Delahoyde & Hughes


"Myth" can be a touchy term if taken wrong (especially if one includes texts such as Genesis within the category). The Greek word mythos originally referred to an authoritative speech or a story. More generally, a myth is a traditional story. But there is something special about myth not captured in these definitions. So we need to hash this through some more.

What does "myth" not mean?

Myth should mean a powerful traditional story that a culture uses to unfold its own worldview and beliefs, or its explanation for natural phenomena (geological, psychological, etc.). Purists will say that "mythology" is the study of myth(s), but I find the term useful as referring to a culture's system of myths, its interrelated set of stories. In other words, the birth of Athena is a myth; the Greek Pantheon and its involvement in the Trojan War is a mythology.

Sometimes concern arises regarding "myth" versus other terms for old tales. This gets too blurry to be bothered about, but here's what the authorities say when asked to distinguish some of these.

Myth is often a highly symbolic genre. Rather than the novel's traditionally particular realism, myths tend to favor the "archetypal." An archetype is a pattern or original model for all its subsequent and particular manifestations: a well-known category or type, such as a story pattern (a genre such as the fairy tale, action movie, or romance novel); a familiar kind of character (the heroine, the cowboy, the step-mother); a meaningful image (the dove, the color red, a snake, an apple, King Kong crucified); or a universal experience (the quest). These, when encountered in the arts, resonate because they are laden with meaning already. We know how to respond, maybe even innately. (Jung broke from Freud in perceiving a "collective unconscious" rather than solely individual sexual neuroses behind dreams and behavior.)

In cultural productions (art, literature, film, tv, ads, etc.) archetypal story patterns and powerful symbols encourage viewers to participate ritualistically in basic beliefs, fears, and anxieties of their age. Mythology has always been more than storytelling; dances, dramas, rituals, and other arts have similarly carried along mythic meaning to their cultures.

Finally, comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell is worth hearing on the topic of myths and deities:

The dictionary definition of a myth would be stories about gods. So then you have to ask the next question: what is a god? A god is a personification of a motivating power or a value system that functions in human life and in the universe--the powers of your own body and of nature. The myths are metaphorical of spiritual potentiality in the human being, and the same powers that animate our life animate the life of the world. But also there are myths and gods that have to do with specific societies or the patron deities of the society. In other words, there are two totally different orders of mythology. There is the mythology that relates you to your nature and to the natural world, of which you're a part. And there is the mythology that is strictly sociological, linking you to a particular society. You are not simply a natural man, you are a member of a particular group. In the history of European mythology, you can see the interaction of these two systems. Usually the socially oriented system is of a nomadic people who are moving around, so you learn that's where your center is, in that group. The nature-oriented mythology would be of an earth-cultivating people.
Now the biblical tradition is a socially oriented mythology. Nature is condemned. (The Power of Myth 22-23)

Our way of thinking in the West sees God as the final source or cause of the energies and wonder of the universe. But in most Oriental thinking, and in primal thinking, also, the gods are rather manifestations and purveyors of an energy that is finally impersonal. They are not its source. The god is the vehicle of the energy. And the force or quality of the energy that is involved or represented determines the character and function of the god. There are gods of violence, there are gods of compassion, there are gods that unite the two worlds of the unseen and the seen, and there are gods that are simply protectors of kings and nations in their war campaigns. There are all the personifications of the energies in play. But the ultimate source of these energies remains a mystery.
[Moyers:] "Doesn't this make fate a kind of anarchy, a continuing war among principalities?"
Yes, as it is in life itself. Even in our minds -- when it comes to making a decision, there will be a war. In acting in relationship to other people, for example, there may be four or five possibilities. The influence of the dominant divinity in my mind will be what determines my decision. If my guiding deity is brutal, my decision will be brutal, as well. (The Power of Myth 207-208)

"Mythology helps you to identify the mysteries of the energies pouring through you. Therein lies your eternity" (Campbell, Reflections 40).

"Myth makes a connection between our waking consciousness and the mystery of the universe. It gives us a map or a picture of the universe and allows us to see ourselves in relationship to nature" (Campbell, Reflections 56).

Works Consulted

Campbell, Joseph, with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. NY: Doubleday, 1988.

Campbell, Joseph. Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion. Ed. Diane K. Osbon. NY: HarperCollins, 1991.

Philip, Neil. Eyewitness Books: Mythology. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Orpheus: The Ancient World