Why read mythology?

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Mythology is the very first history of mankind. Before the written word, organized religion, and scientific discoveries every culture passed down their knowledge and history through mythology.  All the myths put together to tell the only stories we have from our oldest ancestors: The Creation of the World, the first Man, and Woman, Heaven and Earth occur in all mythologies. Several of the creation myths begin with a cosmic egg splitting in two.  The flood myth also has similarities in several cultures, both the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Hebrew Bible tell of a man who saved humanity by building a large boat. The”Qur’an, Norse, Aztec, Hindu, and Greek mythologies all have a single survivor of a flood. Even today’s modern movie themes touch on universal themes. Vampires feature in Egyptian, Chinese, and Indian myths. Even end of times mythologies is similar. Norse Ragnarok and the Christian Bible contain long drawn out battles and calamities resulting at the end of the world. While both Ragnarok and Hinduism both conclude with a reboot of the world.

Joseph Campbell proposes theories about hero stories in general. According to his “monomyth” theory, hero stories from around the world share a common plot structure. The basic pattern is a separation- initiation-return. Above all myths were a way to teach while entertaining. The Greek myths, in their unknown beginnings, are believed to have been acquired and transmitted by oral tradition. The cause that originated the Greek myths is story-telling. Much modern literature has another layer of enjoyment in it if the reader is familiar with the mythology. In recent times, you can look to Harry Potter. Go a bit further back, and you’ll find mythological themes in Shakespeare. You may know Frankenstein, but did you know the subtitle was, “The Modern Prometheus”?

“Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.”
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

What is the difference between a fairy tale and myth? A fairy tale might feature magic or an imaginary creature and usually has a conflict between good and evil. A myth has its basis in religion, often telling stories of supernatural beings or creators, and usually explaining some sort of natural phenomenon. Both are essential in forming a person who has both empathy and sympathy for others. Cultural literacy has been overlooked for years. Only with tolerance and good will for the mythologies of others can we move forward together peaceably.

Cultural literacy has been deemed unnecessary and is not included in the curriculum of most schools. Myths are stories that inform their culture, not necessarily the historical truth and are overlooked when it comes to required reading lists.  Studying the stories that are the core cultural narrative of a society is essential for a student to become an informed world citizen.

Another universal myth is that of explanations. What couldn’t be understood at the time needed to be explained? In an unscientific age, almost everything needed to be told in one way or another. The Cherokee have a myth explaining why medicine came into existence. Greek mythology answers many questions: volcanic eruptions, the cause of rain, cause of earthquakes, etc.

A culture’s mythology also casts light on the population’s shared unconscious, which ties the study of religion to both psychology and science. There is no better way to understand a culture deeply than to know and appreciate its mythology, its stories, its dreams. The world is getting smaller, and our students need to have a background that includes studying cultures other than their own.

“But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. … Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error.” – Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia