By Mary Magoulick
other scholars say about myths (especially as connected to HEROISM)
Patterns in Heroic Myths (and tales)
|Defining Myth||Characteristics of Myth||Scholarship as Myth||Native American Myths|
|Conceptual Frameworks||Sacred Narrative?||Structuralism||Feminism and Myth|
|Background on Mythology||Generic Fluidity||Functionalism||Myths and Literature (& Women)|
From the Greek mythos, myth means story or word. Mythology is the study of myth. As stories (or narratives), myths articulate how characters undergo or enact an ordered sequence of events. The term myth has come to refer to a certain genre (or category) of stories that share characteristics that make this genre distinctly different from other genres of oral narratives, such as legends and folktales. Many definitions of myth repeat similar general aspects of the genre and may be summarized thus: Myths are symbolic tales of the distant past (often primordial times) that concern cosmogony and cosmology (the origin and nature of the universe), may be connected to belief systems or rituals, and may serve to direct social action and values.
The classic definition of myth from folklore studies finds clearest delineation in William Bascom’s article “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives” where myths are defined as tales believed as true, usually sacred, set in the distant past or other worlds or parts of the world, and with extra-human, inhuman, or heroic characters. Such myths, often described as “cosmogonic,” or “origin” myths, function to provide order or cosmology, based on “cosmic” from the Greek kosmos meaning order (Leeming 1990, 3, 13; Bascom, 1965). Cosmology’s concern with the order of the universe finds narrative, symbolic expression in myths, which thus often help establish important values or aspects of a culture’s worldview. For many people, myths remain value-laden discourse that explain much about human nature.
(though sometimes that truth is understood to be metaphorical rather than literal). Within any given culture there may be sacred and secular myths coexisting.
SOME BACKGROUND ON
MYTHOLOGY (the study of myth)
There have been many other functions and implications attributed to myth. They are often highly valued or disputed stories that still intrigue us even though many of us do not recognize them as a living genre in our culture. As McDowell's definition (#6 above) indicates, myths often involve extraordinary characters or episodes that seem impossible in our world, but "the extraordinary feats and traits of mythic protagonists are possible only because they attach to a primary and formative period in the growth and development of civilization" (80); thus their various aspects or dimensions are best considered as "organically intertwined" (McDowell, 80). In fact the contemporary connotation of myth as "a falsehood," often understood as being in opposition to science, probably stems from recognition of this attribute of myth (#6) in isolation. Myths also seem in opposition to science because they are not testable, which is the case (at least for origin myths) because of their primordial setting -- if events described are from a different, earlier world, then of course they would not be repeatable or logical in our world.
Both myths and science offer explanations of the cosmos. A key difference is that information about the universe presented in myths is not testable, whereas science is designed to be tested repeatedly. Science also depends on cumulative, frequently updated knowledge, whereas myth is based on passed down stories and beliefs. Myths may change over time, particularly after contact with other cultures, but they do not change and adapt to new periods and technological developments in the same way science does. Myths may be enacted through rituals and believed in absolutely, but they usually do not have physical effects in the real world, as in leading to new technology for building cars or providing medical treatment. People may believe they are cured through faith, and they may find important value-laden sentiments in myths, but these "real world results" are neither empirical nor usually repeatable (two standard criteria for science). Although science differs from myth in offering actual, testable control over the environment and producing real, repeatable results in the world, science is NOT completely divorced from myth. Many scientific theories are presented or understood in narrative form, which often end up sounding remarkably mythic, as scholars like Stephen Jay Gould and Gregory Schrempp have discussed (see scholarship as myth section below).
Myths were considered
by Victorian scholars as survivals of previous
times (perhaps decayed or reflective of "primitive" ancestors who took
them literally). Some saw them as evidence for social evolutionary theories of the 19th
century. These Victorians scholars (like E. B. Tylor) believed that humans in
all cultures progress through stages of evolution from "savagery" to
"barbarism" and finally to "civilization." This final, most
advanced stage was of course best represented by the men (Victorians) writing
the theories. Such theories no longer seem reasonable. We have not, for
instance, progressed beyond brutality, murder, war, and grave injustices just
because we have more advanced technology (in fact we use our technology partly
to more efficiently kills other humans). We also recognize the complexity,
thoughtfulness, and beauty of many other cultures we may once have considered
inferior to our own. Based on over a century of
ethnology (anthropological fieldwork) and research in psychology, genetics, and other disciplines,
accept that humans from all eras and parts of the world have equal intellectual
capacity and potential. We understand as well today that our own theories may
seem as foolish to our descendants as their conceptions of the universe
sometimes seem to us (see scholarship
as myth section below).
