Mythology

Definition

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published on 02 September 2009
The Birth of Venus (William-Adolphe Bouguereau)

Mythology (from the Greek 'mythos' for story-of-the-people, and 'logos' for word or speech, the spoken story of a people) is the study and interpretation of often sacred tales or fables of a culture known as 'myths' or the collection of such stories which usually deal with the human condition, good and evil, human origins, life and death, the afterlife, and the gods. Myths express the beliefs and values about these subjects held by a certain culture.

Myths tell the stories of ancestors and the origin of humans and the world, the gods, supernatural beings (satyrs, nymphs, mermaids) and heroes with super-human, usually god-given, powers (as in the case of Heracles or Perseus of the Greeks). Myths also describe origins or nuances of long-held customs or explain natural events such as the sunrise and sunset, the full moon or thunder and lightning storms.

One of the most famous myths of ancient Greece is of Demeter, goddess of the grain, and her daughter Persephone. Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and brought down to the underworld. Demeter searched desperately everywhere for the maiden but could not find her. During this time of Demeter’s sorrow the crops failed and people starved and the gods were not given their due. Zeus, king of the gods, ordered Hades to restore Persephone to her mother and Hades obliged but, because Persephone had eaten a certain number of pomegranate seeds while in the underworld, she had to spend half the year below the earth and could enjoy the other half with her mother. This story explained the change of the seasons in Greece. When it is warm and the fields are bountiful, Persephone is with her mother and Demeter is happy and causes the world to bloom; in the cold and rainy season, when Persephone is below the earth with Hades, Demeter mourns and the land lies barren.

Every culture has some type of mythology. The classical mythology of the ancient Greeks and Romans is the most familiar to people. The same types of stories, and often the very same story, can be found in myths from different parts of the world. The creation story as related in the Biblical Book of Genesis, for example, where a great god speaks existence into creation is quite similar to creation stories from ancient Sumeria, Egypt, Phoenicia and even China. The story of the Great Flood can be found in the mythology of virtually every culture on earth. The figure of the Dying and Reviving God (a deity who dies for the good of, or to redeem the sins of, his people, goes down into the earth, and rises again to life) can be traced back to ancient Sumeria in the Epic of Gilgamesh, to the Egyptian myth of Osiris, the Greek stories of Dionysus, of Adonis, and of Persephone, the Phoenician Baal, and the Hindu Krishna (among many others) down to the most famous of these figures, Jesus Christ.

Mythology tries to answer the most difficult and the most basic questions of human existence. To the ancients the meaning of the story was most important, not the literal truth of the details of a certain version of a tale. There are many variations on the birth and life of the goddess Hathor of Egypt, for example, and no ancient Egyptian would have rejected one of these as 'false' and chosen another as 'true'. It was understood in the ancient world that the purpose of a myth was to provide the hearer with a truth which the audience then interpreted for themselves. Apprehension of reality was left up to the interpretation of the individual encountering the values expressed in the myths instead of having that reality interpreted for them by an authority figure. The ancient myths still resonate with a modern audience precisely because the ancient writers crafted them toward individual interpretation, leaving each person who heard the story to recognize the meaning in the tale for themselves.



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Timeline

Visual Timeline
  • c. 4000 BCE
    Earliest Egyptian Myths Recorded.
  • c. 3000 BCE
    Hathor, known as Mistress of Dendera, cult center flourishes in the city of Dendera.
  • c. 2500 BCE
    Osiris as Dying and Reviving God and God of the Dead appears in Pyramid Texts.
  • 2285 BCE - 2250 BCE
    Life of Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon of Akkad, and world's first author known by name.
  • c. 2150 BCE - c. 1400 BCE
    The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh written on clay tablets.
  • c. 1640 BCE - c. 1700 BCE
    Written form of the Atrahasis Myth of the Great Flood.
  • c. 1300 BCE
    The Myth of Adapa appears in written form.
  • c. 1120 BCE
    The Sumerian Enuma Elish (creation story) is written.
  • c. 800 BCE - c. 700 BCE
    Homer of Greece writes his Iliad and Odyssey.
  • 753 BCE
    The legendary founding date of Rome.
  • c. 700 BCE
    Greek poet Hesiod writes his Theogony and Works and Days.
  • c. 400 BCE
    Roman tale of mythical twins Romulus and Remus first recorded.
  • c. 30 BCE - c. 18 BCE
    Roman poet Virgil writes his Aeneid.
  • c. 65 CE - c. 100 CE
    The tales of the life and work of Jesus (gospels) composed.
  • 708 CE - 714 CE
    The Kojiki written, a collection of oral myths forming the basis of the Shinto religion.
  • 720 CE
    The Nihonshoki written, a collection of oral myths forming the basis of the Shinto religion.
  • c. 807 CE
    Imibe-no-Hironari writes the Kogoshui, a collection of oral myths forming the basis of the Shinto religion.

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