Category Archives: Volume 5

Myth and Mythology

“..stories, with their wonderful admixture of pagan faith and riotous  imagination…” Guerber, H. A. (1919).


The Siren.  E. J. Poynter.

1.  Introduction

(a)  Etymology;  (b)  Definition;  (c)  Classification

2.  Origins of Myth

(a)  Theories;  (b)  Function;  (c)  Structure;  (d)  Euhemerism

3.  Anthropology

(a) Aetiology;  (b) Social Institutions;  (c) Ideology;  (d) Mythopoeic Thought 

4.  Ritual

(a) Symbolism;  (b)  Magic;  (c)  Sacrifice;  (d)  The Great Mother

5.  Religion

(a)  Cosmogony;  (b)  Theogony;  (c)  Eschatology

6.  Folklore

(a) Totemism;  (b)  Legend;  (c)  Mythic Themes


The Labour of the Danaids (1878).  J. R. Weguelin.

1.  Introduction

In essence mythology consists of a corpus of stories that attempt to explain not only the origins and values of a particular culture, but also the nature of the universe and humankind. In the study of mythology there is “…no one approach to myth that commands anything like universal agreement among cultural anthropologists…” (Carroll, 1996). The usual role of myth is an explanatory one (Lewis, J. 1969) though it has to be recognised that ancient humans were not just seeking explanations. Despite problems in reconciling myths to a definite chronology  they “…are always practical: they insist on some point of tradition; however distorted the meaning may have become in the telling.” (Graves, 1979). The popular notion of the nature and function of myth is that of a narrative containing purely fictitious elements with little foundation if fact (James, 1957). In historical terms myth did not become concerned with chronology until the state and its society had made considerable future advances (Franke, 1943).


Landscape with Polyphemus.  Nicolas Poussin.

The nature of myths shows a number of characteristics. In the stories central characters are gods and goddesses, supernatural heroes and heroines, as well as humans. The body of myths also includes endorsements of, and by, kings and priests in the form of sacred stories. As such myths show a close link with spirituality and religion (Eliade, 1967). Myths are thus seen as an account of ancient society at the time the stories were related. It follows that a myth is a story about something that possesses significance for the listeners, where ancient peoples are “…personally involed in a never-ending conflict between natural and supernatural powers…” (Lewis, 1969). In some respects myths represent, as a form of primitive science, the ingenious efforts of humankind to account for the bewildering and threatening world around them (Freund, 1964).


The Union of Earth and Water (1618).  Peter Paul Rubens.

True myth has to be distinguished (Graves 1979) from: (1) philosophical allegory; (2) aetiological explanations; (3) satire and parody; (4) sentimental fable; (5) embroidered history; (6) minstrel romance; (7) political propaganda; (8) moral legend; (9) humorous anecdote; (10) theatrical melodrama;  and (11) heroic saga. A study of myths and their origins has to take note of the following considerations to avoid confusing myth with other literary forms. The true myth is distinct from the various forms of traditional lore (James, 1957) in that : (1) it is “…not a product of the imagination.” ; (2) it is “…not idealised history or allegorised philosophy, ethics or theology.”; (3) it is “…not a daydream to be interpreted by the symbols of psycho-analytical exegesis.”; (4) and the “…myth itself is not fantasy, poetry, romance, philosophy, theology, or psychology…”.


The Rape of Europa (1732-34).  F. Boucher.

Allegory, from the Greek allegoria meaning an ’emblem’, implies speaking otherwise or discoursing differently from the original meaning. In other words a story or representation in which a subject is expressed metaphorically, as a parable or personification.  Aetiology, from the Greek aition means cause plus ology. As such aetiology applied to myth assigns a cause as the science of causation in natural phenomena. Satire means a medley or set of discursive poems that attack prevalent follies and vices. They usually present as sarcastic prose compositions. Similarly a parody is a burlesque song or poem that imitates another work in order to mock or ridicule. A fable, from the French ‘fable’ and the Latin fabula meaning a tale, is a fictitious narrative containing a fabrication or falsehood, an inventive short story that imputes a useful lesson. Myth must not be confused with saga, derived from Old English sagu meaning ‘saw’, which is the recital of a heroic story. Similarly melodrama, from the French melodrame and the Greek melos or song, is a play characterised by sensational incident and presentation.


Fable (1883).  Gustave Klimt.

Mythology has been described as the “…scientific and historical study of myths…” (Gardner, 1917) pointing out also that all myths share certain characteristics in common. Myths were the traditional echoes of a supposed ‘mythopoeic age’ as well as of past historical periods. Myths, because of their commonality were believed to contain a substantial amount of truth. Mythology as a subject includes the comparative study of myths as well as being a corpus of stories or mythos.  Myths were construed as being stories sacred in origin and nature that explained how humans became and their world originated, thus creating an “…ideology in narrative form.” (Dundes, 1984)


Prometheus.  Gustave Moreau.

Mythology therefore was (a) a mythic system or collection as well as also being (b) the investigation or study of myth (Spence, 1994; Shapiro, 1979). This corpus became collectively described as a science “…which treats of the early traditions, or myths, relating to the religion of the ancients, and includes, besides a full account of the origin of their gods, their theory concerning the beginning of all things.” (Guerber, 1919). In socio-economic terms, the understanding of myth and truth, in historical and social analysis, is “…determined by the mode of production, the social consciousness of the historian, and whether he represents the productive or non-productive classes.” (Franke, 1943).


Mythological Scene.  L. J. F. Lagrenee (1725-1805).

Myths may also present insights into archetypal types within human experience implying that such “…mythic discourse deals in master categories that have multiple referents: levels of the cosmos,  terrestrial geogrpahies, plant and animal species, logical categories and the like.” (Bruce, 2006). In this sense myths becomes a reflection of the search for meaning as well their narratives revealing deep human spiritual insights that have lasted for millennia. These survivals suggest that mythology may become the “…study of a primitive or early form of religion while it was a living faith.” (Spence, 1994).


The Triumph of Neptune (1634).  Nicolas Poussin.

1 a.  Etymology

The word myth is from the late Latin mythos or narrative and the Greek muthos meaning fable, and logos meaning discourse, speech or argument. The term mythos in Greek “…was primarily a thing spoken, uttered by mouth” (Harrison, 1903). In contrast its opposite, correlates with the thing enacted. In other words the “…primary sense of mythos as simply the thing uttered, expressed by speech rather than action…” (Harrison, 1903).


A classical landscape with worship of Bacchus.  J. van Huysum.

Mythology as the study of myths has been used since the 15th century, defined as a ‘body of myths’ by the OED in 1871. The modern Oxford English Dictionary (2010) definition states that a myth is a “…traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces or creatures, which embodies and provides an explanation, etiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief, or a natural phenomenon.”


Diomedes Devoured by Horses (1865).  Gustav Moreau.

1 b.  Definition

The term mythology has the literal meaning of the “…study of myths, i.e., the science of the origin, the diffusion and the meaning of myths.” (Coq, 1968), and as a collective noun defining a group of myths. A further definition states that “Myth, folktale, and legend may be generally defined as traditional forms of narrative.” (Spence, 1994). The use and meaning of the word myth is beset with ambiguity and involves distinguishing it from saga, folktale, legend and marchen. Whereas a legend has been described as a tale, embodying a so-called psychologically unsound concept of a ‘race-memory’, of events in the ancient past, a true myth is “…the reduction to narrative shorthand of ritual mime performed on public festivals, and in many cases recorded pictorially on temple walls, vases, seals, bowls and mirrors, chests shields, tapestries and the like.” (Graves, 1979).


Lady of Justice

It is the narrative quality of myth that distinguishes it from general concepts about cosmogony and theogony  because essentially a myth “…is a narrative of events, the narrative has a sacred quality; the sacred communication is made in symbolic form; at least some of the events and objects which occur in the myth neither nor exist in the world other than that of the myth itself; and the narrative refers in dramatic form to origins or transformations.” (Cohen, 1969). Myth is essence and origin is rooted in ritualised dramatic performances which, with their iconographic and oral records, became the prime authority “…for the religious institutions of each tribe, clan or city.” (Graves, 1979).


Diana (1867).  August Renoir.

Myth in general parlance can be used interchangeably with legend and allegory. However, scholarly and academic qualifications can be applied, and these traditional stories can be classified into three groups (Segal, 2004). These are (1): myths or sacred stories of the distant past concerned with the creation of the world and its gods; (2) more recent stories that are based on historical events and heroes; and (3) fairy tales and folktales which often involve animals and are in a mythical non-historical setting. Typical myths, which are the product of human imagination, are ritual myths, cult myths, prestige myths and the eschatological (Hooke, 1976). It follows therefore in the interests of clarity that must be “…distinguished from all other things we loosely call by its name: legend, tale, fantasy, mass delusion, popular belief and illusion, and plain lie.” (Hyman, 1958).


The Original Sin (1508-12).  Michelangelo.

Types of myth include those that (1): explain ceremonial dances and cults that are told and recorded pictorially in temples and on vases and seals; (2) embellished or romanticised stories involving legendary or historical individuals; (3) the allegory that “…reads animal or human causes into natural events or seeks to explain them as the actions of supernatural persons.” (Lewis, 1969). It follows that myth is “…not an intellectual explanation or an artistic imagery, but a pragmatic charter of primitive faith and moral wisdom.” (Malinowski, 1926), whereby truths and interest in myths cannot be reduced to historical veracity., despite the existence of “…iconographic and oral records.” (Graves, 1979).


Bacchus.  Caravaggio.

As a general rule myths are historical fiction and the essential truth underlying myth “…is the fact that it embodies a situation of profound emotional significance…” (Hooke, 1935), which defines myth as a “…traditional story, accompanying rituals, a story with a definite plot, purporting to tell of occasions when some institution or cult, or certain rites and festivals, had their beginning, and of the original act which set the precedent…” (Fontenrose, 1971). However, myths are not just stories but embody a spiritual element, so an extended definition must also accept that “…myth is not merely a narrative associated with a rite, but a narrative which with or without its associated rite, it is believed to confer life.” (Hocart, 1952).


Judith (1895).  C. Landelle.

1 c.  Classification

The intention of myth and mythology was to explain the beginnings of the world and mankind, whether locally or universally by founding myths, myths of natural phenomena, and educate peoples about the origin of their cultural conventions and rituals. In this sense mythology included of the ” …religious beliefs and conjectures as to the nature of things of primitive, ancient or barbarian peoples, and not with modern religious science, philosophy or theology.” (Spence, 1994).


Saturn devouring his son.  Francisco de Goya (1746-1828).

Early classification of myths were by Plato, Sallustris, and the neo-Platonists of the Renaissance mythographers in the Theologia mythologia of 1532.  It was from the time of western philosophers Plato and the Sophists that the matter of myth became a concern. For them the central problem was the explanation of the relationship between myth and traditional religious beliefs, hence the attempt at “…reconciliation by interpreting the traditional myths or theogonic tales as allegories revealing naturalistic and moral truths.” (Bidney, 1958).  Platonists classified myths into five categories of the theological, the physical encompassing natural laws, the animistic or those concerned with the soul, the material, and the mixed. An interest in polytheistic mythology was a feature of the Renaissance of the 16th century. Critical analyses were considered by the Greek pre-Socratic philosophers, especially Euhemerus who interpreted myths as real historical individuals and happenings altered by retellings over time.


The Punishment of Loki.

Classifications of myth during the 19th century evolved towards science in the work of E. B. Tylor as well as the misinterpretation of ritual magic by Sir J. Frazer. It was A. Lang  who proposed  “…pursue the study of myths as we study the history of other human institutions, such as law, manufacturers, arts.” (Lang, 1886). In the 20th century the psycho-analytic Jungian archetypes were introduced to myth classification, followed by the spiritual metaphors of J. Campbell, and the mental architecture of Claude Levi-Strauss. The modernists of this century attempted to account for “…the bewildering and ‘senseless’ elements in the religious legends of the civilised races such as Greeks, and Egyptians, and natives of India.” (Lang, 1886).


The Apotheosis of Homer (1827).  J. A. Ingres.

Ancient myths were rooted in the imagination and intuition rather than objective reality, and endured by identifying and explaining human propensities, the activities of primordial deities, as well as external natural phenomena. In addition to common and world-wide  distribution patterns, elucidated by comparative mythology,  including ancestor worship and totemic beliefs (Tolstoy, 1988),  myths were recognised as having “…a great aesthetic value, presenting as they do, a mine of imaginative material whose richness and beauty cannot fail to appeal to the colder sensibilities of this more prosaic age.” (Guerber, 1919).


Perseus and Andromeda (1620-21).  Peter Paul Rubens

Myths have been classified according to similarity and implied common origins of the ideas they express (Gardner, 1917). Broadly speaking classification can encompass mythic actions, mystic phenomena, and mystic beliefs arranged “…according to the phenomena, institutions, or beliefs with which they are associated.” (Gardner, 1917). Similarities encountered in myths due to their connection with similar rites, whereas variations arise due to cultural divergence rather than cultural convergence. (Raglan, 1958).he following list reflects a combination of classifications of myths.


Queen Medb.  J. C. Leyendecker.

Therefore (a) aetiological myths are concerned with the origin of periodic natural phenomena, including the physical, meteorological and seasonal, plus other natural objects and events. Basically very early myths providing “…an imaginary explanation of the origin of a custom, a name, or even an object.” (Hooke, 1976), for example  the myth of Enlil and the pickaxe explains the origin of that tool in ancient and Neolithic

Sumer. Then (b) myths of creation and origin that include the beginning of the universe or cosmogony, the birth of the gods and goddesses or theogony, as well as animals and mankind.  Creation myths generally take place in a primordial age when the world had not yet achieved its present form (Bascom, 1984), and then explain how the world gained its current form (Dundes, 1984; Eliade, 1963), as well as how customs. institutions and taboos were established (Dundes, 1986; Eliade, 1963). The cult myths (c) include those associated with deities, festivals, and kingship, which are often associated with temples and centres of worship. For example the development of religion in Israel, arising out of three seasonal festivals, involved the local shrines at Bethel, Schechem  and Shiloh during the early settlement of Canaan (Hooke, 1976).


