Theories and Sources of Myths

Theories and Sources of Myths
R. Efpatridis – ETS 4U1
For at least 2000 years, scholars have speculated about how myths began. Some believe myths began as
historical events that became distorted with the passage of time.
Others think myths resulted from man’s attempt to explain natural occurrences that he could not
Scholars have also developed other theories of how myths began. None of these theories answers all
the questions about myths, but each contributes to an understanding of the subject.
The most important theories about the origins of myths were developed by the ancient Greek scholar
and 4 modern scholars outlined below.
Time Period
Late 300s and
early 200s
Suggested that
all myths are
based on
historical facts.
Scholars need
to strip away
elements to
reach these
Max Muller
Sir Edward
Burnett Taylor
Sir James
George Frazer
German born
British language
Late 1800s
English anthropologist
Polish born British
Early 1900s
Late 1800s and early
Suggested that all
gods and mythical
heroes were
of nature
divinities. Heroes
were originally a
symbol for the
sun in one of its
Believed that myths
began through man’s
efforts to account for
explainable occurrences
in dreams.
Suggested that all things
in nature had a soul
(animism): souls
wandered freely in sleep
to have many
Pre scientific attempt to
explain dreams and
natural events.
Emphasized the
conditions that led
man to create myths.
Man creates myths
when he reaches a
frontier – what cannot
be explained logically.
Relieved the tension
brought on by the
unknown and not
having an explanation.
Believed that myths
began in the great
cycle of nature – birth,
growth, decay, death
and rebirth.
This theory evolved
from his attempt to
explain ancient rituals.
Zeus probably
modeled on
early king of
Crete who has
such great
power that he
Birth of the hero
stood for dawn;
the hero’s
triumph over
represented the
sun at noon at its
highest point.
The hero’s
decline and death
expressed the
The adventures the soul
had would appear to
man through dreams.
He explained that the
eruption of a volcano
was caused by its soul.
Weaknesses In most cases,
He and his
influence later
theories about
the origins of
Ex. The sun god
Helios drove his
flaming chariot,
the sun, across
the sky every day.
explained how
the sun rose in
the east and set
in the west.
Not everyone had
dreams: so some
occurrences could not be
Religious beliefs
contradicted Tylor’s
theory about a soul
existing in all nature
scholars lack
evidence to
whether a
mythical figure
ever existed.
Contributions to Classical Mythology
Early man lacked
science and wisdom to
explain thunder
logically: so he decided
it was caused by a god
using a hammer.
Not every event in a
society could be
explained away.
Priests were sacrificed
every year in an
attempt to restore
power to the god
Ancient Italians
believed that when a
priest lost his vigor, so
did the god. As the
God lost power, so did
the world reflected
through long winters,
the cold and less fertile
Frazer believed
societies sacrificed
symbols of their gods:
in this case to keep it
from decaying and
While the idea may be
far fetched, he had the
most accurate belief
that rituals formed the
basis for stories of
birth, growth,
maturation, decay,
death and most
importantly rebirth.
This could explain why
that in almost every
ancient mythology
these stories exist.
Influences on Mythology
While many myths are similar in nature and share many of the same
features (see first handout on Osiris) due to the themes, characters,
and archetypes that connect stories from culture to culture, there
are some definite elements that have contributed for the variances
that occur in myths.
Climate - influence materials used in myths to create land, people,
Geographical Location – people living in agricultural areas would have attributed fertility of the earth to deities
that were females – usually worshiping goddesses, Mother Earth, etc. In fact, women were found commonly
working in the fields in these primitive societies.
In areas that focused more on raising sheep or goats or tending herds – male worship would predominate –
because men took on this responsibility in their communities.
Customs/rituals – see chart above about rituals that may have influenced the creation of myths
Government and Social systems – areas where males were predominate and in control (almost everywhere) there
was more worship of the gods or male figures
Other societal aspects – there can be a switch in power within a community or culture
Ex. Certain tribes in Ghana were led by women – reflected in their myths about huntresses and a moon goddess
Eventually, this matriarchal society was conquered by men and the patriarchal nomads led to
the evolution of stories about a male creator: the society was forced to conform to changes in
its social system
Later Theories
Since the initial theorists tried to explain where myths came from, several social scientists and
psychologists have explained what we can learn about people from the myths that have been passed on:
myths are relevant in understanding society as a whole, and help to explain why an individual acts the
way he/she does.
Emile Durkheim – late 1800s and early 1900s
She believed that every society establishes certain social institutions and values, which are reflected in a society’s
Most of a society’s gods, heroes and myths are really collective representations of the institutions and values of
that society or of important parts within in.
These representations determine how the individual in the society think and act.
By examining a society’s myths, Durkheim believed we can discover a lot about its social institutions and values.
Georges Dumezil – modern French scholar
Believed that Indo-European gods were collective representations of the caste system common to many of the
societies at the time
Ex. Certain divinities represent the upper class (Brahman – highest caste in Hindu society); others the warrior
caste, farmers, herdsmen, etc.
The relationships depicted between these gods revealed what was considered proper conduct among the castes.
Carl Jung – early 1900s – Swiss psychoanalyst
Developed an original and controversial theory the myths reflect the attitudes and behaviour of individuals.
Myths are a reflection of a personal and a collective unconscious formed by an individual’s personal experiences
in the world as filtered through his/her senses.
He believed an individual’s collective unconscious is inherited and shared by all members of his/her race.
Collective unconscious is organized into basic patterns and symbols – archetypes – myths are one kind of
archetype. (fairy tales, art, folk tales, etc. represent other archetypes)
He asserted that all mythologies have certain features in common and date back to the earliest days of
mankind. He believed that studying myths revealed the psychological development of races and mankind.