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Types of Mythology
by Robert L. Carneiro
American Museum of Natural History

Types of MythologyAll known cultures have had some form of mythology. Each and every one of them developed distinct mythological styles and their own system of gods and goddesses. However, upon examining the mythologies closely we find several commonalities and realize that we can divide the myths of all cultures into certain categories. The Following three are some of the ones that are commonly found in mythologies across the world.

Myths of Origin

In the beginning there was a period of Chaos, when air, water, and matter were combined in a formless mixture. On this floated a Cosmic Egg, from which arose Gaea (Earth) and Uranus (Sky). These deities created the earth and its creatures and the Sun, Moon, and Stars. Thus the Greeks accounted for creation.

In the beginning there were Holy People, supernatural and sacred, who lived below ground in 12 lower worlds. A great flood underground forced the Holy People to crawl to the surface of the earth through a hollow reed, where they created the world. Changing Woman gave birth to the Hero Twins, called "Monster Slayer" and "Child of the Waters" who had many adventures. Earth Surface People, mortals, were created, and First Man and First Woman were formed from ears of white and yellow corn. Thus the Navajo accounted for creation.

Among the most basic questions raised by human beings are those of origins. How did the human species arise? How was the earth created? What about the sun? the moon? the stars? Why do we have night and day? Why do people die? No human society lacks answers to such questions. While these answers vary greatly in detail, they are, for primitive peoples as a whole, similar in their basic form: people and the world exist because they were brought into being by a series of creative acts. Moreover, this creation is usually regarded as the work of supernatural beings or forces. The accounts of the ways in which these supernatural agents formed the earth and peopled it are known as origin myths.

Until the rise of modern science, origin myths provided the only kinds of answers possible to such questions. Thus, myths embody the state and limitation of human thought about origins for more than 99% of human history.

Although origin myths are usually assigned to the province of religion, they contain one element of science: explanation. While moral lessons may be scattered here and there throughout them, origin myths are basically ways of accounting for things as they are. Explanation, then, is not unique to nor did it begin with science. Science shares explanation with mythology. What distinguishes science from mythology is verification. Not only does science propose answers, it proceeds to test these answers, and if the answers prove incorrect, they must be rejected or modified. Mythology differs from this. An origin myth offers an explanation that is to be believed. Acceptance, not verification, is what is called for. Ancient Norsemen believed the aurora borealis (Northern Lights) were reflections of light off the shields of the warrior maidens the Valkyrie; modern astronomers tell us they are caused by solar winds interacting with the earth's magnetic field and atmospheric gases. Both are explanations, but only one of these explanations can be verified.

What is explanation? At bottom, it amounts to translating the unknown into the known, the unfamiliar into the familiar. And what do human beings know best? Themselves. They know how people think and feel and act. And from a very early stage of culture, people have projected human thoughts and emotions into the external world, endowing objects and forces of nature with human personality and greater-than-human power. The personalized supernatural beings thus created were assigned the role of providing plausible and satisfying explanations for the unknown. In this way, origin myths were born.

One more word about explanation. At the heart of explanation lies causation. The idea of causation, again, was not born with modern science, nor from the early Greek philosophers. It is much older than that. Indeed, causation is very deeply rooted in human thought. Among the Kuikuru Indians of central Brazil, for instance, a tribe I have studied in the field, a cause is quickly found when something untoward or unusual happens. Thus, one man attributed a toothache to someone's having worked witchcraft on a piece of sugar cane he had chewed. Another man, whose manioc garden was being ravaged by peccaries, decided than an enemy had put a picture of a peccary in his garden to draw these animals to it. The pattern of causal thinking I found among the Kuikuru occurs among primitive peoples everywhere. I think it is safe to say, then, that the quest for causes, which is so central to modern science, is actually a legacy bequeathed to science by our pre-scientific Old Stone Age ancestors.

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“Mythology: the body of a primitive people's beliefs, concerning its origin, early history, heroes, deities and so forth, as distinguished from the true accounts which it invents later.” 
-- Ambrose Bierce

Metaphysics Network 

"It is the part of men to fear and tremble when the most mighty gods by tokens send such dreadful heralds to astonish us."
-- William Shakespeare 

The Metaphysical Store 

“A one sentence definition of mythology? "Mythology" is what we call someone else's religion” 
-- Joseph Campbell


"In all the antique religions, Mythology takes the place of dogma."
-- William Robertson Smith

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"I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world and do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature. They are all alike, founded on fables and Mythology."
-- Thomas Jefferson

The Metaphysical Society 

"A myth is an image in terms of which we try to make sense of the world."
-- Alan Watts

The Metaphysical Dictopedia 

"I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge... myth is more potent than history... dreams are more powerful than facts... hope always triumphs over experience... laughter is the cure for grief... and love is stronger than death."
-- Robert Fulghum