Our ancestors understood metaphor as well as we. This does not mean our ancestors lived exactly as we do, or that we conceive of the world in identical ways. But myths serve us better as means of understanding our ancestors if we accept their capacity for complex intellectual and artistic expression. Theories allow us to do our work as scholars, though our best efforts come with self-awareness of the theories and methods we employ as scholars. We now understand and discuss traditional myths and other such texts as emergent and intricately connected to performance situations or context. The more we can understand of the context of a myth, the culture it came from, the individual who told it, when and for what purpose, the audience who received it, etc., the better chance we have of offering an accurate interpretation. Of course, the further back in time one goes, the harder it becomes to study context. Nonetheless, the greater the attempt to understand context one makes, the better one's potential to interpret myths becomes. And even if we can't fully understand another culture's myths, that does not mean those myths are insignificant, useless, or "primitive" (a very offensive term these days in cultural studies).
Myths, as explanations of the cosmos and how to live, are parallel to science in many ways. Yet because of their differences from science, they often appear insignificant, whimsical, useless, or primitive to contemporary people. Many people lament the decline of myths, because they promise moral guidance and comfort that helps enrich life. For these reasons, many people remain interested in myths and seek to revive or revere them. Additionally, myths continue to intrigue us because of their rich symbolic, metaphorical, and narrative appeal. Some people believe classical music, movies, and even novels have filled the places myths used to occupy culturally. In our post-modern world many people believe myths exist in new, combined, or revived forms. One of the functions of all art is to reconcile us to paradox. Another is to suggest fundamental patterns of life and the universe. Even if they are no longer associated with religious rituals, belief systems, or primordial moments of creation, "myths" of heroic characters who mediate the troubling paradoxes of life will always compel us and can, I believe, still be found in our culture.
Definitions of myth are gleaned
from over a century of collection and classification of tales, beginning with
the Grimm brothers, who believed, “Divinities form the core of all
mythology” (1882-83, xvi-xvii). Myths are distinguished from other commonly
collected narratives such as folktales and legends. Myths were defined as
stories of ancient times believed to be true.
added that they must be sacred, and discussed how they serve society as a
charter for action. Many great social theorists from the 19th and early 20th
centuries (Freud, Frazer, Muller, Jung, etc.) used myths (usually
collected by others) as evidence of their universal truths – their a priori
theories (see “scholarship as myth” section below). Many fieldworkers like Lévi-Strauss,
Franz Boas (and his students), and Dell Hymes used deductive methods in
More recent scholars, like William
Hansen, argue that the sacred element of myths is a recent attachment to
definitions (perhaps beginning with the Grimms and then solidified by Malinowski).
But in his studies of ancient Greek myths, Hansen notes that NOT all myths had a
sacred element. They were not necessarily connected to religious beliefs, but
were often secular stories.
While myths do not have to have a
sacred element, they DO appear to share a world-forming, or worldview-forming
The fact that scholars
discuss various possible definitions of myth demonstrates the vitality and
importance of this genre. Genres are categorizations imposed by scholars seeking
ways of classifying and analyzing material they study. As folklorist Richard
Bauman explains of all
genres of stories, they share certain characteristics of: “form, function or
effect, content, orientation to the world and the cosmos, truth value, tone,
social distribution, manner or contexts of use, and so on” (Bauman, 1991).
Genres are extremely
useful, but all good scholars realize that they are fluid and often messy
guides, rather than absolute, neat, and fixed realities.
Realizing the fluidity of
narrative forms stretches throughout the history of folklore scholarship and
into the present day. Contemporary performance theorist Richard Bauman writes:
“When genres are conceptualized as open-ended, flexible, and manipulable sets
of discursive conventions and expectation . . . both traditional blended forms .
. . as well as emergent generic syntheses become more comprehensible” (1991,
58). From the perspective of performance theory, distinctions between generic
forms and their meaning and function should remain fluid, dynamic, to be
discovered. Bauman echoes others like Franz Boas, one of folklore’s founding
fathers in the U.S., who also recognizes the variability of generic form and
content of genre when he analyzes myths of the Northwest Coast Indians: “It
would seem that mythological worlds have been built up only to be shattered
again, and that new worlds were built from the fragments” (1898,18).