Echo and Narcissus (1903).  J. W. Waterhouse.

Historical or euhemeristic myths (d) are concerned with the origin of kings, heroes and heroines and include prestige myths associated with cities and nations, families, totems and clans. Ritual myths (e) explain and justify the enactment of religious performances and practices. Eschatological myths (f) are those describing death and abodes of the dead, the otherworld or after-world, as well as stories describing the catastrophic ending of the world. Such apocalyptic myths extend beyond and transcend the actual historical landscape. Included within this scenario are demons, monsters and revelatory visions and prophecies. Social myths (g) are myths of ideology that explain and justify social structures, ethics, acts or demands of appropriation, transformations, ethics and the status quo.


Samson and Delilah (1609).  Peter Paul Rubens.

2.  Origins of Myth

When considering the origin of myths the question of “…why and how myth arises…” (Segal, 2004). Myths can be viewed as original truthful depictions or exaggerated versions of actual historical events. Moreover, myths can be regarded in allegorical terms as the personification of natural phenomena. Myths, or even folktales are not the product of single human mind. At the same time myths are not the creation of a group. A further distinction is between myth and legend because the “…sacred quality and the reference to origins and transformations distinguish myth from legend and other types of folk-tale.” (Cohen, 1969). In terms of social evolution and their origins “…one myth reflects a more primitive form of socio-economic organisation than another.” (Franke, 1943).


Ulysses and the Sirens (1891).  J. W. Waterhouse.

With regard to the origins of myths there are numerous theories some of which have been applied indiscriminately. Hence there is no universal key to understanding the origin of myth, for most myths “…most gods and other mythical personages, are of a highly complex character, and are compounded of elements varying in origin…” (Gardner, 1917). Myth as a sacred narrative explains how humanity and the world they live in came into being in their present form (Dundes, 1986), and thus concern “…events and reference to objects unknown outside the world of myth differentiates myth from history or pseudo-history.” (Cohen, 1969).


Sappho and Alcaeus (1881).  Sir L. Alma-Tadema.

The question of the origin of myth in 20th century theories focussed on questions of subject matter and function (Segal, 2004), where a myth “…is a tale invented by primitive people to express the observed facts of nature. For instance, the early races had a series of sun myths to express the cycle of the seasons.” (Malin, 1931).  The characteristic nature of original myths usually concerns gods, goddesses, supernatural heroes and heroines in relation to humans (Bascom, 1984),  where the story “…serves to define the fundamental worldview of a culture by explaining aspects of the natural world and delineating the psychological and social practices and ideals of society.” (Grassie, 1998).


Fragrant Iris.  Guillaume Seignac.

Myths and mythology could be seen as primitive man’s philosophical outlook as a “…first attempt to answer those general questions concerning the world which have doubles obtruded themselves on  the human from the earliest times…” (Frazer, 1930). Myths have been arranged according to the “…origin of ideas they express.” (Gardner, 1911) thus: (1) the meteorological and reflecting a prehistoric tendency to “…assign a personal existence to the sun, the moon, and other heavenly bodies…” (Gardner, 1911; (2) the physical where origins of myths are attributed to assorted natural phenomena; (3) ritual myths that explain origin as deriving from the justification of ritual practices and performances.


The Beguiling of Merlin (1874).  Sir E. Burne Jones.

Similar in origin are those of magical rites these myths become enshrined as a custom that preserves a tradition of some event; (4) Euhemerus, and thus euhemerism, maintained that “…all myth was of historical origin, and that the gods were men who performed great exploits or conferred benefits upon their fellows.” (Gardner, 1911). However, mythology is not history that has been changed substantially and neither is religion mutated ancestor worship. The problem with euhemeristic origins is that myths are often altered by accretions and transformations; (5) artistic origins imply that pictorial representations have been transferred from one myth to another, and thus artistic traditions influence the mythic one.


Nymphs and Satyr (1873).  W. Bougereau.

Myths of an ethical origin (6) suggest that myths “…seem either in origin or form to be mainly ethical in character…” (Gardner, 1911) and therefore mere moral tales, for example myths resemble Aesop’s fables. Ethical myths include stories of retribution, prohibitions or taboos concerning contact or sight of some sacred object of ritual. In other words tales concerned with breaches of laws, sanctions and customs. Myths of a mystical or allegorical explanation (7) have had a prevalence on numerous occasions, for example with the Neo-Platonic School of thought.


The Minotaur (1885).  G. F. Watts.

These interpretations, sometimes applied to the Greek mysteries, were often fanciful with only a tenuous connection with origins of myths. Allegorical stories were of much later occurrence and can be compared to myths  that “…vary considerably according to the form in which they are repeated or perceived and the character or status of those who repeat them.” (Gardner, 1911). Temple records and sacred writings which were often in the form of poems became systematised into official mythology (see Frazer, 1911; Tylor, 1873; Harrison, 1908; Hartland, 1894), stressing that myths “…abound with evidence as to the primitive aspirations and beliefs of mankind and as to the various stages of moral and intellectual development.” (Gardner, 1911).


Venus in front of a mirror (1615).  Peter Paul Rubens.

2 a.  Theories of Origin

During the second half of the 19th century academic theorists regarded myths as old-fashioned modes of thinking and a primitive precursor to modern science. E. B. Tylor (1832-1917) was an anthropological pioneer who postulated that myth explained the external physical world. Therefore myths did not account for ritual. In 1881 Tylor put forward the view that  primitive peoples religion was that of animism. Myths became attempts to explain natural phenomena in literal terms. Animism arose out of early humans attributing souls to inanimate objects. Animism is the doctrine that natural phenomena are due to spirits, or the attribution of spirits or souls to inanimate objects, a form of spiritualism or belief in souls separate from the material.

E B Tylor

E. B. Tylor

For Tylor in myths the main characters were the divine, human or animal personalities, therefore the “…belief that the world is populated by spirits that had once animated the bodies of human beings and that still retained human interests and human desires.” (Carroll, 1996). On this basis Tylor was thus “…preoccupied with the personalistic nature of myth…” (Segal, 2004), as well as his view that myth was a primitive counterpart of science. E. B. Tylor and his evolutionary anthropology successors  R. R. Marett (1907) and Henry Balfour were the central tradition of British anthropology. For Tylor for both material and non-material culture myths were derived from rituals and were also “…consciously devised as explanations.” (Hyman, 1958).


The Drunken Hercules. Peter Paul Rubens.

Tylor considered that ancient populations believed spirits animated objects in the natural world which included animals, trees, stones, sun, moon and stars. Tylor’s anthropological view was that the “…treatment of similar myths from different regions, by arranging them in large compared groups, makes it possible to trace in mythology the operation of imaginative processes…” (Tylor, 1871), with myths being “…stories that the human imagination constituted around ‘animated’ natural objects.” (Carroll, 1996).

Deat of cleoptara

Death of Cleopatra (1874).  J-A. Rixens.

For Tylor then myth functioned independently of ritual. So ritual  becomes “…the application of ritual, not the subject of myth.” (Segal, 2004). Myth was made subservient to the religious principle and thence he preceded to subsume both religion and science beneath the umbrella of philosophy. A scholarly criticism of E. B. Tylor was that he relegated and restricted both ritual and myth to the confines of primitive and ancient religion. For Sir James Frazer (1854-1941) was an influential scholar of mythology, comparative religion and social anthropology. Considered one of the founding fathers in his field of studies. He created the created the three-fold division of cultures into three stages of primitive magic, religion, and science, as well as contributing to myth-ritualist-theory.

J G Frazer

Sir James G. Frazer

Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough (1890) put forward the concept that “…all societies had passed through a ‘magical stage’ of social evolution in which they were rules by divine kings.” (Carroll, 1996). Magical thinking was therefore linked to those divine beings as well as natural forces. The interest shown by Frazer in ancient survivals had been broadened and extended by the studies in ancient middle eastern religion by Robertson Smith (Hyman, 1958). However, even though Frazer had regarded Tylor’s Primitive Culture to be a revelation he regarded Tylor’s rationalism to be “…a fiction devised to explain an old custom, of which the real meaning and origin has been forgotten.” (Frazer, 1915).


Eros (1601-1602).  Caravaggio.

In the progression from magic through religion to science Frazer tried to determine that “…ritual operates on the basis of the Magical Law of Similarity, according to which the imitation of an action causes it to happen.” (Segal, 2004). For Frazer myths arose out of primitive man’s mistaken beliefs about natural phenomena , that myths themselves were mistaken interpretations of ritualised magic. Therefore Frazer believed myths were “…expressions of a primitive way of life.” (Bailey, 1997), and thus a supporter of the theory of natural mythology. The combination of ritual and myth meant also the combining of magic and religion. For Frazer myths were “…natural occurrences…” that “…were categorised and translated into human terms…” (Bailey, 1997).


Pandora (1881).  Sir L. Alma-Tadema.

Andrew Lang (1844-1912) was a Scottish scholar, man of letters, poet, anthropologist, and a collector of folk and fairy tales. Lang regarded himself as a revolutionary mythologists (Carpentier, 1998) who asserted myth was a form of primitive science (Freund, 1964). For Lang, who had been influenced by the theories of the evolutionary anthropologists,  believed mankind shared a universal similarity, thus he viewed “…the savage, fantastic elements in myths and the bizarre customs of primitive peoples as characteristic of an earlier stage of human development…” (Davidson, 1976).


Andrew Lang.

Andrew Lang, was a cultural anthropologist, applied that branch of science to the study and interpretation of myth, who contended “…all primitive peoples, all over the world, have the same ideas, tales and customs, which live on in the classical myths and in the folklore of the country areas.” (Coq, 1968). Myths were therefore ‘savage survivals’ (Lang, 1884; 1887).


Pegasus .  Jacob Jordaens.

Andrew Lang, who was opposed to the German School’s philological interpretation of myth (Carpentier, 1998), argued  that the Marchen were the remains of a much earlier formation rather than ‘detritus’ (Coq, 1968). The German Schools believed that “…ultimately all myths refer to the moon.” (Freund, 1964), on the basis that early religion was moon-wonder or moon-worship . Mythology was divded between the Lunar School and the Solar School of Leo Frobenius (1873-1938) the German ethnographer, archaeologist and cultural diffusionist  who maintained myths were very often sun inspired.


Mammon (1885).  G. F. Watts.

Lang applied the methods of comparative (Carpentier, 1998) to the analysis of myth (Lang, 1887) and the origins of totemism (Lang, 1903), and was a supporter of the concept of the ‘noble savage’. Franz Boas was an American anthropologist and cultural relativist who influenced the development of the field in America for whom “…myths reflected social organisation, which meant that by studying what myths said about kinship, economic structure, and social organisation, it could be possible to reconstruct the nature of traditional societies (Carroll, 1996).


Ceridwen (1910).  Christopher Williams.

Psychoanalytic theories applied to the origins of myths include those of Sigmund Freud (1900), Alan Dundes (1988) and Carl Jung (1968). Psychological explanations of the origins of myths claim different cultures share similar mental forces. Psychoanalytic theories explain the popularity of novels, stories, folktales, plays and myths as the result of unconscious desires. This unconscious level of psychological activity was alleged to shape the content of myths. The essence of Freudian psychoanalysis is a pseudo-scientific misinterpretation of mental phenomena (Bassin, 1971).


The Combat of the Amazons (1618).  Peter Paul Rubens.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1938), the author of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) claimed that the stories with myths were varying expressions of the so-called Oedipus Complex of myth, the Freudian approach to the origin of myths as parallels of dreams. The Freudian theory of the Oedpius Complex was the fons et ongo or the primordial force underlying everything. It is cautionary to take the view that a theory that claims to explain everything usually explains nothing.


Farewell of Oedipus (1875).  Toudouze.

The theory of psychoanalysis posited that the “…absolute argument of the analysts, who contended that the creative images, within the psyche were to be attributed to sexual repression.” (Cotterell, 1986), and pansexualism. With regard to the origins of myths the core of psychoanalysis comprises, not only a mystification of the so-called unconscious, but a corpus of a priori metaphors, analogues, and fantastic hypotheses (Bassin, 1971). Allan Dundes (1988) argued that myths represented male birth envy, and that sacred narratives were an expression of unconscious of the female ability to give birth. Anther well known raconteur of psychological myth origin was Carl G. Jung (1875-1961).


The Pearls of Aphrodite.  H. J. Draper.

Theories of the origins of myth in the 20th century did not accept 19th century views that myths were in opposition to science. Carl Jung (1968: 1995) who broke away from Freud, was of the opinion that individuals had both a collective unconsciousness as well as an individual unconsciousness (Cotterell, 1986). Jungian psychoanalytical theorists asserted similarities in myths are based on archetypes that exist in the unconscious levels of the mind. For Jungians myths consisted of “…original revelations of the preconscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings.” (Graves, 1979). The similarities in world-wide myths and fairy tales, common to all in all ages (Lewis, 1979) were due to the universal archetypes.


Ariadne (1898).  J. W. Waterhouse.

Carl Jung tries to understand the underlying psychology believed to be invested in world myths, and asserted thereby that all people share an unconscious and innateness termed archetypes. Therefore the collective unconscious, the assumed mental inheritance, of the primordial images within the psyche of mankind. Jung’s mission was to persuade us that “…myths symbolise not cosmic phenomena but subconscious urges…” (Lewis, 1979) that are sometimes referred to as ‘race memories’.


The Rape of the Sabine Women.

