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Friday, July 29, 2011

Some Thoughts about Myth, Part I: What is it Anyway?

Following up on my video interview, a few more thoughts on: What is Myth?

According to the eminent mythologist Walter Burkert, “myth is a traditional tale with secondary, partial reference to something of collective importance.”[1] By traditional, Burkert means that the tale has been told and retold many times until it has become accepted as conventional by audiences. The second part of the definition refers to the myth’s applicability to something of importance to a particular society at a particular point in time.[2] Myths that have no such relevance to contemporaries fade into obscurity over time or are transformed in some way until they become relevant again. When myths do have relevance, however, they become very powerful stuff.

According to Mircea Eliade, the purpose of myth is to explain how and why the world works the way that it does. Myth “tells us how, through the deeds of Supernatural Beings, a reality came into existence, be it the whole of reality, the Cosmos, or only a fragment of reality – an island, a species of plant, a particular kind of human behavior, an institution.”[3] Myth need not necessarily be about the past. It can also have very real contemporary significance as an invigorating force in present-day society. Myths tell the stories of supernatural creatures that represent types of human behavior. When the myth is remembered it recreates the “sacred time” of the ancient past in which time does not move forward, but simply stands still as the world is created.

The tale told by a myth has meaning in a contemporary context as a means of recreating or remaking the world, and bringing things back into a state of balance. In its commonly recognized characters, plotlines, and motifs, myths provide an easily recognizable formula for coming to grips with a difficult present.[4] Moreover, its characters, motifs, and themes are fluid, capable of adopting highly varied forms. Different characters may carry out identical actions that can even have completely different meanings.[5] Thus, myths and fairy tales often change over time, and later versions carry slightly different emphases from earlier versions depending on the needs and wants of the audience, but they can still have relevance to our time.


[1] Walter Burkert, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979), 23, n. 5 153.
[2] Burkert, Structure and History, 2, 23.
[3] Mircea Eliade, “Review of Jan de Vries’s Betrachtungen zum Märchen, besonders in seinem Verhältnis zu Heldensage und Mythos (1954),” La Nouvelle Revue Française 48 (1956): 5-6; trans. and cited in Jack Zipes, Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 1.
[4] Burkert, Structure and History, 25.
[5] Vladimir Propp, The Morphology of the Folktale, trans. Laurence Scott (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968), 19-20.