Introduction to Mythology

Lascaux Cave Paintings from the Upper Paleolithic. Found in Monignac, France. Do these paintings indicate that the people who made them possessed a mythological worldview?

What is Mythology?

Put simply, mythology is the study of myths. To better answer this question, one must start with another, more fundamental, question: What are myths?

Myths in Focus

How was the universe created? Why does a particular geological feature, plant, or animal exist? Why do we as a people follow a particular ritual or custom? What will happen at the end of time?

In traditional societies, questions like these are answered using myths.

The term "myth" is derived from the Greek "mythos," meaning "story-of-the people." Myths are a fundamental aspect of being human. All known societies, past and present, possess myths. Myths are traditional narratives existing within a culture that function as non-scientific methods of describing the origin, nature, pattern or structure of an aspect (or aspects) of reality. Like poetry, myths often make use of symbolism, allegory, metaphor, and visual language.

Types of Myths

There are many ways in which myths can be classified. Below are some of the more general categories typically found in the study of myths:

  • Etiological Myths: The term etiological is derived from the Greek term "aetion," meaning "reason." These myths give the reason why something exists. Questions an etiological myth may answer are "why does evil exist in the world?" or "How did a local rock formation get it's peculiar appearance?" or "why does the chief where that headdress?" Etiological myths are commonly referred to as Origin Myths.
  • Historical Myths: Like the name suggests, historical myths recount historical events that are seen as significant to a particular culture. Historical myths can include events such as: the creation of the land, the founding of a tribe or kingdom, great battles, the deeds of heroes, and natural disasters such as floods or famines. Historical myths are typically based on a people's cultural memory of actual events. In some cases, historical myths recount events that only occurred within a mythic past.
  • Eschatological Myths: The term eschatological is derived from the Greek "eskhatos" meaning "last, furthest, uttermost, extreme, most remote." These myths describe what will occur at the end of history itself. Typically eschatological myths involve either a catastrophic end of the world, or a cyclical renewal.

What Myths Aren't

In common parlance today the term myth has gained a pejorative connotation, often being equated with "false, fictional, or lie." This however is not the intended meaning of myth in the scholarly sense of the world, which has been outlined on this page. Many myths exist, both in the past and the present, as part of sincerely held religious traditions and beliefs. On this website the term "myth" is only used respectfully in the scholarly sense of the word.


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