The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Myth Education explaining just what it is that I mean when I use the term "mythology."
The terms myth and mythology get tossed around a lot, but their colloquial usage can be quite different from how we use them within the context of this book. For example, MythBusters was one of the greatest television programs of all time: it saved lives, taught people to think in terms of the scientific method and to challenge unproven claims, and showed us all how neat things look when caught on high speed camera. One thing they failed to do on MythBusters was to ever actually take on a myth. The way they use the term on MythBusters, and in fact, the way we hear it most often in our daily lives, a myth is a popular idea that is not based on evidence. The ideas that it is easy to shoot fish in a barrel, that you can’t fly a lead balloon, or that you can make your muscle car more aerodynamic by rotating the body 180 degrees are all myths. Or, to put it another way: they are bullshit.
The myths we are talking about in this book are not bullshit. Maybe. I mean, probably, yes, they are largely untrue tales in a literal sense, but myth and mythology in this context are more than just that. In my years of teaching courses on mythology I’ve developed a working definition. It’s not a definition that you’ll find in a dictionary and certainly there is plenty about it that most (if not all) other mythographers would disagree with, but for my purposes in class and the purposes of this book it should do just fine.
Mythology is the set of stories (myths) that a particular culture believes to be true and which that culture uses as a means of understanding both themselves and the world around them.
That’s the basic definition but it needs to be teased out a bit for clarity.
“The set of stories” that makes up a mythology is a big tent. A big, porous tent that allows room for all sorts of things. No mythology, not even something like Christianity or Islam, can be condensed into a single book. Yes, many mythologies have a single text (Bible, Koran, Book of Mormon, Dianetics etc.) as the core of their beliefs, but it would be lunacy to suggest that any one text collects the complete and total history and variety of philosophy of a single person, let alone a complex and mutable culture. If the Bible were truly the last word on Christian belief, there would be no need for the enormous industry of people writing devotionals, philosophy papers, and even novels. There is more to Christianity than the one book. That’s true for every culture. Especially when you account for the fact that in the history of the world only a fraction of the mythic tales that have been told and believed have even been written down. We know Homer’s version of The Iliad because it was written down but that does not make it the only version. It doesn’t even necessarily make it the best or most definitive version, just the one that made it down to us through the ages—the received form of the myth. The received mythology is all we have to work with. There are times when we can look at the received versions of stories and characters and make educated guesses about what they may have looked like in older, unpreserved forms, but such analysis can often prove difficult, if not impossible. The one thing we know for certain is that we don’t, and likely never will, have a full, comprehensive insight into the evolution of these mythologies. Stories change over time as they are transmitted orally. They change intentionally or unintentionally when they are translated for new audiences. We can often say what the most popular or most significant version of a myth is, but that doesn’t make it the only one. It is not a closed set, it is a wide open one.
Myths are culturally specific. The myths of the Greeks are not the same as the myths of the Egyptians. That’s fairly obvious but what’s less obvious, perhaps, is that even when one culture draws their myths from another culture, they are not the same. The Romans took a lot of their myths from the Greeks but they made them Roman. And not just the facile stuff like “Zeus” becoming “Jupiter,” but the tone, the intention, the meaning of the stories change and become distinctly Roman. Figures from one culture are syncretized with another to form something new that may or may not end up being greater than the sum of its parts. To complicate things even further, cultures change internally and with them so do the myths. The stories told and the gods worshipped in northern Egypt in 4000 BCE are not the exact same ones as those of southern Egypt in 4000 BCE, or those in northern or southern Egypt in 2000 BCE or in 40 BCE or in 2017 CE. To understand the myths you need to know the culture they are coming out of, and in order to understand the culture you need to know their myths. They are as inextricably linked as they are ever changing.
Truth is an elusive beast, so when I say that these people believe these stories to be “true,” it’s a loaded statement. “True” does not mean the same thing to every culture at every time or to every person within them. Take modern Christians for example: some believe the Bible is literally true, right down to how the sun revolves around a flat earth. Others believe that it is metaphorically or spiritually true—some of your more liberal Christians will even say that it doesn’t matter if Jesus was an actual historical man or not because the truth of the teachings is all that matters. And then, between the two extremes, you have those who believe parts are literally true (Jesus was fully and historically god and man) whereas other parts are metaphorically true (the world wasn’t created in seven twenty-four-hour periods but was created by a single, benevolent god). This is true of virtually every other culture’s relationship with their myths as well. Did Erik the Red believe that each peal of thunder came from Thor or did he believe that the tales of the gods were meant to show us how to live? Some Egyptians may have believed that the sun was rolled over the horizon each morning by a dung beetle whereas others didn’t take it quite as literally. Truth comes in many forms. And, importantly, this definition of mythology does not say anything about the actual truth value of these beliefs, only that it has some degree of perceived truth value by the believer. So, when I call Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or any other belief system a “mythology,” I am not calling it either true or untrue, just saying that the believer finds a degree of truth in it. “Myth” is not a pejorative.
Myths serve the function of helping people understand the workings of the universe as well as their own inner workings. We are largely talking about pre-scientific cultures who did not have, for example, a knowledge of plate tectonics or the Earth’s molten core to explain earthquakes and volcanoes. They didn’t have medical diagnoses to explain why people had seizures or why some people were attracted to the opposite sex, whereas others were attracted to members of their own sex. So, we use myths. They explain not only why the sun rose in the sky this morning, but also what, if anything, we need to do to help make sure it does again tomorrow. Some myths serve clearer functions and offer better explanations than others but they all reveal something about the way the people telling or the people hearing the stories perceived the world.