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Different Approaches to Analyzing Mythology
Different Approaches to Analyzing Mythology
Origins of Superiority
Largely euhemeristic based views towards mythologies and some of the cultural norms based on them dominated collective societal philosophies up until the end of the Renaissance period. A surge in interest over a distinctive primal language that was thought to be traceable back to the scattering of the races at the Biblical Tower of Babel; the “Ur-language,” developed by the “Ur- people,” was presumed to be the original language from which all other existing languages were said to have been derived. This philosophy laid way for a basis of comparison—language form. Belonging to a culture that could trace is linguistic roots back to the original Ur, according to common thought, established ones culture, and therefore, beliefs as superior to those cultures that could not establish links to this prestigious origin. This rather ethnocentric point of view led to several mechanisms for comparisons among cultures and was eventually epitomized in Gottfried Herder’s Volk theory; conceptualizing the rural German “Volk” as having retained much of the vigor of their original ancestors; through simple living and close relationship with the land they maintained a purity not possessed by others. Some forwarded the notion of descent from the fabled Aryan Race based on linguistic ties; and therefore, superiority. This particular mind set has culminated in some rather dichotic historical events—most notably the Holocaust and the reaction of the rest of the world to Hitler’s Germany. Interpretation of myth and creation by definitive comparative guidelines in the instance of Nazi Germany’s version of development of a national character shook the cultural beliefs of the entire world.
Language, symbols, artwork, folktales, and chronologically ordered histories of events were cataloged and characterized by Giovanni Battista Vico, who claimed to have solved the mysteries and confusion of ancient histories through scientific principles. Comparisons of various aspects of different cultures were by and large used as a basis to establish social and cultural superiority during this period.
The Contextual Importance of Myth Development and Common Societal Patterns
As theories and approaches to discovering the origins or true nature of myths became ever more numerous, it stands to reason that different combinations of thought or hybrids of theory would develop. Wendy Doniger’s theories used components like the comparative styles of the Grimm Brothers’ (which had their roots in origin based importance of myths) to analyze the context under which certain myths were formed on the individual level, yet asserted the importance of also analyzing the broader social effects that myths have on societies as a whole. Doniger believed that taking into account contextual differences such as who is telling a certain story, what that person’s status or point of view may have been, and how they may have perceived themselves as compared to others involved in the scenario, can bring to light possible biases or cultural conditioning that may have influenced storyteller. Comparing many myths and examining the factors involved in their origin can lead to the discovery of discernable patterns and parallels; taking one step a little further back, it may be possible to determine common themes and reactions across cultures, while gleaning deeper understanding of behavioral concepts through the varying individuality of the different characters and situations involved in the story (Leonard & McClure, 2004).
Myths No Longer Exist
Robert Ellenwood’s approach to the study of myth suggests that myth, in the sense of Hesiod’s poetic “breathing” of the divine, no longer exists. What students, philosophers, and theologians study now is a vast conglomeration of bits and pieces of different kernels of possible truth; a “reconstruction of folklore and legend, artistically put together with an eye for drama and meaning (Leonard & McClure, 2004) .” The possibility of determining one true creation myth or one all encompassing theory that accounts for all myths of all cultures represented across time does not realistically exist, and as has been argued for centuries, may not even be the most important aspect of myth.
Myths at their most basic level are narratives used by many different individuals, cultures, societies, and nations to illustrate abstract concepts such as love, loyalty, and honor through characters and situations that individuals can identify with. Once a group of individuals identifies and agrees upon certain desirable modes of behavior, derived from shared values and goals, a culture has begun to form.
