- This article is about the study of myths. For the 1942 book Mythology, see the article on its author, Edith Hamilton.
Mythology is the study of myths: stories of a particular culture that it believes to be true and that feature a specific religious or belief system.
What is mythology?
Myths are generally stories based on tradition and legend designed to explain the universal and local beginnings ("creation myths" and "founding myths"), natural phenomena, inexplicable cultural conventions, and anything else for which no simple explanation presents itself. Not all myths need have this explicatory purpose, however. Likewise, most myths involve a supernatural force or deity, but many simple legends and narratives passed down orally from generation to generation have mythic content. The Brothers Grimm demonstrated that there is mythic content embedded even in the least promising fairy tales.
A fairy tale itself is not a myth. Other examples of stories that do not belong to mythology but are frequently confused with myth:
What forces generate 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." (The Greek Myths, Introduction). Graves was deeply influenced, perhaps too strongly, by Sir James George Frazer's mythography The Golden Bough, and he would have agreed that myth is generated by many cultural needs (more on the forces that generate myth is needed).
What human needs do myths satisfy? Myths authorize the cultural institutions of a tribe, a city, a nation by connecting them with universal truths. Myths justify the current occupation of a territory by a people, for instance.
Mythology figures prominently in most religions, and most mythology is tied to at least one religion. Some use the words "myth" and "mythology" to portray the stories of one or more religions as false, or dubious at best. The term is most often used in this sense to describe religions founded by ancient societies, such as Roman mythology, Greek mythology, and Norse mythology, belief in which is nearly extinct. However, it is important to keep in mind that while some view the Norse and Celtic pantheons as mere fable, others hold them as a religion, though the modern versions of these beliefs usually have little to no resemblence to the originals (see Neopaganism). By extension, many people do not regard the tales surrounding the origin and development of religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam as literal accounts of events, but instead regard them as figurative representations of their belief systems.
Some people, especially within revealed religions that are justified in terms of an authenticated scripture, may take offense at the characterization of any aspect of their faith as an expression of myth. An aspect of fundamentalism requires that every incidental element be accepted as literally true. However, most people concur that every religion has a body of myths that express deeper truths that are ineffable on the surface level.
For the purposes of this article, therefore, the word mythology is used to refer to stories that, while they may or may not be strictly factual, reveal fundamental truths and insights about human nature, often through the use of archetypes. Also, the stories discussed express the viewpoints and beliefs of the country, time period, culture, and/or religion which gave birth to them. One can speak of a Jewish mythology, a Christian mythology, or an Islamic mythology, in which one describes the mythic elements within these faiths without speaking to the veracity of the faith's tenets or claims about its history.
Many modern day rabbis and priests within the more liberal Jewish and Christian movements, as well as most Neopagans, have no problem viewing their religious texts as containing myth. They see their sacred texts as indeed containing religious truths, divinely inspired but delivered in the language of mankind. Others, of course, disagree.
Television and book series like Star Trek and Tarzan have strong mythological aspects that sometimes develop into deep and intricate philosophical systems. These items are not mythology, but contain mythic themes that, for some people, meet the same psychological needs. An excellent example is that developed by J. R. R. Tolkien in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.
However, copyright law restricts independent authors from extending modern story cycles. Some critics believe that the fact that the core characters and stories of modern story cycles are not in the public domain prevents the modern story cycles from sharing several essential aspects of mythologies. Fan fiction goes some distance to relieving this problem.
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 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 many other stories.
Mythology is alive and well in the modern age through urban legends, scientific mythology, and many other ways. In the 1950s Roland Barthes published a series of essays examining modern myths and the process of their creation in his book Mythologies.
Mythologies by region
- Akamba mythology - Akan mythology - Alur mythology - Ashanti mythology - Bambara mythology - Bambuti mythology - Banyarwanda mythology - Basari mythology - Baule mythology - Bavenda mythology - Bazambi mythology - Baziba mythology - Bushongo mythology - Dahomey mythology (Fon) - Dinka mythology - Efik mythology - Egyptian mythology (Pre-Islam) - Ekoi mythology - Fan mythology - Fens mythology - Fjort mythology - Herero mythology - Ibibio mythology - Ibo mythology - Isoko mythology - Kamba mythology - Kavirondo mythology - Khoikhoi mythology - Kurumba mythology - Lotuko mythology - Lugbara mythology - Lunda mythology - Makoni mythology - Masai mythology - Mongo mythology - Mundang mythology - Ngbandi mythology - Nupe mythology - Nyamwezi mythology - Oromo mythology - Ovambo mythology - Pygmy mythology - San mythology - Serer mythology - Shona mythology - Shongo mythology - Songhai mythology - Sotho mythology - Tumbuka mythology - Xhosa mythology - Yoruba mythology - Zulu mythology
- Buddhist mythology - Bön mythology (pre-Buddhist Tibetan mythology ) - Chinese mythology - Hindu mythology - Hmong mythology - Japanese mythology (mainstream) - Japanese mythology (Hotuma version) - Korean mythology - Turkic mythology
- Aboriginal mythology (natives of Australia) - Melanesian mythology - Micronesian mythology - Polynesian mythology
- Anglo-Saxon mythology - Basque mythology - Catalan mythology - Celtic mythology - Corsican mythology - Croatian mythology - French mythology - Germanic mythology - Greek mythology - English mythology - Etruscan mythology - Finnish mythology - Irish mythology - Latvian mythology - Lithuanian mythology - Lusitanian mythology - Norse mythology - Polish mythology - Roman mythology - Romanian mythology - Sardinian mythology - Slavic mythology - Swiss mythology - Tatar mythology
- Arab mythology (pre-Islamic) - Biblical mythology - Christian mythology - Jewish mythology - Persian mythology - Sumerian mythology
- Abenaki mythology - Algonquin mythology - American folklore (non-Native American) - Blackfoot mythology - Chippewa mythology - Creek mythology - Crow mythology - Haida mythology - Ho-Chunk mythology - Hopi mythology - Inuit mythology - Iroquois mythology - Huron mythology - Kwakiutl mythology - Lakota mythology - Leni Lenape mythology - Navaho mythology - Nootka mythology - Pawnee mythology - Salish mythology - Seneca mythology - Tsimshian mythology - Ute mythology - Zuni mythology
- Aztec mythology - Incan mythology - Guarani mythology - Haitian mythology - Maya mythology - Olmec mythology - Toltec mythology
Books on mythology