Theories and Sources

Theories and Sources
English 1H
Mrs. Booth
Mythology/How Myths Began
For at least 2,000 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 understand.
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 Euhemerus, an ancient Greek,
and four modern scholars- Friedrich Max Muller, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, Bronislaw
Malinowski, and Sir James George Frazer.
Euhemerus’ Theory. Euhemerus, a Greek scholar who lived during the late 300s and early 200s
B.C., developed one of the oldest known theories about the origin of myths. He was one of the
first scholars to suggest that all myths are based on historical facts. Euhemerus believed that
scholars had to strip away the supernatural elements in a myth to reach these facts. For example,
he felt that Zeus was probably modeled on an early king of Crete who had such great power that
he inspired many supernatural tales. Euhemerus’ theory has one basic weakness. In most cases,
modern scholars lack enough historical evidence to determine whether a mythical figure ever
Muller’s Theory. Friedrich Max Muller was a German-born British language scholar of the late
1800s. He suggested that all gods and mythical heroes were really representatives of nature
divinities, and heroes were originally a symbol for the sun in one of its phases. For example, the
birth of a hero stood for the dawn. The hero’s decline and death expressed the sunset.
Muller decided that by the time such basic texts as the Theogony and the Rig-Veda appeared, the
symbolic purpose of the gods and heroes had long been forgotten. Instead, people had come to
believe in the divinities and heroes themselves. For example, the ancient Greeks believed that the
sun god Helios drove his flaming chariot, the sun, across the sky every day. This belief began in
an earlier attempt to express symbolically how each day the sun rose in the east and set in the
Today, few scholars take Muller’s main theories seriously. However he and his followers did
influence most later theories about the origins of myths.
Tylor’s Theory. Sir Edward Burnett Tylor was an English anthropologist of the 1800s. He
believed that myths began through man’s efforts to account for unexplainable occurrences in
dreams. According to Tylor, man’s first idea about the supernatural was his belief that he had a
soul which lived in his body. While the body slept, the soul would wander freely and have many
adventures. These adventures appeared to man in his dreams. Man then came to believe that
animals had souls. Finally, he decided that everything in nature had a soul. Man could then
explain, according to Tylor, such natural events as the eruption of a volcano. Gradually, man
came to believe that the souls controlling natural occurrences could answer his prayers for
protection or special favors. The idea that all things in nature have souls is called animism. Tylor
considered animism the first step in the development of human thought and the basis of myths.
Malinowski’s Theory. Bronislaw Malinowski was a Polish-born British anthropologist of the
early 1900s. He disagreed with Tylor that myths began as prescientific attempts to explain
dreams and natural occurrences. Instead, Malinowski emphasized the psychological conditions
that lead man to create myths.
According to Malinowski, all people recognize that a frontier exists between what man can and
cannot explain logically. Malinowski said man creates myths when he reaches this frontier. For
example, early man lacked the scientific knowledge to explain thunder logically, and so he
decided it was caused by a god using a hammer. Malinowski believed that man had to create
such myths to relieve the tension brought on by his not knowing why something happens.
Frazer’s Theory. Sir James George Frazer was a Scottish anthropologist of the late 1800s and
early 1900s. He believed that myths began in the great cycle of nature – birth, growth, decay,
death, and rebirth.
Frazer’s theory developed from his attempt to explain an ancient Italian ritual (ceremony)
conducted at Nemi, near Rome. At Nemi, there was a sacred grove of trees. In the middle of the
grove grew a huge oak tree associated with the god Jupiter. A priest presided over the grove and
the oak tree. Frazer’s curiosity and interest were aroused by the way priests were replaced. To
become the priest, a man had to kill the current priest with a branch of mistletoe taken from the
top of the oak. If the man succeeded, he proved that he had more vigor than the presiding priest
and thus had earned the position.
Frazer’s study of the Nemi ritual developed into one of the most ambitious anthropological
works ever attempted, The Golden Bough (12 volumes, 1890-1915). In writing this work, Frazer
made a broad study of ancient and primitive mythologies and religions. He concluded that the
priests at Nemi were killed as a sacrifice. The ancient Italians believed that when a priest began
to lose his vigor, so did Jupiter. As Jupiter became less vigorous, so did the world. For example,
winters became longer and the land less fertile. To keep the world healthy, the priest,
representing Jupiter, had to be killed and then reborn in the form of the more vigorous slayer.
Frazer wrote that societies throughout the world sacrificed symbols of their gods to keep these
gods – and thus the world – from decaying and dying. According to Frazer, this theme of the
dying and reborn god appears in almost every ancient mythology, either directly or symbolically.
Frazer therefore concluded that myths originated from the natural cycle of birth, growth, decay,
death, and - most important – rebirth.
Mythology/What Mythology Tells Us About People. Many social scientists have developed
theories telling how we can learn about people from the myths they tell. Some of these theories
stress the role of myths in understanding society as a whole. Other theories emphasize the place
of mythology in understanding why an individual acts the way he does.
Mythology and Society. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the French sociologist Emile
Durkheim developed several important theories on what he felt was the real meaning of myths.
Durkheim believed that every society establishes certain social institutions and values, which are
reflected in the society’s religion. Therefore, according to Durkheim, 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 it. These representations determine how the individuals in
the society think and act. By examining a society’s myths, Durkheim believed, a sociologist can
discover its social institutions and values.
Georges Dumezil, a modern French scholar, was influenced by Durkheim’s ideas in the study of
Indo-European mythology. According to Dumezil, the principal Indo-European divinities were
collective representations of the caste (class) system common to several ancient Indo-European
peoples. For example, in ancient India the gods Mitra and Varuna represented the Brahman, or
priest, caste – the highest caste in Hindu society. The god Indra represented the warrior caste,
which ranked below the Brahmans. The Ashvin twins represented a still lower caste – farmers
and herdsmen. The relation between these divinities reveals what the Hindus considered proper
conduct among the castes.
One ancient Indian myth tells that Indra killed a monster that threatened the peace and security of
the gods. But the monster happened to be the chaplain of the gods and therefore a divine
Brahman. As a result, Indra felt he had committed a great sin because he had killed a Brahman.
This myth illustrates the ancient Indian belief that under no circumstances should a member of
one caste harm a member of a higher caste.
Mythology and the Individual. During the early 1900s, the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung
developed an original and controversial theory about how myths reflect the attitudes and
behavior of individuals. Jung suggested that everyone has a personal and a collective
unconscious. An individual’s personal unconscious is formed by his experiences in the world as
filtered through his senses. An individual’s collective unconscious is inherited and shared by all
members of his race.
Jung believed that the collective unconscious is organized into basic patterns and symbols, which
he called archetypes. Myths represent one kind of archetype. Other kinds include fairy tales,
folk sagas, and works of art. Jung believed that all mythologies have certain features in common.
These features include characters, such as gods and heroes, and themes, such as love or revenge.
Other features include places, such as the home of the gods or the underworld, and plots, such as
a battle between generations for control of a throne. Jung suggested that archetypes date back to
the earliest days of mankind. By studying myths and other archetypes, Jung believed, scholars
could trace the psychological development of particular races as well as of all mankind.