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The word mythology ( Greek: μυθολογία, from μύθος mythos, "story"; "legend," and λόγος logos, "word"; "discourse") is the "branch of knowledge that deals with myths; the study of myths" In addition, it refers to the body of myths from a particular culture or religion, (e.g., Egyptian mythology, Norse mythology, or Christian mythology). Mythology primarily focuses on stories that a particular culture has believed to be true and which may use supernatural events or characters to explain the nature of the universe and humanity.

In common usage, myth can mean a falsehood, or a fable — a story which is widely believed to be based on fact but which is not true. However, the academic study of mythology does not use these definitions. Mythography and comparative religious studies also acknowledge the cultural and spiritual value of all myth systems.


Myths are narratives about divine or heroic beings, arranged in a logical manner, and passed from generation to generation and culture to culture in syncretic mimetic shifts (i.e., changes which attempt to include material from newly-absorbed cultures and to reconcile any subsequent contradictions). All sacred traditions have myths, and use of the term does not imply crticism or any depreciation in importance, as there often is in common usage.

Some myths descended originally as part of an oral tradition and were only later written down, many existing in multiple versions. Oral traditions may diminish, or in some cases vanish, as the written word becomes "the story" and the literate become "the authority"; however, this depends on the culture.

Most often the term mythology is used in a compound expression with another adjective to refer specifically to ancient tales from very old cultures, such as Greek mythology or Roman mythology.

According to Friedrich von Schelling in the eighth chapter of Introduction to Philosophy and Mythology,

"Mythological representations have been neither invented nor freely accepted. The products of a process independent of thought and will, they were, for the consciousness which underwent them, of an irrefutable and incontestable reality. Peoples and individuals are only the instruments of this process, which goes beyond their horizon and which they serve without understanding."


The practice of classifying mythical narratives and figures is the work of the mythologist. Classification is based on a number of criteria, chiefly recurring themes and objectives, regardless of cultural, geographical, and chronological origins. An individual myth may meet the criteria of more than one of the following categories:

Ritual myths 
explain the performance of certain religious practices or patterns and are associated with temples or centers of worship.
Origin myths
describe the beginnings of a custom, name, or object.
Cult myths
are often seen as explanations for elaborate festivals that magnify the power of the deity.
Prestige myths 
are usually associated with a divinely chosen hero, city, or people.
Chthonic myths 
involve death and rebirth motifs, typically characterized by a journey to and return from the underworld.
Eschatological myths 
are stories which describe catastrophic ends to the present world order of the writers. These extend beyond any potential historical scope, and thus can only be described in mythic terms. Apocalyptic literature such as the New Testament Book of Revelation is an example of a set of eschatological myths.
Social myths 
reinforce or defend current social values or practices.
Creation myths 
describe how a culture believes the universe was created.
Trickster myths 
are concerned with the pranks or tricks played by gods or heroes.

Other concepts

Myths are not the same as fables, legends, folktales, fairy tales, anecdotes, or fiction, but the concepts may overlap. Notably, during Romanticism, folk and fairy tales were perceived by collectors such as the Brothers Grimm and Elias Lönnrot as eroded fragments of earlier mythology.

Mythological themes have often been consciously employed in literature, beginning with the works of Homer. The resulting work may expressly refer to a mythological background without being itself part of a body of myths (e.g., Cupid and Psyche). The medieval romance in particular plays with this process of turning myth into literature.

Euhemerism is the theory that mythology has its origins in history. It suggests that gods are deified heroes of the past, and when used, the term often refers to the process of explaining myths, putting topics formerly imbued with mythological qualities into pragmatic contexts. An example would be the reinterpretation of pagan mythology following the rise of Christianity. On the other hand, historical and literary material may become more myth-like over time; for example, the Matter of Britain and the Matter of France; based on historical events of the 5th and 8th centuries, respectively, were first made into epic poetry and over the following centuries became more mythical. "Conscious generation" of mythology has been termed mythopoeia by J. R. R. Tolkien, and also by the notorious Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg.