This ‘psychic life’ in the minds of the ancients is therefore the “…fantasies of the collective conscious stem from the actual experiences of our remote ancestors…” (Cotterell, 1986). However, the collective unconscious posited by Jungian psychoanalysts “…to which no precise meaning had ever, or could ever, have been attached, is demonstrably unsound.” (Graves, 1979), still has some favour with some mythologists.


The Dryad.  Evelyn De Morgan.

2 b.  Function

Nineteenth century theories of the function of myth were concerned with “…why and how myth persist.” (Segal, 2004). The function of mythology was the “…investigation and explanation of myths or tales relating to the early religious and scientific experiences of mankind.” (Spence, 1994). The function of myth was action and provision of vital information within the community (Hooke, 1976), with myths taking their name from their function as serving the ritual. The study of myth has been artificially divided into origin, structure and function. Origin refers to the ancient and anonymous aspect of collective ritual. Structure refers to considerations of the dramatic that are not anthropological or historical. Function refers to the alteration of the text of the myth meaning a change in the social function of the myth.


Thanatos. Greek god of death.  Public domain.

A myth has two functions. Firstly, myth provides the answers to why power is conferred on gods and priests, and secondly myths “…justify an existing social system and account for traditional rites and customs.” (Graves, 1982). Myths therefore possess an ideological role and function, as well as the establishment and reinforcement of behavioural models (Eliade, 1936). Additionally in view of the long history of humankind “…four essential functions of mythology can be discerned. The first and most distinctive – vitalising all – is that of eliciting and supporting a sense of awe before the mystery of being.” (Campbell, 1991 b). Emile Durkheim and Bronislav Malinowski concluded that the “…pragmatic function of myth is to promote social solidarity as well as solidarity with nature as a whole…” (Bidny, 1967).

Feast of Silenus

Feast of Silenus.  Sebastiano Ricci.

Bronislav Malinowski (1884-1942) was a Polish born functionalist social anthropologist. According to functionalist interpretations of myths they “…maintain that primitive man is highly interested in natural phenomena…his interest is predominantly of a theoretical, contemplative, and practical character.” (Malinowski, 1974). For Malinowski myths are about origins whereas other theorists concentrated on the personalistic aspects of myths, however, he focussed exclusively on the function of myth. In Britain the anthropologists Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown claimed myths had a specific function to perform in society therefore the need to understand the economic basis that produced them.


The Creation of Adam (1511).  Michelangelo.

Functionalist analyses tend towards pragmatism where Malinowski “…asserts primitives seek to control nature rather than explain it…” (Segal, 2004). Malinowski directed his studies trying to define a sociological theory of myth believing myth “…as it exists in a savage community…in its living primitive form, is not merely a story told but a reality lived…it is a living reality, believed once to have happened in primeval times, and continuing…to influence the world and human destinies.” (Malinowski, 1974). In this sense Malinowski treated myths “…as symbolic, intellectual (or cognitive) explanatory statements.” (Lewis, 1976).


Heracles Among the Olympians.  Simon Vouet.

Malinowski viewed myth as being explanatory which did not necessarily exclude symbolic references. The functionalist interpretation is a “…behaviourist theory of myth as a mere adjunct in ritual and contemporary activities.” (Lewis, 1976).  The essence of functionalist theory is that myth, in primitive cultures, has the role or function of the codification of beliefs, sanctification of morality and ritual. Therefore myth contains practical guidelines and is “…a special class of stories, regarded as sacred, embodied in ritual, morals and social organisation…” (Malinowski, 1974).


Ariadne (1905).  H. J. Draper.

The functional explanation, with regard to myth, attempts to associate an intellectualist and philosophical approach with an explanatory one. In terms of the function of myth Malinowski affirmed that myth “…studied alive, is not symbolic but a direct expression of its subject matter…Myth fulfils in primitive culture an indispensable function; it expresses, enhances and codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficiency and contains practical rules for the guidance of man.” (Malinowski, 1926). Therefore pre-literate peoples used “…science to control the physical world. Where science stops, they turn to magic.” (Segal, 2004). It follows thus that where the magic ceases then the myth ensues.


The Discovery of Moses (1888).  Paul Peel.

Lucien Levy-Bruhl (1857-1939) was an armchair anthropologist and philosopher who believed primitive peoples communed with nature, and therefore thought differently from modern humans (Segal, 2004). For Levy-Bruhl the mentality of earlier pre-literate peoples was a condition of the mind, rather than a reflection of a stage in social and historical development. For Levy-Bruhl primitive thought was pre-logical, and consequently non-logical, whereas E. B. Tylor and Sir James Frazer regarded primitive thinking as erroneous but still logical.


Ride of the Valkyries.  W. T. Maud.

In the context of philosophy and myth Levy-Bruhl counterposed myth against science and philosophy. On this basis myth manifested the world and primitive peoples belief that “…all phenomena, including humans and their artefacts, are part of an impersonal sacred, or ‘mystic’ realm pervading the natural one.” (Segal, 2004).


Hylas and the Water Nymphs.  Henrietta Rae.

2 c.  Structure

Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009) was a French ethnologist, anthropologist, and theorist of structuralism and structuralist anthropology. The approach of structuralism is mythology is based on two premises firstly: “…myths functioned to provide the human mind with patterns of psychological associations (structures)…” (Carroll, 1996) and secondly;  an underlying structure of particular groups of myth that were connected in a precise way to the structure of other myths.


Morgan le Fay (1868).  F. A. Sandys.

For Levi-Strauss modern science had its primitive counterpart in myth. The underlying ‘structures’  possessed a dualism of opposites such as fire and water, the raw and the cooked, as well as males and females, moon and sun, which permitted consideration of philosophical matters. Therefore primitive myth was an inferior form of science and with regard to dualisms “…all humans think in the form of classifications, specifically pairs of oppositions, and project them onto the world.” (Segal, 2004). For Levi-Strauss structural theory should look at mythology as a universal language requiring structural analysis to decode it.


Judith slaying Holfernes (1614-20).  Artemisia Gentilleschi.

For structuralism myth functions as the bridge in the transiting on to culture, and means Levi-Strauss is seeing the role of myth in a different way. Levi-Strauss concerned himself with three types of myth. Firstly the coming fire, secondly kinship relations and conflicts, and thirdly the waxing and waning of the seasons expressed by wet and dry, plenty and famine. An analysis, which according to Levi-Strauss, “…around such dysfunctions, the framing of totemic groups, and the uses of fire (Promethean Fire) that man builds up his interpreted ways of life, with its rituals and myths.” (Lewis, 1969).


Hercules and Omphale.  G. Boulanger. 

For Levi-Strauss and the approach of structuralism the content of a particular myth is not relevant because its primary function is the structuring of the universe, which means Levi-Strauss “…ventures beyond the story to the structure of myth, but again the structure is conveyed by the story.” (Segal, 2004). Levi-Strauss theorised that myths are reflected patterns in human mind and thus interpreted as fixed mental paired opposites of good and evil, hence the structuralist approach “…uproots myth from its socio-cultural context and treats it as a universal art form to be analysed and evaluated by whatever stylistic or aesthetic canons one chooses.” (Lewis, 1969).


Venus and her Doves.  William Etty.

Levi-Strauss and structuralist analysis attempted to “…revive an intellectualist view of primitives and myth.” (Segal, 2004), regarding structural relationships could be found in underlying structures, also reflected in the similarity shown by fairy tale plot structure. Examination of such abstract relationships implies myths centre on binary oppositions between structures and elements, the purpose of myth to mediate these opposites or binaries (Levi-Strauss, 1963). For Levi-Strauss and structural theories “…a myth is a structures system of signifiers, whose internal networks of relationships  are used to ‘map’ the structure of other sets of relationships: the ‘content’ is infinitely variable and relatively unimportant.” (Middleton, 1990).


The Lady of Shalott (1888).  J. W. Waterhouse.

2 d.  Euhemerism

Making a clear definition between myth and history presents difficulties, especially when related to the theories of Euhemerus. Euhemerus was an ancient Greek mythographer from Macedonia who lived in the 4th century BCE or circa 300 BC. This philosopher postulated that the gods were originally men and heroes, and thereby established the tradition that mythical events had a basis in history. An allegorical and Euhemeristic interpretation of myth was made by Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) the Italian philosopher, historian and rhetorician who attempted to “…reduce the culture heroes of myth to class symbols of society.” (Bidney, 1958). Prestige myths are euhemeristic and distinct from cultic and ritual myths because they “…invest the birth and exploits of a popular hero with an aura of mystery and wonder.” (Hooke, 1976). Such myths include the birth and finding of Moses after his exposure, also those of Sargon, Romulus and Remus, which may contain elements of historical tradition. Therefore such myths may reflect the patriarchal ascendancy of the Bronze Age as examples by Irish and Welsh mythology.


Romulus and Remus (1616).  Peter Paul Rubens.

Euhemerism is the historical interpretation of previous events that argues mythological accounts are founded on historical personages and events (Bullfinch, 2004). It was Vico who pointed out the value of ethnological origin of myths because they were supposedly historical records of the cyclical evolution of human thought and institutions (Bidney, 1958).  The theories of Euhemerus were described as ‘mythology on disguise’ (Spence, 1921). Distinct from cult and ritual myths are those called prestige myths that “…describe the birth and exploits of a popular hero with an aura of mystery and wonder.” (Hooke, 1976). Here there may be a connection with patriarchal ascendancy and the theory of euhemerism, examples being found in Irish and Welsh mythologies of the Bronze Age.


The Irish mythic hero Finn mac Cool.

The exaltation and veneration of kings into divine beings with their deification is rooted in euhemerist theory. The process of ranking kings and heroes among the gods is known as apotheosis. A promotion to glory when they were worshipped as divine beings after death. Euhemerism is also a means or process whereby myths are rationalised. The Historical School, one of whose advocates was W. H. R. Rivers, accounted for myths originating in prehistory as chronicles of ancient happenings. Euhemerist theory, that which based myths on historic events and individuals, could not coexist with the myth-ritual theory and its study of significance because “…myth tells a story sanctioning a rite…it neither means or explains anything…” (Hyman, 1958).


Salome.  Ella Ferris Pell.

Mythological themes became permeated with mythic properties and placed in a practical context. In other words, even though “…interpretations of myth, moral allegory and euhemerism alike go back to ancient times…” (Segal, 2004), the Historical School established a religious and cultural paradigm shift in the study of myth. The original euhemerists argued therefore that the ancient deities were great kings deified and worshipped after death. A similar process can be seen with the re-interpretation of pagan myths following Christianisation. Many old-fashioned theories of myth were tantamount to due to primitive speculations or garbled history, hence the Euhemerist efforts to “…validate the rite by attributing its origin to an ancient and sacred person.” (Raglan, 1958).


The Vision of Ezekiel (1518).  Raphael.

3.  Anthropology

In archaeological and anthropological terms “… the creative period of myth is set in prehistoric times.” (Cotterell (1986). The science of myth has to begin with the study of archaeology and anthropology, as well as comparative religion and prehistory (Graves, 1979). It goes without saying that features of mythology and history have been intertwined since primordial times.


Medusa (1597).  Caravaggio.

Since the Palaeolithic myths have underpinned mankind’s attempts to explain natural phenomena which led in turn to handed down traditions (Spence, 1994), implying that “…myths never originate as scientific or aetiological explanations of nature…” (Hyman, 1958).  In other words myths are subject to cultural transmission or social heredity. Myths of creation take place usually during a primordial age. This implies, for prehistoric man, the world was not in its present form (Eliade, 1963).


Mourning for Icarus. H. J. Draper (1863- 1920).

These ancient myths explained how the world, institutions, customs and taboos came into existence. During the Neolithic, or “…in the civilisations of the first planters – the cities of the Nile, the Euphrates-Tigris Valley, and the Indus – there evolved mythologies connected with a priesthood.” (Cotterell, 1986). The myths of the Neolithic identified humanity with the vegetation cycle, with the seasons. Myths of birth, growth, maturity, decay and then death followed by resurrection were not within the cultural life of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, unlike Neolithic farmers.


The Three Graces (1639).  Peter Paul Rubens.

3 a.  Aetiology

Aetiological myths were “…invented to explain certain phenomena, beliefs or customs.” (Gardner, 1917), that may have begun as allegories to define those natural occurrences in terms of spiritual concepts (Segal, 2004). Aetiological myths that define the origin of rituals, customs or relationships are referred to as founding myths. As such, either as studies or a corpus of stories, they became “…collective expressions of a society, or societies, made from regular observation, and synthetised in narrative form over long periods of time.” (Bidney, 1997).


Tower of Babel (1563).  Pieter Breughel the Elder.

When considering the causation of myths it is obvious that there is “…a universality of certain themes and motifs running through the mythologies of all cultures…” (Shapiro, 1979). This is apparent in terms of myths explaining totemic beliefs and the sacred narrative which is “…a story that serves to define the fundamental world view of a culture by explaining aspects of the natural world and delineating the psychological and social practices and ideals of a society.” (Grasssie, 1978).

Young bacchus

Young Sick Bacchus (1593-94).  Caravaggio.

The underlying causes of myths are sometimes accounted by a supernatural aetiology or the deeds of deities, thus the attempt “…to explain the relations of man to the universe…a predominantly religious value…to explain the existence of some social organisation, a custom or the peculiarities of an environment.” (Spence, 1994). Whenever or wherever they have existed human beings, exercising their basic nature, have felt the “…need to ask the same questions relating to the tangible and intangible, the visible and invisible.” (Shapiro, 1979).


The Birth of Venus (1485).  Sandro Botticelli.

Comparative mythology and the origin of myths, from an anthropological standpoint, suggests that myths unfold and change, through a process of descent and thence modification. The implication being that a phylogenetic tree or branching cladistic model of mythologies can parallel biological evolution.  Myths classified as aetiological are stories that embody the aim of providing “…an authoritative reason for things as they are by explaining what once happened, as it is alleged in primeval times…” (James, 1957), in some Hesiodic or mythic ‘Golden Age’.

