What is Mythology? (Part 5)

In Part 1, I attempted to explain the complexities of the term “myth” and the difficulties of defining it. Largely, this was a riff on the contemporary understanding of “myth” as “false,” as in, “It’s a myth that turkey makes you sleepy.” (Which is true, by which I mean that you get sleepy on Thanksgiving because you’ve eaten too much, have the day off work, and started drinking wine at 11:00 in the morning just to deal with your extended family, not because of the relatively minuscule levels of tryptophan* in the turkey)

Instead, I’ll be more direct. Here is the working definition of mythology I use in my classes: Mythology is the study of stories exploring fundamental mysteries of existence, especially those pertaining to the following three questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

I borrowed these questions from Paul Gauguin’s painting of the same name, “Where Do We Come From? What are We? Where are We Going?”


I then use each question as a separate unit of study: Where Do We Come From? (creation myths) What are We? (mainly epic tales)  Where are We Going? (This third unit can cover apocalyptic narratives and stories of the afterlife, but I also use it as an opportunity to discuss the potentially oxymoronic “Contemporary Mythology,” as well as narratives we use to imagine the future, especially futurism, science fiction, and technological utopianism, about which I’ve recorded a lecture and written an article.)

The majority of the texts we cover in my Mythology course fit comfortably into the standard canon (indeed, my central textbook, World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics, is printed by McGraw Hill) but I like to define the term so that texts and ideas beyond just the ancient and classical world can be explored.

This leads me to three misnomers about Mythology, which correspond to the categories of Geography, Time Period, and Purpose. Some of this is addressed in my video “Contemporary Mythology.”

1) Geography. In-coming students often assume that mythology comes primarily from Greece, Rome, and wherever Norse is. This is not their fault. America’s educational heritage comes from Europe. American and European literature mainly references myths from these cultures. These myths have been translated more frequently. More texts have survived, and so on. When you look at them on a world map, however, they don’t even account for 1% of the world’s land mass. Myths can be found in every culture, on every continent (well, not sure about Antarctica), and from every religion. (In Part 7 I will discuss the difference between religion and mythology.) Why not explore mythology on a global scale. For centuries it was believed that Homer’s epics were the oldest on the planet, until The Epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian text which predates Homer by 1300 years, was discovered. The myths of the West are wonderful, but it’s a big world.

2) Time Period. Mythology is not something that simply stops with the later versions of King Arthur in the 15th century. It’s something we do each and every day. We will continue making myths because this is what humans do best. It makes perfect sense to spend most of the semester reading the canonical myths, from Gilgamesh to Arthur, with stops at every civilization along the way. However, it would be a mistake to assume that mythologizing (the verb form, which simply means to create somewhat exalted stories out of reality) was just something that pre-scientific people did when Wikipedia was not around to provide the answer. In fact, I would argue, we create myths every time we come home and answer the question, “How was your day?” or every time we return from vacation or fishing trips. Mythology is a living field of study. Mythological figures emerge from celebrity culture, sports, and politics on a daily basis. John David Ebert’s film criticism is a great examples of this practice. Furthermore, the myths of the past are alive today in exciting ways. When you see someone gazing lovingly into his glowing screen of social media, you are witnessing the living Narcissus.

3) Purpose. I couldn’t tell you for sure why students sign up for Mythology courses. I do believe a good many have a genuine interest in the subject and find the myths they have heard to be compelling and mysterious and out-of-the-ordinary. Some want to have fun (as much fun as a college course can be, which is to say slightly above mowing the yard). Others may anticipate an easy grade. All of the above might be true, but I believe the purpose of mythology is to reconnect with the mysteries of life and to achieve a sense of wholeness. I can’t grade on such a standard, but it’s no accident that Joseph Campbell quickly found himself transitioning from English professor to something like a self-help workshop guru. This is not a path I want, but it does demonstrate the power of myth (to borrow the title of a wonderful book and interview series Campbell did with Bill Moyers).

Finally, I take great pains to emphasize one key portion of my definition, which is that myths explore mysteries; they do not explain them. Certainly if some portion of a myth takes an actual stab at explaining how giraffes developed long necks and concludes that a crocodile bit down on a giraffe’s head one day and stretched the poor creature out, then we should not deny the place of contemporary science to object.

I do not believe, however, that myths were merely an early attempt at science. Nor do I believe that science can do everything that myths can do. In fact, any good scientist will tell you there are certain questions that are not theirs to ask. Some of these are mythological questions.

*First, I should point out that WordPress wanted me to spell “tryptophan” as “Aristophanes,” which is hilarious to me and five other people. Second, dozens of foods you probably eat each week have more tryptophan in them than turkey. Do you say, “Man, this tryptophan is making me sleepy!” after eating a ham sandwich? No? Then be silent. I’m trying to watch the Lions game.

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