Mythology (from the Greek ‘mythos’ – story-of-the-people, and ‘logos’ – word or speech, the spoken story of a people) is the study of myths. It can also refer to a collection of myths and/or a set of stories belonging to a particular nation or religion. The tales and fables contained therein are often sacred. They deal with the beliefs, values, and concepts important to a certain culture.
The mythologies of some cultures have, over the centuries, become more popular than others. Greek, Roman, Norse, and Egyptian in particular are some of the most widely read mythologies. Their popularity is owed, in large parts, to their inclusion in modern mass media. Books, movies, television shows, and video games have helped sustain interest in age-old tales.
Common Themes in Mythology
All of these mythologies, from every culture around the world, contain within them various common themes. Most of them, if not all, discuss the creation of our world. They talk about gods and goddesses, beasts and monsters, heroes and villains. A great flood and resurrection are widely recurring themes, as are good and evil, death, and the afterlife. Other common themes include love, courage, sacrifice, honour, fate, justice, and vengeance.
There are also certain archetypes which are common to most mythologies. They include a sky father [Zeus, Uranus], an earth mother [Gaia, Terra], a death deity [Hades, Anubis], and culture heroes, such as King Arthur, Heracles, and Quetzalcoatl. Most, if not all, mythologies also include such creatures as dragons, giants, dwarves, fairies, mermaids, and vampires.
The Purpose of Mythology
Humans have forever had questions about our own existence and purpose, and the world around us. Mythology is our attempt to find answers to those questions. Or it was before science. Yet myths continue to persist, and perhaps forever will. They serve to explain phenomena for which science cannot yet provide reasonable or acceptable answers. Of course, there are instances where people choose to believe in myths and legends even where science does provide perfectly logical explanations to the contrary.
The History of Mythology
The earliest myths were recorded in Egypt, around 6,000 years ago. Osiris appears in the Pyramid Texts as God of the Dead some 1,500 years later. He is perhaps the first example of a Dying and Reviving God. His appearance coincides roughly with the life, in Sumer, of Enheduanna – the first author known by name, and daughter of Sargon of Akkad. The Epic of Gilgamesh was first recorded on clay tablets in the century following the lifetime of Enheduanna. The Atrahasis Myth of the Great Flood was also written during this time.
Click here to discover: The History of Writing
The Myth of Adapa appeared in written form around 1,300 BCE, closely followed by the Sumerian version of the creation story ‘Enuma Elish,’ circa 1120 BCE.
Nearly five centuries later, Homer produced his epics – The Iliad and The Odyssey, and Hesiod wrote Theogony and Works and Days.
Rome was found around this time as well, at least according to legend. However, it is not until another three centuries later that the tale of Remus and Romulus – the mythical twin brothers who founded Rome – was first recorded. The Roman poet Virgil wrote his Aeneid another 400 years later.
The Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, collections of oral myths which form the basis of the Shinto religion, were both written in the early years of the 8th century. The Kogoshui, however, was written by Imibe-no-Hironari nearly a century later. It is around this time that the Vikings spread out from Scandinavia, bringing Norse mythology and the likes of Odin and Thor to the rest of the world.
Mythology in Modern Times
Today, of course, everything is classified as mythology. The beliefs of all major religions – Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism – are explained away as myths. The story of Adam and Eve is considered to be just that, a story. The Great Flood, even when it is mentioned in the lore of every culture around the world, is still believed to be a myth. Ridley Scott makes movies where not Moses and his staff but crocodiles [or alligators] turn the Nile’s waters red, and isn’t that just a little bit sad?
Matters of belief aside – for those are and should be personal, it is tragic that we seem to have lost the ability to believe in the fantastic. We ridicule the old stories, laugh them off as myths and legends, and to what end? It is a sad, hate-filled, war-ridden world already. Must we take away the dragons too?!
In ancient Egypt, all different variations of a tale were accepted. There were no true tales, none false. They understood that the purpose of every story was to inform the audience, and then allow them to interpret it themselves. The hearer or reader would each recognize their own meaning and extract what they would from the story.
We have today lost sight of the very reason these ancient myths still resonate with us. We stress, perhaps too much, about scientific explanations for everything under the sun. Instead, maybe we should take a page from J.R.R. Tolkien’s book. He believed in mythology so much that he called it the divine echo of ‘the Truth’, and dedicated his life to creating a mythology for England.