Wales Awakening Christopher Williams

Wales Awakening.  C. Williams.

In these circumstances myth and ritual was used by class complex of gods-kings-priests to extend and provide for their own salvation first and thence that of the community at large ensuring “…circumstances, mental processes, and practices of primitive man parallel the circumstances, mental processes, and practices of prehistoric man…” (Weisinger, 1905). It is recognition of this aetiological interpretation of myth whereby the fallacy of the aetiological historicity becomes apparent.


Kreimhilde Sees the Dead Seigfried (1805).  H. Fuseli.  Public domain.

The evidence of a pre-mythic stage is to be found in the cave paintings, engravings, Venuses and burial remains of the Aurignacian period “…as the most likely evidence of cultic practices” (Weisinger, 1965). It was the Abbe Breuil (1960) who suggested that 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, in the caves of Lascaux, and attributed “…the culture of the caves as the matrix of the myth and ritual pattern…” (Levy, 1948). The cave paintings and Venuses of the Palaeolithic show the very great age of myths because those very paintings “…un-mistakenly create an atmosphere of awe in which we can well believe religious rites of the utmost antiquity and solemnity were practised.” (Weisinger, 1965). Due to the primitive mode of production, or hunter-gathering society itself becomes the myth maker because it “…fails to distinguish between itself and its material environment…” (Franke, 1948).


Proserpine. Dante G. Rossetti.

The paintings in the caves of Lascaux are illustrations of pre-myths about man’s origins, the lives of supernatural beings, death, the afterlife (Leeming, 1959). In this time between 15,000 and 4000 BC early mankind has no answers to these questions. so early mythology therefore identified “…society with its environment through the symbolism of magical totemic ritual and its accompanying descriptive myth…” (Franke, 1948). Eventually and finally myth “…reached the point where it could be codified and written down.” (Weisinger, 1965), and once transcribed into texts they achieved regulation and formalisation.

Captive Andromache

Captive Andromache (1885).  Lord Leighton.

The origin of myth is not to justify or provide a reason because “…it is representative, another form of utterance, of expression…and the ritual though hallowed by tradition seems unmeaning, a reason is sought in the myth and it is regarded as aetiological.” (Harrison, 1977). In other words when the reason for the ritual has been forgotten the explanation of the surviving myth is sought in aetiology.

Girodet 3

Cimon and Pero (1630).  Peter Paul Rubens.

3 b.  Social Institutions

There are different types of folktale and myth. Behind folktales and myths there will be found elements of history, references to tribal structure and function, details of religious belief, evidence of migrations and invasions, as well as political developments. Social institutions encompass civilisation, social organisation, the art of warfare and the “…material means by which they are attained are very commonly attributed to gods or to tribal heroes.” (Gardner, 1911). In other words these gods and heroes ordained and bestowed the customs and institutions found in a given society. Therefore the “…rise and fall of civilisations in the long, broad course  of history can be seen largely to be the function of the integrity and cogency of their supporting canons of myth…” (Campbell, 1982 d).

WMAG; (c) Worcester City Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Clytemnestra (1914).  John Collier.

With regard to myth and magic the consciousness of man from the beginning was determined by the relations established with his fellow clan and tribal members in the development of production. From the outset it was not individual relations with external reality but “…the development of production necessitated the formation within the group of a new type of relations, neither sexual nor parental but social, mediated by a new system of communication, which formed the basis of speech and thought.” (Thomson, 1977).


The Golden Fleece.  H. J. Draper (1863-1920). 

Myth therefore served to explain the social order and to justify the right of the ruler to rule. Myth therefore also justified the “…necessity of obedience…” (Lewis, 1969) as well as validating the origin of the existing social relations. The myth also supplied patterns of moral values and behaviour, as well as of magical beliefs. Therefore genuine mythic elements became embedded in the social institutions implying the necessity of paying “…careful attention to the names, tribal origins, and fates of the characters concerned; and then restore it to the form of dramatic ritual…” (Graves, 1979). The understanding of myth implies the necessity of consideration od ancient political and religious systems as well recognising in ancient stratified society “…religion and learning were the possession and responsibility of the dominant ruling class and were so used as to maintain its position and power.” (Weisinger, 1965).


Phaedra (1850).  A. Cabanel.

The subject matter of myths includes ancient magical rites, the ritual promotion of fertility, and the promotion of the stability of the archaic queendoms, which preceded kingdoms on the Greek mainland, and those kingdoms (Graves, 1979), thus “…mythic narratives are the sacred stories that are central to cultural identity…” (Leeming, 2005). Literally or symbolically myths are true to particular cultures. When labour was organised and proceeded collectively as a process it remained incomprehensible to the individuals participating. The individual saw himself as a component of the collective. This reinforced the mimetic endeavour in the carrying out of the collective will imposing itself on their work (Thomson, 1977).


Perseus and the Graie (1862).  E. Burne-Jones.

Myths develop with the spread of culture. A responsible study of myth must recognise that it is an amassed and  interconnected repository of historical, anthropological and geographical knowledge, as well as being a “…dramatic shorthand record of such matters as invasions, migrations, dynastic changes, admission of foreign cults and social reforms.” (Graves, 1982). An example is from ancient Egypt which developed from a small matriarchal moon-queendom into the later phaeronic patriarchal sun-monarchy. A mythic image characterised by grotesque animal gods and goddesses, derived from the leading totemic clans that developed into city gods. It is this that affirms that “…myth represents reality. It is possible too, for myth and history to overlap, and the same event to be seen in historical and mythical terms.” (Tolstoy, 1988).

Death of Ophelia

Death of Ophelia.  Eugene Delacroix.

Embedded within myths there are genuine stories which suggests the “…myth of magic, of religion, or any other body of customs or single custom is definitely a warrant of its truth…” (Malinowski, 1927). Myths explain, in story form, archetypal truths including creation of the world, the beginnings of things, the relationships with deities, the origins of social institutions and are thus “…revelations of man’s condition, making an otherwise chaotic cosmos explicable and accessible in human terms.” (Tolstoy, 1988). It is important not only to restore the dramatic ritual but essential consider myth in the light of the political and religious systems in Europe prior to the Aryan invasions from the north and east (Graves, 1979).

(c) National Trust, Benthall Hall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Samson Betrayed (1862).  F. R. Pickersgill.

Evidence from archaeology and anthropology points to a number of forms of social organisation (Thomson, 1981) that include: (1) matrilinear hunting, pastoral and agricultural communities found in Aegean and Cretan civilisations; (2) matrilinear hunting communities with patrilinear pastoralism as shown by Indo-European societies. Later tribal societies showed advances in techniques of production which in turn where a “…consequent division of labour has produced secret magical societies and craft clans within the tribe…” (Franke, 1948), often reflected in masonry and metallurgy. The emergence of rituals attached to crafts existed alongside the preservation of the older tribal rituals.


The Death of Moses (1851).  A. Cabanel.

Early mythology provides no divine, ancestral, historical sanction to ritual because its role or function is descriptive (Franke, 1948), and rituals are justified by stories of poorly differentiated  and divinised ancestors. Essentially the king of the clan or tribe is identified as the representative of the god on earth, and consequently the ruler is “…the king and priest in one, both the god in his divine aspect and the political ruler in his secular aspect…” (Weisinger, 1965).

Girodet 1

The Entombment of Atala.  A-L. Girodet.

3 c.  Ideology

Ideology can be described as the science and theory of ideas, a body of ideas about a subject, class, or political organisation, and ideogony or the study of the origin of ideas. An extended meaning of myth implies a collective, or personal construction of socially and ideologically received wisdom. Myth as a form of ideology has the role of transmitting religion and ideational experience. In doing so it becomes a means of teaching models of behaviour. Ritual-myth theory postulates early mythology reflects that “…myth and ritual function to promote social intercourse and security…maintain the established traditions as a living reality within the milieu of primeval tradition…” (James, 1957).


Jason and Medea (1907).  J. W. Waterhouse.

In the study of myths numerous approaches to the function of myths have been adopted, including Sir James Frazer and Robert Graves, both of whom claimed “…anthropological theories of myth are theories of culture applied to the case of myth.” (Segal, 2004). Various cultural requirements have generated a variety of myths which are …dramatic performances which with their iconographic and oral records, because the primal authority…for the religious institutions of each tribe, clan or city.” (Graves, 1979). The functionalist argument of Bronoslav Malinowski argued that “…the primary function of myth was to provide a ‘sacred charter’ that legitimated existing claims to status and power.” (Carroll. 1986).


Zenobia’s Last Look at Palmyra.

Myths authorised  social and cultural institutions and thereby validated clan and tribal traditions. This illustrates another purpose of myth which is “…to support the current social order, to integrate the individual organically within his group.” (Campbell, 1991). In addition myths were the ideological justification of current occupations of territories. In other words ancient peoples “…remodelled old myths to conform with changes produced by revolutions, or invasions…” (Graves, 1982). Therefore ideological myths legitimised the rights of a clan or tribe to a particular place by pointing to a myth of a clan ancestor who, in a mythic past, emerged from beneath the ground to inhabit a certain area. In a similar manner myths can be used by an elite to claim ‘first fruits’ and the bounty to be paid to a priesthood as ‘myths of appropriation’.

A Priestess of Apollo ?circa 1888 by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema 1836-1912

A Priestess of Apollo (1888).  Sir Alma-Tadema.

Myths  explained not only supernatural creation of the universe and the world but also the origin and justification of the existing social order (Hooke, 1978). In other words there was an ideological role for cosmogony. In this manner myths are used to legitimate the power and status quo of an elite.  By recasting drama as myth the ancient Greeks proceeded to bring new myths “…into the national mythology, in the interests of some of the free productive classes, accounts for the adoption of Greek mythology by the Romans and their barbarian successors…when myths justifying state society were needed by their ruling classes.” (Franke, 1948).  Moreover, myths like fairy tales proclaim great truths by exaggeration, by expressing falsehoods and thus create an allegorical ideology. Once myths as an intellectual construct have developed as an ideology “…then questions which the aesthetic and the ethical approach cannot raise come to the fore.” (Weisinger, 1965).


The Wedding of Psyche (1895).  E. Burne-Jones.

Some ideological myths refer to the Axis mundi or a place at the centre of the world, or clan and tribal territory. This functions as a mythical point of contact between the different levels of the universe (Eliade, 1991). The Axis mundi is frequently marked by a sacred object such as a pillar, a tree, which points to the underworld, as well as the fusion of heaven and earth. Therefore the notion of the Cosmic Tree found in the mythologies of ancient Germans, Indians, and Chinese.


David Contemplating the Head of Goliath (1610).  Orazio Gentilleschi.

During the Hellenistic period myth was perceived by the Neo-Platonist and Stoicist philosophers as “…a method of preserving the authority of tradition as well as the religious prerogatives of the state.” (Bidney, 1958). Whereas for E. B. Tylor and Sir George Frazer myths are the causal “…explanation of events that merely happened to take the form of a story.” (Segal, 2004). For the ancient atheists such as Democritus and Lucretius  myths were fabrications with the prime purpose of bolstering the authority of the ruling cliques of priests and kings. In this manner myths were exploited or engendered as “…divine truth and mysteries hidden from the foolish crowd and apparent only to the wise.” (Bidney, 1958).


David (1600).  Caravaggio.

Myth and ritual ceremonies became transmuted into an ideological tool, a means of ruling and social control and manipulation that exploited the fact that myths “…are about man’s tenuous relationship with his environment, with the natural world, reflecting his attempts to influence the elements…with which he closely identified and was physically involved.” (Bailey, 1993). In other words class society brought with it civilisation, patriarchalism, and the subversion of ritual and myths into a means for the rule of non-productive elites. In the mythology of the ancient Greeks the 2nd millennium invasion by the patriarchal Hellenes is reflected in the myth of Perseus (Graves, 1979), who challenged the power of the moon goddess. It is interesting in this aspect that Pegasus was sacred to the triple moon goddess. The beheading of Medusa represents the Hellenic tribes over-running the sacred shrines and capture of the sacred horses.


Venus and Cupid (1664).  Elisabetta Sirani.

3 d.  Mythopoeic Thought

The term ‘mythopoeic’ means ‘myth making’ from the Greek muthos thus muthos plus poisin ‘to make’. In theory mythopoeic thought is the theory that myths are the result of the personification of inanimate objects or supernatural forces. Natural phenomena such as air, fire, and water were worshipped by the ancients. Therefore mythopoeic thinking is concrete as well as personifying, whereas modern thinking is impersonal and abstract. For E. B. Tylor and Sir George Frazer “…primitives perceive the same world as moderns but simply conceive of it differently.” (Segal, 2004), and for Levy-Bruhl mythic thinking was the opposite of scientific thinking.

Priestess of Bacchus

The Priestess of Bacchus.  John Collier.

For the ancients mythopoeic thought meant they tended to see things as persons not merely as objects, thus they came to regard them as deities (Bullfinch, 2004) and natural events as the actions of personal gods, and thence myth making (Frankfort, 1977). Mythopoeic thought has been regarded as characterising a stage in human thinking that was fundamentally different from modern scientific thinking. For Levi-Strauss primitives created myth because they thought differently from moderns. Primitive thinkers nonetheless still thought but just differently meaning for the primitive “…myth is the epitome of primitive thinking.” (Segal, 2004).

Britomart Redeems Faire Amoret exhibited 1833 by William Etty 1787-1849

Britomart Redeems Faire Amoret (1890).  W. Etty.

Henri and H. A. Frankfort studied the ancient Near Eastern civilisations and concluded those peoples lived at a primitive stage of culture that they called ‘pre-philosophical’ (Frankfort, 1949). For the Frankfort’s “…primitives think ‘mythopoeically’, which means concretely, uncritically, and emotionally.” (Segal, 2004), making mythology one of the richest expressions of mythopoeic thinking. Mythopoeic thought, therefore, was a hypothetical stage of human thinking that preceded modern thought (Frankfort, 1977). These primitive thought processes thus predisposed the ancients towards the creation of myths. Concrete thinking of the ‘mythopoeic stage’ did not permit primitives to think in general terms or impersonal laws. Instead, at this stage of social development humans saw events as acts of will on the part of some personal entity.