In his book on myth, Magical Arrows, Gregory
Schrempp analyzes literature which is “highly mythically tinged,” in his
discussion of the Greek philosopher Zeno’s oblique use of a story of Achilles
to illuminate his philosophy: “the invocation of myth (or at least of an
‘epic’ that is highly mythically tinged) ought perhaps not be regarded
dismissively as a mere appeal to dramatic effect. While the invocation of
Achilles, and by implication the world of heroes, may not be strictly necessary
for an exposition of Zeno’s technical arguments against the possibility of
motion, it may be necessary for some larger intellectual purpose” (1992, 25).
Schrempp shows that Zeno and Lévi-Strauss both distinguish myth from scientific
forms of discourse, yet both use myths in their own scientific discourse. In a
sense, they create their own myths, even while they think they are rising above
Schrempp’s work leads one to
consider the prevalence of myths in our culture, historically and today. Myths
seem to offer us symbolic resources we need to communicate. As Schrempp notes:
“even the grandest paradigms of Western social science are, at base, often
folk notions recast within the rhetoric and style of ‘science’” (1992:
38). Although the prevalence of
mythological details in our discourse keys us to its importance, we typically
insist upon distinguishing ways of thinking about the world, and today we think
of myth as lesser than science. The general public persistently uses the word
“myth” as something untrue and / or unworthy of serious consideration. The
Greek word mythos or “story” suggests potential untruth, but the perceived
unworthiness of stories stems from a scientific, rational perspective in
juxtaposition to other ways of thinking and expression. Yet the persistence of
myths throughout our culture reveals their worth.
As Schrempp’s discussion of Lévi-Strauss
and Zeno suggests, scholarly views of myths sometimes themselves approach
mythical status. Early scholars in myth theory created myths to paint pictures
of early human life and conceptions of the universe. Discussions of myth became
myths–origin stories that influence how we understand people and the world,
i.e. our worldview.
Malinowski is considered a functionalist because he insisted that myths serve as
charters for social action. Many other myth scholars also discuss this aspect of
myths. Anthropologist and folklorist Paul Radin
considers myth distinctive because of its function and implications as
determined by certain individual society members. The myth-makers then explain
symbolically how to live, as Radin notes: “A myth is always explanatory. The
explanatory theme often is so completely dominant that everything else becomes
subordinated to it . . .” (370). Myths serve to explain and encourage
worldview and good action within society. Many other theorists of myth concur
that it has a functional dimension.
Structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss
expresses similar sentiments about myth’s functions when he postulates that
myths serve to mediate conflicting or dualistic elements of society and life. Lévi-Strauss
recognizes “a basic antinomy pertaining to the nature of myth” and to human
nature (1974: 85). This antinomy provides a structure of myths which help
classify them and help one to scientifically decipher their meaning, according
to Lévi-Strauss. Antinomy or contradiction is often evident in the form of
dualities such as good and bad, night and day, etc., which Lévi-Strauss
emphasizes appear in “bundles” in myths (1958: 87). Looked at as whole
structures, myths reveal a typical pattern: “mythical thought always works
from the awareness of oppositions towards their progressive mediation” (1958:
99). The symbolic mediation in myths offers inspiration for culture and culture
members to heal, flourish, or accept their reality.
Lévi-Strauss draws upon
the image of one who weaves together bits and pieces of culture, in the image of
the bricoleur. He also draws upon sewing imagery in discussing the function and
method of the bricoleur:
More rapid cross-references, together with an increase in the number of points of view and angles of approach have made it possible to consolidate into a whole what might at first have seemed to be a loose and precarious assemblage of odds and ends, all dissimilar in form, texture and color. Careful stitching and darning, systematically applied to reinforce weak spots, has finally produced a homogeneous fabric, clear in outline and harmonious in its blend of shades; fragments which at first seemed disparate, once they found their appropriate place and the correct relationship to their neighbors, come together to form a coherent picture. In this picture, the tiniest details, however gratuitous, bizarre, and even absurd they may have seemed at the beginning, acquire both meaning and function. (1971, 562)
As myth gives meaning and purpose
to even the most seemingly disparate and fragmented elements of culture, so it
affirms life processes of change and refashioning.