Creation Myths and Implied Mythological Meaning
Sky Woman and the Significance of Context
Out of the Blue is a beautiful creation story that combines elements of significance from several different analytical approaches to mythology. In this story a powerful, yet strange, woman from another world is tricked into jumping into a hole in the ground of her world and consequently creates the human world. The story of Sky Woman, as she is called in some versions of the narrative, illustrates not only a nature origin myth with the coupling of the divine woman and the tree of life, through which Sky Woman bears a daughter that she considers to make her complete; a form of divine origin offering this society an identity and legitimacy. (Leonard & McClure, 2004)
This story is primarily an example of Doniger’s emphasis on the importance of considering the context under which myths were developed because the story depicts a powerful woman creating the human world within a society that bases many of its structural procedures and political offices on matriarchal bloodlines. The story of Sky Woman illustrates for this society that women are divine, powerful and wise. When Sky Woman follows the instructions of her dead father instead of listening to her mother, she is paired with a man who deceives her. Thus, men are represented as being unwise and deceitful. In fact, any dealings with any male throughout the story result in a perceived tragedy initially. One of the sons that her daughter bears (Bud) insists on exiting the body of Sky Woman’s daughter from a location “nearer her heart, where there was no egress” and “tearing her asunder” changed her into another kind of being.
As Sky Woman forgets her previous existence, elements of significance to psychological analysis of myths emerge. The awareness of the presence of other “intelligent beings” with their “own meanings, their own forms” becomes apparent to Sky Woman and she and the archetypal forms carry out duties they “know” they must perform to allow for the next “uncoiling of the flow of the universe (Leonard & McClure, 2004).”
Additionally, Out of the Blue is also a good example of Ellenwood’s assertion that myths are derived from several different pieces of information because different versions of the story exist across the six nations of the Iroquois; within which exist many different versions of the narrative, each reinforcing the concept of a divine feminine and elemental conception of the society and the premise that women are powerful and wise.
The Creation, from The Eddas and Divine Origin
The magnificent story of creation portrayed in the Norse Eddas is a profound example of divine natural origin and descendent perceptions of power, dominance, and superiority. The Vikings were born of the gods themselves and the gods born of nature. “Burning ice, biting flame; that is how life began.” Different realms existed in the beginning; Muspell to the south, to the north Niflheim. Between these two realms in the seemingly empty void called Ginnungagap the interaction of elemental gods created the frost god, Ymir; from whom the first man and woman grew.” The epic goes on to recount the birth and creation of the 14 major Norse gods, human society, and the world as a whole. The Viking culture, unsurprisingly, dominated a great deal of Europe for a very long time by asserting their belief in the divine origin of their people. (Leonard & McClure, 2004)
The Edda also illustrates striking elements for consideration in the power of myths over not only the culture that is the originator of the myth, but every other culture that it comes in contact with. The belief the Vikings held in their divine origin fueled their conquests and left their mark on other cultures over a vast part of the world, and history itself.
The Creation contained in The Eddas also presents aspects that would definitely be significant to Ellenwood’s assertions that no complete myth even exists as it was collected from “thirty-four stories written by different authors at different times.” The word “Edda: is most likely derived from an Old Norse for poem, and has therefore, evolved with the telling over long periods of time. (Leonard & McClure, 2004)
Truth or Consequences
Many aspects of mythology have been studied over the ages by many intelligent minds. Many more people have felt the effects of the analysis of mythology and the customs and cultures that develop because of them. The main points of contention over the centuries seem to focus on whether or not myths should be considered as true; divinely inspired; worthy of religious station and adherence or fanciful tales dreamt up by unsophisticated, ignorant ancestors. And further, whether or not the implicit truth is truly as important as the effects myths have on societies as a whole.
Truth, as Ellenwood hypothesized, is sometimes more in the perspective of the reasoning individual than in the actual, verifiable, tangible evidence or even witness, as such scholars as Euhemeros and Tertullian demonstrated. The fact remains that human beings create their own realities every minute of every day. What an individual perceives to be real at any given moment is indeed, to that individual, real. It follows that the effect of myths—what human beings believe individual and collectively, influence our thoughts and perceptions; therefore our realities.
Human beings must continue trying to make sense of our surroundings; our interactions and relationships with other people. Narratives illustrating basic cultural norms constructed in a manner that can be understood and identified with by more individuals are going to become reality for that particular culture. As truth is arguably subjective, it follows that the effects or outcomes of the beliefs held by an individual or culture are far more influential than whether or not the myth they are derived from is actually true.
Sarah E. White, PhD
Leonard, S. & McClure, M. (2004). Myth &knowing: An introduction to world mythology, Chapter 1. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Ney York. 2004.