Judas returning the thirty pieces of silver (1629).  Rembrandt.

Primitive populations viewed the external world as ‘thou’ rather than as ‘it’ thereby not differentiating between the subjective and the objective. (Segal, 2004). The implication is that mythopoeic thought being pre-philosophical means modern thought is philosophical. Ancient people characterised their phenomenal world as ‘thou’ whereas modern humans regard the external world as ‘it’. Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) described myth as a form of knowledge resulting from man’s ability to symbolise the world through his creative activities. Modern people view most objects and things as impersonal. Ancient man saw most objects and things as persons, which for Cassirer meant “…mythic, or mythopoeic thinking is primitive, is laden with emotion, is part of religion, and is the projection of the mythical onto the world.” (Segal, 2004).


Devi. The eternal, ageless, divine feminine.  Public domain.

The language of archaic peoples was efflorescent and thus characterised by synonymy and homonymy. Such a language “…produced the personification in various forms of one and the same thought…” (Coq, 1968), which is described as synonymy. Whereas homonymy, on the other hand “…mixed and confused the different properties of things.” (Coq, 1968). To clarify this synonymy, or like name and meaning, is the quality of being synonymous and the use of synonyms for emphasis. However, homonymy means of identical sound but of different sense, in other words a thing or a person with the same name. Myth descended from the idea of speech with the ancient Greeks of circa 5th century BCE, formulated as stories and traditional narratives and contained “…a mythographer would  say today, the basic thought patterns by which the ancient Greeks knew themselves as a separate people.” (Cotterell. 2009).


Mary Magdalene (1630-32).  Artemesia Gentilleschi.

An example of mythopoeic thinking can be found in ancient Egypt. In this mythopoeic world of Egypt and Mesopotamia the divine was regarded as immanent or all-pervading or in-dwelling. The deities were therefore in nature. This conferred upon the divine a multiplicity as well as immanence was a feature of mythopoeic thinking. The ancients of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Palestine “…all possessed certain significant features of myth and ritual in common.” (Weisinger, 1965). Unlike the ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians the early Hebrews viewed major happenings as the divine activity of a single deity rather than the intent of a myriad of spirits each responsible for a natural phenomenon. Myths are a dramatic expression of the external world, of nature, because ancient mankind saw everywhere a struggle “…a strife between divine and demonic, cosmic and chaotic powers…” (Lewis, 1969). In this ‘dream time’, this ‘primordial dawn’, humans were not mere spectators but actively involved in the conflict. Therefore man at this “…myth-making stage was ignorant of the cause and real character of the mighty natural forces around him.” (Macrain, 1883 b).


Boreas abduction Orytheia.  Peter Paul Rubens.

E. B. Tylor insisted the interpretation of myths should be in terms of the minds of men in the mythologic stage. Therefore myth should not be interpreted as allegory, metaphor, or explanations of some natural event but experientially. Primitive man reasoned logically and “…expresses his emotional thought in terms of cause and effect.” (Lewis, 1969), hence in his own terms of a pre-rational state rather than modern rationalisation. It follows therefore that the “…importance of myths as documents of human thought in embryo is now generally recognised, and they are collected and compared…for the light they throw on the intellectual evolution of our species.” (Frazer, 1930).

The Great Day of His Wrath 1851-3 by John Martin 1789-1854

The Great Day of His Wrath (1852).  John Martin.

Similar myths  in different regions do display repeated patterns. This indicates that human thought proceeds everywhere along the same logical lines. It has been argued that  “…mythical beings are nothing but personifications of natural objects and natural processes…” (Frazer, 1930). In a similar manner human thinking at the mythological or mythopoeic stage attributed personal life to the sun, moon, clouds, winds, and other natural powers (Maccrain, 1883 b). In a euhemeristic vein, however, it was maintained that myths were “…nothing but notable men and women who in their lifetime…made a great impression on their fellows…whose doings have been distorted and exaggerated by false and credulous radition.” (Frazer, 1930).


The Naiad.  J. W. Waterhouse. 

Even though assumptions and structural patterns , despite the logic of human thinking, may take radically different forms, it remains that “…mentality so shaped by varying cultures is something that is shaped by everybody, and its laws are universal.” (Lewis, 1969). Even though it is true that “…myths never explain the facts which they attempt to elucidate, they incidentally throw light on the mental condition of the men who invented or believed them…” (Frazer, 1930). The purpose of an idealised ritual scheme embodied in mythopoeic thinking was that the well-being of a clan, tribe or community “…was secured by the regular performance of certain ritual actions…” (Weisinger, 1965).


Meleagar and Atalanta (1618).  J. Jordaens.

Mythopoeic thinking interpreted irregular and unusual natural phenomena (Gardner, 1917), such as rock structures, chasms, as features due to supernatural agency. Mythopoeic thinking allowed humans in a number of matters to employ “…forms of relating himself to reality because ordinary logic is not compatible  with his most significant experience of reality.” (Frankfort, 1977). In this mode of thought earthquakes, eruptions were attributed to conflicts between underground monsters. Storms and tempests were due to the wrath of specific gods, the winds whether good or bad were deities rushing on wild horses, whereas lunar or solar eclipses were dragons and demons attempting to devour them.


The Rapture of Psyche (1895).  W. Bougereau.

For some scholars of the origin of myth the idea of the ‘mythopoeic age’ and the ‘mythopoeic mind’ is not acceptable. It has been proposed that the ‘myth making stage’ is a stage through which all will sometime pass. Allied to Levy-Bruhl the ‘creation theorists’ are a “…school of sociologists centred in Durkheim…” who believe people are dominated by a mystical mentality. They cannot therefore rationalise the real world around them. So a result, in terms of mythopoeic thinking, objective reality “…became full of fantasy and mysticism, which finds expression in mythopoeic imagination and ritual behaviour.” (James, 1957). If the mythopoeic age was an aspect of social evolution then all but the most primitive communities would have a mythology or traces of it, and this appears to be the case.

The Fates

The Fates.  Canova.

Ernst Cassirer, the neo-Kantian ‘things in themselves’ philosopher regarded mythic thinking as an independent form of the human spirit. Even though Cassirer accepted that ritual preceded myth he nonetheless believed that myth possessed its own truth distinct from other forms. In other words myth was a Kantian ‘thing in itself’. For Cassirer the interpretation of myth needs to be literal rather than allegorical (Bidney, 1968).

4.  Ritual

What came to be described as ‘ritual theory’ or the ‘ritual approach’ developed from the approach to the study of classical mythology by the ‘Cambridge School’ or ‘Cambridge Anthropologists’, though none were, comprising  Gilbert Murray (1866-1957), A. B. Cook (1868-1952), E. M. Cornford (1874-1943), and Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928). Murray, Cornford and Cook were classicists who applied the theories of Harrison to the study of ancient Greek tragedy, comedy, religion, mythology and philosophy. The Myth Ritual Theory regarded the existence of myths were tied to rituals (Segal, 2004), which taken to its logical conclusion implied that myths arose as explanation or justification of rituals (Graf, 1993), confirming that “…myths are never the record of historical events or people…” (Hyman, 1958).


Andromeda (1638).  Peter Paul Rubens.

Jane Ellen Harrison and S. H. Hooke (1874-1968) were both myth-ritual theorists. The ritual theory of myth was developed by Sir James Frazer and then refined and revised by Jane Harrison who “…allowed for a variety of relationships to exist between myth and ritual…” (Carroll, 1996). S. H. Hooke was an English scholar of comparative religion who, with Harrison, agreed there was no distinct or prior stages of magic and religion. They both considered “…myth-ritualism the ancient and primitive counterpart to modern science.” (Segal, 2004). Jane Harrison posited that ritual took priority over myth and theology therefore “…ritual magic, specifically the rite of the year-daimon, was the central element in early Greek religion.” (Hyman, 1958).


The Lily Maid of Astolat (1870).  Sophia Anderson.

Harrison’s best known formulation was that myth originated as a libretto designed to elucidate what was in ritual (Carroll, 1996). Harrison connected vegetation renewal myths to the initiation myths, therefore providing an anthropological account of initiation ceremonies. these rites of passage in hunter-gatherer societies were used to explain elements of the Greek myths.  In essence myths arose out of ritual rather than the other way around – myths were the “…spoken correlative of the acted rite, the thing done; it is to legogemeon as contrasted with or rather as related to dromenon.” (Harrison, 1912). In other words things said over a ritual act. Accepting the chthonic origins of Greek mythology (Hyman, 1958): her cooperating scholars included Gilbert Murray’s study of ritual forms underlying Greek tragedy; and Cornford’s study of the ritual origins of the Olympic games (1912).


Medea (1866-68).  A. F. Sandys.

Anthropological studies are credited with the discovery “…of the survival of primitive rituals in myths…” (Carpentier, 1998), with Jane Ellen Harrison concentrating on chthonic ritual and the matriarchal goddess, and Sir James Frazer laying emphasis on fertility in ancient religion. Sir James Frazer in common with Andrew Lang , with regard to myth and ritual “…regarded custom and myth as a survival from the past, something which had dwindled from solemn ritual among primitive men to mere pageant and, 1976). The meaning of myth is they are words in the form of stories. In other words myth is read and heard as something significant. Myth is not isolated, it does not stand alone, but is bound to ritual. the myth-ritual theory affirms myths accompany ritual and vice versa. Knowledge of the myth is essential to the understanding of ritual (Hocart, 1933) therefore myth, like the sacred or the holy was a public not a private ceremony. In addition there is a ritual theory of taboo (Raglan, 1933), a broad generalisation of the ritual origin of all myth (Raglan, 1937) and also a Marxist analysis of myth and ritual (Thomson, 1981).


Danae (1636).  Rembrandt.

The claim originated with William Robertson Smith (1846-1894) whose theory was similar to that of The Golden Bough author Sir James G. Frazer (1854-1957). So, in the early 19th century, W. Robertson Smith attempted to reconstruct the ancient traditions of the middle east. He came to the conclusion that ancient Semitic religion was indeed totemic (Carroll, 1996) and the core of their traditional rituals was that sacrifice. As a pioneer of the myth-ritual theory Robertson Smith believed that the purpose of ritual was to describe a story or myth “…the circumstances under which the rite first came to be established by the command or by the direct example of the God.” (Robertson Smith, 1889).


Head of Medusa (1617).  Peter Paul Rubens.

Lord Raglan (1885-1964) was a soldier and independent scholar (Raglan, 1933; Raglan, 1936) who systematised hero myths and constructed a detailed a twenty-two step model for heroic myths (Raglan, 1936), and whose “…dogmatic assertion was that all myth must go back to ritual and could originate in no other way.” (Ellis-Davidson, 1976).  He defined the myth/hero pattern and linked ritual with myth. In doing so he “…equates the hero with god of the ritual.” (Segal, 2004). Anthropological studies are credited with the discovery of “…the survival of primitive rituals in myths…” (Carpentier, 1998), with Jane Ellen Harrison concentrating on chthonic ritual and the matriarchal goddess, and Sir James Frazer laying emphasis of fertility in ancient religion. The meaning of myths is they are words in the form of stories. In other words myth is read and heard that says something significant. Myth is not isolated, it does not stand alone, but is bound to ritual. The myth ritual theory affirms that all myths accompany ritual and vice versa.

Jane Harrison

Jane Harrison by Augustus John.

The origins of myth were therefore postulated to be explanations of ritual along the progression line of magical laws to myths, and thence to religious rituals, thus the “…primitive ‘reason’  for certain ritual acts.” (Spence, 1994). The work of Jane Ellen Harrison was resisted by the academic establishment’s patriarchal mentality, despite many viewpoints stressing the universal and important role of myths in human life. A myth tended “…on the whole, to unite it with ritual and art in serving the function of adopting man’s emotions to the necessities of social life.” (Lewis, 1969). Myth thus blended on occasion with folklore. For the myth-ritual theory a rite “…frequently throws light on the myth to explain it. Occasionally the rite itself is elucidated by the myth to which it gave birth (Harrison, 1903).

 Queen Guinevere

Queen Guinevere’s Maying.  John Collier.

Myths and legends which had been transmitted from generation to generation had the role and function to classify and explain the ritual story, thus rites “…on these occasions, often of magical character with fires and dances exist throughout the world.” (Gardner, 1911). Myths, as stories, were attached to rituals to explain them, just as rituals themselves were systematised performances, enacted with regularity by those with specialised knowledge and privilege, bearing in mind that “…sacred actions always tending to outlive the underlying beliefs.” (James, 1957).


Rusalki (1877).  W. Pruszkowski.

Ritual is frequently a performance or enactment of a myth and therefore “…myth is to ritual as music is to dance>” (Lewis, 1976). The core of the dramatic performance of the myth is “…always a form of allegory.” (Bailey, 1997). Ritual combined with music initiates the performance of the story. In poetic vocal form combined with dance the tribal energy becomes collectivised action (Lewis, 1969). It follows that once “…we view myth as performance we can see that myth itself is a form of ritual…we can see them as a continuum in which myth is the verbal aspect of ritual…” (Nagy, 2002).


The Cave of the Storm Nymphs.  Sir E. J. Poynter.

Part of the ritual, that affects the subjective attitudes of the participants to the external world is song (Lewis, 1969) which indirectly changes that reality. In this way early humankind became “…able to relate to the unpredictable and untameable forces of nature, evolving an objective system of performance and response which we call cult and ritual.” (Bailey, 1997). In essence sung music combined with instrumental music are closely associated with dance ritual. Therefore the drama is “…myth declaimed and acted, the rhythm of the dances and drums call forth responses…” (Lewis, 1969), and the dance “…brings the gods of the village among the worshippers.”


