What is mythology?

Mythology (Greek Mythos means “Myth” in English) has to do with the relationship of the human experience to, and subsequent attempt to explain, the realm of the divine. Myth usually connotes the time before human history, what is called prehistory. The primitive epochs of creation of the cosmos, and speculation on divine hierarchical structures even before such creation events are familiar ground for mythological thinking. Myths and mythology therefore can be generally considered as stories outside of, or before, human history.

For the most part mythographers just assume that myths relevant to a particular culture are considered true by that culture from which they originate. The emphasis though generally is not to determine if, for instance, biblical stories or what can be called biblical myths, “… or subsequent narratives are true or false i.e., historically accurate or not.”[1] Although the modern view of popular culture sees myths generally as narratives surrounding and connecting symbolic fiction with really no substantive connection to any historical event or person. But even if the content of mythology is shown to be without historicity, to of had an origin in and only functioned as fiction, it is still very much situated within the history of cultures and religions. The majority of the ancient world did not see myth the same way as modern popular culture holding an opposite view that academic study tends to adopt as well. Including that of the time of classical antiquity (See: Ancient Greece) and particularly within the religion of Judaism myths and mythology are really vital for their culture, considered stories about “origins, deities, ancestors and heroes”.[2] Any particular myth should still be taken as a coherent cultural expression, being essentially characterized as, “exposition of truth in the form of a story.”[3] The epic stories serve as the “divine charter” with ritual being “inextricably bound” with myth.[2]

Mythology or mythologia is a combination of mythos and logos, or informing principle, and later the “Word” of the creation myth of John which begins, “In the beginning was the Word.” To study mythology is to study mytho-logic in general, or the defining myths of cultures in particular, or the cultural and collective inner life of the human quest for self-identity that stretches back at least to the Paleolithic cave paintings, themselves expressions of our defining drive to make a metaphor, to “tell a story,” a drive that continues to characterize the human species.[4]

Legend, Folklore and Fairytales

A legend is usually handled and seen as a story, or narrative of human actions that take place within human history. A myth outside of human history can be brought into the fold of humanity so to speak by being personified within a particular legendary person to highlight and essentially exaggerate the life and actions of an individual as heroic and mighty like a god.

Folklore or lore, on the other hand, when compared to mythology does not always contain religious elements like divine hierarchies of gods and goddesses. Folklore tends to also blend the mundane, ordinary events of everyday life with the “practical and esoteric.”

Folklore can be considered to consist of fairy tales (folk tales), music, jokes and/or popular beliefs. It is a general term for “varieties of traditional narratives.”[5] Myth has a weightier function according to many scholars when compared to that of the, “lighter functions of legend and folk tale.”[6]

Origin of Myths

There are four main views within scholarly discourse in the 21st century, some of which tend to overlap with the modern definition of mythology as non-historical fiction. The four views are; euhemerism or historical interpretation of mythologies, allegorical, personification, and the myth-ritual theory for the origin of myths.

There are two widespread views within the context of the creation vs. evolution controversy regarding the origin of mythology.

  • Evolutionists typically believe that mythology originated as fictional stories attempting to explain the world. Mythology is essentially reduced to merely fictional narratives with no historical grounding at all.
  • Creationists typically believe that mythology originated through a blend of personification origins and the corruption of the memory of historical events which actually occurred.

Logos and Mythos

In the very influential psychological theories of Carl Jung, the logos is considered the stage of development of mankind that is characterized by reason and argument, while mythos is the more primitive emotional stage.

Ancient Mythology

Egyptian mythology

Egyptian mythology refers to the characteristics of animism, fetishism and magic that dominated ancient Egypt. A sense of monotheism is present within Egyptian mythology. Ra the “One or One One” is a lot like what “the Muslim means today when he says, ‘There is no god but God.'”[7] The monotheism is not the same as what Christianity would believe in. There was a point at which the Sun-god had no “no counterpart, no offspring, and no associate” but the ancient theologians of Egypt later allow Osiris to usurp the “position of the god of the day;”.[7] The concept of one god within Egyptian mythology actually has to do with an overarching god of many gods. Complexities of this grand Egyptian polytheism of hundreds of cult-gods and sacred animals are found in the relationship between the natural world and divine will. This resulted in “local spirits” manifesting in accord with the “magico-religious ritual”[8] sociology of ancient Egypt much like pixies or fairies capture the Western mind. There also underlies all of ancient Egyptian mythology a political theocratic system whereby rulers attempt to usurp divine powers into their own political will. Coupled with Babylonian influence it is considered the root of modern astrology. The stars, sun, moon, seasons, weather, etc were all revered within ancient Egypt. This is because man was, as is still true today, dependent upon nature. During the ancient near east, society depended heavily upon agriculture. Crops would or would not grow based on water that at times would or would not flood the lands. Ancient Egypt culture was seen dependent upon those many interconnected natural elements each seen as a unique divine force or god. The superior forces became deified by Egyptians and likewise those deities were personified within kingship’s such as Pharaoh. So intimate was the relationship between god and man within Egyptian society that some of the most revered rulers were seen to have a genealogical connection with the divine. A history formed into an Egyptian canon of writings, essentially mythology that is very much intertwined with nature and humanity as it is with the divine.[9][10]