Native American Myths
Two other scholars of Native
American mythology, Paul Radin and Claude Lévi-Strauss, also recognize the
variability of definitions of myth, anticipate much subsequent scholarship on
myth, and remain fundamentally insightful in analyzing myth. Many key scholars
in Native American mythology focus on twin myths as the classic examples (most
“common” in Lévi-Strauss’ terms, most “basic” in Radin’s terms) of
myths in North America. Twin myths are very common and popular throughout the
American Indian world.
Paul Radin, who worked among Native Americans in the Midwest, recognizes myth as a fluid narrative form in his article “The Basic Myth of the North American Indians.” He says, “folktale, myth and legend flow into each other continually and continuously” (368). Radin emphasizes that the “form and content” of myths “is not fixed,” which would be impossible because of a continuous barrage of new influences and priorities (370). The flexibility of the genre in Radin’s definition better accounts for the real stories that he and other fieldworkers typically encountered. He states: “It can, in fact, be said that every generation strives to ‘rewrite’ its folktales” (370). You can find traditional twin myths in virtually any collection of Native American myths.
Contemporary Native American writer Louise Erdrich’s novel The Antelope Wife also fits the twin myth pattern, demonstrating the continuing vitality of myth. Her contemporary myth offers symbolism direction for contemporary Native Americans whose culture is currently experiencing a re-birth or renewal of culture. Erdrich highlights this twin myth theme in her opening image of primordial female twins sewing the pattern of the world in beads. Like bricoleurs, spinners, and spiders, they affirm that mixing cultures, like mixing patterns in other creative endeavors, need not be a source of concern, but is instead is the source of life itself. Recognizing and reading The Antelope Wife as a myth reveals many messages and meanings that might otherwise remain obscure. The characters, symbols, and events of The Antelope Wife reflect lives, concerns, and dichotomies experienced or perceived by many Native Americans today who struggle to integrate various cultural components and heritages into a coherent and livable identity. Erdrich’s fictional shift into the twin and animal / human idioms bring this "novel" into the level of mythic discourse, the only discourse that reaches the level of re-organization of the cosmos and culture that she wants to convey. Myths works particularly well for critical moments in cultural history because they deal with notions of cosmology and worldview, symbolizing the fundamental re-shaping of human relationships.
Many feminists latch hopefully onto motifs in ancient myths that seem to indicate a possible past in which women had more agency, perhaps even a central role in society. These so-called "matriarchal myths" give women hope that they need not be condemned to permanent status as second class citizens, for such was not always the case. For instance some people interpret the overthrow of female deities in some myths as evidence of a time in which people worshipped goddesses, or at least considered female deities the equals of male deities. Some people also interpret prehistoric statuettes of apparently pregnant women as evidence that women must have occupied a more important role in those societies -- otherwise why would artists devote so much time to sculpting them (the thinking goes)? In her book The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future, Cynthia Eller reveals the wishful thinking inherent in such popular thinking about a matriarchal past. She notes that even feminists today believe that our prehistory was an idyllic time where men and women coexisted harmoniously while worshipping goddesses who revealed connections to nature and fundamental life processes. This wished for, glorious past (revealed in remnants and tantalizing traces of recorded- historic- myths and histories) was overthrown by the "patriarchy" when a male-centered society and male gods replaced the matriarchy, according to this way of understanding prehistory.
In her careful examination of what little evidence we have of how our ancestors might have lived in prehistoric times, Eller clarifies that in fact we cannot and do not know enough to make such conclusions. What myths like those of Perspephone/Demeter and the Amazons (for instance) do reveal is a pattern of male dominance within an established patriarchy. In those myths, the women end up "tamed" and domesticated. This is not proof that there once was a preferred matriarchy, but rather that any attempts at independence could be dealt with by the contemporary society.
Eller writes: "Prehistoric human societies may have been different from all those that came after them, but any such assertion runs into three perhaps insurmountable obstacles: first, there is no evidence that they were; second, there is no reason to expect that they would be (at least not when we are talking about the past thirty to forty thousand years of Homo sapiens sapiens, as feminist matriarchalists typically are); and third, if they were utterly different, and universally so, we need a compelling explanation of why things changed so drastically" (181). This "myth" of a matriarchal past appeals to women today who are struggling to gain rights and build a better society. Having a prehistoric model seems promising, as recapturing a past pattern seems likelier to many women than creating a new one.