Adoration of Ra.  Sir E. J. Poynter.

Humankind has a universal penchant “…to impute a personal existence to natural objects…” (Gardner, 1917) which in its most basic animistic stage is the fetish. A fetish or fetich, from the French fetiche and the Portuguese fetico is made by art as a sorcerers charm. An inanimate object worshipped by pre-literate tribal peoples and believed to have magical powers and animated by a spirit. Such animistic beliefs may occasion the creation of myths during a later polydemonic or polytheistic stage. Such beliefs therefore “…lend themselves to extensive mythological development.” (Gardner, 1917), whereby trees can be inhabited by beings as refuges or are identified with Dryads. In addition rivers, when conceived of as persons or divinities, are then propitiated with honours. For Malinowski “…the theory of the cultural function of a myth…” was its “…intimate relation to ritual and tradition…” (Thomson, 1977).


Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (1890).  Sir. E. J. Poynter.

The development of fundamental worship was assisted and propitiated by medicine men, shamans, priests and priestesses, implying that myths “…live in the context of tribal life…” Thomson, 1977). The commentary within the art of magic was its vocal component, its directive, its explanation of the ritual performance. Collective involvement via the performance of ritual mean that “…the tribal individual is lifted above the present reality into a world of emotion…” (Lewis, 1969). When the connection between productive work and magic ceased to have a role was when there arose a corpus of myths.


Horae Serenae.  Sir E. J. Poynter.

As long as there no obvious connection between magic and vocal song, or dance then labour “…and magic continued to overlap; craft lore was steeped in mythical beliefs, and the myth bore a recognisable, though remote relation to the labour of production.” (Thomson, 1977). The collective emotion was organised by art by way of tribal festivals, the rhythmic basis of working, with imaginative participation reinforced by illustrative ceremonies. Song and dance aided labour and collectivist spirit through the ritual dynamism of the tribe or clan, therefore man supplemented “…rational and empirical control of certain phenomena by magic.” (Thomson, 1977).


The Nymphaeum (1878).  W, Bougereau.

4 a.  Symbolism

A symbol, from the French symbole and Latin symbolum means a sign or token, a thing, character or mask that represents or typifies something. In myths symbols are compelling elaborations that still remain in vogue. As sacred tales myths generate a ‘cosmic grandeur’, where the currency of the “…spirit myth frequently postulates a time before time, a drowsy surrealist world…” (Lewis, 1969). The symbolic meaning of these cultural narratives is a prime reason why they have lasted for millennia, they evidence that a “…mythological canon is an organisation of symbols, ineffable in import, by which the energies of aspiration are evoked and gathered towards a focus (Campbell, 1982 d).


Circe offering cup to Odysseus (1891).  J. W. Waterhouse.

The cosmic grandeur of myths and sacred tales are clothed in symbols, with myth having been ascribed to “…the dream-thinking of a people, just as the dream is the myth of the individual.” (Harrison, 1903). In terms of analytical psychology and  the interpretation of symbols as a trend(Ellis-Davidson, 1979), is “…the myth of men of one particular age or civilisation on the mysteries of human existence and the human mind, their model for social behaviour, and their attempt to define the stories of gods and demons their perception of inner realities.” (Tolstoy, 1988).


Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1618).  Peter Paul Rubens.

According to some earlier scholars, such as F. M. Muller (1823-1900) myths arose out of ancient misconceptions of “…symbolic descriptions of natural phenomena…read as literal descriptions of the attributes of gods.” (Segal, 2004). However, modern mythologists take the opposite stance of seeing myths symbolically. Moreover, E. B. Tylor averred that, regarding the beliefs of pre-literate peoples “…symbolism and analogy are not subjective, but as real as the actual occurrence they denote…” (Carpentier, 1998), however for Ernst Cassirer the “…truth of myths consists in symbolic representation of social rites.” (Bidney, 1967).


Thor Battering the Midgaard Serpent (1790).  H. Fuseli.

In mythological theory there are two basic approaches, the symbolic and the literal. Interpreting myth as the symbolic expression of ritual assumes myth has a symbolic reality (Cassirer, 1944; 1946). In other words myth consists of social reality d rituals and institutions. From the perspective of anthropology and archaeology myths are not just symbolic but “…elements of a single infinitely variable Theme are to be found in certain ancient poetic myths which though manipulated to conform with each epoch of religious change…’myth’ in its strictest sense of ‘verbal iconograph’…yet remain constant in general outline.” (Graves, 1981).


 Battle of the Centaurs and Lapiths (1852).  W. Bougereau.

The two celestial symbols of the tripartite Great Mother goddess were the sun and the moon. The sun, under the guardianship of the moon, was thus secondary to the moon. The three phases of new, full and old moon, symbolised the triad of the matriarch, thus maiden, mature and nubile nymph, and barren crone (Graves, 1979).


The Moraie or the Three Three Fates.  Alfred Agache.

4 b.  Magic

Ritual practice comprised a complicated system of incantations, chants and songs which were the magical component of fertility and initiation ceremonies. Just as the relationship between ritual and myth is closely intertwined, then so is the connection between myth and magic. Similarly with folklore which can be seen as “…mythology in the making…may be a survival of broken down myth.” (Gardner, 1911). It follows from this that “…many myths, which we know only as myths, once had their counterpart in magic…that they were used as a means of producing in fact events which they describe in figurative language.” (Frazer, 1930).


Bellona Takes Possession of the Weapons of Cupid.  Carlo Cignani (1628-1715).

Ritual, therefore comprised two parts of the dromenon or ‘thing done’ and the muthos or ‘thing said’ (Hooke, 1976), so pre-literate man’s “…rudimentary conceptions of nature found expression on the one hand, in the form of magic, which served as an illusory technique of production supplementing the deficiencies of the real technique, and, on the other, in the form of myths, which began as nothing more than the oral accompaniment to the magical act, but developed gradually into a rudimentary theory of reality.” (Thomson,  1977). Prior to the development of myth there had been a stage-like evolution of ritual from the simple to the complex, and had consisted of the oral, dance and mime (Weisinger, 1965), with the connection between myth and ritual rooted in the “…simple scientific principle that similar causes produce similar effects…” (Raglan, 1958).


Tristan and Isolde  (1902).  Edmund B. Leighton.

The practices of ritual magic show that pre-literate populations were “…moved by an animistic premise to environing objects with spirits and demons.” (Freund, 1964), and explains why they engaged in magical dances and practices. For these people magic was, in the view of Jane Ellen Harrison, an emotional, and pre-intellectual experience, whereas E. B. Tylor thought magic to be a ruinous delusion and superstition worthy of contempt. The views of Frazer concerning magic and ritual were believed mistaken by Lord Raglan who observed that “…magic, far from being primitive religion, is really degenerate religion, a form of religion, that is to say, in which people go on performing rites, but have forgotten why.” (Raglan, 1949). For example rituals in ancient Rome were mainly magical.


Primavera (1478).  Sandro Bottticelli.

An anthropological interpretation means myths outlast their ritualised ceremonies, inferring that the surviving myth contains the ghost of the dead ritual. Mythic accretions over ensuing millennia are a reflection of “…the ancient significance of the customs as a magical ceremony designed to direct the course of nature has been almost wholly obscured by a thick after-growth of legend and myth.” (Frazer, 1930). According to E. B. Tylor magic rested on an association  of ideas seen as “…primitive peoples mobility to distinguish between subjective thought and reality.” (Carpentier, 1998).


Orlando pursuing the Fata Morgana (1846-48).  G. F. Watts.

The earliest attempts at magic sought to “…influence the threatening demons and spirits and demigods by imitating and propitiating them…” (Freund, 1964). Eventually a distinction was made between the real technique of labour and the illusory techniques of magic.” (Thomson, 1977). Thereafter magical ceremonies or enactments developed into independent rites, including dances and sacrifices, preparing for intended and future tasks of hunting, planting, and  harvesting. Myths as explanatory and sanctifying tales reinforced the independence of magical rituals. This raised the function and purpose of myths to a higher level in the form of cult myths (Hooke, 1976). Similar examplesoccurred with the patriarchal prophets of Israel whereby cosmogony developed into theogony.


Return of Persephone (1891).  Lord Leighton.

Ritual myths survived in the archives of ancient temples. These myths of early civilisation were based on urban organisation, agriculture and elaborate rituals supervised by a priesthood. The creation myth, celebrated during the Babylonian New Year, known as the Enuma Elish, was recited as a magical ceremony (Hooke, 1976). Ancient humans “…logically supposed all other forms of plant and animal life and natural phenomena to have souls and personalities too.” (Freund, 1964), a scenario where the god was often absent for half the year (Gardner, 1911). The ritual dramatisation enshrined in “…the language of poetic myth current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon-goddess or Muse, some of them dating from the Old Stone Age…” (Graves, 1981).


Elijah in the Wilderness (1878).  Lord Leighton.

Myth, dominated by magical practices and beliefs, where the magical arts are mimetic (Thomson, 1977), comprised poetry and song in rhythmic unison that underpinned a collective emotion (Lewis, 1969). Work in these circumstances was also mimetic whereby humans believed nature could be compelled by magic, implying magic originated in working practices. The essential need for the collective emotion was the need for a conditioned and organised response to enemies, foes, wild animals, and natural events such as earthquakes, floods, storms and rain.

4 c.  Sacrifice

Sacrifice, whether animal or human, involved numerous and varied rituals associated with birth and death. Rites of ‘passage’ involving initiation, marriage, planting, harvesting, and New Year ceremonials, were part of the mythic  theme of the dying and rising god (Weisinger, 1965). The theme of ‘creative sacrifice’ was justified by myths about divine figures whose death creates the essential reality. The dying god theme constituted a myth of resurrection, of death and rebirth and were common accompaniments in farming communities. Vegetation and fertility rituals were an important feature of the European peasantry (Carpentier, 1998).


A priestess of Delphi (1891).  John Collier.

Caution is required when considering claims that many humans were sacrificed in earlier times (Davidson, 1976), thus the practice of human sacrifice among early mankind is exaggerated and restricted to animal killing, burning effigies, or the symbolic breaking or burying of a sacred object. In regard to ritual sacrifice the object of the sacrifice “…is to get control of the whole world – not temporal but spiritual control…” (Hocart, 1952). Whether symbolic or real human sacrifice was a feature of most post-Neolithic religions where the myth explains the ritual and “…is at the same time, in part at least, the explanation of the god. To primitive minds it is of such transcendental importance to get the ritual exactly right…” (Thomson, 1914).


The Sirens and Ulysses (1837).  William Etty.

The origin and evolution of human sacrifice took place in four phases (Raglan, 1958). Firstly, the divine king was sacrificed regularly; secondly a substitute king was then regularly sacrificed; thirdly a human was sacrificed in times of social stress or the sacrifice was simulated; finally at the fourth phase the victim was never human but was ritually prepared as though it once was. According to Frazer in The Golden Bough the regular sacrifice of the king was a central component, it being assumed in myth and folktale that early kings were sacrificed annually (Burne, 1901).


The Goddess Clio.  Jan Vermeer.

The god dies and then comes back to the world of the living, therefore “…these rituals symbolise the passage from death to life; from one way of life to another;…they are the actual means of achieving the changeover; they mark the transition by which through the processes of separation, regeneration, and the return on a higher level – both the individual and the community are assured their victory over the forces of chaos which are thereby kept under control.” (Weisinger, 1965).


Sadko in the Water Region (1876).  I E. Repin.

Archaic agricultural communities employing ritual sacrificial sacrifices of a god included figures such as Pangu of China, the Vedic Perusha, the Norse Ymir, and the Christ of Christianity. The dying and reborn god is common in the myths of the ancient Near East, the ritual patterns of which are at least 6000 years old (Weisinger, 1965), thus the Egyptian Osiris, the Babylonian Tammuz, Adonis and Dionysos of Greece, and Jesus of Nazareth, thus “…animal and human sacrifice could have religious significance leading to the concept of a ‘scapegoat’ sacrificed to purify the community…” (Carpentier, 1998). The drama of  religious ritual was to achieve a rapport between man and the divine. Mimetically this was attained by the re-enactment of “…the processes of nature but transcending those processes by achieving salvation through sacrifice.” (Weisinger, 1965).


A Mermaid (1901).  J. W. Waterhouse.

The narratives of classical mythology however have outlasted the original archaic religion of which it was once a part (Segal, 2004), and moreover classical scholars no longer deny “…that primitives had a kind of religious experience, however strange; matriarchal; zoomorphic; sexual; chthonic; anarchic; based on religious acts such as ritual dances, and sacrifices, rather than on religious knowledge, the word of god.” (Carpentier, 1998). For example the persistence of biblical mythology has been “…sustained by the near-monolithic presence of the religion of which it remains a part.” (Segal, 2004).Lord_Frederick_Leighton_FLL006

Daedalus and Icarus (1869).  Lord Leighton.

The myth and ritual of the sacrificial dying and reborn god means the divine king was killed annually and resurrected in the person of his successor, but which later was modified into an “…annual symbolic death and a symbolic rebirth or resurrection.” (Weisinger, 1965). The transition of the annual sacrifice of the divine king to a symbolic ritual and accompanying myth or story suggests myths are “…religious narratives that transcend the possibilities of common experience and that express any given culture’s literal and metaphysical understanding of various aspects of reality.” (Laming, 2005).  As the myth is the explanation of the ritual then, with regard to ancient Greek mythology “…both the Minotaur and Perseus myths involve an underlying ritual pattern of human sacrifice, and take us back to s stage in which the myth and ritual were united.” (Hooke, 1953).


The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis.  J. L. David.

