Mythology was once a term applied to any belief system not associated with the world's primary religions. It was also liberally applied to any belief system associated with indigenous populations. Anthropologists and Western societies in general thought that the belief systems of, for example, the Greeks, were created to explain phenomena that these prescientific cultures encountered and could not otherwise explain. A greater understanding has evolved over time as to the importance of mythology and legend within a culture. Today, the term mythology, also associated with a term legend, refers to texts related to the beliefs and sacred writings of societies that no longer exist or, in a broader context, according to Joseph Campbell, "a mythological canon is an organization of symbols, ineffable in import, by which the energies or aspirations are evoked and gathered toward a focus" (Campbell 5). Campbell's notion is essentially that mythology arises from culture to culture with many similarities, indicating that the belief systems being expressed are more a development of human consciousness of their world rather than a specific ideals of any given population. The word myth is derived from the word story (Saltman 475), an indication that these tales was not merely important for entertainment, but also to explain and to disseminate truth. Mythology and legend, therefore, are also linked to sacred writings. These works are designed to impart elements of truth about life... very often, these myths and legends are specifically designed to explain to humans what to do... or what NOT to do... and essentially become an exemplar for behaviors and attitudes that human should hold. The notion that mythology and legend is associated with the religious and mystical aspects of life adds a sense of importance and relevance to the stories that place them beyond simply story.
There are four primary lines of mythology that have been important to the Western world: the Greek/Roman tradition, the Norse tradition, Celtic tradition, and the Judeo-Christian tradition. "The earliest written record of great mythology is contained in the Iliad, attributed to Homer and dated around the year 1000 B.C., although the tales and beliefs have been created and been evolving for hundreds of years before that" (Saltman 477). Essentially, the Greeks' mythological system was complex and all-encompassing and was an important element of Greek life and the Greek belief system. The Greco-Roman myths ranged widely in tone, from comedy to drama to tragedy, and very often were reflections of the dilemmas faced by humans. The Greek gods especially were real and interacted with humans on a regular basis. These gods lived in a celestial city atop of Greece's highest mountain, Olympus, and therefore were in close contact with their human counterparts. They might appear on earth as themselves, in the guise of animals, or as mere mortals. Indeed, some Greek and Roman gods interacted closely with humans, even mating to create demi-gods or superhumans, such as Achilles and Hercules. Greek gods were known for human characteristics, specifically emotional elements seen as some of the weaker sides of the human experience, including sadness, jealousy, lust and greed. Indeed, in many cases, the actions of the gods were precipitated by some human-like emotion that led them to make some sort of mistake or to act in a particular way. While the gods are immortal, they are not immune to punishment, and several gods in Greco-Roman mythology have been punished through banishment, including the gods of the underworld (Hades/Pluto) and of the sea (Poseidon/Neptune). The Romans, as in many situations, borrowed heavily from Greek mythology, creating their own system by merely changing the names of the gods themselves. This is a reflection of the Roman tendency when conquering a society to incorporate elements of that society into their own and to allow the indigenous society to remain mostly unchanged. The Greco-Roman myths and legends are well-known in Western society, and many common references are based on Greco-Roman stories, including planet names (Mercury, Pluto, Mars) as well as references in science (Achilles' heel).
Norse mythology, unlike Greco-Roman mythology, is quite dark, and is more heroic, reflecting the region from which it has come. The primary text for Norse mythology is considered to be the Elder, which was put together by bards in Iceland expatriated from Scandinavia. The Elder is estimated to be from "the latter part of the 13th Century" (Saltman 478). Unlike those of Greco-Roman myth, the gods of Norse mythology are not immortal, and therefore there was always the notion that they could be destroyed. Indeed, the most noble death for the Norse gods was a heroic death that meant victory rather than defeat. The Norse gods lived in a huge ash tree (Yggdrasil) that held up the universe, and similar to Greek mythology, there were three Fates called Norns who had a hand in their future. There was a definite fatalistic notion to Norse mythology, a reflection of the region of the world with the largest number of suicides per capita (Finland and Denmark are 1st and 2nd respectively, Sweden is 7th, and Norway is 9th).
Celtic mythology is rooted in central and western Europe. Rooted more in magic and the gods, Celtic mythology involves humans interacting with fairies, magical children, wizards and goddesses. "The world of Celtic mythology is elusive and misty, filled with half-lights and sudden, dazzling revelations; peopled with valiant warriors and warrior women, Druids and wizards; rooted over by weird, or fate -- that which will be" (Saltman 479). Celtic mythology was especially important in developing some of the legends a Britain, including King Arthur (a very real king with elements of magic in the legend) and the Round Table, as well as the legend of the Holy Grail.
Judeo-Christian mythology is considered "the most influential fountainhead of mythology for Western civilization" (Saltman 479). One of the problems in dealing with Judeo-Christian mythology in Western civilization is the reality that many people believe this mythology to be actual factual truth, and depending on one's upbringing, view what is told in the Bible as a mixture of the figurative, literal and figurative, or entirely literal, creating a problem of objectivity when analyzing the work for its various aspects. Especially in heterogenous cultures like the United States, where some are quite religious, some are partially religious and others are almost entirely secular, a discussion of religion can be a very touchy subject. Indeed, while today there is an argument as to the validity of the Bible when used in instructing children, its history is equally controversial. Prior to 1963, in many cases, the Bible was used as religious instruction even in public schools. After the Supreme Court of the United States decided in the case ofAbington School District vs. Schempp (1963) that the Bible could not be used for religious instruction, many school districts discarded any mention of the Bible altogether, much to the chagrin of religionists and literary critics alike. As Northrop Frye points out, "There are all sorts of secondary reasons for teaching the Bible as literature: the fact that it's so endlessly quoted from and alluded to, the fact that the cadences and phrases of the King James translation are built into our minds and way of thought, the fact that it's full of the greatest and best-known stories we have.... It's the myth of the Bible that should be the basis of literary training" (Frye 110-111). That being said, the controversy remains. The reality is that regardless of one's adherence to or rejection of the Bible, there is a general common knowledge concerning specific imagery and allusions used in American English that carry with them some reference to the Bible, including references to the prodigal son, walking on water, or the patience of Job.
In aggregate, folklore and mythology have an important impact on a culture in that it helps create a common reference point... especially in societies as diverse as that in the United States and now Europe, mythology and legends lend themselves to creating a common language and a common understanding, and certainly studying these legends and others of less import demonstrates a similarity that runs through them in terms of theme, message and the understanding that human beings very often experience the same dilemmas, no matter their country of origin, their language, their customs, their religion or the era in which they live.
Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Creative Mythology. New York: Viking, 1968.
Frye, Northrop. The Educated Imagination. Indiana University Press, 1964.
Saltman, Judith. Myths, Legends, and Sacred Writings. The Riverside Anthology of Children's Literature, 6th ed. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.
© T. T. Eiland, August, 2006