What Is A Myth? Take two minutes, write it down, discuss it with your neighbor, stick it in a jar and sail it down Mill Slough! This doesn’t have to be a “dictionary definition” – tell me what it means to you. Be prepared to share what you wrote!
My Off-The-Cuff Definition A usually-old folktale or story, maybe with a grain of historical truth to it, but essentially fantastical & fictional. Whaddaya think? Any good?
The Academic Definition Of Myth A traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature.
The History Of The Word Myth Myth is a direct transcription of the Greek word mythos. Its most basic meaning in ancient Greece was story, tale, or narrative. However, there is no one, clear-cut definition of mythos in any ancient Greek lexicon.
The Earliest Definition Of Mythos From approximately the 700’s BCE to the 400’s BCE, the word mythos primarily meant narrative or story in the widest sense. The 5th century BCE (the 400’s) saw the development of new disciplines that directly influenced “mythology” as Greeks knew it: Philosophy History These new disciplines challenged the truth value of poetry (Poetry was the medium of Greek myths – think Homer, Hesiod, etc.)
Truth Or Fiction? Alêtheia is the word for “truth” in Greek A + lêthê = “not” + “forget” Ergo: Truth = “not forgetting” How do people not forget (i.e. remember) something? They talk about it; they tell stories. In short, they spread myths.
Joseph Campbell Campbell lived from 1904-1987. He was a professor, author, philosopher, & mythologist. He spent his entire life searching for, exploring, analyzing and celebrating the transformative power of world myths. He studied world myths and all of their archetypes and how they piece together the quilt of humankind. Importantly, he identified the four basic functions that myths serve for humankind.
The Four Functions of Mythology There are four basic functions of mythology, according to Joseph Campbell.1. The Mystical Function: These are stories that express the awe & wonder of the universe2. The Cosmological Function: These are stories that attempt to explain the processes of nature3. The Sociological Function: These are stories that support and validate a certain social order4. The Pedagogical Function: These are stories that explain how to live a full, happy life as a human
The Mystical Function The fact of the matter is that the universe in which we live is a strange, wonderful, awe-inspiring, and sometimes terrifying place. In fact, it is so awe- inspiringly huge that many people cannot conceive of its complexity.
The Mystical Function Myths that fulfill the mystical function are myths that remind us of how strange and wonderful (and scary and miraculous) the universe really is. Ghost stories are one example of this function because they engage with the miraculous & inexplicable. Another example are the Ripley’s Believe It or Not stories.
The Mystical Function: Ghost Stories Anyone who has ever been camping or attended a sleepover or slumber party has probably heard a ghost story, but not all of them engage the mystical function. One famous ghost story is the story of The Vanishing Hitchhiker.
The Story Of The Vanishing Hitchhiker A dozen miles outside of Baltimore, the main road from New York (Route Number One) is crossed by another important highway. It is a dangerous intersection, and there is talk of building and underpass for the east-west road. To date, however, the plans exist only on paper.
The Story Of The Vanishing Hitchhiker One Dr. Eckersall was driving home from a country-club dance late one Saturday night. He slowed up for the intersection, and was surprised to see a lovely young girl, dressed in the sheerest of evening gowns, beckoning him for a lift from the side of the road.
The Story Of The Vanishing Hitchhiker He jammed on his brakes, and motioned her to climb into the back seat of his car. "All cluttered up with golf clubs and bags up here in front," he explained. "But what on earth is a youngster like you doing out here all alone at this time of night?"
The Story Of The Vanishing Hitchhiker "Its too long a story to tell you now," said the girl. Her voice was sweet and somewhat shrill – like the tinkling of sleigh bells. "Please, please take me home. Ill explain everything there. The address is 35 North Charles Street. I do hope its not too far out of your way."
The Story Of The Vanishing Hitchhiker The doctor grunted, and pulled away into traffic. He drove rapidly to the address she had given him, and as he pulled up before the shuttered house, he said, "Here we are." Then he turned around… The back seat was empty!
