The creation of the universe and the world, humanity’s existence and its roles, and the consequences of man’s actions – good or bad – are some of the questions that myths seek to address. Mythology is the study of these myths, examining such aspects as what myths are, why they exist and what their purpose is in human society and culture. Myths, which Leonard describes as ‘ancient narratives that attempt to answer the enduring and fundamental human questions’ mentioned above, are present in most cultures in the world (2004). Mythologists use a number of theoretical approaches in order to help them understand myths and their role in the overall human culture.
Scholars differ slightly on the theoretical approaches to take in classification, analysis, and understanding of myths. One such approach is the comparative mythology theory, which was widely used by the middle of the 19th century (Leonard, 2004). Comparative mythology is primarily the observance of similarities and differences of myths from different cultures. Comparative mythology came about largely due to European expansion and exploration into other geographical areas, therefore other cultures. This theoretical approach was used by three mythological schools, the first of which sought to trace back myth types to their presumed original version, using linguistics. The second school on the other hand focused on environmental causes to determine differences and similarities in myths. For instance, the sun, thunderstorms or wind were found by this school to be the basis of all myth. Finally, the third school of comparative mythology examined racial factors in their study of myths, in terms of similarities and differences of their languages as well as their narratives.
A second approach used in mythology is psychology theory. This theory came about largely due to the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung who investigated the relationship between the unconscious mind, and myth. The two psychiatric pioneers believed that the beliefs about gods, other mythical creatures presented through dreams, were projections of true physical reality (Leonard, 2004). However, they argued, these realities were too dangerous and raw to face hence the conscious mind’s efforts to sensor these thoughts, desires and fantasies. Jung further argued that the unconscious is universal, therefore mythic archetypes such as ‘the Father’, the ‘Miraculous Child’ and ‘the Great Mother’ are common in every healthy mind regardless of culture or gender, but that cultures have different representations for these archetypes.
Finally, a third theoretical approach used in mythology is structuralism. Structuralism can be described as the attempt to distinguish between constant and variable elements of myths (Leonard, 2004). By gathering and analyzing numerous myths from different cultures and their variations, mythologists can find a ‘basic grammar of meaning’ beyond the surface elements (Leonard, 2004). Largely attributed to the work of Levi-Straus who found that mythic structure is revealed through such codes as acoustic, sociological and culinary, structuralism often uses a system that is intended to express that which is always true in myths, regardless of such surface elements as characters and plot.
Using the theories presented above can lead to deeper understanding of the cultural function of creation myths. An ancient Greek poem – Theogonia – is a mythical narrative relating the creation of the universe, our world, and humankind. Theogonia tells the story of the first gods to exist (Chaos, Gaia, Tartaros, and Eros), and their descendants, who include Night, Air, Day, Mountains, Ocean, and eventually, Zeus. By using the theory of psychology to analyze this myth, one gets to understand the need to come up with a narrative to explain how the world was formed, and how certain things (gods) are superior to mortals. In the Greek culture, this myth has the function of explaining how certain facts of existence such as the need for religion and the physical world came into being. If the psychological theory were to be used in approaching this myth, it would explain why reality features in this myth, as in others, while that which cannot be explained – such as creation – is presented in a non-realistic manner.
Using comparative mythology, the myth above can be compared to another one from Iraq: The Creation of Ulligara and Zalgarra. In this myth, like in the first, there already exists gods who create heaven and earth, as well as the mother of the goddesses. The gods then seek to create humankind who will be of service to the gods by toiling in the fields, increasing the abundance of the lands, and making sacrifices to the gods, among other things. When applied to this myth and the first, the second school of comparative mythology is best suited. Here, environmental causes are used to determine the universality of myths, as well as their function in human cultures. As in the first myth, The Creation of Ulligara and Zalgarra also focuses on the world’s physical features. It provides a mystical and cosmological function for the people to which it belongs, especially as seen when the gods create man for their service.
The theories discussed above, as well as other additional ones, aid in the analysis of myths, and in determining what roles myths play in human culture. Structural, comparative and psychological theoretical approaches help explain that ultimately, all myths serve a number of core functions. These functions include explaining the creation of the universe, the creation of man, the role of man, man’s relation to the divine beings and to his fellow man, as well as providing a moral compass by which man should strive to live. Myths, whether they be a representation of reality or not, are invaluable to the cultures of the world.
Leonard, S., & McClure, M. (2004). Myth & knowing: An introduction to world mythology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. Print.