Lecture 1: Interpretation and Definition of Classical Mythology

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Chapter 1: Interpretation and Definition of Classical Mythology
THE PROBLEM OF DEFINING MYTH
* no one definition of a "myth"
o can't account for all diff. stories that can be called myths
* attempt to define "myth" only serves to highlight the diff. qualities a myth can have
THE MEANING OF THE WORD MYTH
* myth:
o Greek word "mythos" (tale/story)
o myth is essentially a story
o some argue it must be "traditional," in that it has a lasting value, and is told over and over again
through various mediums
MYTH, SAGA OR LEGEND, AND FOLKTALE
* myth:
o not a comprehensive term for all stories, but only those focused on gods and their relations with
mortals
* saga/legend:
o a story containing a kernal of historical truth, despite later fictional additions
+ i.e. Zeus, originally a Cretan prince who overthrew his father
* folktale:
o a story, usu. of oral origin, that contains fantastic and magical elements
o often about the adventures of a hero/heroine
o main function is entertainment, but can also educate via moral content
* rarely, if ever, a pristine, uncontaminated example of any of these types of stories is found in
Greek/Roman mythology
MYTH AND TRUTH
* myth serves to interpret the human experience
o interpretation can be true/fictitious, valuable/insubstantial, apart from it's historiacal veracity
MYTH AND RELIGION
* myth cannot be seperated from religion, rituals, and belief
o mythologist Mircea Eliade, spoke of the timeless and holy world of the myth
MYTH AND ETIOLOGY
* an etiological interpretation of myth states that a true myth must give the "altia," or cause/reason for a
practice/institution
o but etiology, the study of causation, is too limiting and rigid in it's definition
o however, if the concept of "altia" of a myth is expanded to encompass any story that
explains/reveals something/anything, then etiology provides for one of the most fertile ways to interpret a
myth
+ although we cannot define it
# what story can avoid offering an explanation/revelation?
# is traditional story, thus, the best definition of a myth?
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RATIONALISM, METAPHOR, AND ALLEGORY
* Euhemerism:
o an attempt to rationalize mythology, by stating that the gods (and their myths) were great men of
old who had become deified
+ i.e. Zeus, a Cretan prince who overthrew his father
o attributed to Euhemerus (ca. 300 BC)
* allegory:
o a sustained metaphor (caricature)
o favoured by anti-rationalists, who interpret the details of a myth as symbols of a universal truth
* allegorical nature myths:
o accord. to Max Muller (19th c.), myths are used to explain meteorological/cosmological phenomena
+ Muller's theory too limited
# some Greek/Roman myths, but not all, are concerned with nature
MYTH AND PSYCHOLOGY
* theories of Freud and Jung are fundemental and far-reaching in influence, though continually
challenged, provide the most searching tools to interpret mythology with
* Freud:
o concerned with psychosexual development, the theory of the unconscious, the interpretation of
dreams, and the Oedipus complex
+ Oedipus Complex:
# developed to explain the unease and timeless dramatic import of Sophocles' "Oedipus
Tyrannos" ("Oedipus dragon")
# holds that a male child's first sexual feelings are directed towards the mother with the
concurrent arousal of jealousy and hatred towards the rival, the father
# Electra Complex, is the female version developed by Carl Jung
+ dreams
# as the expression of repressed/concealed desires
# the "dream-work" of sleep has 3 basic functions:
* 1. to condense elements
* 2. to displace elements, by altering them
* 3. to represent elements through symbols
o in this regard, symbols of a dreams work the same way as symbols of myth
* Carl Jung:
o collective unconscious:
+ went beyond the connection of myths/dreams of the individual, to interpret myths as a
projection of the "collective unconscious," the revelation of the continuing psycic tendencies of a society
+ Jung made an important distinction betw. the personal unconscious, which concerned matters
of an individual's own life, and the collective unconscious, which embraced the political and social
questions of a society
o archetypes
+ myths contain images, or "archetypes" accord. to Jung
# which are traditionals expressions of collective dreams, developed over thousands of years,
of symbols upon which society has come to depend on
+ these archetypes, are revealed in peoples' tales, established patterns of behavior that can serve
as exemplars, or models to be copied
# as can be seen in that the lives of many heroes and heroines share a remarkable number of
similar features that can be defined as being worthy of emulation
+ many and varied types of Jungian archetype embedded in our mythic heritage
# i.e. the great earth mother, the supreme sky god, the wise old man, the idealistic young lover
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