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University of Waterloo
Classical Studies
CLAS 104
Ronald Kroeker

Chapter 01Interpretation and Definition of Classical MythologyTHE PROBLEM OF DEFINING MYTH The establishment of a single comprehensive definition of myth has proved impossible to attain No one definition can satisfactorily embrace all the various kinds of stories that can legitimately be classed as myths on the basis of one criterion or another The attempt to define myth in itself however intractable a proposition serves to highlight the very qualities of the stories that make them so different from one another THE MEANING OF THE WORD MYTH Myth is derived from the Greek word mythos which can mean tale or story and that is essentially what a myth is a story For many such a general definition proves to be of no real service and some would add the qualification that a myth must be a traditional tale or story one that has proved of so lasting a value that it is continually retold through whatever medium the artiststoryteller chooses to employ For further clarification distinctions are often made between myth ie true myth or myth proper and saga or legend and folktale MYTH SAGA OR LEGEND AND FOLKTALE Myth not a comprehensive term for all stories but only for those primarily concerned with the gods and their relations with mortals Saga or legend a story containing a kernel of historical truth despite later fictional accretions Folktale a story usually of oral origin that contains elements of the fantastic often in the pattern of the adventure of a hero or a heroine Its main function is entertainment but it can also educate with all sorts of insights Under this rubric may be classed fairytales which are full of supernatural beings and magic and provide a more pointed moral content Rarely if ever do we find in Greek and Roman mythology a pristine uncontaminated example of any one of these types of story MYTH AND TRUTH The most common association of the words myth and mythical is with what is incredible and fantastic How often do we hear the expression Its a myth uttered in derogatory contrast with such laudable concepts as reality and the facts As opposed to the discoveries of science whose truths continually change myth like art is eternal Myth in a sense is the highest reality and the thoughtless dismissal of myth as fiction or a lie is the most barren and misleading definition of all Myth serves to interpret the whole of human experience and that interpretation can be true or fictitious valuable or insubstantial quite apart from its historical veracity MYTH AND RELIGION The study of myth must not and cannot be separated from the study of religion religious beliefs or religious rituals No mythologist has been more eloquent than Mircea Eliade in his appreciation of the sacredness of myth and the holy and timeless world that it embodies MYTH AND ETIOLOGY An etiological interpretation of myth demands that a true myth must give the aitia or cause or reason for a fact a ritual practice or an institution Thus narrowly defined etiology imposes too limiting and rigid a criterion for definition On the other hand if one broadens the concept of the aitia of a myth to encompass any story that explains or reveals something or anything an etiological approach offers one of the most fertile ways of interpreting myth although it cannot really define it What story can avoid offering some kind of explanation or revelation Is the best general definition of myth after all a traditional story RATIONALISM METAPHOR AND ALLEGORY Euhemerism an attempt to rationalize classical mythology attributed to Euhemerus ca 300 B C He claimed that the gods were great men of old who had become deified Allegory a sustained metaphor The allegorical approach to mythology is favored by the antirationalists who interpret the details of myth as symbols of universal truth Allegorical nature myths for Max Mller in the nineteenth century myths are to be defined as explanations of meteorological and cosmological phenomena Mllers theory is too limited Some Greek and Roman myths but by no means all are concerned with nature MYTH AND PSYCHOLOGY The theories of Freud and Jung are fundamental and farreaching in their influence and although continually challenged provide the most searching tools for a profound introspective interpretation of mythology Freud Freuds most influential ideas for the interpretation of myth center on psychosexual development the theory of the unconscious the interpretation of dreams and the Oedipus complex Oedipus Complex Developed in a work that attempts to explain the particularly uneasy and timeless dramatic import of Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannos the theory of the Oedipus complex holds that a male childs first sexual feelings are directed towards the mother with the concomitant arousal of jealousy and hatred towards the rival for those affections the father The female version has been identified by Carl Jung as the Electra complex in which the daughters love is towards the father with hatred of the mother Dreams Freud saw dreams as the expression of repressed or concealed desires The dreamwork of sleep has three basic functions to condense elements to displace elements by altering them and to represent elements through symbols In this regard symbols of dreams can work in much the same way as the symbols of myths Carl Jung Collective Unconscious Jung went beyond the connection of myths and dreams with the individual to interpret myths as the projection of what he called the collective unconscious that is the revelation of the continuing psychic tendencies of a society Jung made an important distinction between the personal unconscious concerning matters of an individuals own life and the collective unconscious embracing political and social questions of the group Archetypes Myths contain images or archetypes according to Jung traditional expressions of collective dreams developed over thousands of years of symbols upon which the society as a whole has come to depend These archetypes revealed in peoples tales establish patterns of behavior that can serve as exemplars as when we note that the lives of many heroes and heroines share a remarkable number of similar features that can be identified as worthy of emulation Similarly other kinds of concept are to be classified among the many and varied types of Jungian archetype embedded in our mythic heritage eg the great earth mother the supreme skygod the wise old man the idealistic young lover MYTH AND SOCIETY Myth and Ritual J G Frazer and Jane Harrison Sir J G Frazers The Golden Bough remains a pioneering monument in its attempts to link myth with ritual Similarly the works of Jane Harrison are of seminal importance Both Frazer and Harrison provide a wealth of comparative data and both may be subjected to the same critical reservations about the validity of their ritualistic interpretations and their analogies between myths of primitive tribes and classical myths Yet both established fundamental approaches that endure to this day Robert Graves The justly renowned novelist and poet Robert Graves has written an influential treatment of Greek myths full of valuable factual information accompanied by dubious and idiosyncratic interpretations He definition of true myth as a kind of shorthand in narrative form for ritual mime is far too restrictive He separates myth from tales of other kinds by wisely focusing upon the literary distinctions to be found in a variety of stories MYTH AS SOCIAL CHARTERS Bronislav Malinowski Bronislav Malinowskis work as an anthropologist among the Trobriand Islanders off New Guinea led to his identification of the close connection between myths and social institutions Myths are related to practical life and explain existing practices beliefs and institutions by reference to tradition they are charters of social customs and beliefs THE STRUCTURALISTS Claude LviStrauss
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