What is Mythology?

Part Three of
Polytheology: Approaching Pagan Theology

Refined 17 January 1999

Index of This Page

* Some Standard Definitions of Myth and Mythology
* What Myths Do
* But What is Mythology, Really?

A Few Definitions


* [Webster's New World Dictionary]
1. the science or study of myths. 2. a book of or about myths. 3. myths collectively; especially, all the myths of a specific people or about a specific being.

The Bible is a Mythology - it fits definitions 2. and 3. above.


* [The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged]
1. a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some superhuman being or some alleged person or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially a traditional or legendary story that is concerned with deities or demigods and the creation of the world and its inhabitants.

* [Webster's New World Dictionary]
1. a traditional story of unknown authorship, ostensibly with a historical basis, but serving usually to explain some phenomenon of nature, the origin of [humanity], or the customs, institutions, religious rites, etc. of a people; myths usually involve the exploits of gods and heros.

The Bible contains Myths, as it fits the definitions of both dictionaries.


* [The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged] n. 3. a temple dedicated to all the gods. 4. the gods of a particular mythology considered collectively.

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What Do Myths Do?

Myths the world over tend to express certain common themes relating to:

  1. cosmogony, the creation of the universe or the earth with its solar system, humanity, plants, and animals, other aspects of nature, and the theory of their origin, as well as myths of a second creation following a disaster, frequently a flood;
  2. theogony, the origin of the [deities] and their genealogy, especially the Great Mother, pairs of deities (often brother-sister/husband-wife), and triads with the addition of a child;
  3. etiology, the study of causes and beginnings in general;
  4. the struggle between or among opposing forces, especially dualistic elements as good-evil, light-dark, or heaven-underworld.
"From this rudimentary, elemental scientific approach to the world around [them], [humans] need for some control over [their] environment and existence led to a fundamental worship, frequently with the aid of shamans, priests [and priestesses], or medicine [people], and the propitiation of those who might influence [their lives] or [their] surroundings."
(Rhoda A. Hendricks, Mythologies of the World, A Concise Encyclopedia)
[i replaced man/men/him/his with humans/people/they/their and added priestess]

Myths are also shaped by personification, that is, the endowment of aspects of nature, inanimate objects, or qualities and abstractions with human form, attributes, and characteristics. This is closely related to anthropomorphism, the assigning of human shape, qualities, and concepts to a deity, animal, plant, or other object. "By means of deification, humans and personifications were elevated to the position of a deity." (Hendricks)

Other myths explain social traditions, customs, religious beliefs and practices, and the mysteries of life and death. "Most beliefs surrounding death show fundamental similarities in that the dead went to an afterworld, which might be an underworld beneath the earth, an island paradise, a [hall of heroes], or the moon, and a number of mythologies linked death to a cycle of rebirth, somewhat parallel to that occurring in vegetation Imagination, superstition, and embellishment mingle freely with observation." Some myths are used to teach; some are 'just' for entertainment and storytelling. Myths and legends pass from generation to generation, enriching the lives of all who listen, giving them value and a sense of security, and linking them with their ancestors before them, and wisdom heroic and divine. (Hendricks)

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Samuel Noah Kramer said, in his introduction to Mythologies of the Ancient World:
"Modern students of mythology disagree radically in their views of the nature, scope, and significance of the ancient myths. There are those who look upon them as trivial superstitious fairy tales of little intellectual and spiritual import - the infantile products of undisciplined imaginations and capricious fantasy. Diametrically opposed to them are scholars who believe that myths of the ancients represent one of the most profound achievements of the human spirit, the inspired creation of gifted and unspoiled mythopoeic minds, uncontaminated by the current scientific approach and analytic mentality, and therefore open and prone to profound cosmic insights which are veiled to modern thinking man with his inhibiting definitions and impassive soulless logic.