The dying king and dying god myths are interwoven with the myths and rituals of divine kingship which can be reconstructed in the following model (Weisinger, 1965): thus (1) the necessary role of the divine king; then (2) the combat between the god and his opposition; (3) the suffering of the god; then (4) the death of the god; followed by (5) the resurrection of the god; then (6) the symbolic enactment of the myth of creation; (7) the sacred marriage; thence (8) the triumphal procession; and ( 9) the settling of destinies. Many incidences of sacrifice in myth and story do not necessarily originate in earlier human sacrifice even though “…human sacrifice continually appears in Greek myths it seems to have been extremely rare among the ancient Greeks themselves.” (Davidson, 1976).


Mary Magdalene.  Elisabetta Sirani.

4 d.  The Great Mother

Ancient Europe had no gods, but worshipped in many aspects, and known by countless names, the Great Goddess who “…was regarded as immortal, changeless, and omnipresent; and the concept of father-right had not been introduced into religious thought.” (Graves, 1979). She was propitiated in numerous rituals, and myths that had an intense and powerful poetic meaning  celebrating “…the universal mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are.” (Cotterell, 1986).


Gaia.  Otto Greiner.

The Great Mother figure is found in a “…great number of cultures, especially among those peoples who did hold women in a position subordinate to men” (Shapiro, 1979). Ancient religion and mythology coincide in the “…doctrine of a Graeco-Roman mystery religion…” that e can well “…stand as a description of the supreme quality of myth.” (Cotterell, 1986). These figures are the original source of the Great Mother cult whose distribution has been found from Siberia to the Pyrenees, and typical of these “…ancestresses of the Great Mother cult is their so-called exaggerated feminine attirbutes: large pendulous breasts, broad hips, strongly modelled vulvae, and protruding buttocks.” (Weisinger, 1965).


Venus of Willendorf.  Upper Palaeolithic statuette.

The Great Mother Goddess was identifieds with changes in plant and animal life, with the year of Mother Earth starting with buds and leaves, flowering followed by fruits and on to seeming barrenness. Therefore the Mother Goddess was perceived as an anthropomorphic triad of: (1) the maiden of the upper air; (2) a nymph of the earth and sea; and (3) an aged underworld crone of hag. In archaic myth the Great Mother Goddess features in more myths and rituals that any other supernatural deity, where she is “…the Mother, the Earth, the symbol of fertility, worshipped all over the ancient East in the many female deities of India…the fertility goddesses of the eastern Mediterranean, the Phrygian Cybele, Astarte, Aphrodite, Gaea, Demeter…” (Lewis, 1969).


Jonah and the Whale (1621).  Pieter Lastmann.

Many myths are pre-occupied with the periodicity of natural and seasonal changes, and recognition of the “…regular alternation of day and night and of winter and summer.” (Gardner, 1917). Winter and summer solstices were ritualised with the sun and moon anthropomorphised as celestial nightly journeys, as well as annual death and resurrections. The moon therefore was one of the goddesses of celestial symbolism. The three phases of the moon as new, full and old, were described in mythic terms as the three phases of the matriarch. In other words, maiden, mature and aged womanhood. The annual solar course symbolised the rise and decline of the physical powers of the Great Goddess. In seasonal imagery there was the Spring maiden, Summer or nubile woman, and the Winter crone.


Entry of Alexander into Babylon (1664).  Charles le Brun.

In archaic myth and thinking the phases of the moon there was an intimate connection made with birth and growth of plants and animals, with the sun and moon “…consorts in many mythologies, the sun being usually male and the moon female…” (Gardner, 1917). The annual solar course is recalled in the rise and decline of the goddess’s physical powers in her seasonal roles of maiden nymph and crone (Graves, 1979), and example is readily seen in the Mother Goddess of Catal Hayuk who was the “…centre of a powerful matriarchy presided over by the figure of a big breasted, ample-thighed mother goddess…” (Bailey, 1997). Moreover, the rituals and stories connected with these seasonal ceremonies, translated to primitive religion, represent the death and departure, then renewal or resurrection “…of some person or persons on whose life and vigour the growth and fertility of crops and trees, and other vegetation are believed to be dependent.” (Gardner, 1917).


Diana and Actaeon (1556-59).  Titian.

Eventually the understanding of the connection between coition and childbirth was recognised and admitted. This turning point in religious belief led to male status increase in religious affairs, and the advent of patriarchal relations meant that “…the limitation of the mythic female archetypes to ‘domestic and amorous servitude’ paralleled the limitations of religious mysticism as expressed in ritual to a cold anthropomorphic theology that served patriarchal political ends.” (Carpentier, 1998).


Dane receiving the Golden Rain (1553).  Titian.

5.  Religion

In the 19th century it was postulated that belief was not central to archaic religion but was a component of modern religion. Central to ancient religion was ritual that was performed for a reason, a purpose. Therefore myth was a secondary aspect because “…the myth is merely and explanation of a religious image…” (Segal, 2004). In other words the primary role of myth in religion is that of the spoken element that correlates with the performed ritual. Therefore religious ritual ensures the “…mythical image is presented with a compelling authority…part of a personal revelation and intervention of a ‘Thou’.” (Lewis, 1969).


The Birth of Venus (1863).  A. Cabanel.

Some scholars assert that, by telling and performing myths the peoples of pre-literate societies return, by self-detachment to closer relationship to a previous mythical age. It has been claimed that there are two different orders of mythology. Firstly a mythology of metaphorical and spiritual potentiality, and secondly a mythology concerned with particular societies (Campbell, 1988). Mythology is intermingled with religion. Comparative religion and mythology overlap where myths are concerned with the birth and nature of the gods and the creation of the world (Spence, 1994).


The Indian goddess Shiva or Kali.

Mythology is intermingled with religion. Comparative religion and mythology overlap where myths are concerned with the birth and nature of the deities and the creation of the world (Spence, 1994). E. B. Tylor, Levy-Bruhl and Sir James Frazer regarded myth as a component of religion, with for Frazer “…myth is part of primitive religion, primitive religion is part of philosophy, itself universal; and primitive religion is the counterpart to natural science…” (Segal, 2004). Therefore, with regard to the relationship between ritual theory and belief, it can be seen that ritual studies are part of comparative religion (Harrison, 1977).


Moses with the Ten Commandments.  Rembrandt.

Religion is in relation to theology and myth “…the effective desire to be in the right relation to the power manifesting itself in the universe.” (Fowler, 1911). E. B. Tylor defined religion as a belief in spiritual beings, in addition to which religion was also “…a propitiation or conciliation of power superior to man.” (Frazer, 1911), Religion embraced ritual and was the direct consequence in primitive religion (Robertson-Smith, 1889), thus myth and dogma were secondary to religion, thus “…mythology was no essential part of essential religion, for it had no sacred sanction and no binding force on worshippers.” (Gomme, 1908).


Medea (1862).  Eugene Delacroix.

Myths survive in a variety of forms that may refer to secular happenings recorded in sagas, epics and puranas, which have been bequeathed “…almost unchanged, as sacred narratives associated with theology, and ritual, or in an altered form, as historical has lost contact with purely sacred events…” (Cotterell, 2009). Myths in this context are records “…of ancient religious customs or events…” (Graves, 1979) and reinforce the purpose of myth to explain how the universe and natural world came into existence. In order to stabilise an existing regime the function of myth is to provide “…infallible precedents for practice and procedure, and to place on an unassailable foundation the general rules of conduct, traditional behaviour and religious belief.” (James, 1977).


Penitent Mary Magdalene.  Orazio Gentilleschi.

5 a.  Cosmogony

One function of mythology is to provide a cosmology, or an image of the universe in its awe and mystery, that is intelligible to preliterate peoples (Campbell, 1991 b). The term cosmogony or cosmogenesis is derived from the Greek cosmogonia from kosmos and gonia (gone meaning birth), and describes the system or theory of the creation of the universe. Cosmological myths are concerned with the origin and creation of the universe, and show that cosmogony is one of the major processes in myth. In the same manner another primary process is that of theogony.


Aeneas flees Troy (1595).  Federico Barocci.

Myths of a cosmological nature usually assign creation to the actions to a supreme deity or a pantheon of a supernatural character, and in so doing “…bring divinity into the forms and subject matter inevitably touches upon the nature of existence, the world over which the gods rule.” (Cotterell, 2007). The common thread of cosmogony is that the cosmos and the world was created out of primordial chaos. Religion as animism believed in ethereal spirits such as ‘cloud man’, ‘grass woman’, ‘old man of the rocks’, and ‘reindeer child’, indicating primitive peoples “…attribute to all nature, everything which exists in a physical state, a supernatural identity that is ever present but unseen, conjured or appeased by the special powers placed upon certain individuals of the tribe, the shamans or wise ones.” (Jordan, 1992).


Andromeda (1869).  Gustav Dore.

Cosmological myths in most cases demonstrate a dualistic contradiction, often portrayed as twins, where “…opposing forces and the struggle and conflict between good and evil, light and dark, or heaven and earth..” (Shapiro, 1979) occur. In Neolithic terms the practice of chanted myth in ritual channelled the collective effort with the result that “…the real object becomes an imaginative object; the crop to be reaped in future is symbolically reaped now…” (Lewis, 1969). Clan and tribal collective festivals and ceremonials were directed over space and time towards an objective which “…spurs man on to the labour necessary for its accomplishment in reality.” (Lewis, 1969).


Neptune.  Bronzino.

In myth the king was chosen by the gods implying that kingship was sent down from heaven. Many myths are often mundane and are concerned with human conflicts that front divine influences, whereas cosmological myths are concerned with major events such as the creation or destruction of the cosmos or mankind.. Traditionally the royal throne was matrilineal whereas the tanist or sacred king was always an outsider, external to the royal matriarchal house (Graves, 1979). In ancient Greece during the 13th century BC the Achean invasions undermined matrilinearity. With the Ionian invasions at the end of the 2nd millennium the kingship became patrilineal.


Cleopatra. Artemisia Gentilleschi.

5 b.  Theogony

The term theogony is the doctrine of the origin of the gods and goddesses. The theory can be seen in the Metereological School of myth origin where the ruling god in every pantheon is a sky god (Freund, 1964). Most mythologies have stories of the origin of the gods which implies an belief in a time immemorial when they did not exist. Therefore stories are related as to their birth and family relations, and also as mythological entities seen in imposing and fantastic forms. These earlier gods often possess little personality in myth, were seen sometimes in the abstract. Some dynasties of deities enter into decline and are then replaced, at times as the result of invasion with pantheons and dynasties from elsewhere.


Lilith.  John Collier.

Neolithic European tribal populations in all of the continent possessed a heterogenous or homogenous system of religious ideas that was based on worship of the Great Mother goddess (Graves, 1979). In myths of creation the young gods conquer the older gods that are representative of the forces of chaos, in a process known as titanomachy. Examples are found in Greek, Hindu and Celtic myth and ancient religions. Indo-European religion shows gods who conquer demons, or order conquering chaos. This is a reflection in mythic terms of the Indo-European expansion across Europe.


Susanna and the Elders (1621-22).  Sir Anthony van Dyck.

Myth and archaic religion are often shaped by the phenomenon of personification or the “…endowment of aspects  of nature, inanimate objects,, or qualities and abstractions with human form, attributes and characteristics.” (Shapiro, 1979). E. B. Tylor regarded anthropomorphism as a primitive way of explaining the world because “…anthropomorphism constitutes the heart of the religious, including mythic explanation.” (Segal, 2004).


The Infancy of Zeus (1648).  N. P. Berchem.

Anthropomorphism is from the Greek anthropos for man and morph meaning form and means the ascription of human form and attributes to a deity or non-human things. Anthropomorphism is therefore the representation of a god in human form or the “…assigning human shape , qualities and the concepts to a deity, or to an animal, plant or other object.” (Shapiro, 1979).  The term needs to be clarified because anthropopsychism is the ascription of human-like souls to nature, and anthropophuism the ascribing human nature to a deity.


Echo (1874).  A. Cabanel.

Therefore it can be seen the “… kind of stories advanced (Greek and Indian) religions tell about anthropomorphic gods and heroes are in almost every one of the lower races told about theriomorphic or beast shaped gods and heroes.” (Lang, 1886). Theriomorphism means the  deity is represented or portrayed as a human with the head of an animal. Anthropomorphism is a means of deification where both humans and personifications, often totemic in origin, are promoted to the position of a goddess or god. In terms of social evolution and anthropology all states whether civilised or not have “…passed through a state of savagery…a state in which they believed that beasts and things could talk and act, in which the medicine-man was powerful and magic was common…” (MacCulloch, 1949).

5 c.  Eschatology

Eschatology, from the Greek eschatos meaning ‘last’ is a religious doctrine concerning last or final events such as death, resurrection and the life hereafter. Many myths and religious practices try to explain the mysteries of life and death, and most beliefs show fundamental similarities concerning the after-world (Shapiro, 1979). The eschatological myth, characteristic of Jewish and Christian belief, often sees the final apocalyptic situation in terms of prophetic and mythic language (Hooke, 1976). Thus the symbolic extension of myth becomes a doctrine of death followed by judgement and either heaven or hell. Within this belief is the idea of an afterlife where the true myth “…will rationalise and describe in personification archaic magic-making that promoted the fertility of a soul.” (Lewis, 1969).

Circe invidiosa 

Circe Invidiosa ((1892).  J. W. Waterhouse.

In many myths there are contained speculations about a divine creator combined with beliefs of life after death and this “…existence is often of a shadowy and unsubstantial kind.” (Gardner, 1917). The land of the dead is seen as a dismal and dark place below the earth, an underworld guarded by demons or deities, and approached through caverns by charms or magic rituals. Most ancient religions have an indeterminate concept of a supreme god or all-father figure who, like the dead themselves has “…a considerable power either for good or evil, and are accordingly objects of worship.” (Gardner, 1917).


Sir Galahad (1881).  H. G. Schmalz.

