the concept of a single “father of men and gods.” Nonetheless, the images of these mythological overlords contained many vestiges of fetishistic and animistic beliefs, and therefore, they were not absolutized. An example of a mythological overlord is the Olympian Zeus, who was said to have over-thrown his predecessors, relegated them to the underworld, and subjugated the other gods as his children. Homer cites a number of the ancient and pre-Olympian features of Zeus, which make him a historically complex figure. Similar mythological characters are the supreme divinities and creators of the world invented in the patriarchal period by the Polynesians, Tahitians, Yakuts, and various African tribes. These supreme beings differ in name, functions, and degree of mythological abstraction.

Mythology developed from the chaotic and disharmonic to the orderly and harmonic, as is evident from a comparison of the mythological images of various historical periods. The mythological images of the matriarchy were awkward and, in many instances, ugly creatures extremely remote from the harmony of later images. Three-headed, four-headed, and 50-headed creatures, 100-armed monsters, and every conceivable type of evil, vengeful monster and semimonster are very frequently encountered in world mythology of the matriarchal period. For example, in ancient Babylon the beastlike Tiamat was considered the female ruler of the world. In Australia a one-legged killer-spirit was believed to rule the world. In Tahiti the ruling god was Oro, who demanded blood sacrifices, and in North America, seven giant cannibal brothers were considered to be the ruling gods.

The concept of the hero emerged in the patriarchal period. The hero conquered the previously unconquerable forces of nature and consciously organized social life, including the defense of the commune from hostile natural forces and neighboring tribes. For example, the Babylonian Marduk killed the monster Tiamat and created heaven and earth from her body. The famous epic of the hero Gilgamesh also developed in Babylon. The Persian god Mithra (Mithras) struggled with evil spirits and vanquished the terrible bull, and the Egyptian god Re fought with the underworld snake Apep. The ancient Greek god Zeus overcame the Titans, the Giants, and Typhoeus, or Typhon. Heracles performed 12 heroic exploits. The Germanic hero Siegfried slew the dragon Fafnir, and Il’ia Muromets, the dragon Gorynych.

However, the myths that have come down to us are made up of many layers (“rudiments”) from many periods. For example, in the Cretan myth of the Minotaur, the monster has the head of a bull and the body of a man, which indicates that the image originated in the early matriarchal period, before man had distinguished himself from the animals. The Minotaur is also depicted surrounded by stars and is called “the Starry One.” This is a later, cosmogonic generalization. The story of how the hero Theseus slew the Minotaur could only have developed in the patriarchal period.

At a very early stage in its development mythological thinking made various historical and cosmogonic generalizations. As people adapted to a settled way of life in which they were economically tied to a particular area, their concept of the unity of the tribe or clan became stronger, and the cult of ancestors emerged, with corresponding ancestor myths (historical mythology). Myths about the replacement of earlier divine and demonic generations were devised (cosmogonic and theogonic mythology). Attempts to understand the future and life after death gave rise to eschatological mythology. As part of the world view of a primitive-communal society, every myth has a cognitive function. That is, a myth is an attempt to understand complex questions, such as the origin of man and the secret of life and death.

In the primitive-communal society mythology was a naïve faith and the only ideology. In early class society mythology became an allegorical expression of various religious, sociopolitical, moral, and philosophical ideas espoused by a particular society. Mythology was often used in art and literature. Depending on the political views and the style of the author, mythology was expressed in different ways and used for different ends. For example, Aeschylus portrays Pallas Athena as the goddess of rising democratic Athens and endows Prometheus with progressive and even revolutionary ideas. Inasmuch as mythological ideas are still used by contemporary political figures, writers, philosophers, and artists, mythology has not died. Having served for millennia as a means of comprehending nature and human existence, mythology is regarded by modern science as a chronicle of the eternal struggle between the old and the new—a tale of human life with its sufferings and joys.

Scholarship. The scholarly study of mythology developed during the Renaissance. However, until the 18th century, European scholars studied primarily classical mythology. Knowledge of the history, culture, and mythology of Egypt and the peoples of America and the East made possible the transition to the comparative study of the mythology of different peoples. The 18th-century Italian philosopher G. Vico provided a historical interpretation of mythology. By comparison, the nonhistorical approach of the French Enlightenment, represented by B. Le Bovier de Fontenelle, Voltaire, Diderot, and Montesquieu, was a step backward. It regarded mythology as the product of ignorance and delusion or superstition. On the other hand, the Scottish poet J. Macpherson and the German writer and philosopher J. G. von Herder were among those who treated mythology as the expression of a common national wisdom.