Instead of clinging to this imagined past as a model on which to build a future, Eller counsels realizing our potential as humans to create new patterns for how to live and interact. "If there are no inherent barriers to women's equality, then the future of women does not rest on biological destiny or historical precedent, but rather on moral choice. What we must be and what we have been will of course have an effect on our gender relations, but ultimately these cannot and should not dictate what we want to be. If we are certain that we want to get rid of sexism, we do not need a mythical time of women's past greatness to get on with the effort toward ending it" (188).
While we may not be able to definitely interpret or recreate our past, we can use our imagination to try to shape the future, as many women writers are doing today, often consciously including mythic tendencies or motifs in their works to make them function similarly to how myths have always functioned -- helping to shape (or re-shape) our worldviews.
Myths and Literature (and Women)
and more writers today craft myth-like narratives that feature female heroes and
world affirming mythic stories. For instance, Native American poet and novelist
Louise Erdrich has
twin heroes in her myth/novel The Antelope Wife, Chinese American writer
Maxine Hong Kingston revives the myth of Fa Mulan in The Woman Warrior,
and Toni Morrison has mythic tendencies in some of her work, like Paradise.
Such works often involves feminist dimensions. Echoing Lévi-Strauss’
image of the bricoleur, feminist myth scholar Marta Weigle agrees that perhaps
the most important function of myth is its world-creating, world-affirming
aspects. She distinguishes male-centered myths that often serve as charters for
male dominance in society, from female-centered myths that typically affirm and
create the world itself (Weigle 1982). Weigle employs images of spinning and
weaving in her analysis of the world creating, life affirming functions of myth.
Marta Weigle explains that myths are needed in times
of identity crisis: “Significant psychic transformation – whether an
important decision, critical insight, creative task, schizophrenic break, or
change in consciousness – is heralded and expressed by cosmogonic myths and
motifs in dreams and various verbal and visual creations” (1989, 10). Only
apparent incompatibility needs myth to resolve or make sense of social dilemmas.
also notes the
paucity of female creators, deities and heroines in many of our traditional
stories: “Quite simply: such female
creator deities are rare” (1983, 45). She also laments the rarity of female
heros, as evident in the awkwardness of terms for them: “‘Creatoress,’
‘creatrix’ and ‘culture heroine’ are awkward and almost meaningless
designations, reflecting the relatively weaker roles women play in creation,
transformation and origin myths – when they appear at all in such narratives
about ordering the world” (1983, 53).
As Weigle notes: “Culture heroes, whether human or
animal, female or male, bring or bring about valuable objects, teachings and
natural changes which make possible human society and survival” (1983, 53).
thus very exciting to find so many strong women hero figures and re-visioned
myths in the work of contemporary women writers, particularly in women writers
of color. Erdich's novel offers one such hopeful example. Though the ancient, real and
mythical worlds of the Ojibwe may have been “shattered,” or “cracked
apart” as Louise Erdrich puts it in The Antelope Wife, by European and
American invasions and assimilation, contemporary Ojibwe people build new worlds
from those fragments, as Erdrich builds her myth / novel representing this
process. Her novel includes obvious fragments from the mythic traditions of her
culture, while offering images for how to successfully mediate such impulses,
build or incorporate a comprehensive and meaningful worldview, and thrive as
Native Americans in today’s world. Clear mythic tendencies within the novel
direct the reader to consider it in terms of scholarship on myth. Mythology
theories are typically applied to oral forms. Erdrich’s novel encourages us to
notice that such fluidity of form as has been noticed in oral genres also
applies to written genres. Her novel works as a myth: it offers images and
symbols of the re-birth of culture that maintain traditions while suggesting how
to live and think about being Native today.
The Antelope Wife
symbolizes the revitalization of Ojibwe culture. Erdrich’s innovative myth is
a resource for and a representation of her community, which serves a
contemporary audience well by offering characters and symbols appropriate to the
times, drawn from her own experiences, inspiration and creative resources, and
maintaining traditional images and messages. She thus realizes a folkloristic
principle of dynamic convergence between individual willed creativity and
communal resources. Erdrich’s work may be considered a traditional story, or
myth, given a dynamic and fluid, folkloristic view of tradition. (See my other
work, including my PhD dissertation—Coming to Life (2000)—for further
discussion of all of these issues.)
Lévi-Strauss, Radin, Boas,
Weigle, and others stress that mythic thought, as highly symbolic, offers rich
resources for making sense of the world, affirming worldview, and confirming
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