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Introduction to Mythology
by James Harvey Stout

What is Mythology?

Mythology is an organized collection of stories (i.e., "myths") by which we explain our beliefs and our history. Beneath the story-lines, myths usually confront major issues such as the origin of humanity and its traditions, and the way in which the natural and human worlds function on a profound, universal level. Other myths, however, seem merely to narrate the deities' daily activities -- their love affairs and pleasures, their jealousies and rages, their ambitions and schemes, and their quarrels and battles.

Myths, Legends, Folktales, and Fables

We commonly use the word "myth" interchangeably with the following terms, but some authorities have made distinctions (which, like many definitions, might not be valid in all cases):

Legends - Unlike many myths, legends generally do not have religious or supernatural content. Legends emphasize the story more than the significance of the story; we might still gain a philosophical and moral meaning from a legend, but we probably will not feel the archetypal intensity which permeates myths. An example of a legend is the tale of Atlantis.

Folktales - While legends and myths might be embraced as true stories, folktales are generally known to be fictitious. They are often told only within a limited geographical area -- one town, one mountain range, or one country. Examples include the stories of Paul Bunyan and Rip Van Winkle from early American history.

Fables - Even more so than folktales, fables are acknowledged to be fictional -- certainly when the characters include talking animals. A fable's emphasis is on a "moral." Examples include Aesop's Fables, such as the stories of The Tortoise and the Hare, and The Fox Who Complained About "Sour Grapes."  

Mythology serves many purposes

Myths grant continuity and stability to a culture. They foster a shared set of perspectives, values, history -- and literature, in the stories themselves. Through these communal tales, we are connected to one another, to our ancestors, to the natural world surrounding us, and to society; and, in the myths which have universal (i.e., archetypal) themes, we are connected to other cultures.

Myths present guidelines for living. When myths tell about the activities and attitudes of deities, the moral tone implies society's expectations for our own behaviors and standards. In myths, we see archetypal situations and some of the options which can be selected in those situations; we also perceive the rewards and other consequences which resulted from those selections.

Myths justify a culture's activities. Through their authoritativeness and the respected characters within them, myths establish a culture's customs, rituals, religious tenets, laws, social structures, power hierarchies, territorial claims, arts and crafts, holidays and other recurring events, and technical tips for hunting, warfare, and other endeavors.

Myths give meaning to life. We transcend our common life into a world in which deities interact with humans, and we can believe that our daily actions are part of the deities' grand schemes. In our difficulties, the pain is more bearable because we believe that the trials have meaning; we are suffering for a bigger cause rather than being battered randomly. And when we read that a particular deity experienced something which we are now enduring -- perhaps a struggle against "evil forces" -- we can feel that our own struggle might have a similar cosmic or archetypal significance, though on a smaller scale.

Myths explain the unexplainable. They reveal our fate after death, and the reasons for crises or miracles, and other puzzles -- and yet they retain and even encourage an aura of mystery. Myths also satisfy our need to understand the natural world; for example, they might state that a drought is caused by an angry deity. This purpose of mythology was especially important before the advent of modern science, which offered the Big Bang theory to replace creation myths, and it gave us the theory of evolution to supplant myths regarding the genesis of humanity. And yet, science creates its own mythology, even as its occasional secular barrenness threatens to strip us of the healthful awe which other types of mythology engender.

Myths offer role models. In particular, children pattern themselves after heroes; comic books and Saturday-morning cartoons depict many archetypal characters, such as Superman and Wonder Woman. Adults, too, can find role models, in the stories of deities' strength, persistence, and courage.  

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“Mythology: the body of a primitive people's beliefs, concerning its origin, early history, heroes, deities and so forth, as distinguished from the true accounts which it invents later.” 
-- Ambrose Bierce

Metaphysics Network 

"It is the part of men to fear and tremble when the most mighty gods by tokens send such dreadful heralds to astonish us."
-- William Shakespeare 
 

The Metaphysical Store 

“A one sentence definition of mythology? "Mythology" is what we call someone else's religion” 
-- Joseph Campbell
 

Personal-Prosperity 

"In all the antique religions, Mythology takes the place of dogma."
-- William Robertson Smith
 

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"I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world and do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature. They are all alike, founded on fables and Mythology."
-- Thomas Jefferson
 

The Metaphysical Society 

"A myth is an image in terms of which we try to make sense of the world."
-- Alan Watts
 

The Metaphysical Dictopedia 

"I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge... myth is more potent than history... dreams are more powerful than facts... hope always triumphs over experience... laughter is the cure for grief... and love is stronger than death."
-- Robert Fulghum