Mythology: Theories and Sources

Mythology: Theories and Sources
How Myths Began
Some believe that myths began as historical
events that became distorted with the
passage of time.
Others think myths resulted from man’s
attempt to explain natural occurences that he
could not understand.
The most important theories about the origins
of myths were developed by Euhermerus, an
ancient Greek, and four modern scholars—
Friedrich Max Miller, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor,
Bronislaw Malinowski, and Sir James George
Euhermerus’ Theory
 Believed that all myths were based on
historical facts. He believed that scholars
had to strip away the supernatural elements
in a myth to reach these facts. His theory
has one basic weakness. In most cases,
modern scholars lack enough historical
evidence to determine whether a mythical
figure ever existed.
Muller’s Theory
 Suggested that all gods and mythical heroes
were really representations of nature
divinities, and heroes were originally a
symbol for the sun in one of its phases.
 Today few scholars take his main theories
seriously. However, he and his followers did
influence most later theories about the
origins of myths.
Malinowski’s Theory
 Malinowski emphasized the psychological
conditions that lead man to create myths.
 According to him, 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.
 He believed that man had to create such myths to
relieve the tension brought on by his not knowing
why something happened.
Frazer’s Theory
 Believed that myths began in the great cycle of
nature—birth, growth, decay, death, rebirth
 Developed from his attempt to explain an ancient
Italian ritual named Nemi. This developed into the
series of books called The Golden Bough.
 He 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
What Mythology Tells Us about
 Some 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
 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.
 By examining a society’s myths, he believed
a sociologist can discover its social
institutions and values.
Mythology and the Individual
 Carl Jung developed an original and controversial
theory about how myths reflect the attitudes and
behavior of individuals. He suggested that
everyone has a personal and a collective
 He believed that the collective unconscious is
organized into basic patterns and symbols, which
he called archetypes.
 He believed that all myths have certain
characteristics in common: 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.
 Anthropo/morphism (human/shape) is a
representation or conception of a god with human
 Therio/morphism (wild beast/shape) is a
representation or conception of god with the form
of an animal.
 Read pages 13-21 in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology.
 Answer questions on Handout 3.