About World Mythology . . .


Myths are symbolic, sacred or secular stories that explain the origin and nature of the universe, natural and supernatural phenomena, and aspects of human behavior. They tell of ordinary and extraordinary characters who become engaged in a sequence of events that take them beyond the everyday world of experience. 

These extraordinary features may account for a common modern view that all myths can be dismissed as falsehoods and fiction. Scholars who study the branch of knowledge known as mythology do take inaccuracies and contradictions into account, often finding revealing elements in them, but more importantly, they seek to understand and appreciate the vivid, inspirational qualities that people have valued in myths for centuries.

Mythology is defined in two main ways: 1) as the body of stories, ideas, and beliefs characterized as myths, and 2) as the study of myths for their social, spiritual and psychological value, for their historical and formal interest, for their symbolic and artistic dimensions, and for their links to mythic tendencies and ideologies in contemporary life.

How are myths distinguished from other kinds of stories? Like their siblings--folk tales--they entertain and reflect cultural norms and moral lessons. And like allegories--they are narratives with double or hidden messages, conveying meanings with symbols and metaphors.  But myths hold deeper ideas that are not communicated to everyone. Myths deal with questions beyond our everyday grasp, such as:  From whence did life, the universe, human beings and the forces that seem to govern us come? What is our place and purpose here?  Where are we going?

Ancient myths were usually part of an oral tradition at first and then were written down in literary form. The character and feats of heroes in such epics as Homer’s Iliad and  Odyssey, India’s Ramayana, and Mesopotamia’s Gilgamesh, have had a place in our imagination and hearts for thousands of years. 

Today, people commonly turn to ancient myths more for entertainment than for wisdom, but scholars, scientists and students find patterns that suggest myths live, die, and reshape with changing circumstances. Television and movies offer several types, including great heroes, and tricksters that make us laugh uneasily. Mythical figures need not be fictional. People like Daniel Boone, Ronald Reagan, or Mother Teresa are clearly historical, but they also have strong mythic resonances as well.

Some questions we will explore include:

  1. What are the origins of myths?

  2. How do myths give shape to people’s desire to live a meaningful, significant, orderly life?  Is it the way Sigmund Freud put it, that dreams are our private myths; and myths our public dreams?

  3. How are myths communicated in words, symbols, imagery, music and songs, rituals, arts,  drama, and news?  How do these forms affect our experience?

  4. Do myths share an underlying linguistic structure, or common source?  Emerging from different societies and circumstances, certain mythic stories are separated by thousands of years, yet have striking thematic resemblances.  Why?

  5. What can myths teach us today? The values and perspectives we can discern within myths through interpretations and critical analysis will help us understand the society and culture of the storytellers. We can hope that this knowledge will shine a light on our own lives as the myths fire our imagination.

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