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What Is Mythology?

By N. Swensson
Updated May 23, 2024
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Mythology refers either to the study of myth or is used to refer to a collection of myths from a particular culture or society. The word myth comes from the Greek word mythos, which means story or word. Myths are narratives that were created by ancient people to explain aspects of the world that they did not understand. Natural and supernatural phenomena, creation of the universe, and the origin of human practices or institutions are all subjects that mythology attempts to explain. Usually, the unexplained phenomena are attributed to the actions of deities or other supernatural figures.

Creation stories are a type of mythology that attempt to explain the existence of the universe. These narratives appear in almost every known society and involve the actions of a god or group of gods who made the Earth and its people. In Christianity, for example, the book of Genesis in the Bible tells the story of how God created the Earth and then made the first man and woman to populate it. In ancient Egypt, the Earth was created by the continual flooding of a body of water called Nu, which represented chaos and absence of life or order. Creation mythology among Aboriginal peoples in Australia tells the story of a rainbow snake who gave birth to the Earth as well as its first animal and human inhabitants.

Ancient societies created mythology to explain other aspects of their world as well, such as natural phenomena. The Greeks believed that the sun’s path across the sky was the god Apollo, also called the sun god, driving his chariot. Similarly, natural disasters such as earthquakes and stormy seas were said to be caused by Poseidon, the Greek god of the ocean, striking the ground with his trident. In Norse mythology it was Thor, the god of thunder, whose anger caused natural disasters and destruction. In New Zealand, the Maori attributed the existence of morning dew to the tears of Rangi, the god of heaven who was separated from his wife Papa, the goddess of Earth.

Many human institutions, rituals, and holidays also have roots in mythology. The English names for the days of the week as well as the planets in the solar system came from the names of ancient gods and goddesses. Halloween, which is now a popular holiday for children to dress up and go trick-or-treating, began as a Celtic festival called Samhain, during which the boundaries between the human and spiritual worlds were loosened and normal rules of conduct did not apply.

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Discussion Comments

By stl156 — On Jul 08, 2012

@matthewc23 - I sort of felt that way when we had to read some of the mythology. I think if you read enough, anyone can find a few stories they like. What I always enjoyed reading, though, was the Norse mythology. Something about their mythology was always much more entertaining even though a lot of the stories were similar in nature. I guess it was probably because they were usually a little more violent given that the Scandinavians weren't quite as refined at the time.

Like someone else mentioned, though, the Greeks always got more time spent on them than the Norse mythology, so we only usually got to read one or two Norse stories every year. I have been thinking about trying to find a good collection of Norse myths but haven't had any luck, so if anyone has any suggestions, I would be interested. I have also planned on reading Beowolf for quite some time, but I've been told it can be pretty boring at times.

By matthewc23 — On Jul 07, 2012

@TreeMan - Interesting story. I have heard of Cupid, of course, but I was not familiar with who he was or what stories he was involved with in mythology. I think one of the biggest parts of any type of religion, past or present, is that the stories are there to teach the readers a moral lesson. Most of the Greek and Roman myths focus on greed, lust, jealousy, and many of the other things that are considered sins by other religions. I believe the stories were written less to be taken seriously and more to serve as a guideline for being a good person.

That being said, I was never much of a fan of mythology when I was in school. The stories were never quite exciting enough for me and developed too slowly. I'm also more of a fan of nonfiction or at least believable fiction, so I found it hard to imagine three-headed dogs, men combined with horses, and Atlas holding up the world.

By TreeMan — On Jul 06, 2012

Regardless of the religious nature of mythology, I still enjoy reading the ancient stories. In English class, Greek mythology was always my favorite section. I guess it was partially because I thought the stories were more interesting and partially because the Greeks get most of the spotlight when you talk about mythology.

Most people talk about the stories with Apollo and Hercules, but I think my favorite set of myths would be with Cupid and Psyche. Bascially, Cupid was the son of Aphrodite, and he fell in love with Psyche who was a mortal. Most of the stories revolved around Aphrodite trying to kill Psyche, because she didn't like her son being with her.

In the end, she was sent to Hades on a task to get beauty cream, but she could not resist the temptation to use it and was killed. After all that, though, she was revived and allowed to be immortal.

By jholcomb — On Jul 06, 2012

I think maybe part of the difference between how we use the terms "mythology" and "religion" is the *age* of mythology. Mythology is the religious beliefs of the ancients!

But I think even when we talk about the past, the two terms can be used a little differently. "Religion" to me suggests more the whole practice -- holidays, worship rituals, the priesthood, etc. -- while "mythology" is just the set of stories. So the story of Demeter and Persephone, for instance, is a myth, but sacrificing an animal to read its entrails would be part of their religion (or maybe just the Romans did that).

It's true that the Christian scriptures claim to be divinely inspired while Ovid, for instance, never claimed to be doing anything other than recording oral tradition. But many of the stories in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, in particular, do seem to have their roots in stories that had existed previously in oral form.

By jcraig — On Jul 05, 2012

@ankara - But by the same token, there are a lot of similarities between the stories in the Christian Bible and the stories from the Bibles of past people that are now considered myths.

The ancient Greeks and Romans had a lot of gods. It is widely believed that their society looked at many of them as real figures that dictated how the world worked. At the same time, there is evidence that many Greeks and Romans realized that the gods were just explanations for the things that weren't known at the time.

The discoveries that the Earth is round and that the sun is a star are both fairly recent findings in the grand scheme of things. For all the Greeks knew, the sun really could have been Apollo and storms could have been caused by Poseidon. We now think these stories are humorous because of how naive the ancient cultures were. I think Christianity is similar in that it is convincing right now, but just explains things that we have yet to discover.

By stoneMason — On Jul 05, 2012

@ankara, @SarahGen-- One thing we can't deny about mythologies is that it is based on the perceptions of humans.

A holy book of a religion and a mythological

story about how the earth came to be is completely different in my view. I think mythology and religion are separate things which also differ from culture to culture.

If we were to compare the mythology of Christianity and Hinduism, it's different in that Christians claim their book to have come from God. If I'm not wrong, in Hinduism, it is known that the Vedas were written by people. In religion, usually the supreme being tells people about how they came to be. In mythology, people try to make sense of it on their own.

By SarahGen — On Jul 05, 2012

@ankara-- I don't think mythology and myth means fake at all. To me, it implies the supernatural and mysteriousness.

For example, my family is Hindu and we have a lot of mythological characters and stories in our religion. I've never been offended by them being called myths.

If you look at the mythological deities of Hinduism, they are very supernatural. Ganesh for example, which is one of the deities, has the shape of an elephant but the body of a human. It looks very mythical, not of this world, but everyone still believes in it and offers prayers to it. I think the same applied to ancient Greeks and Greek mythology.

So in my opinion, something being considered mythology says nothing about how factual or believable it is.

By bluedolphin — On Jul 04, 2012

I'm sure all cultures and belief systems would oppose the the use of this terminology about their explanation of how the universe, the world and people came to be.

"Myth" and "mythology" definition, although it doesn't say it outright, alludes to stories which are not based on facts and therefore are probably not true. I'm sure that the Greeks didn't intend this meaning when they used the word "mythos," but it really has changed to a different meaning in today's English.

As a Christian, I find it a bit offensive if the Bible and the book of Genesis is referred to mythology. For me, what the Bible says is truth, it's not just a story. I'm sure that everyone would feel the same about their holy scriptures being referred to as mythology.

Am I wrong in thinking that the word "mythology" suggests made-up, false stories?

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