Formation of myths

What forces create myths? Robert Graves said of Greek myth:

"True myth may be defined as the reduction to narrative shorthand of ritual mime performed on public festivals, and in many cases recorded pictorially."

Graves, who was deeply influenced by Sir James George Frazer's mythography The Golden Bough, agreed that myths are generated by many cultural needs.

Myths authorize the cultural institutions of a tribe, a city, or a nation by connecting them with universal truths. Myths justify the current occupation of a territory by a particular people, for instance.

All cultures have developed their own myths consisting of narratives of their history, their religions, and their heroes. The great power of the symbolic meaning of these stories for the culture is a major reason why they survive as long as they do, sometimes for thousands of years. François-Bernard Mâche distinguishes between "myth, in the sense of this primary psychic image, with some kind of mytho-logy, or a system of words trying with varying success to ensure a certain coherence between these images.

A collection of myths is called a mythos (e.g., the Roman mythos). A collection of mythos is a mythoi (e.g., the Greek and Roman mythoi).

Joseph Campbell is one of the more notable recent authors to write about myths and the history of spirituality. His book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1948) outlines the basic ideas upon which he continued to elaborate until his death in 1987. These ideas, popularized in a series of books and videos, are considered to be inspirational rather than scholarly, and are more widely-accepted among the general public than in academic circles.

Religion and mythology

Mythology figures prominently in most religions, and most mythologies are related to at least one religion. Note that here myth, refers to a spiritual, psychological, or symbolical notion of truth unrelated to materialist or objectivist notions. While there are many adherents of Abrahamic religions who regard the symbols and events surrounding the origin and development of their faith's mythical tradition as literal history, there are other followers who instead regard them as figurative representations of their beliefs. Most of the new age religions, such as Neopaganism, have no objection to characterizing their religious texts as mythical.

The word mythology is used to refer to stories that, while they may not be strictly factual, reveal fundamental truths and insights about human nature, often through the use of archetypes. These stories also express the viewpoints and beliefs of the country, time period, culture, and/or religion in which they originated. Thus, it is possible to describe the mythic elements within various faiths as "mythology" (e.g., " Hindu mythology"; " Yoruba mythology"; " Islamic mythology") without addressing the issue of the truth of the faith's fundamental beliefs or claims about its history.

Myths as depictions of historical events

Although the status of a story as myth does not depend on it being based on historical events; myths which surround a historical nucleus gradually become filled with symbolic meaning, and can be transformed, shifted in time or place, or even reversed.

One way to conceptualize this process is to view myths as lying at the far end of a continuum ranging from an impartial report at one extreme, through legendary occurrence, and reaching mythical status at the other extreme. As an event progresses towards the mythical, facts become less important while the thoughts, feelings, and interpretations of the people take on progressively greater historical significance. By the time the story reaches the mythical end of the spectrum, it has taken on a life of its own and the facts of the original event have become nearly irrelevant. One example of this process is the Trojan War, a topic firmly within the scope of Greek mythology, though the extent of its historical basis in the Trojan cycle is disputed.

This method of interpreting myths as accounts of actual events, euhemerist exegesis, dates from antiquity and can be traced back to Evhémère's Histoire sacrée (300 B.C.E.) which describes the inhabitants of the island of Panchaia ("Everything-Good") in the Indian Ocean as normal people deified by popular naïveté. As Roland Barthes affirms, "Myth is a word chosen by history. It could not come from the nature of things."

This process occurs in part because events become detached from their original context and new context is substituted, often through analogy with current or recent events. Some Greek myths originated in Classical times to provide explanations for inexplicable features of local cult practices, to account for the local epithet of one of the Olympian gods, to interpret depictions of half-remembered figures and events, to account for the deities' attributes or entheogens, or even to make sense of ancient icons. Some myths are invented in an attempt to explain a harbinger's instructions, the origins of which have become obscured with the passage of time. Conversely, descriptions of recent events are reemphasised in order to seem analogous with tradition. This technique has been used by some religious conservatives in America to reinterpret prophecies in the Bible, particularly those of the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation. It was also used during the Russian Communist era in propaganda about political situations to create misleading references to class struggles. Until World War II, the fitness of the Emperor of Japan was linked to his mythical descent from the Shinto sun goddess, Amaterasu.