Horus the Aged, Ra, and Osiris were names which the Egyptians gave to the sun at different times in their history; the sun was their god ‘One’, and they never faltered in their allegiance to him, and in this respect they may be said to have been monotheists.[11]

Jewish mythology

Drawing on the full range of Jewish sources, sacred and nonsacred, ten major categories of Jewish mythology can be identified: Myths of God, Myths of Creation, Myths of Heaven, Myths of Hell, Myths of the Holy Word, Myths of the Holy Time, Myths of the Holy People, Myths of the Holy Land, Myths of Exile, and Myths of the Messiah. Each of these categories explores a mythic realm, and, in the process, reimagines it. This is the secret to the transformations that characterize Jewish mythology. Building on a strong foundation of biblical myth, each generation has embellished the earlier myths, while, at the same time, reinterpreting them for its own time.[12]

Flood myths

Origin of flood myths within a Biblical Christian perspective contends that ancient pagan mythologies like that of the Greeks and Egyptians, and many differing accounts of creation and flood legends of many people groups, resulted from corruption, confusion, idolatry, and manipulation of accounts of historical realities, and thus, properly understood, they point to the historical events on which they are based. For example, Hercules (or Heracles) was a historical figure in ancient history: specifically, a great military leader that fought in North Africa, and is mentioned for his war-fighting in many ancient histories. Only after he died and the details of his life were forgotten did he become a myth, in which hero worshipers devised many elaborate and fictional stories about him. Similarly, the flood legend of the Fijian people, for example, is a corrupted memory of Noah’s flood. This view contrasts with the typical evolutionist view that all mythology is “fictional oral folk tales without historical content, passed down over centuries,” and thus not useful in understanding the past.

Classical Mythology

Classical mythology has to do with mostly ancient Greece and ancient Rome myths. Gods intermingle with human military heroes like the Greco-Roman myths articulate with the characters depicted having god-like powers, or at least magical or mystical devices conferring the same on any possessor of them. Roman myths are characterized generally by the founding and origins of Rome. Both Greek and Roman mythology maintain a vast complex of polytheism providing richly detailed stories that constitute classical mythology.

It is considered during the Greco-Roman period, or what is called classical antiquity that the foundations of Western Civilization were laid. This includes scientific classification and naming like within astronomy, philosophical thought and political philosophy. It is also within this Hellenistic influence of Greek culture that influenced first century Palestine. First century Palestine is the cultural center of which the New Testament literature was written.

New Testament mythology

Myths are something which does not try to capture an objective state of affairs according to Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann assumes the most important element of the New Testament is the kerygma, except it cannot be known due to it being trapped within a primitive mythical consciousness. Bultmann advanced the idea that the mythology presented within the New Testament had to be demythologized. He asks whether the New Testament does “embody a truth which is quite independent of its mythical setting?” Apparently then if it does, “theology must undertake the task of stripping the Kerygma from its mythical framework, of ‘demythologizing’ it.” By demythologizing Bultmann essentially separates out myth from science. Demythologizing is not the same as demythicizing mythology which would be to eliminate any supernatural elements within the myth itself (See: Miracle). Bultmann attempts to find the symbolic meaning within mythology of the New Testament. To try and help modern man understand the NT within that mythical framework without demythologizing it, would be both “senseless and impossible.”[13] Bultmann sees the picture of the greater divine realm presented to readers within the pages of the New Testament text in the pejorative, it is an outdated and primitive mythical metaphysic. Rather than being rightfully situated within its time and place of history, it is merely a “cosmology of a pre scientific age”, which cannot be learned from.[13] Notions of modernity that have been inherited captured the human imagination so that “science and technology” makes it “no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold the New Testament view of the world.”[14]

