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Lecture 1: Interpretation and Definition of Classical Mythology

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Chapter 1: Interpretation and Definition of Classical Mythology
* 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
* 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:
o not a comprehensive term for all stories, but only those focused on gods and their relations with
* 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 serves to interpret the human experience
o interpretation can be true/fictitious, valuable/insubstantial, apart from it's historiacal veracity
* myth cannot be seperated from religion, rituals, and belief
o mythologist Mircea Eliade, spoke of the timeless and holy world of the myth
* an etiological interpretation of myth states that a true myth must give the "altia," or cause/reason for a
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
+ although we cannot define it
# what story can avoid offering an explanation/revelation?
# is traditional story, thus, the best definition of a myth?
* 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
* 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
* J.G. Frazer and Jane Harrison:
o Sir J.G. Frazer's "The Golden Bough" remains a pioneering monument in it's attempts to link myth
with ritual
+ as did the works of Jane Harrison
o both provide a derth of comparitive data, and both may be subjected to the same critical
reservations about the validity of their ritualistic interpretations, and their analogies betw. myths of
primitive tribes and classical myths
+ yet both are established, fundemental approaches enduring to this day
* Robert Graves:
o novelist and poet, Robert Graves, wrote an influential treatment of Greek myths, full of factual info,
accompnied by dubious and idiosyncratic (individualized) interpretations
o definition of a true myth as a kind of shorthand in narrative form for ritual mime is too restrictive
o he seperates myths from tales of other kind by focusing on the literary distinctions found in a
variety of stories
* Bronizlav Malinowski:
o an anthropologist on the Trobriand Islanders (near New Guinea)
o identification of the close connection betw. myths and social institutions
o myths are related to practical life and explain existing practices, beliefs, and institutions by
reference to tradition
+ they are the "charters," that give right to, social customs and beliefs
* Claude Levi-Strauss:
o myth as a mode of communication in which the structure/interrelationships betw. parts, rather than
the individual elements alone, establish meaning
o just as the belief that human behavior is patterned, and has a binary structure
+ Levi-Strauss argues that the creations of the mind, incl. myths in particular, partake a binary
+ thus, one of the main aims of a myth is to negotiate betw. binary pairs/pairs of opposites and to
resolve them
# i.e. life/death, hunter/hunted, nature/nurture (culture), male/female, inside/outside
o since the meaning of myth is "coded" in it's structure, all versions of a a myth have the capacity to
be equally valid
* Valdimir Propp:
o a Rus. folklorist, developed the structuralist approach to myth before Levi-Strauss by analyzing a
select group of tales with similar features and isolating the recurrent, linear structure manifested in them
+ in this way, Propp identified 32 functions/units of action, which have been termed motifemes
# all of these motifemes don't need to be in one tale, but those that do, always appear in the
same sequential order
o this comparative approach to myths is useful in analyzing a wide variety of seemingly dissimilar
tales across many diff. cultures, which satisfy the sequential pattern
+ i.e. hero's quest esp. the thematic details concerning his mother and his birth, which Walter
Burkert has broken down into 5 motifemes:
# 1. the girl leaves home
# 2. the girl is secluded
# 3. she becomes pregnant by god
# 4. she suffers