The land of the dead, the after-world, is perceived as a mysterious and distant place. Eschatological myths often contain deliberations concerning the transmutation of souls where the dead become animals, or where the clan and tribal heroes are believed to return to aid the living. The idea of death in the function of the eschatological myth is to “…express in symbolical terms, by means of images, what cannot otherwise be put into human speech.” (Hooke, 1976). Therefore mythical thinking, in terms of eschatological belief becomes “…especially concerned do deny and negate the fact of death and to affirm the unbroken unity and continuity of Life. (Bidny, 196&).


Bacchus crowning Ariadne with a Diadem of Stars.  G. B. Crosato (1697-1756).

6.  Folklore

Folklore, which is the study of survivals of early custom, belief, narrative and art (Spence, 1994), is made up of numerous different elements that include myths, fairy tales, proverbs,, riddles, verses, legends, allegories, and sometimes appropriate songs and music, implying the components of folklore “… are often very closely linked with ritual and dance, which they explain.” (Lewis, 1969). Some scholars believe that ‘myths’ as a form of traditional story is a misconception even though they are closely related to folktales and legends, though a definition of folklore is part “…of a peoples culture which is preserved consciously or unconsciously, in beliefs and practices, customs or observations of general currency, in myths, legends and tales of common acceptance, and in arts and crafts which express the temper and genius of a group rather than an individual.” (Gaster, 1949).


Sappho (1877).  C. A. Mengin.

Unlike myths folktales can be located in place and time with folklore the “…study of fragments or survivals of old beliefs or custom found among uneducated or semi-educated people in civilised countries.” (Spence, 1994). Folklore provided an illumination of a given way of life and which reveals the values, aspirations, efforts of various peoples, in its “…more poetic and imaginative forms, mythology reveals some of the deepest emotions and conflicts in the heart of man.” (Lewis, 1969). The theory of myth is its derivation from rituals which makes folklore and mythology almost indistinguishable, therefore the “…difference between a folktale and a myth lies in such an emphasis on the supernatural…” (Cotterell, 1986). Myths are popular stories that absorb religious belief whereas folklore is the “…study of primitive religion and custom still practised.” (Spence, 1994), and thus are ‘sacred legends’.


Danaides.  J. W. Waterhouse (1849-1917).

Incidents and occurrences in the matter of folklore, folk tales and fairy tales may reflect “…a remote past, when the ancestors of European peoples were in a state of savagery, in which they did, and thought such things a occur in folktales, unusual and irrational as they may be.” (MacCulloch, 1949). The essence of the folk tale is that they are traditional “…in the sense of being handed down from one generation to generation…” (James, 1957), and the variable motifs found in folk tales are neither explanatory nor factual in purpose. In this sense myths, when they have lost their significance, become fairy tales and folklore, thus over the passage of time “…rites die out and myths continue, in religion, literature, art, and various symbolical forms with increased misunderstanding of the ancient rite…” (Hyman, 1958).


The Sirens and Ulysses.  William Etty.

There is in fairy tales the likelihood that they are associated with seasonal or initiatory rites (Raglan, 1958). Unlike true or genuine myths the folktale “…may be related as an act of sociability for entertainment.” (James, 1957). The implication is that the ancient purpose of the custom contained within the folktale is only vaguely understood of remembered. The German fairy stories known as ‘marchen’ have only a limited themic repertoire with a variety of sources. The principal characters make no pretence at historicity and have no concern with romanticised  historical events. Neither myth nor saga in the accepted sense, therefore they “…make no pretence to being an expression of primeval reality, or an interpretation of natural phenomena, established custom, or of ritual situations and cult practices.” (James, 1957). However, fairy tales do exhibit in popular traditions a number of repetitive patterns.” (Ellis-Davidson, 1976).

The Deluge exhibited 1840 by Francis Danby 1793-1861

The Deluge (1841).  Francis Danby.

Myths have diffused and disintegrated during the passage of time and over distances. The diffusive element includes migrations, invasions and trade movements. Archaic rituals also decayed thus ensuring that the “…myths attached to decaying rituals were freed from their ritual associations and became literary forms, passing into the tradition of other peoples” (Hooke, 1976). Folktales and legends therefore contain within themselves echoes of myths that have become part of the literature of peoples, thus the folktale is a primitive tale of mythical origin that has a purely narrative or aesthetic value. (Spence, 1994). With reference to myths and symbols in folklore and religion authors such as Robert Graves envisaged “…a religion of set festivals and sacrifices with such concepts as the dying god, the naked goddess, the dancing corn spirit, all universally recognised by the folk.” (Davidson, 1989).

Ariadne at Naxos

Ariadne at Naxos (1877).  Atkinson Grimshaw.

 6 a.  Totemism

Totemism is of great importance in the whole problem of the nature of social development. Totemism is derived from ‘totem’, an Objibwa word from North America. Previous studies were by Long in the 18th century; between 1869 and 1870 McLennan saw totemism as a universal stage for every tribe; Frazer in his four volume Totemism and Exogamy (1910), wrote upon the matter and again from 1914 to 1916; Van Gennep wrote in 1920; Tylor in 1899; and Goldenweiser in 1950 argued that totemism represented three unrelated phenomena that had been illegitimately brought together.


Hymn to Demeter (1906).  Evelyn de Morgan.

Contained within myths are echoes of ancient societal totemism which is a “…societal structure based on clans, each having its own sacred emblem or ‘totem’ animal…” (Carpentier, 1998). Usually the family, clan or tribe traced their descent from a common ancestor, which in totemism means “…particular animals or even plants are regarded as the ancestors or kindred of certain families or groups.” (Gardner, 1917). In terms of families, heroes, even nations, the traditional relationships are often embedded in elaborate genealogies. In ancient Greek mythology individual heroes such as Heracles and Daedalus were titles spanning several generations, thus “Patrilineal descent, succession and inheritance discourage further myth making; historical legend then begins and fades into the light of common history.” (Graves, 1979).


The Sumerian god Marduk.

The leaders or chiefs of totemic clans were chosen and awarded certain powers and responsibilities in times of conflict, war or migrations (Graves, 1979) but the process depended on varying rules of matriarchy. Those rules and taboos included those relating to clan exogamy and a series of myths “…that concern totemic exogamy not as a system of rules (which is how the anthropologist comes to view it) but as a theme for mythical though is concerned with incest prohibition.” (Lewis, 1969). The anthropological and historical approach shows that deities are derived from totem animals under the protection of close taboos. In this sense, with regard to the mythic origin of man and animals “…the possibility of one being produced by or transformed into the other is a common belief.” (Gardner, 1917).


The Death of Sardanapalus .  Eugene Delacroix.

In ancient Greece the development of the epic became the distinctive literature of the Greeks in Asia Minor that were organised in phatries, as with the overseas Ionian communities. Clan names developed into personal patronymics that were a reflection of social development. Individual parentage thus became more important than clan membership, old tribal settlements were lost because the “…chief unit of organisation was not the clan, nor the tribe, which were primarily kinship units, but the phatry, which the Greeks maintained in existence even when the matrilinear tribal and clan organisation was imposed upon them.” (Thomson, 1981).


The Awakening of the Fairy Queen Titania.  J. J. Fuseli.

The origin or creation of the universe and all living things are often ascribed to some numinous creator which sometimes has an animal form. In myth this is often couched in terms of man being formed from clay, rocks, stones, seeds, body parts, or even dragons teeth. Thus ancestry is seen in terms of the totemic, clan exogamy and incest taboo and “…it is precisely the abhorrence of mating between close kin that distinguishes man from the animals…” (Lewis, 1976).

6 b.  Legend

The origin of folktales can be traced to the Neolithic period of the eastern Mediterranean (Weisinger, 1965), that they are memories of totemic initiation ceremonies (Propp, 1958), and therefore reducible to primitive initiatory ceremonies (Eliade, 1963). Myths are not the same as folktales, legends and fairy tales but they can, and do overlap, and were turned into literature by the medieval romances. Folktales and fairy tales were perceived by the Romanticists of the 19th century , including the Brothers Grimm, as degenerated or corrupted fragments of an earlier mythology.


Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864).  Gustav Moreau.

Legends are traditional tales considered in general to be true and set in more recent times. In addition the main characters are human rather than deities whereas myths focus usually on superhuman entities. The approach that saw literature as a deterioration of myth was “…pioneered by Jane Harrison and her fellow classicists Gilbert Murray and F. M. Cornford.” (Segal, 2004). Hero myths have a basic plot structure. The ritual-myth approach to the study of folklore also known as the Cambridge approach included works by Cornford (1912) and Harrison (1913), thus for example the “…witch cult was a genuine worship of Old Gods surviving into modern times in a distorted form…(Murray, 1954;….) who theorised that witchcraft practice was based on rites surviving pre-Christian cults. One view was that the Holy Grail romances were a misinterpretation of fertility ritual (Weston, 1920), and moreover Lord Raglan pointed out that “…myth goes beyond explaining the ritual to explain other phenomena in nature thus functioning as general aetiology.” (Hocart, 1952).


Leda and the Swan (1598-1600).  Peter Paul Rubens.

Legends and sagas are usually part of a special place, or connected to a pseudo-historical incident including a deluge, a prehistoric cult sanctuary or sacred site, and thus “…founded on the fortunes and exploits of what are believed or represented to have been real people and actual occurrences.” (James, 1957). Sagas are perceived as novels based upon myths whilst they retain a number of ritual features (Raglan, 1953). It follows that cyclical sagas and legends are historical inaccuracies. deficient histories adorned with latter accretions and embellishments to a factual nucleus.


Minerva (1615).  Atremesia Gentilleschi.

Hero myths have a basic plot structure. When myths are discarded and lose their status they take on the features of the folktale, fairy tale and legend. In the process the divine figures of myth become humans, giants and fairy folk. Legends as narratives are traditionally handed down, are concerned also with actual places, and tell of real persons (Spence, 1994), thus legends become stories. Legends are tales, stories, and accounts embedded in happenings and history however tenuous that tell of persons and events.


Pallas and the Centaur (1480).  Botticelli.

6 c.  Mythic Themes 

Borrowings or horizontal transmissions are called mythemes and can include prehistoric and historic diffusions, as well as punctuated evolution. Mythic themes encompass innumerable symbolic figures and scenarios that recur in every culture (Lewis, 1969), which can be classified into eight categories: (1) antagonistic beings argue and make decisions about future developments; (2) there may be a discussion in a council of animals; (3) there are tales of the travels and adventures of a trickster hero; (4) there are stories of dangerous animals and ogres; (5) stories about women who may non-humans; (6) there is the occurrence of a magical flight; (7) there are swan maiden themes; and (8) tales of the weak victorious over the strong.

Sir Galahad

Sir Galahad (1862).  G. F. Watts.

Comparative mythology attempts to compare myths from different cultures in order to delineate themes and features in common, therefore the “…systematic comparison of myths and mythic themes drawn from a wide variety of cultures.” (Littleton, 1973). With regard to motifs in folklore and themes in myth they are confronted with the repetition of incidents time and again (Carroll, 1996) that include culture heroes, defeat of monsters, ogres and dragons, the stealing if fire, and magical flights and journeys. Each theme is found in many different myths. A number of parallels are to be found in many myths which include the deluge where one or more survive such –  Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh with its counterparts in the Hebrew bible, in Hindu mythology, also Aztec mythology, as well as Deucalion of Greek myth, and the Norse Ragnarok.


Odin.  Robin Goodfellow.

The stories about the life cycle of the archetypal hero is termed a monomyth (Campbell, 1993) and shows a common pattern found in all cultures, and throughout the world. The elucidation and comparative study of myths shows similarities that allow mythographers to reconstruct a protomythology. Essentially the linguistic relationships in various cultures and myths, for example similarities  in the names of deities, indicate a common ancestry, as can be seen in Indo-European mythology. Comparative creation myths are found with the Hebrew account in Genesis, the Babylonian New Year version or the Enuma Elish, as well as the Australian first sacred born ritual.


Bacchus (1638-1640).  Peter Paul Rubens.

A number of theories of myths seek similarities such as the Particularists, who include modern day scholars who lay emphasis on differences, and the Comparativists of the 18th and 19th century who stress the similarities. The magical elites of tribal society in its dissolution became divided into two classes, the productive and the non-productive (Franke, 1948). The warrior brotherhoods became secret cults or societies with their own totems.


Ophelia (1883).  A. Cabanel.

Many of the myths and rituals of ancient Greece were not indigenous to the region but originated in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Syria. In terms of thematic religious mythology the myths themselves become stories or narratives about divine or heroic characters. Traditionally transmuted  from generation to generation they become, over time, a coherent system that reflects the religious and spiritual life of a community. The system then becomes a system endorsed and justified by rulers and priests. This interpretation reflects the claim by Sir George Frazer, and opposed by Lord Raglan (1952),  that “…since men in primitive society believed that it was possible to control the weather by magic, they therefore chose magicians as their first kings. (Ellis-Davidson, 1976).


The Rock of Doom (1884-5).  Sir. E. Burne Jones.

Within prehistoric and primitive religion there was the accompanying and irrational fear that dark, wild and desolate places were the abode of monsters and demons. Their world was one where tales arose to explain the habits of the demons who inhabited those regions. Deluges, floods and natural disasters were the work of these monsters. In ancient communities there existed an almost universal the belief in metamorphosis or the idea that it was possible for humans to transform into an animal form or vice versa. This shape-changing ability was supposed to be within the power of witches, wizards, gods and goddesses, as well as sea creatures and other elemental entities. Many examples are found in myths, folklore, and fairy tales, one such belief being in lycanthropy.


Phryne at the Festival of Poseidon (1889).  H. H. Siemiradzki.

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Dedicated to my wife Pam who never ceased to share

and encourage my interest in myths and mythology.

Picture1 (2)

Pamela Edwards 9.8.1945 to 6.1.1986.

All of the illustrations used in the public domain which determines the works of art chosen and will be, in the main, from classical mythology. Illustrations inserted have been used as text breaks and may not refer to the associated text.


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10/02/2015 · 10:58 am