To seek evidence of an actual worldwide flood, while dismissing the miraculous notion of an ark harbouring all species, would be to demythicize the Noah myth. To interpret the flood as a symbolic statement about the precariousness of human life would be to dymythologize the myth.[15]

C.S. Lewis on the other hand, under the influence of the arguments by J.R.R. Tolkien in favor of myth as important cultural phenomenon, converted to Christian thinking away from atheism. C.S. Lewis actually developed the mythological into something that was intimately connected with and vastly important for the story of Jesus Christ. In fact both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien thought that Jesus Christ, His life and resurrection was the true myth, a kind of archetype of which all of history is able to be made sense of.

The Gospel traditions which were written down within “living memory” of the eyewitnesses are not considered mythical and legendary, what is essentially oral tradition. They are representative of collected eyewitness testimony by actual individuals, who were not only involved but intimately so with the events that took place. Oral history, not oral tradition, is the ultimate material which the Gospel writers drew upon to construct ancient biographies, not the mythology, of Jesus Christ.[16][17] The Gospels do not contain as an authoritative element elaborate focus on “exotic lands” and do not “report on internal workings of divine courts.”[18] Likewise there are not long reports on, “monsters and other fabulous creatures”[18] like fire-breathing, flying dragons which is another common theme used by mythographers of classical antiquity. Some have even highlighted the “matter-of-fact restraint rather than amplification in most miracle stores in the canonical Gospels.”[18]

Popular Myths

There are many worldwide myths and legends that makeup local, cultural lore of many ancient civilizations and nations. These include:

  1. Classical mythology, especially the myriad tales that the ancient Greeks invented about the gods they worshiped, the heroes they renowned, and the occasional monsters they feared. (The tales surrounding the Mycenean and Trojan civilizations, and the celebrated war that they fought against one another, might have a small basis in fact.)
  2. The legends surrounding an alleged king of post-Roman England named Arthur, who was probably the proconsul of Brittania Province who took over as king when Rome fell.
  3. The Viking myths and legends, that gave rise to the day-of-the-week names in most English-speaking nation-states.
  4. The enduring legend surrounding Saint Nicholas of Myra, now supposed to persist in this world as a master toymaker with an Arctic factory complex and a totally unexplainable delivery system.
  5. Most of science fiction.
  6. Any ghost story, including any legend of unexplained happenings in and around an abandoned residence or place of business.
  7. Any legend involving occult practices.
  8. A number of myths of recent invention, created in the twentieth century to suit the requirements of several mass-media industries.
  9. Any literature of fiction created in imitation of the above, especially one borrowing elements from the above.


  1.  Howard Schwartz, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (Oxford University Press 2004), pg. lxxviii, Note 5
  2. ↑ 2.0 2.1 Howard Schwartz, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (Oxford University Press 2004), pg. xliv
  3.  J.F. Bierlein, Parallel Myths (Ballantine Books; 1 edition 1994), pg. 305
  4.  David Leeming, Oxford Companion to World Mythology (Oxford University Press, USA; Reprint edition 2009), pg. XII
  5.  Folklore and Oral Tradition By Wikipedia
  6.  Robert A. Segal, Myth: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press 2004), pg. 6
  7. ↑ 7.0 7.1 E. A. Wallis Budge, From Fetish To God In Ancient Egypt (Dover Publications 1988), pg. 5
  8.  E. A. Wallis Budge, From Fetish To God In Ancient Egypt (Dover Publications 1988), pg. 9
  9.  The Ancient Egyptian Culture Exhibit – Egyptian Mythology Minnesota State University
  10.  Ancient Egypt: The Mythology
  11.  E. A. Wallis Budge, From Fetish To God In Ancient Egypt (Dover Publications 1988), pg. 8
  12.  Howard Schwartz, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (Oxford University Press 2004), pg. xliii
  13. ↑ 13.0 13.1 Craig A. Evans, The Historical Jesus: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies (Routledge University Press 2004), pg. 324
  14.  Craig A. Evans, The Historical Jesus: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies (Routledge University Press 2004), pg. 325
  15.  Robert A. Segal, Myth: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press 2004), pg. 47
  16.  The Gospels: Oral History, Not Oral Tradition
  17.  Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony By Richard Bauckham
  18. ↑ 18.0 18.1 18.2 Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic 2011), pg. 69

One response

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