The Story Of The Vanishing Hitchhiker • "What the devil?" the doctor muttered to himself. • The girl couldnt possibly have fallen from the car, nor could she simply have vanished. • He rang insistently on the house bell, confused as he had ever been in his life. • At long last the door opened and a gray- haired, very tired-looking man peered out at him.
The Story Of The Vanishing Hitchhiker "I cant tell you what an amazing thing has happened," began the doctor; "A young girl gave me this address a while back. I drove her here and . . ." "Yes, yes, I know," said the man wearily. "This has happened several other Saturday evenings in the past month. That young girl, sir, was my daughter.” She was killed in an automobile accident at that intersection where you saw her almost two years ago . . ."
The Mystical Function: Urban Legends In addition to fulfilling the mystical function of mythology, this story is also an example of an urban legend. According to Jan Harold Brunvand, an urban legend is a story that circulates from person to person, that is retained in a group tradition, and that can be found in different versions through time and space.
The Cosmological Function Stories that are told to explain something in nature fulfill the Cosmological Function, according to Joseph Campbell. In addition to many native American myths, examples can be found in the Torah, or Old Testament of the Bible.
The Tower of Babel The story of the Tower of Babel from the book of Genesis explains why there are so many different languages that different cultures speak across the globe.
The Tower of Babel In the Old Testament, Genesis, Chapter 11 describes: “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.” “They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’”
The Tower of Babel “But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The LORD said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’” “So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel – because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there, the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”
The Sociological Function Stories told to back up, justify, or promote a certain social order fulfill the sociological function. These stories help bind people to a certain social group, or help explain to them their place within society.
Dishing The Family Dirt For example, when you tell a newcomer stories about your family to make them feel welcome or feel like a part of the family, you are using this function of storytelling.
The Myth Of Pandora Another example would be the Greek myth of Pandora. Since the Greeks were a patriarchal society, they naturally created a myth to justify this social order wherein men were dominate.
The Myth Of Pandora Pandora, whose name means "All Gifts", was fashioned when Zeus had her created by the Hephaestus to punish the human race , to which Prometheus had just given fire. Pandora was designed in the image of the goddesses, and became the first woman in a world of men. All the gods came forward to endow her with gifts; Aphrodite gave her beauty, Hermes gave her cunning, and other gods and goddesses gave her special qualities such as grace, dexterity, cogency, and so on, while Hephaestus gave her lying and deceit. Finally she was presented to the man Epimetheus as a gift.
The Myth Of Pandora Although he had been warned by Prometheus never to accept a gift from Zeus, he forgot this promise to his brother and married her. She brought with her a covered earthen vessel, which she was forbidden to open. But its unknown contents plagued Pandora (she had been given curiosity along with everything else). One day she could stand the temptation no longer and lifted the lid to peek inside.
The Myth Of Pandora Out swarmed all the calamities of mankind, from tidal waves to premature balding. It was too late to stop them as they spread out through the window and across the world. Pandora dropped the lid back in time to prevent the escape of the final occupant of the vessel. This was Elpis (hope), and no matter how bad things became for people there was always hope remaining.
The Pedagogical Function The most important of the four functions, according to Joseph Campbell, is the pedagogical function. These are stories that tell us how to live, how to be happy, how to be good, and how to love.
The Parables Of Christ Many examples of this can be found in the New Testament. Throughout his ministry, Christ often taught by telling a story – the story of the Good Samaritan or the story of the Prodigal Son are great examples of this.
The Story Of The Prodigal Son The Book Of Luke 15:10-32 quotes Christ, saying: “Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth. And he said, ‘A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me’. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.”
The Story Of The Prodigal Son The Book Of Luke continues: “And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. And when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many hired servants of my fathers have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants’. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
The Story Of The Prodigal Son The story continues: “And the son said unto him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son’. But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found’. And they began to be merry. Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.”
The Story Of The Prodigal Son Christ continues in Luke: “And he said unto him, ‘Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound’. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. And he answering said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf’. And he said unto him, ‘Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found’.”
The Four Functions In Effect The vast majority of myths created by humankind throughout the vast expanse of time have included at least one of these functions – if not several or even all of them! As we move through this semester, think about every myth you’re presented critically and work to identify which of the four functions of myth each one engages.