Mâche argues that euhemerist exegesis, "was applied to capture and seize by force of reason qualities of thought, which eluded it on every side." This process, he argues, often leads to interpretation of myths as "disguised propaganda in the service of powerful individuals," and that the purpose of myths in this view is to allow the "social order" to establish "its permanence on the illusion of a natural order." He argues against this interpretation: "[W]hat puts an end to this caricature of certain speeches from May 1968 is, among other things, precisely the fact that roles are not distributed once and for all in myths, as would be the case if they were a variant of the idea of an 'opium of the people.'"

Against Barthes, Mâche argues that,

"[M]yth therefore seems to choose history, rather than be chosen by it." "[B]eyond words and stories, myth seems more like a psychic content from which words, gestures, and musics radiate. History only chooses for it more or less becoming clothes. And these contents surge forth all the more vigorously from the nature of things when reason tries to repress them. Whatever the roles and commentaries with which such and such a socio-historic movement decks out the mythic image, the latter lives a largely autonomous life which continually fascinates humanity. To denounce archaism only makes sense as a function of a 'progressive' ideology, which itself begins to show a certain archaism and an obvious naivety."

Other uses

Middleton argues that, "For Lévi-Strauss, myth is a structured system of signifiers, whose internal networks of relationships are used to 'map' the structure of other sets of relationships; the 'content' is infinitely variable and relatively unimportant."

In their book Hamlet's Mill, Giorgio De Santillana and Hertha Von Dechend suggest that myth is a "technical language" describing cosmic events. They write:

"One should pay attention to the cosmological information contained in ancient myth, information of chaos, struggle and violence. [..] Plato knew .. that the language of myth is, in principle, as ruthlessly generalizing as up-to-date "tech talk"... There is no other technique, apparently, than myth, which succeeds in telling structure[....] The main merit of this language has turned out to be its built-in ambiguity. Myth can be used as a vehicle for handing down solid knowledge independently from the degree of insight of the people who do the actual telling of stories, fables, etc."

Catastrophists such as Immanuel Velikovsky believe that myths are derived from the oral histories of ancient cultures that witnessed cosmic catastrophes. In his book Worlds in Collision, he writes:

"The historical-cosmological story of this book is based on the evidence of historical texts of many peoples around the globe, on classical literature, [..] to establish (1) that there were physical upheavals of a global character in historical times; (2) that these catastrophes were caused by extraterrestrial agents; and (3) that these agents can be identified."

The catastrophic interpretation of myth forms only a small minority within the field of mythology.

Modern mythology

Film and book series like Star Wars and Tarzan may have strong mythological aspects that sometimes develop into deep and intricate philosophical systems. These items, though not mythology, contain mythic themes that meet similar psychological needs for certain people. One example of a fictional mythological system is that developed by J. R. R. Tolkien in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. In addition, fans will sometimes incorrectly use the term mythology to refer to a complex fictional world such as that of the Star Trek series.

Fiction, however, does not reach the level of actual mythology until people believe that it really happened. For example, some people believe that fiction author Clive Barker's movie Candyman was based upon a true story, and new stories have grown up around the figure. The same can be said for the Blair Witch and other such stories. Many generated contemporary myths have achieved the status of urban legend.

The word is also used to refer to common, rarely-questioned contemporary value systems, especially when seen as ideological or socially constructed (e.g., "the mythology of love"). In the 1950s, French structuralist thinker Roland Barthes published a series of semiotic analyses of such modern myths and the process of their creation, collected in his book Mythologies.

Books on mythology

  • Mythologies by Roland Barthes
  • Bulfinch's Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch
  • The Golden Bough by James George Frazer
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces and other titles by Joseph Campbell
  • Mythology by Edith Hamilton

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