"There are whole schools of modern mythologists who argue that ancient myth is closely bound to rite and ritual; that myth was, as it were, nothing other than the "rite spoken"; and that myth and ritual were practically two sides of the same cultic coin. On the other hand, there are historians of religion who claim that the ancient myths were primarily etiological in character - fictitious tales evolved for the purpose of explaining the nature of the universe, the destiny of [hu]man[ity], and the customs, beliefs, and practices current in their days, as well as the names of holy places and out standing individuals.

"There are psychologists who see in the ancient myths depositories of primordial archetype motifs which reveal and illuminate man's collective subconscious. On the other hand, there are linguists and philologists who are convinced that myth is a "disease of language," the product of man's vain, futile, and misguided attempts to express the inexpressible and to verbalize that which is ineffable."

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"Although a number of the more advanced tribes in the Americas recorded their mythology before the Spanish conquest, this information was almost totally destroyed by the invading Europeans, leaving only glyphs, as yet undeciphered, a paucity of written material in the form of picture writing, and an oral tradition to go by. Among the Teutonic peoples, Celts, and Slavs, the advent of Christianity relegated the mythology of their past to a position of little importance, setting down in writing myths and legends so mixed with other material and viewpoints as to change their whole complexion. The same process evolved wherever missionaries preceded the skill of writing or where that art was underdeveloped, as in Polynesia and Africa There is much waiting to be deciphered and translated, but new discoveries and continuing investigation by anthropologists, archaeologists, linguists, historians, and others constantly shed new light on the reconstruction of mythology."

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In fact, the functions of myth are quite similar to the functions of ritual. A myth can be a way to organize one's emotional responses to the world. One such sub-category, cosmogony, the creation of the world or the universe, which explains how everything or selected important things came into being, deals with the natural human wonder at BE-ing, IS-ness, and how we came to be here. A second related sub-category, cosmology, the order or organization of the world or universe, explains why or how things seem to work the way they do and/or how they fit together, and, of course, where humans fit in. The second major function of myths is as a way to achieve personal psychological coherence for the individual, creating internal order and/or integration.

And, on the larger level, myths explain and rituals help humans attain social coherence; that is, integration of the individual in society or of smaller societal sub-groups into the larger unit. Finally, through its storytelling, myths arouse other non-verbal senses and stimulate emotions and feelings; myths can give pleasure just for their own sake, without necessarily having obvious functions. Rituals, even non-religious or non-spiritual ones, can fulfill these human needs for explaination, definition, or integration.

"The ultimate purpose of myth is not to interpret reality but to create it."
Bruce Berger, The Telling Distance.

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But What is Mythology, Really?

O.k., i've presented a description of mythology rather than a definition of it. Probably the best definition i've seen yet comes from Mythography, the Study of Myths and Ritual by Willam G. Doty, on page 11, in his comprehensive working definition:

"A mythological corpus consists of (1) a usually complex network of myths that are (2) culturally important (3) imaginal (4) stories, conveying by means of (5) metaphoric and symbolic diction, (6) graphic imagery, and (7) emotional conviction and participation, (8) the primal, foundational accounts (9) of aspects of the real, experienced world and (10) humankind's roles and relative statuses within it.

"Mythologies may (11) convey the political and moral values of a culture and (12) provide systems of interpreting (13) individual experience within a universal perspective, which may include (14) the intervention of suprahuman entities as well as (15) aspects fo the natural and cultural orders. Myths may be enacted or reflected in (16) rituals, ceremonies, and dramas, and (17) they may provide materials for secondary elaboration, the constituent mythemes having become merely images or reference points for a subsequent story, such as a folktale, historical legend, novella, or prophecy."

Of course, as an academic, Doty goes into great detail to define and describe each of the phrases or key words in parentheses.

Please continue to the next page for:
Polytheology, Part Four, The Deities and How We Find Them

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Copyright1990-1997 Lilinah biti-Anat, except where noted. All rights reserved.

An earlier form of this essay was presented for The Fellowship of the Spiral Path, Old Religion Class, Tuesday, 13 November 1990

Part 4, Deities Part 2, Definitions
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* A Theory of Polytheism*
* For books cited, see my Sources*
* PolyTheology Part 1: Introduction to Theology and Ethics*

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