During the romantic period interest in mythology increased. Folktales, legends, fairy tales, and myths were collected and interpreted. The “folkloristic school,” which interpreted myths as a source of national culture and used mythology to explain the origin and meaning of folkloric phenomena, emerged. Among its first representatives were the German scholars C. Brentano, J. Grimm and W. Grimm, and A. von Arnim.

In the mid-19th century a number of positivist theories of mythology developed in the folkloristic school. The solar-meteorological theory, which was proposed by the German scholars A. Kuhn and F. M. Muller and the Russian scholars F. I. Buslaev, L. F. Voevodskii, and O. F. Miller, interpreted myths as allegories about various astronomical and atmospheric phenomena. The theory of “lower mythology,” or the “demonological theory,” which was advanced by the German scholars F. L. W. Schwartz and W. Mannhardt, represented myths as a reflection of everyday phenomena. The adherents of the animistic theory, including the British scholars E. B. Tylor, H. Spencer, and A. Lang, the German L. Frobenius, and the Russian V. Klinger, argued that myths endowed all of nature with conceptions about the human soul.

In the 19th century the historical philological theory, which used the methods of literary and linguistic analysis to study myths, became very popular. Its chief representatives were the German scholars H. Usener and U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, and a number of Russian scholars, including V. Vlastov, F. F. Zelinskii, E. G. Kagarov, S. A. Zhebelev, N. I. Novosadskii, and I. I. Tolstoi.

Contemporary bourgeois theories are based exclusively on the logical and psychological evidence of the history of human consciousness. As a result, mythology is explained as an extremely subtle, highly intellectual phenomenon, which is precisely what it could not possibly have been at the dawn of human history. These theories are, as a rule, abstract and antihistorical. A 20th-century psychological theory that enjoyed great popularity was that of the Austrian doctor S. Freud, which reduced all the processes of social life and culture to the psychic life of the individual and emphasized the overriding importance of the sub-conscious, and especially of sexual needs, which were alleged to be the only factor in all conscious human behavior.

One of the most prominent Freudians, the Swiss doctor C. Jung, viewed mythology as an expression of the unconscious fantasies of the primitive human collective. Unlike Freudian theory, the prelogical theory of the French scholar L. Lévy-Bruhl (late 1920’s through 1930’s) claims that primitive thought is based only on extraordinary memory and close associations. The cultural-historical theory of myth formation, which regards every myth as a reflection of ritual and a mental reordering of ancient magic rites, has also been popular in the 20th century. Among its representatives are the British scholars J. Frazer, G. R. Levy, and B. K. Malinowski; the French scholars G. Dumézil and P. Saintyves (pseudonym of E. Nourry); and the American R. Carpenter.

Structuralism, whose chief proponent is the French scholar C. Lévi-Strauss (works written from the 1950’s through the early 1970’s), considers mythology a field of unconscious logical operations intended to solve contradictions in human consciousness.

The theories of bourgeois scholarship, which attempt to explain mythology in terms of various abilities or activities of individual human beings (for example, sexual, affective-volitional, mental, religious, and scientific abilities and actions), clarify, at best, only one aspect of the creation of myths. Because they seek explanations only in the abilities of the human spirit, none of the bourgeois theories can elucidate the social essence of mythology. Explanations for mythology must be sought in the social conditions that give rise to the ideology of a given society and, consequently, to one of its components—mythology. The materialistic conception is the foundation for work by Soviet scholars, including A. M. Zolotarev, A. F. Losev, S. A. Tokarev, Iu. P. Frantsev, and B. I. Sharevskaia. A cultural-historical interpretation of mythology on the basis of Marxism and a corresponding comparative historical analysis of the world epos is found in works by such scholars as V. la. Propp, P. G. Bogatyrev, V. M. Zhirmunskii, V. I. Abaev, E. M. Meletinskii, and I. N. Golenishchev-Kutuzov.


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Engels, F. Proiskhozhdenie sem’i, chastnoi sobstvennosti, i gosudarstva. Ibid., vol. 21.
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. a body of myths, esp one associated with a particular culture, institution, person, etc.
2. a body of stories about a person, institution, etc.
3. myths collectively
4. the study or collecting of myths
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005